Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting – we’re waging an information war | Ukraine

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There is more than one struggle. There is the war of bombs, the war that takes lives. And then there is the battle over what can be done.

It’s Saturday, February 26, less than 72 hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, and I’m standing in Times Square in New York. Like other squares, boulevards and streets in the city, it has been invaded by blue and gold. One by one, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Belarusians and even Russians take up the megaphone to explain why they are here.

“I encourage you to support the armed forces informationally and financially,” one of the speakers told the crowd. “Share the right information to the right people at the right time. That’s all we can do and I think it’s even more powerful coming from here.

“We are tagging Stand With Ukraine, but what do we do?” pleads a woman with a crown of flowers, surrounded by children. “Action is action that counts. Call your elected officials. Demand more support for Ukraine.

We are 5,000 miles from our land. As mortar shells and cruise missiles bombard our house, we are safe. As over a million refugees flee to the rest of Europe, we are safe. Safe, but not silent. We know that words and actions are our weapons. Faced with the Russian president who wonders if Ukrainians exist as a people, the best answer is a resounding and global echo: we exist.

The crowd, a few hundred people, grabbed their phones, chanting “glory to Ukraine” and singing the national anthem. On my own phone, a constant stream of Telegram notifications: “‼УВАГА! У Києві оголошена повітряна тривога!” – “WARNING! Air raid sirens in Kiev!

On Wednesday, protesters hold a rally against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Times Square. Photography: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

I’m taking a video to send to my family. The first message is addressed to besieged relatives in the capital. “The world is with you,” I tell them. Then I text a family member in Canada. He also responds with a video. “Fights near the house where you grew up,” he wrote. “At present.”

I grew up in Kyiv at a time when the newly independent Ukraine was restructuring and life was difficult. I moved to Canada when I was 11, but I was never completely detached. Until the pandemic, I went back there every year, sometimes spending whole summers there. I grew up to be a journalist, and for about five years I’ve been reporting on what’s real on the internet and what’s not. It’s personal now.

Citizen diplomacy for Ukrainian freedom moves mountains. As Putin’s blitzkrieg bombs military and civilian targets, Ukrainians and their allies have focused on a list of demands for politicians that boil down to this: isolate Russia, protect Ukraine.

These demands are listed in hashtag campaigns, in tweets and TikToks, on Stories, in Facebook groups. They are shouted in the streets and formally requested by letter. They are discussed in group discussions. Economic sanctions that were previously unimaginable are now politically necessary. Since Russia recognized the occupied Ukrainian territories as so-called independent republics on February 22, 977 sanctions have been imposed. And counting. Countries like Germany and Switzerland are breaking with long political traditions to stand with Ukraine. Their citizens continue to demand more.

Like the citizens of other countries that Putin has trampled.

“Our country sends troops to fight with Russia against Ukraine, and I don’t support that either,” says a young woman who refuses to give her name because her parents are in Belarus. Since brutally suppressing the 2020 protests surrounding the presidential election, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has grown even closer to Vladimir Putin. Since then, the two countries have continuously held joint military exercises. Belarus is now Putin’s launching pad.

Downtown, at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, Ukrainian gay activists are holding their own rally.

“I’m from Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan is fighting a very similar fight right now,” says Dina, another young woman who declines to give her full name. Like me, she rushed here from Times Square. In January, Putin sent 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan, where they fired live ammunition at protesters. “Putin is dangerous,” says Dina. “The more we talk about it, the better.”

By his inhuman actions, Putin has built a coalition of very angry people. At the Stonewall Inn – site of a riot that launched the gay liberation movement in the US – gay activists remember the torture and killings of Chechnya’s ‘gay purge’, climate activists challenge the industry Russian oil company, Americans talk about democracy, Jews laugh at Putin’s rhetoric about “denazification”.

Each of them is a node, mobilizing their online and offline networks, branching out into angrier people making more demands.

Things are changing rapidly; communication is interconnected.

I see a woman holding a QR code for a sign and I scan it, perhaps recklessly, with my constantly buzzing phone. The page loads and I’m looking at a resource document I know well. It was set up by a person in Kharkiv, a city now brutally bombed. On the first day of the invasion, on a Spaces Twitter channel populated by thousands of people, someone said, “We need to organize donation resources in one place. Someone else had said, “An English translation would be nice. A few DMs later, I was helping write a brief intro for the very listing the woman at the Stonewall protest is promoting with her QR code.

