Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting –we’re fighting an information war

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

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

“I encourage you to support the armed forces informationally and financially,” one of the speakers tells the crowd. “Share the right information to the right people at the right time. This is as much as we can do and I think that’s even more powerful coming from here.”

“We are hashtagging Stand With Ukraine, but what are we doing?” pleads a woman in a flower crown, surrounded by children. “Action, action is what matters. Call your elected leaders. Demand more support for Ukraine.”

We are 5,000 miles away from our land. As mortar shells and cruise missiles bombard our home, we are safe. As over a million refugees flee into the rest of Europe, we are safe. Safe, but not silent. We know that words and actions are our weapons. In the face of the Russian president questioning whether Ukrainians as a people exist, the best answer is a resounding, global echo: we exist.

The crowd, a couple of hundred people, clutch their phones as they chant “glory to Ukraine” and sing the national anthem. On my own phone, a constant stream of Telegram notifications: “‼УВАГА! У Києві оголошена повітряна тривога!” – “ATTENTION! Air raid sirens in Kyiv!”

I take a video to send to my family. The first message is to loved ones under siege in the capital. “The world is with you,” I tell them. Next I text a family member in Canada. He responds with a video, too. “Fights near the house where you grew up,” he writes. “Right now.”

I grew up in Kyiv, at a time when the newly independent Ukraine was restructuring itself and life was difficult. I moved to Canada at 11, but I was never fully untethered. Until the pandemic, I made a trip back every year, sometimes spending entire summers there. I grew up to become a journalist, and for the last five years or so, I’ve been reporting on what’s real on the internet and what isn’t. It’s personal now.

Citizen diplomacy for Ukraine’s freedom is moving mountains. As Putin’s blitzkriegs bomb military and civilian targets alike, Ukrainians and their allies have zeroed in on a list of demands for politicians that boil down to this: isolate Russia, shield Ukraine.

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

As do the citizens of other countries Putin trampled over.

“Our country is sending troops to fight with Russia against Ukraine, and I don’t support that either,” says a young woman who declines to give her name because her parents are in Belarus. Since brutally quelling the 2020 protests around the presidential election, the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has moved even closer to Vladimir Putin. The two countries have continually held joint military exercises ever since. Belarus is now Putin’s launchpad.

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

“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 shot live rounds at protesters. “Putin is dangerous,” Dina says. “The more we talk about it, the better.”

Through his inhumane 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 – queer activists recall the torture and killings in Chechnya’s “gay purge”, climate activists call out Russia’s oil industry, Americans speak of democracy, Jews scoff at Putin’s rhetoric about “denazification”.

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

Things are moving fast; the communication is interconnected.

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

I snap a photo and send it to the original activist in Kharkiv, a city under brutal bombardment. “Nice,” they respond. A transatlantic flow of information. I try to speak to the woman with the sign but the protest organizer comes around and she puts him in front of my recorder instead.

The organizer is Bogdan Globa, founder of LGBTQ Ukrainians in America. His mom is in Kyiv, he says after a deep breath. I tell him I have family in Kyiv, too.

Ukraine’s LGBTQ+ people face even more danger from Russia than non-queer Ukrainians because of 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.

“The first day was a shock. But now I see the power of the people rises, more and more people are involved.” He talks about his mom with a shaking voice. “Today is the first day I put myself together. I did not expect I would be so broken. Yesterday the last message from my mom was, ‘Russian tanks are there.’ And then she disappeared for 10 hours. And I didn’t know what to think.”

They’ve re-established contact, he tells me. She’s OK.

In the face of Russian disinformation and 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 held in muddied waters. Before the full-scale invasion, his delusional speech tried to rewrite Ukrainian history. It’s easy to see how this could have been a tempting narrative for the world to indulge in. The world, after all, stood by when Crimea was annexed, and when the Ukrainian east was occupied. Perhaps they saw it through the lens of “regional complexities”. But no amount of “denazification” narratives or false claims of “genocide” against Russians could stand up to the truth: he is bombing innocent people.

In the basement of a church in Manhattan, volunteers for Razom have come straight from a protest to an organizing meeting. It’s mostly women in sight as they talk to volunteers and offer Ukrainian food to visitors. Razom – translated as “together” – is a product of the 2014 revolution. They’ve helped veterans, trained doctors and organized cultural exchanges. Now, Razom has been elevated to global fame as good people seek out places to support. Already they’ve raised nearly $1m for humanitarian aid. And they know exactly what needs to be done.

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

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

“To say that the past five days have changed my life is to say nothing,” Soroka says. Everyone in the room nods. I nod with them. The scale of the loss is settling in. All of us, all of us are losing something. Instead of how are yous, people here greet each other with facts. Here’s who I have in Ukraine. Here’s what city they are in. Here are the losses of the latest blitzkrieg against my city.

Among the volunteers is Luke Tomycz, Soroka’s husband and a neurosurgeon who has been training doctors in Ukraine for the last five years through a project called Co-Pilot. He tells me that a Syrian doctor reached out to him to say, “We feel a kinship to Ukrainians because we feel like we have experienced what they’re going through.” Russia has bombed hospitals in Syria, worsening the refugee crisis then as it is now. Doctors in the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America are helping with advocacy and medical logistics, including the urgent delivery of specialized medications that need refrigeration.

The volunteers split into working groups, and Razom broadcasts it on Instagram live. Their list of resources has gone viral, like so many other lists of resources. In all directions, at every opportunity, citizen diplomacy presses politicians to act, forces people on to the streets, urges them to give money and attention.

I stop Maryna Prykhodko mid-Instagram post. She’s in charge of communication around here and she tells me the next target. Sanctions have been implemented. Russia has been cut off from the Swift banking system. Now, Razom wants protection for the Ukrainian sky. Putin’s action and his nuclear threats “should outrage the entire world”, she says.

“You cannot stop asking politicians for more support for Ukraine and more sanctions against Russia,” she says. “This is like our mantra. We have to say it out loud.”

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