Ukraine

Diplomats Depart, Alarm Bells Ring, Russian Warships Set Sail, While In Ukraine’s Capital, A Semblance Of Normalcy

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KYIV — On this weekend afternoon, the biggest worry for Andriy, a 21-year-old medical student at a Kyiv university, wasn’t the threat of war.

It was whether to get his girlfriend the more expensive gold pendant for Valentine’s Day.

“I went with the better one,” he said, laughing, as he stood outside the Love You jewelry store in a central Kyiv shopping mall. “This is far more important. Besides, there’s not going to be any war. At least, we hope not.”

The drums of war are beating ever more loudly in Ukraine. With well more than 100,000 troops deployed to the north, east, and in occupied Crimea to the south, along with sophisticated new weaponry and lower-visibility equipment like trench-digging vehicles, a growing number of analysts say it’s hard to conclude Russia’s military is poised to do anything other than invade its western neighbor — for the second time in eight years.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that nearly three dozen warships had set sail in the waters of the northern Black Sea. The flotilla included amphibious landing craft that could be used for putting infantry and armored units onto the Ukrainian coastline.

WATCH: People in Kyiv on February 12 seemed unimpressed by the news that a Russian military attack could be imminent:

Though Ukraine would put up a valiant fight, a new Russian invasion would be a disaster for Kyiv, according to Western intelligence estimates.

Weeks of crescendoing warnings, mainly from U.S. officials, reached new levels on February 11, as White House officials said an invasion could come in the next five days.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone on February 12 in an effort to forestall a new war. Biden warned Putin that invading Ukraine would result in “swift and severe” costs to Russia and cause “widespread human suffering,” according to the White House.

A U.S. administration official later said the call produced “no fundamental change in the dynamics.”

“It remains unclear whether Russia is interested in pursuing its goals diplomatically as opposed to through the use of force,” the official said.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, described the call as “balanced” and “businesslike” but also did not signal any major shifts in thinking.

Amid the gloomy prognoses, Western countries continued to pull out and relocate their diplomatic staff. A convoy of U.S. Embassy vehicles was seen heading west out of Kyiv. The State Department has said some of its staff would shift to Lviv, a major city in western Ukraine.

Canada, which has a major Ukrainian emigre population, also said it was moving its embassy operation from Kyiv to Lviv.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, again tried to push back against the direst warnings from the United States, which have provoked grumbling from him and his top advisers in recent weeks.

“The best friend of our enemies is panic in our country. And all this information is just provoking panic and can’t help us,” Zelenskiy told reporters on February 12. “I can’t agree or disagree with what hasn’t happened yet. So far, there is no full-scale war in Ukraine.”

‘Welcome To Hell!’

The head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Lieutenant General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, also issued a defiant statement: “We have strengthened Kyiv’s defense. We have gone through the war and with due preparation. Therefore, we are ready to meet enemies — and not with flowers, but with [guns and missiles],” Zaluzhniy said. “Welcome to hell!”

In interviews with nearly two dozen people around central Kyiv, on an unseasonably warm February weekend, the mood was a mixture of defiance and concern — and in some cases, even indifference.

Some, like Andriy, joked about Valentine’s Day. Others mentioned a controversial result involving the competition to represent Ukraine in the 2022 Eurovision Song Contest — an event that draws laser-focused attention from a wide swath of Ukrainian society. (The second-place finisher in the February 12 event, the Kalush Orchestra, claimed that the final vote, which went to the performer Alina Pash, was rigged.)

Overlooking the Dniepr River, and stretching between St. Volodymyr Hill and the People's Friendship Arch, the 3-year-old Glass Bridge is a popular destination for tourists and buskers.
Overlooking the Dniepr River, and stretching between St. Volodymyr Hill and the People’s Friendship Arch, the 3-year-old Glass Bridge is a popular destination for tourists and buskers.

But for others, like Lena, a 46-year-old chief financial officer at a major Kyiv company who was strolling near Kyiv’s famed Glass Bridge, it was hard to be optimistic.

“The mood isn’t good,” she said, asking that only her first name be used. “What do you think we should do? Yes, I’m concerned.”

Lena, who said she lived with her aging mother and four cats, has made some preparations in the event of military-induced shortages: She’s bought some extra food, taken some extra money out of her bank’s ATMs, and bought extra water. “Though I’ve already drunk all the water,” she said, laughing.

“We should stay calm. Panicking won’t help anyone. What should we do? Start crying?” she said.

WATCH: Thousands heeded a call to put aside political differences and unite for the country’s independence. Participants in the March of Unity on February 12 sang the Ukrainian anthem and carried banners reading “Say No To Putin” and “Ukrainians Will Resist”:

Volodymyr Ishchenko, who was walking with his wife, Svitlana, and pushing their infant son in a carriage, said they had no plans to leave Kyiv even in the event of a full-blown invasion, which he said he believed was unlikely. Still, Svitlana said she was advocating for packing some supplies, like extra diapers and formula, in case they had to abruptly drive to western Ukraine, where they could stay with relatives.

