As the threat of Russian invasion looms, the people of Ukraine have adopted a ‘keep calm and carry on’ survival strategy – Lesia Vasylenko

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Mariana, 52, a marketing researcher who volunteers with a Kiev territorial defense unit, trains in a forest near the Ukrainian capital on January 22 (Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

While everyone is left guessing what Putin will do next, Ukrainians have been inundated with messages of concern and support from around the world.

A typical response to a typical message from someone outside Ukraine is usually something like “we’re fine, everything is fine”. In a way, this also reflects the Ukrainian government’s rather cool reaction to foreign intelligence reports describing the high risk of an imminent attack.

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Such calm puzzles everyone outside the country and causes much surprise in foreign relations.

So why is everyone in Ukraine so relaxed? And are they really?

The first thing to understand is that Ukraine has been living in a state of war for seven, eight years now. Day after day, since 2014, the country wakes up and sleeps with messages of war: broken ceasefire, shootings on the border, so many dead, so many wounded, etc.

With war constantly in the background of daily life, people here have learned to just keep calm and carry on.

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People gathered outside the British embassy in Kiev to thank the UK for sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine (Image: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the years, this has become easier and easier to do. Since the Russian invasion in 2014, the Ukrainian military has become stronger and far less dependent on volunteer help.

The theater of war has been located in the easternmost part of the country, 500 miles away from the capital in Kiev and even further from Lviv, a bustling city in western Ukraine.

And as the number of daily war casualties dropped significantly compared to 2014-2015, the 14,000 Ukrainian soldiers who died became a very sad number that Ukrainians have to live with.

The more you live in war, the less emotional you are about things and the more you tend to rationalize the situation around you. Furthermore, the war, and especially the war with Russia, is not something that anyone can control or predict. When faced with situations beyond personal control, the human brain adopts a whole series of survival tactics, simply to keep from going insane with panic and anxiety.

Amid talk of a major Russian invasion, daily life continues in central Kiev (Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Focusing on anything but war is one such tactic. This is why business continues as usual, even despite a drop in investment. New stores and restaurants are opening and operating as normally as possible, given the restrictions caused by the pandemic. And people go about their usual routine on the streets of towns and cities in Ukraine.

This war numbness that the Ukrainians developed in the face of Russian threats actually proves to be an effective weapon against Putin’s hybrid psychological warfare.

Intuitively, all Ukrainians have a deep understanding that all the talk of possible attacks on Kiev and other hostile statements from a country with one of the largest armies in the world is aimed at causing fear, public unrest and destabilization. Putin is expecting just that: a paralyzed and demoralized Ukraine. And the people here are not willing to compromise on this game.

Instead, the Ukrainians stand stronger than ever, united against the aggressor. If Russia attacks, everyone here will be the first to have to deal with it. No doubt about that.

The question remains how.

As the attack scenarios are endless, people need to prepare as best they can. Some buy weapons, ammunition and enlist in local territorial defense units. Some are packing emergency bags and checking their neighborhoods for bomb shelters. And some are organizing passports and visas and thinking of emergency evacuation plans.

All this is nothing new. Over the years, millions of Ukrainian households have considered and reconsidered these options. Such deliberations form part of the intricate background to the war that has accompanied the Ukrainians for almost a decade.

However, all this detailed planning is nothing more than an exercise in self-calming that many Ukrainians do to avoid feelings of panic and helplessness. If the Russian military really did attack Ukraine with all its might, it is unlikely that any of those plans would be implementable. Missiles, air strikes and closed borders is the most realistic image.

Such a scenario demands a total mobilization of all national resources and the declaration of a state of war. It is up to the National Security and Defense Council and the President to come up with the detailed plans in this case.

Yet the government remains silent, as if choosing to block thoughts of war as well. The “no matter what” approach is explained by a lack of trust and control over a situation where Ukraine is alone in the face of the largest army in Europe.

Despite the amount of weapons and military technology provided, the UK and other NATO members have made it explicit that no military personnel will be deployed on Ukrainian soil.

Then there is also the issue of a humanitarian disaster. No one really talks about mass evacuation plans. Not much is being done to amass critical survival supplies. Most of the bomb shelters in big cities have long since become private property, housing shops, bars, beauty salons and other spaces unfit for missile strikes.

Ukrainians are well aware of this and know that, at the end of the day, it will be everyone for themselves and their country. The comfort is found in reminding us how unprepared the country was in 2014 and how we survived.

Whatever form Russian aggression takes next, it is certain that Ukrainians will continue to defend their homes, their families, their land and their children’s right to live as a free and independent people.

This is the fuel behind the resilience and calm demeanor of every Ukrainian who responds that all is well in this time of crisis.

Lesia Vasylenko is a Holos deputy in Ukraine

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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