'Helpless' Ukrainians in the North East fear for their families as Russia launches invasion

Ukrainians living in the North East fear for the lives of their family members as Russia launches a full-scale invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed a "military operation" is underway in Ukraine, claiming it is intended to protect civilians.

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has described the conflict as a “full-scale invasion” and urges other countries to “stop Putin”.

Sounds of explosions have been heard in multiple Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv.

Speaking with ITV News Tyne Tees, Ukrainian ex-pats living in the North East describe their helplessness and fear.

It was 7am when Lesya Bourn received the phone call. A friend informed her that Ukrainian cities were under attack.

Ukrainian-born Lesya moved to Newcastle 17 years ago and is married to a British man. At no point during her time in the UK did she think this day would come.

Even as she went to bed last night - after Putin had deployed troops in the Donbas and recognised breakaway Ukrainian regions - Lesya was hopeful that a full-scale invasion would be averted.

"In my deepest heart I believed it would never happen, this aggression, these attacks," she explained. "But unfortunately..."

Like all the Ukrainians we spoke to, Lesya's main concern is for her family. Although her elderly parents live with health conditions, it is for those of fighting age that she is most worried.

She thinks it is likely that soon her nephews will have to leave their young families and take up arms against the Russians.

"I don’t want more blood to happen," she said. "People deserve peace and a good life. They work hard to have all of this and I don’t want this to be destroyed in a second."

Nataliya Beard awoke to a message from her mother saying "We're okay". She immediately turned on the television to scenes of invasion on the news.

"So yes, they are okay for now," she tells us. "But the situation is not okay."

Besides her parents, Nataliya has a sister, niece, nephew and friends living in Ukraine. Like Lesya, thoughts of young people dying in combat occupy her mind.

"My nephew is 20 years old," she explains. "Tomorrow he might be called in to hold a gun and fight for his country. We don’t want to lose him. For what? 

"This is our territory and our land. Leave us be.”

Nataliya also has friends and family in Russia. Despite the scenes she is watching unfold, Nataliya holds no animosity for the Russian people, reserving this for Vladimir Putin alone.

"We’re always used to being brothers and sisters," said Nataliya, speaking about her Russian neighbours. "And I’m not going to say we aren't anymore because we are. There is one man who started it and one man who can finish it. People do not hate each other but we do hate that one person.

“We never ever thought that in 2022 we’ll be standing here talking about it. It is unbelievable.”

Victoria Miller has spent much of the day in communication with her family members back in Ukraine. They paint a bleak picture.

Speaking tearfully over the phone, they describe their attempts to buy matches, candles, bread and tinned food, "preparing for the worst".

“People are glued to radios and televisions, trying to soak up every drop of news, every glimpse of hope," she said. "But it really is desperate at the moment.” 

Her family is scattered all over Ukraine. Some are searching for places to shelter from Russian bombs. Elderly people in particularly dangerous areas have been unable to leave to safer parts of the country "if there are such parts," she says.

Over the phone, Victoria's father described the situation as a "mirror image" of 1939.

“Sometimes events happen that are difficult to put in words," she said. "There are things that put you in deep shock.”