“It’s not going to happen. Among my friends, relatives, no one believes it,” said Ischenko, a 41-year-old civil engineer at a development company.

In the square outside St. Michael’s Cathedral, where a newly married couple posed for wedding photos before driving away in a waiting limousine, a 19-year-old engineering student from the eastern city of Kramatorsk who was visiting his girlfriend in Kyiv said that back home in the Donbas — not far from the front line in the nearly eight-year-old conflict between government troops and Russia-backed forces — no one was really paying attention to the threat of an escalated war.

“People are kind of living in the moment there. They don’t have time for war. There are more urgent things to think about,” he said. “People are more worried about their jobs, money, heating their homes.”

‘We Need To Fight Our Own Fight’

Several thousand people marched through downtown Kyiv in a show of defiance and to oppose any possible agreement that would undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

After singing the national anthem, the procession, chanting “Glory to Ukraine” and carrying banners that said “Ukrainians Will Resist” and “Invaders Must Die,” made its way to Independence Square, or the Maidan, the central plaza where in 2013 and 2014 thousands of demonstrators camped out for months. It was the core of the pro-European, anti-corruption protest movement that gathered force when President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned plans for closer trade ties with the European Union and turned toward Russia instead.

Violence flared on the Maidan in February 2014 and Yanukovych fled the country. Shortly after, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and fomented war in eastern Ukraine.

Oleksandr Antonovets, and another man who gave only his first name, Oleksandr, stand on Kyiv’s Independence Square holding a Ukrainian flag with signatures from people who fought in the Donbas against Russia-backed separatists.
Oleksandr Antonovets, and another man who gave only his first name, Oleksandr, stand on Kyiv’s Independence Square holding a Ukrainian flag with signatures from people who fought in the Donbas against Russia-backed separatists.

Standing on the Maidan, Oleksandr Antonovets, a 63-year-old retired teacher who now trains horses for harness races, held up an autographed Ukrainian flag that he said had been presented to him in thanks for the support he provided to demonstrators who camped out in 2013-14.

He said he was prepared to fight, to join an insurgency or the resistance, if it came to that. He said he was thankful for the military aid that the United States was providing: hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry, including anti-tank missiles known as Javelins.

“We need to fight our own fight. Thank you for the Javelins, but it’s our own fight,” he said. If war comes to Kyiv, “sure, some people will flee. But plenty of us will stay to fight.”

Walking in a small park not far from the Olympic Stadium, Nikolai, a 63-year-old from the Donbas city of Slovyansk, said he was visiting Kyiv to see his daughter and grandson.

“I lived through 2014. I remember what happened then — artillery shells falling everywhere. Everyone was terrified,” he said, referring to the two-month battle in which government forces recaptured the city from Russia-backed fighters early in the Donbas conflict, which has killed more than 13,000 people and still simmers. “I don’t see it now. I don’t think there will be a new war.”

“Where am I going to go?” he said, when asked what he would do if Russia invaded Kyiv. “What I worry about is the children, for my grandchildren. They’re blameless. And they’re trapped in this mess.”

Walking with his dog Kody, Dima, a programmer from the eastern city of Kharkhiv who writes code for a game developer in Kyiv’s burgeoning IT sector, said his friends in the military were confident they could put up a good fight in Russia invaded. He said his girlfriend is worried and wants to leave if war breaks out, but he has no such plans.

“Russia thinks that Ukraine is its own country. That’s the problem,” Dima said.

“What we can agree on is this: Bullets don’t care whether you are Ukrainian or Russian. If there is new war, there will be a lot of deaths. But we will fight,” he added.

“How can you have a war like this in the 21st century?” said Kateryna, a 27-year-old stay-at-home mother walking with her 4-year-old son, Nika, on their way to see relatives in another part of Kyiv. “There’s no reason for it all. People should be able to get along.

“Leave? Leave Kyiv? Where would we go? This is our home. We have no plans to leave,” she said.

Strolling with his wife through Lypky, an upscale Kyiv neighborhood that has historically been home to government officials, merchants, and the nouveau riche, Mykola, a retired engineer, said the mood in the city was worrisome, but not alarming.

He said they were not planning to leave Kyiv in the event of an invasion: “And why would we? This is our home.”

He said it was hard to know what to think, pointing to statements from U.S. officials who have said they don’t know whether Putin has yet made up his mind to attack.

But if there is war, he said, “Of course, there will be resistance. Ukraine will fight,” he said. “Yes, thank you for the weapons, the Javelins. But they will not make the crucial difference for us. This will be our fight.”

Mike Eckel

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