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Ukrainians show resilience, defiance amid Russia invasion: ‘Small nations have the right to be free’


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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ensnared civilians in a desperate battle for freedom as Western allies have pledged to stiffen sanctions against Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.

Everyday citizens are forming militias and the government is doling out automatic rifles. 

The situation appeared to have deteriorated early Saturday as Russian forces fought their way into Kyiv’s city limits — with reports of thousands of civilians packing up and fleeing on packed trains or heavily trafficked roads.

Kevin Flanagan, an Irish native who has been living in Kyiv for the past five years, told WHD News Digital that the war in Ukraine concerns the entire world “because this is truly a moment of ordinary people who are standing up for the values that we claim to hold here in the West.”

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A Ukrainian tank passes a bus carrying travelers from Kyiv toward the border with Poland on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Hours later, fighting had reached Ukraine's capital city amid Russia's invasion of the country.

A Ukrainian tank passes a bus carrying travelers from Kyiv toward the border with Poland on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Hours later, fighting had reached Ukraine’s capital city amid Russia’s invasion of the country.
(Courtesy: Kevin Flanagan)

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“This is Ukraine’s War of Independence; this is Ukraine’s French Revolution; this is Ukraine’s Tiananmen Square, and everybody should be paying attention to what’s happening in Ukraine right now because this is beyond politics.”

— Kevin Flanagan

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has remained in the capital Kyiv – a public face of defiance as Russian troops fight their way toward the city, and a potential morale boost for besieged patriots. 

On Thursday, a Russian navy warship ordered a group of 13 Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender, video shows. “Russian warship,” they replied, “go f— yourself.” All were killed in the ensuing bombardment and will be recognized as national heroes, Zelenskyy said.

‘This is Ukraine’s French Revolution’

“This is Ukraine’s War of Independence; this is Ukraine’s French Revolution; this is Ukraine’s Tiananmen Square, and everybody should be paying attention to what’s happening in Ukraine right now because this is beyond politics,” Flanagan said. “This is about an idea the small nations have the right to be free too.”

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American and British intelligence analysts have said Ukraine’s defenses are putting up a stiffer resistance than Russia expected, at least in the early stage’s of the invasion. Ukrainian defense officials appear to be happy to poke the bear on Twitter – sharing images of captured Russian soldiers, destroyed military vehicles and U.K.-made anti-tank missiles along with captions like “Welcome to hell” and “Death to enemies!”

Flanagan said he believes Ukrainians to be “an extremely resilient people.”

Ukrainian service members walk by a deactivated Russian military multiple rocket launcher on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. 

Ukrainian service members walk by a deactivated Russian military multiple rocket launcher on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. 
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“Let’s just call a spade a spade here,” he said. “One side are fighting for their homes, their family, their identity, their land, their history, their ethnicity, their right to recognition at the table of nations. The other side are paid soldiers.”

“One side are fighting for their homes, their family, their identity, their land, their history, their ethnicity, their right to recognition at the table of nations. The other side are paid soldiers.”

— Kevin Flanagan

Those paid Russian soldiers, he said, have been sent to take over a country where they may have relatives. The two nations have a shared history, shared languages and more in common.

National identity on the line

“The ordinary people who fight these wars tend to have a lot more in common than the men and the oligarchs and the tyrants who give the orders,” he said.

But only one side has its entire national identity on the line.

People stacking sandbags on the road between Kyiv and Poland on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

People stacking sandbags on the road between Kyiv and Poland on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.
(Courtesy: Kevin Flanagan)

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“What Putin is doing goes against every value that Students For Liberty holds dear, and these are the same values that America was founded upon: the principles of liberty and nonintervention of peace through strength,” Flanagan said. “We are seeing on the ground here ordinary people, and I mean ordinary people, who are mobilizing, self-organizing. There were a couple of militias happening in different neighborhoods as guns became available — men formed into groups and they started to patrol their neighborhoods.”

Flanagan said he would have left the city earlier with his Ukrainian wife but had to delay his travel because he was undergoing medical treatment.

They boarded a bus for the border with Poland early Friday, after Western intelligence analysts say Ukrainian defense forces thwarted Putin’s day 1 invasion goals – departing Kyiv under blaring air raid sirens.

Traffic moved at a snail's pace as thousands of people tried to flee the violence after Russia invaded Ukraine this week.

Traffic moved at a snail’s pace as thousands of people tried to flee the violence after Russia invaded Ukraine this week.
(Courtesy: Kevin Flanagan)

He said they saw at least two military jets, too many tanks to count, soldiers in trenches and abandoned bivouacs. They could hear distant fighting and explosions rocked the bus as it rumbled toward the border.

‘Absolutely surreal’

“It’s absolutely surreal,” he said Friday morning. “These are all images that I associated with Second World War movies – never expected that this is something I would see in my own lifetime, with my own eyes.” 

Hours later, he was still waiting at a border checkpoint. He said border guards were turning away men of fighting age – between 18 and 60. He said he saw a 15-year-old crying on a stump after his father had been conscripted into the nation’s defense. Families with pets were not allowed to cross with their animals.

“My mother- and father-in-law were being optimistic that we will see them again,” he said. “But I’m not really sure if we will or not.”

People take photos of the exterior of a residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on Feb. 25, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. 

People take photos of the exterior of a residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on Feb. 25, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. 
(Getty Images)

Flanagan is the Europe director for the international libertarian nonprofit group Students For Liberty. Its motto is “peace, love and liberty.”

Prior to Russia’s invasion, the organization had about 80 students and alumni spread across Ukraine, as well as six staffers, according to CEO Dr. Wolf von Laer. SFL operates in 114 countries with the objective of providing resources to young people interested in promoting liberty, free markets and freedom of speech.

The group sees special interest in former Soviet states, including Ukraine, the Balkans, and Georgia, he said, where people witnessed firsthand “how destructive” socialism and communism have been.

Julia Kril, another Students For Liberty staffer, was born in Ukraine. 

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“Yesterday was one of the worst mornings of my life because my whole family’s there,” she told WHD News Digital on Friday. “You wake up, you check your messages and then, wow, your city is being bombed and your family is there.”

By early Saturday Ukraine time, small arms fire and explosions could be heard in central Kyiv. Ukrainian defense officials said Russian troops had advanced within the city limits.

The invasion has prompted sanctions from Western governments and protests around the world – from anti-war Russian citizens in St. Petersburg to pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in New York, Germany and Australia. 

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