Amid Rumblings About A Russian Invasion, ‘No Hysteria’ In Ukraine  

Holiday shoppers take a selfie in front of St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kyiv.  

KYIV — For weeks now, tens of thousands of Russian troops have been massed at positions north and east of Ukraine’s borders and in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow seized control over in 2014.

And against a backdrop of provocative comments from President Vladimir Putin targeting Kyiv, and Kremlin demands that Ukraine be kept out of NATO forever, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence agencies have warned that Russia has been preparing for a possible military offensive that could begin within a month.

I simply don’t care anymore. We’ve been living next to a volcano for almost eight years.”

But in Kyiv this holiday season, there are few signs of concern that an invasion could be imminent. For one thing, Ukraine has been at war for nearly eight years, fighting against the Russia-backed separatists who have held parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, including their capitals, since April 2014.

“I simply don’t care anymore. We’ve been living next to a volcano for almost eight years,” Valentyna Tarpishcheva, a 33-year-old fitness instructor and mother of two, told RFE/RL in Kyiv, some 600 kilometers northwest of the area known as the Donbas.

“We have bills to pay and children to take care of,” she said, while browsing discounted clothes at a crowded shopping mall in southern Kyiv.

“There is no hysteria whatsoever, that's for sure," says Ihor Kozlovskiy, a university professor from Donetsk who says he was tortured while in separatist prisons. “There is no hysteria whatsoever, that's for sure," says Ihor Kozlovskiy, a university professor from Donetsk who says he was tortured while in separatist prisons.

Utility bills and dire economic straits are higher on the agenda of many Ukrainians than the prospect of war, according to a survey by the Rating Group agency published on December 9.

There is no hysteria whatsoever, that's for sure. In general, things are balanced and calm.”

Three-fourths of respondents said that rising rates for natural gas and central heating, as well as the “escalation” of economic troubles in Ukraine, were their biggest problems.

As for war, less than half of those polled said they believe a military escalation is possible, while 23 percent said such a development was “unlikely,” the survey said.

“There is no hysteria whatsoever, that’s for sure," Ihor Kozlovskiy, a university professor from Donetsk who moved to the capital following his release in a prisoner swap after almost 700 days in separatist prisons where he says he was tortured, told RFE/RL. “In general, things are balanced and calm.”

(Kozlovskiy, who was known for his pro-Kyiv views and helped organize a multi-faith prayer marathon for a united Ukraine in 2014, was seized by Russia-backed separatist forces in January 2016 following a raid on his home. Informally accused of spying and other activity, which he denied and for which no credible evidence was offered, he was held until his release in the swap in December 2017.)

One of the factors feeding into that attitude may be the fact that Ukrainian officials, on the whole, have sounded less alarmed than their U.S. counterparts about the chances of a major new Russian military operation.

Russia-backed separatists are seen at the front lines near the settlement of Frunze in the Luhansk region on December 24. Russia-backed separatists are seen at the front lines near the settlement of Frunze in the Luhansk region on December 24.

“For a full-scale invasion, there would have to be at least three, four, five — many times more [Russian forces] than there are there today,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told Current Time in an interview this week.

“But is there a threat? Of course, for us, there is a constant threat. We have lived with this threat for seven years already,” Danilov said. Current Time is the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

This could become the beginning of Russia's end.”

Some war-weary Ukrainians have developed a form of fatalism that resembles the mood in other nations that face the threat of a prolonged and unsolved military conflict, observers say.

“The attitude to war in Ukraine is beginning to resemble those in [South] Korea or Taiwan. It is an infernal force that will affect one sooner or later, just like an individual’s death,” said Oleksiy Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst.

Not everyone shares such attitudes, though. Opinion polls show a range of views.

One-in-3 Ukrainians said they would join the army if Russian forces entered their hometown or village, according to a survey by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology that was released in mid-December.

But almost 40 percent of those would-be volunteers live in western Ukraine, farther from the Russian border and the front line in the conflict in the Donbas, while about one-quarter of those polled in eastern provinces said they would join up under those circumstances — figures that echo differences between the largely Ukrainian-speaking west and the largely Russian-speaking east and south.

