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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
It was in the wee hours of the morning of February 24, 2022, most of the population in Ukraine was asleep and had no idea what the President of neighboring Russia, Vladimir Putin would announce. In a pre-dawn television address on that ill-fated day, the Russian head had announced a ‘special military operation’. Since the last week of February, after President Putin’s announcement, Russian troops have launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine by land, air, and sea. Notably, the attack is the biggest by one state against another in Europe since World War II.
“And for this, we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine. Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine,” Putin had said in his TV address.
The Russian military has been indiscriminately bombarding, conducting airstrikes, shelling several areas of Ukraine including the capital Kyiv, the second-largest city Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Luhansk regions. The invaders have also landed by sea at the cities of Odesa and Mariupol. Russia has very recently targeted the western part of Ukraine and carried out airstrikes at a military base outside Lviv, close to the Polish border, killing at least 35 people.
Minutes after Russia’s announcement, US President Joe Biden called his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy and condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces.” President Biden briefed Zelenskky on the U.S and its allies’ planned next steps against Russia, including severe sanctions.
For the past several weeks, Ukraine wakes up and sleeps to deafening sounds of explosions with all the remaining population taking shelter in bunkers and underground/basement camps. Punjab-based Vihaan Deep Singh, a first-year student at a medical college in Kharkiv, told India Currents, “We were without much supply of food and water. Every hour we used to hear the deafening sounds of missiles. We lost all hope to be safe and return to our family in India. We were very helpless and were urging the embassy to help us flee Ukraine at the earliest. Russians were indiscriminately bombarding Kyiv.”
What did Ukraine immediately do?
Soon after Russia announced war and began military action, Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian flights. It cited a high risk of flight safety due to the use of weapons and military equipment. Also, aircraft flying to or from UK airports have been ordered to avoid Ukraine’s airspace by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. Britain had, meanwhile, asked all its citizens to leave Ukraine.
The Ukrainian President declared martial law across the country and appealed to the world leaders to impose all the possible sanctions on Russia as well as on Russian President Putin, who Zelenskyy said wanted to destroy the Ukrainian state.
What does Putin want?
Russian President Vladimir Putin for months had kept denying that he was planning an invasion of Ukraine.
Putin claimed that Ukraine is a puppet of the West and was never a proper state. He demanded guarantees from the West and from Ukraine that Ukraine will not join NATO, which is a defensive alliance of 30 countries. Another demand of Putin is that Ukraine be demilitarised and become a neutral state.
Bit about Donetsk & Luhansk
Before announcing the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree to officially recognize the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk. It came after the Russian Parliament (Duma) earlier in February 2022, backed a resolution calling for diplomatic recognition of the two breakaway territories. The pro-Russian separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk had declared independence from Ukraine in 2014. No country had recognized the republics as sovereign states so far. Both Donetsk and Luhansk are located in eastern Ukraine and share a border with Russia. The two separatist territories in these two states are known as Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which are run by Russian and Russian-backed separatists. The entire region, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and their respective separatist territories, is referred to as the ‘Donbas’.
For long, Russia asserted that since these are primarily Russian-speaking territories, they need to be protected from “Ukrainian nationalism”. The presence of Russian speakers came about as many Russian workers were sent there after World War II during the Soviet era. The Russia-Ukraine conflict originally had started in 2013 when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, seen as pro-Russia and overthrown in 2014, rejected a deal for greater integration with the EU. His decision had led to massive protest and outrage.
In early 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed it’s southern This was after Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. Two months later, rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk held similarly disputed referendums, leading to a way for the separatist territories to be declared as LPR and DPR autonomous republic of Crimea.
Since 2014, the separatist portions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been largely cut off from Ukraine. DPR is home to 2.3 million people while LPR has a population of around 1.5 million. The territories are largely dependent on Russia for financial and military assistance. Also, leaders of these regions have openly proposed joining the Russian Federation.
Before the war, Ukraine had a population of nearly 37 million in the regions which were under the control of the government, excluding Russia-annexed Crimea and the pro-Russian separatist regions in the east. As of March 13, the eighteenth day of the Russia-Ukraine war, nearly 2.7 million refugees fled Ukraine, the United Nations reported. UN refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi said, “This is the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II.”
Indians stranded in Ukraine
Every year a large number of medical aspirants from India fly to Ukraine to pursue MBBS. With no idea of Russia’s invasion and shutting down of civilian flights in Ukraine, several Indian nationals, including children, were stuck in a war-torn nation. The students pleaded with the Indian government for their safe evacuation and “Operation Ganga” was executed to bring back all those stranded in Ukraine. Special flights were flown to Ukraine and nearby countries for the safe evacuation of Indian students who constantly sent SOS to the Indian government in form of video messages to rescue them from Ukraine where Russian troops are carrying out missile attacks unabatedly.
Amid this, a 21-year-old boy from Karnataka, Naveen Shekharappa Gyanagoudar who was studying medicine at Kharkiv National Medical University, was killed in an attack by Russian forces. On one of the mornings, after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Naveen, who was taking shelter in a bunker at Arkhitektora Beketova Metro station, stepped out to bring groceries and died in a shell attack on the street of Kharkiv.
Soumyabrata Choudhary from Kolkata, who was in his third year of MBBS at a university in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, said, “I still feel it’s a dream that I am back. From my hostel window, we used to hear sirens going off every 3-4 hours. There was heavy shelling by Russians and almost every day there were plumes of black smoke on either side of the city.”
Rohit Shergil, a fourth-year medical student studying in Ukraine’s Ternopil city, returned to his home in Chandigarh and recalled, “We were too scared. We heard that Indian students were being evacuated from other parts of Ukraine and we were all waiting for our turn to come. One day we were asked to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, but it abruptly got canceled as Russian troops continued shelling.” Rohit said he used to talk to his parents in India every day to get an update on what the government in India was doing to help evacuate stranded nationals. “My hope started increasing when ‘Operation Ganga’ was started by the government. We were pleading and sending video messages asking the government in India to evacuate us.”
Harjot Singh, a student in Kyiv working as an IT specialist, was trying to escape from Ukraine’s capital to Lviv via train but he could not board as he was stopped by Ukrainian troops. He later took a taxi, with two other boys, when he was shot at multiple times and his leg was fractured. His passport was lost in the chaos. Still, the Indian government brought him back to safety
In a strange turn of events, an aerospace engineering student from Tamil Nadu, 21-year-old R, Sainikhesh, decided to stay in Ukraine and join the Ukrainian paramilitary forces to fight Russia. He was twice rejected by the Indian Army due to his height. Sainikhesh’s father Ravichandran now says that his son is willing to return to his hometown in Coimbatore soon.
Operation Ganga successfully evacuated 23,000 Indian nationals from Ukraine with only one causality reported.
Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.
Featured image license under CC 2.0.