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Ukrainians In The UK Say They Are "Scared For Tomorrow" And Demand Tougher Russia Sanctions

Ukranian Vasyl Bochko demonstating outside Downing Street.

6 min read

The UK government must urgently bring forward tougher economic sanctions on Russia, Ukrainians living in London have said during an emotional demonstration outside Downing Street.

Long term residents and students from Ukraine living the UK capital rallied in Westminster on Monday night to put pressure on the government to take further action on Russian money moving through London. 

Many shared stories of relatives back home who are ready to serve on the front line if Russia presses ahead with military action.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine is "still very much a possibility" according to US President Joe Biden, and the UK's armed forces minister warned on Tuesday that Putin's forces could move into Ukrainian cities in "minutes". Western allies believe diplomatic talks could still avert military action.

Vasyl Bochko, 29, who has worked in financial services in London for the past 18 months, believes that more aggressive sanctions on Russia are needed if they are to be effective. 

"They can have a varying degree of impact on the Russian economy and it could be challenging to impose sanctions but at the moment, but I think this is the only option," he said.  "We have the means to defend ourselves.”

Demonstrators outside Downing Street described relatives at home who have suitcases packed in case they need to leave, and a “Plan B” of moving elsewhere in the country.

“Some will stay and some will fight and don’t want to leave. It depends on the person, it depends on the family,” Bochko said.

His wife’s family live in the city of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border which is one of the locations expected to be invaded first should Russia roll over the border.

Iyrna Kapelnytska, 62, whose 40-year-old daughter is a reservist who served during the 2014 invasion and is ready to fight again, said she came to the rally outside Downing Street to support the independence of Ukraine.

“I want to defend my children, who are at the moment, defending us back home," she explained. 

"My daughter spent one year and three months in Donetsk between 2015 and 2016. She was a grenade launcher and volunteered to go to the front.

"She is a university educated designer and now is on the reserve list. I’m worried of course, my grandson is there too. She is ready to go and fight though.”

Danylo Nikiforov, head of the Ukrainian Society at the London School of Economics, said his family back in Kyiv are now preparing for a possible war and he wanted to come to the demonstration to raise awareness of what is happening in his home country in the UK. 

“My family is home and it’s stressful because they are expected to keep going but are also preparing for full scale Russian engagement which brings up anxiety and stress," Nikiforov said.

“They do try to be optimistic but our neighbours and other families pack emergency suitcases and are ready to flee to Western parts of Ukraine or other countries to stay away from the crisis.

“A few of my friends and family friends have fled the country and have moved to Europe, or even just travelling somewhere else for a few weeks to see how it unfolds."

Compared to the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, he said that the country now feels more prepared and “know their enemy”.

“We won’t give up without a fight this time. They are determined to protect our homeland.

“We would appreciate more involvement with diplomatic summons and negotiations [from Britain], we would like some diplomatic leverage and Britain being a regional power we would like them to help us establish talks.”Fellow student Maliek Banat, 19, who is in his second year of studying in London, said his family back in Kyiv are concerned about the increasing threat from Russia.

“It definitely takes a mental toll on the Ukrainian people but there is a recognition that people have been incredibly resilient all this time," he said. 

"Right now it’s a threat of war but a lot of this is psychological pressure, and that’s all part of a different dimension of war being led by Moscow.

"That’s not just to destabilise the country but scare the country … this can go on for months. There’s little sign it will end."

Some of the difficulties experienced by Ukrainians this week include a cyber attack that disabled a major banking app, which also affected Banat and some of his fellow students in London.

Ukraine's security chief believes Russia could be behind the cyber attacks which included two banks and the ministry of defence. A Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied any Russian involvement.

Banat said: “The UK has been an invaluable ally. We really appreciate the solidarity and support that [the country] has expressed. The only thing where there is room for improvement is tackling 'dirty money' here in London.

“London needs to stop being a safe haven for dirty Russian money.”

He was among several people who told PoliticsHome they believed Ukraine should not backtrack from its desire to join NATO, which is written into its constitution.

Natalia Ravlyuk, 41, a regional retail manager who has lived in the UK for 20 years addressed the crowd as the Ukrainian army anthem was played from speakers and said the country was ready to resist.She told PoliticsHome that the UK should enhance its existing sanctions on Russia.

“We would love more sanctions of course, and we don’t forget about Russian oligarch property here [in London]. We’ve been talking about SWIFT system and sanctions for many years now.

“We have a feeling of you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re constantly thinking it might or might not happen. We are scared about what tomorrow brings.”

Her family are in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast region in Western Ukraine which is about 300 km from the Russian border. She said her sister, a cardiologist, could be called on to help if an invasion takes place, and her family won’t leave their home, but there are other people they know who have already packed their suitcases ready to leave.

Nato's secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has said there is no sign of de-escalation by Russian forces on the ground near Ukraine despite claims from Moscow that their troops on a training exercise were pulling back.

Stoltenberg said Russia still had a huge number of forces on the Russian border ready to attack Ukraine.

He warned that the threat from Russia had become a "new normal" in European security.

Earlier this week, European media reported that the US and European officials are finalising a package of sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine that targets major Russian banks, but it would not include banning Russia from the SWIFT financial system.

The measures on the table could include sanctions against specific Russian oligarchs, according to reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied he plans on invading Ukraine and said he is open to negotiations with Western leaders. 

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