Nearly 19 percent, meanwhile, said they would “do nothing” in the event of an invasion, and nearly 25 percent would prefer to escape war by moving to another region or leaving the country.

"The Ukrainian Army is ready to repel this attack,” says Vladyslav Sobolevskiy, a Donbas war veteran. "The Ukrainian Army is ready to repel this attack,” says Vladyslav Sobolevskiy, a Donbas war veteran.

Vladyslav Sobolevskiy is not in either of those two groups.

A Donbas veteran who fought in the conflict in the east for three years, he says he is ready to re-enlist at any moment — and argues that a Russian invasion would likely end up having a positive outcome for Ukraine.

In the grim guessing game about whether Putin will risk launching a major new offensive, one key question is how much he believes he can achieve, and at what cost.

“Why positive? It seems strange, but this whole thing has to be solved one way or another.… And now, the Ukrainian Army is ready to repel this attack,” the burly 32-year-old told RFE/RL.

Sobolevskiy, a soccer fan and martial arts enthusiast, joined the Azov volunteer battalion in 2014 — and saw how demoralized, under-equipped and poorly trained Ukrainian servicemen were.

He and thousands of other volunteers helped Kyiv’s military hold the separatists back from further advances, and played a role in the army’s transformation into a better trained and better motivated force that now has sophisticated weaponry, such as U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish-made Bayraktar drones.

Ukrainian soldiers use a U.S. Javelin anti-tank missile during military exercises in the Donetsk region on December 23. Ukrainian soldiers use a U.S. Javelin anti-tank missile during military exercises in the Donetsk region on December 23.

Sobolevskiy’s confidence in Ukraine’s chances in the event of a major new offensive is not shared widely by military analysts — though most agree that the country’s armed forces have vastly improved since the war broke out in 2014.

In any case, Sobolevskiy believes that if Russia does attack, Western sanctions will cripple its banking sector, thwart the Kremlin’s hopes of getting final approval to deliver natural gas to Europe through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline — bypassing Ukraine — and turn Putin into an international pariah.

“This could become the beginning of Russia’s end,” he concluded.

Mikhail, a former steel factory manager who fled the separatist-held city of Luhansk in 2014 for Kyiv, does not share Sobolevskiy’s enthusiasm.

The 48-year-old father of two, who withheld his last name because he fears both sides of the conflict, worries about a potential new surge in hostilities in the Donbas, where fighting is far less fierce than it was in 2014-15 but continues, despite numerous cease-fires and the Minsk Accords — agreements that were meant to resolve the standoff but which have gone largely unimplemented. More than 13,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in the conflict.

A Ukrainian soldier takes part in military drills at a shooting range in the Kharkiv region on December 20. A Ukrainian soldier takes part in military drills at a shooting range in the Kharkiv region on December 20.

Mikhail, whose parents and siblings still live in the separatist-held part of Luhansk Oblast, is highly critical of the de facto authorities there — and of Putin.

But he blames the pro-Western government of former President Petro Poroshenko for the conflict. And he said he believes current President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government is incapable of winning the hearts and minds of those living in the separatist-held sections of the Donbas.

In addition to the improved military, civilians could put up a stiff partisan resistance, leading to drawn-out bloodshed in some areas.

In the grim guessing game about whether Putin will risk launching a major new offensive, one key question is how much he believes he can achieve, and at what cost.

Analysts and Ukrainian officials suggest that in addition to the improved military, civilians could put up a stiff partisan resistance, leading to drawn-out bloodshed in some areas.

But Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at the University of Bremen, said that Moscow might hope to count on a substantial number of people in the east and south whose sympathies lie with Moscow, not Kyiv, both for real support and to “provide the imagery” for Russian state TV in the event of an invasion.

“Putin feels a weakness. He uses these things. And…we know and understand that some people may act this way,” Ihor Romanenko, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy chief of staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, told RFE/RL.

He said that in 2014, some civilians in the east hampered Ukraine’s military by blocking roads and even stealing ammunition.

“But such actions won’t stop us when it comes to our defense,” Romanenko added.



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