Ukrainians in London today told of their anguish over the safety of family and friends as they gathered to protest Russia’s invasion.
Hundreds of people joined a demonstration outside Downing Street on Thursday to call for the British government to introduce further sanctions on Russia after it launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine this morning.
Ukrainians there said many of their family and friends back home had already witnessed explosions after Russian forces attacked in the early hours.
Olga, whose family lives in a small village just 30 miles from the Russian border, told openDemocracy that many had been left trapped.
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“My mum said they don’t know where to go because they saw so many explosions all around them. I’m really scared – they don’t just bombard military bases, they bombard cities where people live,” she said.
Anastasia, who held a placard calling for military assistance in Ukraine, said her family fled from Kharkiv in the north-east, which was one of the first cities to come under siege from Russian forces.
“How can I feel if my family could be killed any day? I’m not sure if I have a home now,” she said.
Some, like Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian and the director of the Ukrainian Institute London, have already lost family members in the eight years of conflict since Russia seized Crimea. Khromeychuk’s brother was killed in 2017 while fighting Russian-backed troops in the Donbas region.
“I think the international community’s complicity in the invasion is important to highlight,” she said. “We’ve been trying to warn them since 2014. Ukrainians have lost 14,000 lives since then.
“We’ve been raising this issue everywhere we possibly could. And the international community simply turned a blind blind eye.
“They did very little other than voice their deep concern, and that was it. And this is why we are where we are because the sanctions were not introduced immediately after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the aggression.”
Many at the protest were still processing the news of the invasion and struggling to reconcile the normality of their lives in the UK with the shocking images and stories being shared with them from relatives and friends.
“Someone in Odessa this morning told me that their basement has been bombed. Later, I was travelling on the Tube and watching people go about their daily business, families going to visit museums. And I’m thinking: that’s the kind of future our people wanted,” said Wolodymyr Pawluk, chair of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.
Despite the shock, the mood at the protest, attended by community leaders including the bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family of London, was defiant.
Speakers demanded that the UK government introduce “North Korea and Iran style sanctions against Russia and block Putin’s dirty money in the UK”. Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced the UK has frozen the assets of five Russian banks and three Russian billionaires, who will also be hit with UK travel bans, as part of a “first barrage” of sanctions.
But protesters called on Number 10 to go further and hit Russia’s ability to trade by banning it from using the SWIFT international payment system. And, among the many Ukrainian flags in the crowd, were several placards demanding action against Russian oligarchs in the UK.
The British writer Edward Lucas gave a damning speech exorciating the UK for “[opening] its financial and political system to Russian dirty money”.
“We profited from all that dirty Russian money, and who paid the price? Well, you did,” he told the crowd. “You paid it because you couldn’t have the prosperity, security and dignity that you could have had inside the European Union and most of all you paid it in blood after 2014.”
He added: “14,000 dead Ukrainians – the result of the West’s failures. And every one of them not just a soul lost, but also every one of them leaving orphan children, spouses, parents, friends and loved ones. That it is an enormous bill, a bill paid by you, and it’s due here.”
On Wednesday, openDemocracy revealed that more than 200 Russian millionaires had bought their way into the UK with controversial “golden visas” in the seven years since the government pledged to stop corrupt oligarchs exploiting the system.
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