I take a photo and send it to the original activist in Kharkiv, a city under heavy bombardment. “Good,” they reply. A transatlantic flow of information. I try to talk to the woman with the sign but the protest organizer comes up and she puts him in front of my recorder instead.

The organizer is Bogdan Globa, founder of LGBTQ Ukrainians in America. His mother is in Kiev, he said after a deep breath. I tell him that I also have family in Kiev.

LGBTQ+ Ukrainians are even more at risk from Russia than non-gay Ukrainians due to Putin’s draconian anti-gay laws, he says. The rally is a way to show them that they have support even thousands of miles away.

people hold signs saying
A rally in support of Ukraine outside the Stonewall Inn on February 26. Photography: Gina M Randazzo/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“The first day was a shock. But now I see that people power is growing, more and more people are involved. He speaks of his mother in a trembling voice. “Today is the first day I’ve pulled myself together. I didn’t expect to be so broken. Yesterday my mother’s last message was: ‘The Russian tanks are over there. And then she disappeared for 10 hours and I didn’t know what to think.

They have reestablished contact, he told me. She is fine.

In the face of disinformation and Russian attacks, telling our stories, the stories of our families and our people, telling them honestly and clearly, has become one of our best weapons.

Putin wanted this war to be fought in troubled waters. Before the full-scale invasion, his delirious speech attempted to rewrite Ukrainian history. It’s easy to see how this could have been a tempting tale to the world. The world, after all, stood aside when Crimea was annexed and eastern Ukraine was occupied. Perhaps they saw it through the prism of “regional complexities”. But no amount of “denazification” stories or false “genocide” claims against the Russians could stand up to the truth: it bombs innocent people.

In the basement of a Manhattan church, Razom volunteers went straight from a protest to an organizing meeting. It’s mostly prominent women who talk to volunteers and offer Ukrainian food to visitors. Razom – translated as “together” – is a product of the 2014 revolution. They have helped veterans, trained doctors and organized cultural exchanges. Now Razom has been elevated to world fame as good people search for places to support. They have already raised almost a million dollars for humanitarian aid. And they know exactly what needs to be done.

The leaders present a PowerPoint on the expected phases of the war, including the increasingly desperate refugee crisis. They speak through logistics, humanitarian aid corridors and letter writing campaigns.

“It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” says Mariya Soroka, one of the organizers. But first, the room watches the Ukrainian choir play the cold open for Saturday Night Live. Like many others, I try not to cry.

“To say that the last five days have changed my life is to say nothing,” says Soroka. Everyone in the room nods. I nod with them. The magnitude of the loss sets in. All of us, we all lose something. Instead of how are you, people here greet each other with facts. Here is who I have in Ukraine. Here is what city they are in. Here are the losses of the last blitzkrieg against my city.

Among the volunteers is Luke Tomycz, Soroka’s husband and a neurosurgeon who has been training doctors in Ukraine for five years through a project called Co-Pilot. He tells me that a Syrian doctor contacted him to say: “We feel an affinity with the Ukrainians because we have the impression of having lived what they live. Russia bombed hospitals in Syria, deepening the refugee crisis then as now. Physicians from the Ukrainian North American Medical Association help with advocacy and medical logistics, including the urgent delivery of specialty medications that need to be refrigerated.

The volunteers have split into working groups and Razom is streaming it live on Instagram. Their resource list has gone viral, like so many other resource lists. In every direction, at every opportunity, citizen diplomacy pushes politicians to action, compels people to take to the streets, urges them to give money and attention.

I stop Maryna Prykhodko in the middle of the Instagram post. She’s in charge of communications around here and she’s telling me the next target. Sanctions have been put in place. Russia has been cut off from the Swift banking system. Now Razom wants protection from the Ukrainian skies. Putin’s action and his nuclear threats “should outrage the whole world”, she said.

“You can’t stop asking politicians for more support for Ukraine and more sanctions against Russia,” she says. “It’s like our mantra. It has to be said loud and clear.”

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