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After jet tragedy and impeachment drama, Ukrainians fatigued by bad news

Last week’s airline tragedy was just the latest international incident to face Ukraine, which finds itself caught between the East and the West.

KYIV, Ukraine — From Iran shooting down a Ukrainian plane to their president’s role in the United States’ bitterly partisan impeachment saga, many Ukrainians are tired of their country being caught up in events over which they have little control.

Last week’s airline tragedy was just the latest international incident to face Ukraine, which finds itself caught between the East and the West as it fights a lengthy armed conflict against Russia and continues to align itself more closely with NATO and western Europe.

For some ordinary Ukrainians, the current turmoil only adds to the feeling of exhaustion and frustration.

Oleksandr Potapenk, 44, a Christmas market vendor in Kyiv.Mo Abbas / NBC News

“I don’t want Ukraine to be messed about by the U.S. and Russia, two big powers. I don’t want Ukraine to be a cog in the machine anymore,” Oleksandr Potapenk, 44, a Christmas market vendor, said.

“The problem is political,” he added, “and until politicians decide political solutions, people will keep dying, either on the front line of wars or accidentally shot down in planes.”

Orthodox and Greek Catholic Ukrainians celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, and in Kyiv, the capital, glittering Christmas trees and fairy lights competed for attention with the city’s golden, onion-domed churches.

After initially denying any wrongdoing, Iran on Saturday admitted having accidentally shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 last week, killing all 176 people on board. The incident occurred hours after Iran fired missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.

President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on during a meeting in New York on Sep. 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

For Ukraine, there is an unwelcome historic echo to the crash: in 2014, international investigators say, Russian-backed rebels shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over the country’s disputed eastern region, killing 298 people.

Ukraine is used to being embroiled in international turmoil. Its geostrategic importance, tumultuous history, status as a major food exporter, access to the Black Sea and its border with four NATO states and Russia means it has to deal with multiple foreign policy challenges at the same time — leaving some here feeling persecuted.

“People are always trying to poke a stick in Ukraine’s bicycle wheels,” Maxim Starubinskiy, 30, an actor, said in Kyiv’s iconic Maidan Square, the site of mass protests in 2013 against a government decision to align Ukraine more closely with Russia.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until it declared independence in 1991 and has in recent years turned toward NATO and western Europe for its security, angering Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces annexed Crimea in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

That has left the country in an awkward and delicate geopolitical position, one some Ukrainians says isn’t fully appreciated by the international community.

“We are talking to ourselves,” Vitalina Shkrobynets, 28, a flower delivery company manager, said. “Other countries don’t listen enough to Ukraine. They don’t understand the whole situation or the depth of the problems we face.”

Flower delivery company manager Vitalina Shkrobynets, 28, in Kyiv. Mo Abbas / NBC News

But some Ukrainians pointed to domestic reasons for why the country keeps getting pushed around, including an economy hamstrung by corruption and weak leadership.

“We’re disappointed that Ukraine hasn’t got a strong voice on the global stage, and as a result you can only see U.S. or Russian policy acted upon Ukraine,” Yaroslave Ostapchuk, 44, a university professor, said.

“Ukraine should be more assertive and speak more loudly about our position.”

As Trump’s impeachment dominates headlines in the U.S., for many Ukrainians the conflict with Russia still looms far larger.

“We’re going down as a country. It’s scary,” Victoria Yareshko, 36, a nurse, said in Kyiv as she examined a memorial wall of hundreds of photos of some of the thousands killed since Russia’s 2014 incursion. “We’re afraid of all-out war with Russia. Many Ukrainians feel afraid.”

Rescue teams are seen at the scene of a Ukrainian airliner that crashed shortly after take-off near Imam Khomeini airport in the Iranian capital Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020.Akbar Tavakoli / AFP - Getty Images

Flowers and candles adorned the base of the wall, which surrounds St. Michael’s monastery.

But even if the Trump impeachment case — which was prompted by a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July — has been little noticed in Ukraine, some here are sanguine about the situation: It could help Ukraine get some recognition abroad.

“In order to develop and grow, you need to be noticed. When Ukraine starts being noticed, it will be treated less as an object and more like a country with its own voice,” said another university professor, Oleg Chertov, 56.

“Thanks to President Trump’s impeachment trial, I hope that more Americans can at least point to Ukraine on a map and know it’s in Europe and not in Africa,” Chertov said.”