Vietnamese community in Ukraine unruffled by tension escalation

By Staff reporters   February 15, 2022 | 05:46 pm PT
The Vietnamese community in Ukraine is not too flustered by Western media reports on the "escalating" Ukraine-Russia conflict; they remain confident there’ll be no war.

Nguyen Duc Huy, 53, a resident of the southwestern seaport province of Odessa, said he wasn’t surprised on learning that Russia would withdraw some of its troops along the Ukrainian border after completing its military exercise.

"I would be lying if I said I’m not worried," said Huy, who is married to a Ukrainian woman and has been living in the country for 27 years. "Yet, the situation here isn’t as intense as Western media portrays it to be."

Over the past several months, as the long-standing conflict between Ukraine and NATO on one side, and Russia on the other, seems to escalate, Huy and many other members of the Vietnamese community have been fielding inquiries from concerned relatives and friends asking how they are faring, what they will do if war breaks out, and whether they plan to "migrate" or return to Vietnam.

Tensions over the Ukraine-Russia crisis have been simmering for over two months, as Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, sparking Western warnings of an imminent invasion. For its part, Moscow says it is only responding to aggression by NATO allies and dismisses those warnings as "hysteria".

The conflict between the two sides boil down to Russia’s demand to the West and NATO to cease all military activity in eastern Europe and Ukraine and never to accept Ukraine or other former Soviet nations as members. However, Washington says it can’t accept such a demand.

A market in the center of Odessa, Ukraine, on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Duc Huy

A market in the center of Odessa, Ukraine, on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Duc Huy

To these legitimate questions, the answers from the community, from ordinary residents to embassy officials, have been consistent: life still goes on as usual, nobody is hoarding stuff for fear of scarcity, everything remains under control as the different sides are open to talks; and war is unlikely.

Unlike many Westerners who only live and work in Ukraine temporarily and can easily leave the country, or Vietnamese migrant workers in Iraq and Libya who could be flown back home in times of crisis, most Vietnamese residents in Ukraine have been living there for a long time and consider it home.

Thus many say that even if war breaks out, there won’t be any easy migration option for them. "The Vietnamese community have their homes and families here. Their life is here, so even in case of war, there won’t be any migration," said Nguyen Van Loan, who has been living in Ukraine for 21 years.

Loan also believes there won’t be any war since Ukraine and Russia are intimately connected and neither country wants to go to war against the other. Many Russians are married to Ukrainian spouses and live in Ukraine, Loan said. "Russia would want to protect its citizens and try to avoid war," he said.

He also shares the opinion of some international relations experts in Vietnam that Russia’s supposed aggression is merely an American ruse intended to provoke.

Colonel Nguyen Minh Tam, former director of the Science and Education Archives at the Ministry of Public Security’s Political Academy, said that despite Russia’s repeated insistence that it doesn’t have any intention to attack Ukraine and despite the latter’s refutation of many warnings from the West, the U.S. still accuses Russia of aggression because it wants to stir up fear among NATO countries, especially among ordinary citizens, in order to contain emerging powers.

Whatever the case may be, for Vietnamese residents in Ukraine, many of whom are small business owners, what concerns them most is their daily work and life, not international politics. "What most affects daily activities these days is escalating prices, including the prices of oil and gas, but this is an international situation, not particular to Ukraine," said Huy from Odessa.

Customers shop inside a supermarket in Odessa, Ukraine, on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Duc Huy

Customers shop inside a supermarket in Odessa, Ukraine, on Feb. 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Duc Huy

According to Nguyen Nhu Manh, Chairman of the Vietnamese Association in Odessa Province, prices aren’t being pushed up by any specter of incoming war, but inflation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In recent years, many of the 3,000-strong Vietnamese community in Odessa Province have returned to Vietnam to seek better business opportunities, so there is hardly any big Vietnamese business left, just small businesses like restaurants, stores and markets which still operate as usual, albeit with lower incomes because of the general economic situation.

Vu Chan, 64, who has been living in northeastern Kharkov, another hub of the Vietnamese community besides the capital Kiev and Odessa, describes a similar outlook. Chan said some Vietnamese residents have recently returned home, but not because they want to avoid any danger, but to celebrate the Lunar New Year after two years of Covid-19 and because business has been difficult in recent years.

Chairman Manh said even when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and tension occurred in eastern Ukraine in the Donbass region, residents in the "temporarily occupied" zones could still carry out daily transport and activities as usual. "These days, nobody thinks of ‘running’ anywhere or making any plan because everybody believes that there won’t be any total war," Manh said. "All sides understand that if war break outs, no side can survive and reaps benefits".

Manh also recalled a minor situation that was quickly resolved by the Ukrainian government. Because of war rumors swirling around for several days, insurance companies had intended not to insure for flights to Ukraine starting Wednesday. Two Portuguese airlines have also avoided Ukraine, dropping passengers off in the neighboring Moldova instead. In dealing with the situation, the Ukrainian government spent UAH 16.6 billion ($589 million) to support insurance companies and foreign airlines to continue to fly in Ukraine.

"This move shows the government is pretty quick to react," Manh said, reiterating confidence that the situation is not the "brink of war" crisis that it is being made out to be by international media or foreign interests.

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