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The potential human toll of Putin's territorial ambitions in Ukraine

As Russia advances further into Ukraine, experts warn the war puts millions of civilians already exposed to Russian warfare at even more risk.

KIEV, Ukraine — In the summer of 2014, Karlijn Keijzer boarded Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam for a vacation in Indonesia with her boyfriend.

It was supposed to be a brief break for the hardworking Keijzer, a bright and talented graduate student who was studying ways to treat Alzheimer's patients at Indiana University. 

But as their plane neared the Russia-Ukraine border, it was shot out of the sky. Investigations conducted in subsequent years would hypothesize the pilots were killed upon impact from a surface-to-air missile. 

Not one of the 298 passengers and crew, a group which included 80 children, survived.

Keijzer died thousands of miles from her home in the Netherlands. She was 25 years old.

Investigations showed pro-Russian rebels separatists operating out of the Donestk region of Ukraine had launched the missile, reportedly because they mistook the passenger plane for a Ukrainian military transport. 

It was the deadliest airline shootdown incident in history. 

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Thursday, July 17, 2014 file photo, people walk amongst the debris at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 passenger plane near the village of Grabove, Ukraine. Judges in The Hague, Netherlands, in the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian who are charged with murder for their alleged roles in the deadly shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, will be allowed to consider testimony from 12 anonymous witnesses, according to a judicial ruling made Thursday April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky, File)

To date, Russia has never admitted responsibility in that crash, even while investigators deduced the missile launcher was supplied to the pro-Russian separatists from a Russian Air Brigade.

Russia subsequently refused to extradite the four men who a Dutch investigation team believed were responsible for the crash.

Today, Karlijn Keijzer and the other people who died aboard MH17 are listed in a grim, unofficial tally of sorts. 

Their names are among a list of thousands of innocent civilians, whose lives were cut short because they crossed the path of Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial ambitions. 

For local academics familiar with the ongoing tension between Ukraine and Russia, that innocent lives will be ended by this war is an inevitability.

Dr. Nataliya Shpylova Saeed is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, and said the Russian military has already shown a disregard for civilian lives in previous wars with Ukraine. 

RELATED: Why is Russia invading Ukraine?

"The whole of Ukraine is being targeted, is being bombed and shelled. And not only strategic objects that are targeted. They target also civilian buildings, like hospitals," Shpylova Saeed said. 

As Russia pushes further into the country, dozens of civilians have already been killed. Residents on the ground in Ukraine are doing what they can to evacuate the country.

"I have my mom who is in her 70s, and who lives by herself in an apartment. And she goes to bed and she tells me, 'Well probably, I will go to bed dressed today, because I don't know what's going to happen at night,'" Shpylova Saeed said. 

Credit: ksdk

Dr. Sergei Zhuk is an expert in Ukranian-American relations at Ball State, and also has friends and family in Ukraine. He told 13News watching as tensions percolated and eventually bubbled over to war during the last few weeks was excruciating. 

"It was a hell. Because I realized that we are on the brink of the war. And not just war in eastern Europe. It will be the new war for zones of influence," Zhuk told 13News. 

RELATED: Russia invades Ukraine on many fronts in 'brutal act of war'

But the violence between Ukraine and Russia, instigated by Russia, did not pop up overnight. 

Since 2014, Russia has supported a bloody rebellion throughout eastern Ukraine. Some 14,000 people, and an estimated 3,000 civilians, have died in the fighting since then. The warfare in eastern Ukraine has already displaced about 1.5 million people, and the U.S. estimated an additional 5 million Ukrainians would have to evacuate in case of a war. Fifty thousand innocent civilians could be killed in the ensuing war. 

It is a level of war and displacement Europe has not seen since World War II. 

Amnesty International predicted the invasion would have an impact on the human rights of Ukrainians, and cited a series of Russian air strikes in residential areas conducted in Syria between September and November of 2015.

That same report said Russian funded separatist forces violated international humanitarian law by using explosive weapons in civilian areas. 

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Shyplova Saeed and Zhuk said the rhetoric Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed when discussing this invasion is cause for concern. In a speech delivered Feb. 21, Putin falsely called Ukraine an illegitimate country that existed on land that historically belonged to Russians.

The Russian leader warned other countries that any attempt to interfere in Ukraine would "lead to consequences you have never seen in history" — a dark threat implying Russia was prepared to use its nuclear weapons.

"Listen to his focus on punishing those Ukrainian radicals who started revolution. He promised to kill them. Putin was the first who publicly denied existence of Ukraine as independent nation," Zhuk said.  

For now Zhuk and Shyplova Saeed are waiting alongside the rest of the world, to see how an invasion could impact the lives of their family in Ukraine. They hold out hope family and friends can remain strong in the face of more aggressions precipitated by Russia, but also pray more innocent lives will not be caught in the crossfire. 

"I applaud my countrymen for changing the narrative from 'Save Ukraine in 2014' to 'Ukrainians Will Resist' in 2022.," Shyplova said. 

The Russian Defense Ministry said it had destroyed 83 Ukrainian military facilities as of Feb. 24, 2022.

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