Ukraine mood: Wary of Russia’s ‘imperial ambition,’ but hoping war won’t happen

KYIV, Ukraine —

On the picturesque streets of a snow-dusted capital, many ordinary Ukrainians are of two minds: They see ominous war clouds on the horizon, but hope the threat might yet prove a passing squall.

For weeks, about 100,000 Russian troops, backed by armor and artillery, have been massed just outside Ukraine, hemming it in on three sides. Moscow says it doesn’t want war, but the Kremlin offers up a near-daily recital of possible pretexts for conflict.

The time between Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 and the Old New Year, still informally celebrated on Jan. 14, is traditionally a festive interlude. This year, the week was marked by a flurry of Ukraine-centered diplomacy in European capitals.

There were high-level U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva on Monday, NATO meetings on Wednesday with a Russian delegation in Brussels, and consultations Thursday in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which both Russia and Ukraine are participating states.

There were no breakthroughs reported and Sergei Ryabkov (Russia’s deputy foreign minister) gave a negative assessment of diplomatic efforts this week. He stated that he didn’t see any reason to meet again with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov for further talks in the coming days.

Watching it all unfold, ordinary Ukrainians express a mix of fatalism and wariness, defiance and disbelief. Many describe being caught off guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and the eruption of a bloody separatist conflict in the country’s east.

“I don’t believe a full-scale war is possible,” said Diana Kolodyazhnaya, 29, a videographer who lives in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. She regrets admitting that she had the same doubts eight years ago, when she lived in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine. This city was briefly captured by pro-Russian insurgents.

Many Ukrainians describe a kind of split-screen existence, in which their daily routines are undisturbed, but they obsess over events they track in news reports and on social media.

“I’m thrown from one extreme to the other — when I read our news or Telegram [app] channels, it all looks very serious,” said Alexei Lyapin, a 26-year-old information technology worker who lives in the western city of Lviv. “And on the other hand, sometimes I just don’t read news, and just live a normal life.”

Many people acknowledge a central contradiction: They altogether ignore some aspects of a prospective conflict, while worrying constantly about others.

“I don’t know where the bomb shelters are,” said Natalia Serebryakova, 43, a film critic who lives in the northeastern city of Sumy. She said she had not perused government instructions on where to take shelter in the event of fighting, or what to pack in an emergency “grab bag.”

But Serebryakova thinks a lot about her 18-year-old son, who would be eligible for military conscription even though he is a university student.

Decoding Putin’s intentions is never easy, and Ukrainians are more aware than most of the Russian leader’s propensity for surprises.

” “No one knows what’s inside Putin’s head,” Lyapin, an IT worker from Lviv, said.

But many people were struck by the suggestion that Putin made last year in an essay that Russia and Ukraine are one country, a Slavic brotherhood. Many thought that this was in keeping with Putin’s plans to maintain a sphere Russian influence in former Soviet republics, even though Ukraine is independent since three decades.

“We know that these are imperial ambitions of Russia,” said Anastasia Vinslavska, 34, who trained as a psychologist. “It’s exactly because of Russia’s desire to collect the lands of the former U.S.S.R.”

As tensions grow, many Ukrainians share a painful experience: ruptures with friends or relatives outside the country who have embraced nationalist narratives churned out by Russian media outlets, portraying Ukraine, in florid terms, as the true aggressor.

Kolodyazhnaya, the videographer from Kyiv, said she had many relatives in Russia, including her mother, stepfather, aunt and uncle. Politics are not allowed to be discussed, in a situation that may sound familiar to Americans.

” “In the beginning my mother and me tried to discuss it,” she stated. “But it is very difficult to agree on something when you live in completely different media spaces.”

Serebryakova, the film critic, has stayed in touch with friends in Russia who are not Putin supporters, but on Facebook, she unfriended those who “turned over to the side of the Russian government.”

Geography looms large for many Ukrainians when it comes to assessing their personal level of risk.

“We’ve made a stash of food and goods, just in case,” said Igor Kalinichenko, 28. He lives in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, which was captured by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 before government forces regained control, and the present-day front lines between government troops and insurgents are only 30 miles away.

” If it’s going be ‘hot’, we’ll leave the area and take our families with us,” Kalinichenko, a tech support worker, said. He said that he knew many people who had property or businesses and would not leave them even if hostilities broke down.

And in the case of an invasion full-scale, it might be difficult to find havens.

“Where to go is a good question, which I can’t answer right now,” he said. “I don’t want to think about it.”

Even in parts of the country deemed relatively secure, people are preparing for the worst. Lyapin feels fairly safe in Lviv, which is fewer than 50 miles from the Polish border, but he has relatives in Ukraine’s east and in Kyiv.

“I cannot just leave,” he stated. It would be difficult for me to travel to Poland to support my family. All I can do is change my money to dollars and keep them in case everything goes bad.”

Ukraine’s army is dwarfed by the Russian armed forces, and it’s widely acknowledged that if Putin decided to brush aside ever-sterner Western warnings and reinvade, it would be almost impossible for Ukraine to stave off an initial advance.

Unfortunately, many Ukrainians believe that both regular and irregular defenses can inflict some punishment.

” We are not helpless,” Kolodyazhnaya stated. She pointed out the enormous logistical challenges of any Russian occupation. These include holding territory, defending against partisans and creating reliable supply chains.

Vinslavska, the psychologist, served as a volunteer paramedic in 2017 in eastern Ukraine, and has since undergone nurse’s training. Although she has a backpack that contains medications and bandages, she has been trying to figure out what else she should keep on hand.

“If anything happens, I’ll add cash, documents, underwear and a makeup kit to my bag. “And I’ll be ready to go to war.”

Special correspondents Huba and Kolotilov reported from Kyiv and Moscow, respectively, and Times staff writer King from Washington.

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