On the dawn of the 24th of February, Russia began a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine; the biggest attack on a European state since World War II. Just a few hours earlier, Andrey – a 20-year-old business management student from Russia – was celebrating one of his country’s traditional holidays at his university in the UK.
“On the 23rd we have this holiday in Russia – Defender of the Fatherland Day – which is basically the national men's day. All the Russian and Ukrainian guys and I got together to celebrate,” he tells VICE over the phone. “We were joking about how Putin is going to invade, and then I woke up on the 24th and he’s invaded. As the day went on more and more news came through, and I started contacting my friends to see what’s going on… That’s when I saw the severity of what was happening.”
As the war enters its second week, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service says over 2,000 civilians have died and over two million refugees have fled to neighbouring European countries. In response, global leaders imposed sanctions on Russia that have been described as the “harshest” and “most comprehensive set of multilateral economic sanctions ever applied to a major global economy”.
“The general feeling among not only Russians who studied in the UK, but those who still study in the UK, is a general shock,” Vasilii, 27, a politics and international relations graduate from an English university. As with all the interviewees in this piece, he is speaking anonymously to protect his family’s safety in Russia.
“People expected it to be around the Donbas area where conflict has been ongoing for eight years. It's crazy, operationally comparable to the Second World War… But at the same time, many are not wishing our country to be sanctioned because it is the public who are going to suffer.”
Economic sanctions have been critiqued on human rights grounds, with research showing that they can wreak collateral damage on civilians, exacerbating economic hardship and increasing their cost of living. “We take these actions not because we oppose the Russian people – we do not,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said. “We regret that tens of millions of Russians will suffer because of the dangerous decisions made by a tiny circle of corrupt leaders and their cronies.”
The sanctions have targeted Russian oligarchs, companies and financial institutions, including the Central Bank, and have pummelled every sector of Russia’s economy. The rouble has lost nearly 50 percent of its value against the dollar. And they keep coming, with Boris Johnson announcing that it is time to “squeeze Russia from the global economy, piece by piece.” On Thursday morning, the UK government announced that it had sanctioned Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, putting a halt on his plans to sell the football club.
Young Russians, too, are beginning to feel the pinch. “Investment in stocks has become quite popular among Russians over the last few years. There are over ten million accounts in this market,” says Vasilii. “I opened my account a couple years ago, but now it's quite clear that Russian stocks aren’t going to cost anything when the stock market in Moscow opens.”
The sanctions also affect the cost of living for Russians in the UK, too. “The exchange rate has also increased which means it has become three times more expensive to live in the UK right now as a Russian,” says Andrey. Still, he draws a line between the current economic situation in Russia and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. “The Russian economy is damaged, yes, but the cities are still there. Kids can play whenever they want. In Ukraine, they can't.”
Towards the end of February, the Foreign Office has announced Russian nationals in the UK will be banned from having “significant savings” in their bank accounts. VISA and Mastercard have also suspended operations in Russia, meaning cards issued in Russia will no longer work abroad.
“There is now a restriction on how much money I can have in my bank account,” Anna, 23, a PhD Mathematics student, tells VICE. “My Russian bank still works here so I have been using it just to check that it works, but there’s a possibility that it will stop working any day. Everyone here who is Russian is trying to get as much money as possible before it's too late.”
With Russian flights prohibited from EU and American airspace, travelling has become much harder for Russian students: “Sanctions have made it difficult for Russians to travel anywhere outside of Russia. I had plans to go to Moscow for spring break but I’ve decided not to,” says Andrey.
Outside of financial anxiety, young Russians in the UK say it has been emotional watching unfolding events from afar. Like the thousands of people protesting against the invasion in their home country, none of the students that VICE spoke to support the war. “I feel devastated, heartbroken, and also very powerless, but I also think people in Russia also feel powerless,” Anna says.
“It’s been weird to be in England because although people are supportive, it's hard that people continue with their lives – which they should, and I understand. But I literally can’t think about anything besides the war. I cannot read about anything besides the war, I’ve not been able to work. My friends who have been going to protest in Moscow – some of them got arrested and are in jail right now.”
Those living in the UK worry they may face discrimination as anti-Russian sentiment rises across Europe as a result of the invasion: “My friend’s car has Russian number plates – but he is Ukrainian. His car was keyed,” says Andrey. “I feel like some people don't understand that ordinary Russians have nothing to do with this. There's no hate between Ukrainian and Russian people mostly – most of us are good friends. No one should be blamed and targeted, everyone should be given support.”
But there’s hope amid the chaos and anxiety, too. Despite the fact that their countries are ostensibly at war, young Russians are joining up with Ukrainians in the UK to rally support for those who need it most in the latter country.
“My university has offered mental health support for all students that needed it, they published a statement with steps and not just pandering which was great,” says Sima. “We also had student-led events – the Ukrainian society was there and several Eastern-European ones there together.”
After the initial shock of the invasion, Andrey says, he joined Ukrainian and Russian students at his university in hosting fundraisers to send emergency supplies to Ukraine. “We’ve collected about £400 worth of canned food and 2 large boxes of medicine, diapers and other items and that's already being shipped to Ukraine,” he says.
The last thing he wants is for Putin’s actions to drive a wedge between the two countries: “We’ve done this as a collective of Russian and Ukrainian students, together. We are working together and trying to stay together through the circumstances.”