Australians in Ukraine describe ‘two different realities’ as life continues amid threat of Russian invasion

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Australians Blake Badman and Pixie Shmigel are heading to Montenegro. (Supplied)

The world might be watching Ukraine with bated breath over fears it is about to go to war, but Pixie Shmigel is still receiving invites from Ukrainian friends to go skiing.

Ms Shmigel is a 27-year-old Australian of Ukrainian heritage who has lived in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine since September 2021.

“We live in a part of Ukraine near the Polish border. It’s a long way from Russia and our lives have been continuing as normal, with invites to ski trips and boxing,” she said, despite Western powers preparing for Moscow to send troops over the border.

“It doesn’t feel like an imminent threat of invasion but you read the scary headlines and you wonder.

“You can sense there’s danger but you don’t feel it … it’s like we’re living in two different realities.”

Nevertheless, she and her partner Blake Badman have booked flights to Montenegro later this week as a precaution, after the federal government told Australians to leave Ukraine immediately.

“We were told to get out of the country for February with the hope that things would calm down after that,” said Ms Shmigel, who volunteers in Ukraine as a fundraiser for the charity Lifeline.

Olga Boichak, a Ukrainian national and expert on the country’s politics at the University of Sydney, said the decision to evacuate diplomats and ask Australian citizens to leave was justified.

“It is something that is standard in situations that are very high risk,” she said.

Ukraine and US intelligence services estimate there are now at least 127,000 Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border.

Even so, Liana Slipetsky, a spokeswoman for the Association of Ukrainians in Victoria, said many Ukrainians felt that Western nations such as Australia were “overreacting”.

Ms Slipetsky said she had spoken with relatives in both western Ukraine — which borders Poland and Hungary, among other countries — and in the east, where the nation borders Russia and armed conflict has taken an estimated 14,000 lives since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

She said her family in western Ukraine had not been subjected to a “barrage of misinformation” like her relatives in the east. However, she said Ukrainians in general were “just so used to [the] threat” posed by Russia.

The Ukrainian government has urged calm, with President Volodymyr Zelensky stressing the situation is “under control” and there is “no reason to panic”.

No change except Western rhetoric

For the past eight and a half years, Australian Colin Palmer has lived in the small eastern city of Sumy, approximately 40 kilometres west of Ukraine’s border, with his wife Marina and young son Max. 

The 63-year-old said as far as they were concerned, a Russian invasion was not imminent.

“Unless there is certain information that’s being withheld, there is nothing. It’s just a normal day,” he said.

“There’s nothing different here today, as there was a week ago, or a month ago, or six months ago, or a year ago. Just the Western rhetoric has changed.

“Talking to all the Australians around Ukraine and the local expats here in my city, nobody else knows what the problem is either. We’re all confused.”

Mr Palmer said he needed more information from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) before he would pack up his life and leave.

“I’ve directly asked DFAT because they’ve emailed me and telephoned me constantly for a month to leave,” he said.

“I want information if I’m going to make an informed decision to leave my life, basically.”

The ABC asked DFAT how many Australians were in Ukraine and what was being done to assist them, but did not receive a response by deadline.

Experts say threat of invasion is real

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said at present there were “no grounds to believe” Russia was preparing to invade imminently, adding there was “no need to have your bags packed”.

Nevertheless, Dr Boichak said information on how to respond to bombings and how to pack a bag at short notice was spreading on Ukrainian social media.

She said it could be “really dangerous if there is a mass panic”, so calls for calm from authorities were welcome.

“However, we have to understand that [a Russian invasion] is very possible,” she said.

Ms Slipetsky said many Ukrainians lacked the resources to flee in the event of war, even if they wanted to.

“I mean, where are they going to go? These people have jobs and livelihoods and children,” she said.

“We’re fortunate as Australian citizens in Ukraine — just book a plane ticket and go. But for them, they kind of have to wait it out and see what happens.”

Ms Shmigel’s partner, Mr Badman, said despite pressure from Moscow, “the Ukrainian people are trying to stay firm”.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s main agenda is causing panic and chaos among the Ukrainian people and shaking the trust in the local government,” he said.

“Ukrainians don’t want to show they’re scared and they’ve been living through this for so long.

“They’re living a daily life that’s normal as much as they can.”

Life goes on as normal

Former Sydneysider Hugh Simpson said he was on holiday when he received alerts from DFAT urging him to return to Australia.

“I was actually skiing in the Carpathians when that happened. So that will give you an insight into what we’re like over here at the moment.”

The 39-year-old has lived in Kyiv for nearly three years and runs IT company Lqd Technology.

He said it was business as usual for him and his staff, but they were prepared in case the situation changed.

“The focus for us at my company is on the continued safety of the staff but also for continuity of the services. And at this stage, we’re just making all the contingencies and the plans ready should something happen.”

Mr Simpson said he and his partner had noticed a slight shift in the political situation, but they had no plans to move at this stage.

“I think the sense is this is a little bit different than April last year, when the 100,000 troops first moved to the borders,” he said.

“The international political situation is a little bit different and the rhetoric coming from major powers is a little bit different. 

“We are monitoring very closely the diplomatic community here … but at this stage we are planning to stay put.”

No plans to invade, says Russia

Russia, meanwhile, has denied it is planning to invade Ukraine, and is blaming the West for rising tensions.

“There is no decision, no intention at all, to go to war with Ukraine,” Russia’s ambassador in Canberra, Alexey Pavlovsky, told the ABC.

Asked about the thousands of Russian troops gathered on the Ukraine border, Mr Pavlovsky said that if Moscow intended to invade, it would have done so “promptly”.

“These troops are not a threat, they are a warning. A warning to Ukraine’s rulers not to attempt any reckless military adventures,” he said.

But Natasha Lindstaedt, an international relations expert from the University of Essex, maintained that a Russian invasion was “always a very serious possibility”. 

“Particularly when dealing with Putin, because we’ve seen he has invaded in the past,” she said.

“Putin sees Ukraine as a part of Russia and is becoming increasingly concerned that Ukraine is inching towards the West and that Ukraine is basically slipping from his sphere of influence.”

In December last year, Mr Putin said it was “actually NATO that is making dangerous attempts to conquer Ukrainian territory and is building up its military potential at our borders”.

However months earlier, in comments published by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Mr Putin wrote: “Russians and Ukrainians were one people … together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful.”

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

‘Let Ukraine be in peace’

For Ms Shmigel, the threat of a Russian invasion is dampening an otherwise wonderful experience of living in her ancestral homeland.

“Ukraine as a country is fabulous. People are wild and wacky and fun,” she said.

“The allure was the freedom and it’s now being compromised and that’s why we’re upset.

“There is an amazing sense of unity. Ukrainians have one common enemy and they know it.”

Ms Slipetsky said Ukrainians were sick of Russia using them “like a punching bag”.

“It’s just one thing after another … let Ukraine be in peace,” she said.

“Let Ukraine live its life.”

Source: Thanks