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Ukrainians are able to define their identity on the Crimean borderland

CHONHAR CROSSING (Ukraine) -- Oleg carried his bag down a cement road. He was crossing from a territory Russia had invaded eighteen years ago to a territory Russia might be preparing for invasion, to visit his mother-in law.

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Ukrainians are able to define their identity on the Crimean borderland

He was heading to his home in Crimea and passed a Russian military convoy on the way. He walked towards the border, passing an abandoned hotel that was once a popular vacation spot in the Black Sea. He presented his papers to the armed Ukrainian guard at the other end, and waited for a lift.

Residents of Crimea and the Ukrainian borderlands know firsthand what happens when Russia invades. They worry about the future, but they have a strong sense of their national identity as Russia sends more troops and warships to the region.

"Nobody wants Russia to be a part of their fight. This is similar to a fight against a wall. Oleg stated, "You cannot win." He used his first name to avoid Russian arrests back in Crimea. "This fight is already lost. The war is not over. The war is not over.

He speaks of a war that is in the hearts and minds Ukrainians. Should Ukraine remain loyal to the West and separate itself from Russia? Or is it easier to accept a Russian bear hug?

Patrolling a port in Ukraine is underway

The small town of Henichesk is about a half hour drive from the checkpoint on the Ukrainian coast. Officials from the United States warn that Russian warships could take over Ukrainian ports.

Yelena Korniyenko and her baby grandson strolled along the Sea of Azov on a weekend morning. They were bundled up against the cold, but enjoyed bright sunlight and a refreshing breeze.

"We can see more Ukrainian military personnel are coming. They are patrolling the city. They are also patrolling the ocean. We feel their protection," Korniyenko said, looking out over the water. We hope for common sense from Vladimir Putin."

The headline of the Priazovia Bulletin on that day read: "Henichesk Port Could be Turned Into a Military Port." Russian warships are currently conducting exercises in the vicinity.

Surprise! The Crimea annexation

Many borderlands between Russia and Ukraine still find it difficult to comprehend Putin's 2014 annexe of Crimea. They had seen Russians and Ukrainians as being intertwined for years.

"Here, thought that, wow. Ukraine, Russia. We're the brothers," Mykola Stavytskyi said. He is half-Russian, and lives in Kherson, Ukraine, near Crimea. "Everybody couldn’t believe that Crimea was being occupied." We understood that we were Ukrainians in that moment.

Pro-Russian President of Ukraine sought a trade deal with Russia instead of the European Union, triggering turmoil. Protests broke out in Kiev and spread to Kherson. Stavytskyi joined in the protests on the streets.

Russia invaded Crimea, triggering a separatist war within Ukraine's eastern region. Stavytskyi was a combat soldier fighting the Russian-backed separatists. He served in the trenches alongside Ukrainians from diverse backgrounds, soldiers who had little in common before.

Their Ukrainian identity was solidified by a common enemy.

They speak in different languages. They attend different churches. They understand they are one Ukrainian nation," Stavytskyi stated. "Thanks, Putin."

How can you fight back? How to stop the water from getting in your eyes

Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine after it took Crimea. Then, Ukraine cut off Crimea's main water supply.

Andrii Hordieiev is a former governor of Kherson, and a former lawmaker in Ukraine’s parliament. He shows off a sandbag-damp over the deep canal that once supplied most of Crimea's water. The Ukrainian checkpoint that leads into Crimea is surrounded by a newer, stronger cement dam.

This led to a drought in Crimea. Russia has now built a new water pipe to end the crisis. This is prompting Ukrainians to think of other ways to challenge Russia's influence.

"Our goal is, obviously, to get all occupied territories back, including Crimea. Hordieiev, sitting in a car near the Crimea border line, said that he doesn't believe it will be successful if it launches a war to get it. "Our main task is not to get the territories back but to get people back."

The university attempts to form the next generation

Kherson State University is located just a few hours north of the border line with Crimea. It is on the frontlines of the fight against Russian influence.

Administrators at universities say that many students from the region used to travel to Crimea to study at warm universities. To make up the lost time, Kherson State University built a small medical school.

The corridor leading to the office of the rector is lined with portraits from former rectors of the university's 105 year-old history. This serves as a reminder of the darker times under Soviet dictatorship. Rector after rector has been identified by university administrators as having served less than a year under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Oleksandr Spivakovsky is the current rector. He claims that about a fifth are sympathetic to Russia.

He says that his focus is on strengthening the civil Ukrainian identity for "Generation Z", children who grew up near Russia's borderlands and speak Russian primarily, and not Ukrainian.

Yulia Vorobiova, a student, stated that "We know we'll be OK because of the fact that we aren't going to be with Russia."

"I consider myself, like, mixed. Also, I can speak Russian very well. Vitaliy Shutov, another student, said that he likes it this way. "I think the problem is in Russia's government, and not its people."


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