As warnings of war in Ukraine grow louder, the fear and tension felt in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv are also felt in neighbouring Poland – for the two countries share far more than just a border. 

Some two million people have left their homes in Ukraine seeking work and opportunities in their western neighbour.

This great migration to Poland, which has received little attention worldwide, intensified after the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine broke in 2014. There was plenty of work on offer with the emigration of Poles to the UK and Ireland creating desperate labour shortages throughout the country.

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‘Ukrainians deserve to make their own decisions’

With visa-free entry now offered to Ukrainians, Poland has become something of an automatic choice, with many thousands of Ukrainians studying at Polish universities.

We met three Ukrainians enrolled at the Information Technology and Management University in the city of Rzeszów, located just 62 miles (100km) from the Ukrainian border.

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I asked the group, who spoke fluent Russian, why they had not decided to go to Russia for their studies.

“That is a nonsense,” chuckled journalism student Yaryna Kysil. “You ask me if there are two options? No, there is only one option. I can travel throughout Europe, I see more opportunities here. Nobody would even think of that [Russian] option.”

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“Is that the root cause of the crisis in Ukraine?” I asked. “The fact that you think your future lies in Europe.”

English student, Mariia Kravets, replied with a trace of scorn.

“The real problem is that Russia doesn’t like our choice, but I think Ukrainian people deserve to make their own decisions, to have their own thoughts, because Ukraine is an independent country and Putin should know it.”

Russia a ‘hostile state’

While Moscow continues to deny that it is planning an invasion of Ukraine, it has amassed more than 100,000 troops, plus tanks, artillery and planes on the country’s border.

Mr Putin, who was a KGB spy in the Cold War, views the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe as an existential threat with Ukraine’s possible membership in the organisation seen as an intolerable outcome.

More importantly, perhaps, he has also expressed the view that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, drawing on their joint historical, political and cultural links.

Yet Ukrainians are gradually pulling away, with polling showing the vast majority now see Russia as a “hostile state”. The latest polling is part of a clear trend that has been developing over the course of the last decade.

For Yaryna Kysil, this unpredictable standoff is a personal matter because her father volunteers in the Ukrainian military.

“Of course, I am worried because it’s my motherland and I also have a father in the military. I am trying to filter the information and I am trying not to panic, like most (are) doing.”

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What will they do if Russia invades?

This collective anxiety is prompted, in part, by one question every Poland-based Ukrainian asks themselves: what will they do if Russia moves their troops into Ukraine?

Maria had no doubts about her course of action.

“Personally, I will take my Mum from Ukraine. I know that there are a lot of movements that say they want to stay in Ukraine, whatever happens, but I will take my mum for sure to Poland.”

Yaryna burst into tears on hearing this and took several minutes to compose herself. Suddenly, the threat of war seemed real, and the journalism student believes Ukrainians have a duty to stick together.

“To be honest, my first thought was I would go home. I don’t know why people are escaping, I want to go back… I love my country.”

“It is hard to be away right now,” I suggested.

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“I just believe the people, they can be united, they can believe in good.”

As the world waits on Mr Putin’s next move, few doubt his capability to invade and hold Ukraine. But the threat of military occupation further poisons the idea of ‘one people’, driving Ukrainians – and in particular, young Ukrainians – into the welcoming arms of their western neighbours.