Amid difficult US-Russia diplomatic talks, the prospect of a Russian invasion weighs on the economy and the morale of the population in Ukraine. According to media reports, US intelligence is now talking about as many as 175,000 Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine. Experts estimate that 100,000 is more likely.
Since November, Ukraine and its allies have warned Moscow could attack on three fronts: from the Donbas, the Black Sea and through Belarus. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, dependent on the Kremlin’s support after a massive protest movement, said on December 1 that in the event of “Ukraine's aggression,” he would support Moscow “economically, legally, politically.”
The Kremlin condemns Western countries and Nato for military exercises, especially in the Black Sea, as well as Kyiv for acquiring Western weapons and Turkish drones. President Vladimir Putin also called for “legal” guarantees that Ukraine would not join the alliance, although this prospect already seems frozen.
Despite the dire scenarios, in Kyiv, there is no general mobilisation, appeal for reservists, or even panic. “What matters to us is real life, not war. We are used to these rumours. Russia will not attack,” Maria, a 62-year-old woman living in a commuter district in northern Kyiv, tells BMB Ukraine. At the same time, she ended most of her sentences with “oh God, let there not be a war.”
“Russia is a historical enemy of Ukraine, and nothing can stop it from bringing Ukraine back to its zone of influence, but we will fight to defend our homeland…with a machine gun if necessary,” jokes Volodymyr, a 50-year-old entrepreneur. On social media, dozens of Ukrainians have started posting photos with weapons saying they would take up arms in the event of another invasion. Others complain that amid diplomats’ and experts’ analysis and chatter, the voice of the Ukrainian population is being ignored.
In the country’s east, rumours of an invasion weigh more heavily than elsewhere. “I’m fed up with war, politics and politicians,” 28-year-old Oleksandr tells BMB Ukraine over the phone from Starobilsk, a small town located 750 km from Kyiv and only 70 km from Russia. He already left Luhansk in 2014 – “with nowhere to go and no hopes” – and this time he has his escape plans ready.
In Stanistya Luhanska, a town on the demarcation line, Iryna has just finished repairing the roof of her house, which was destroyed by gunfire several years ago. “For almost eight years, we have lived in a state of constant anxiety. We do not sleep at night,” laments the 58-year-old retiree, reached by phone. A few days ago, the settlement, usually relatively spared during fighting, was the target of artillery fire.
Overall, the situation has remained stable on the front line since the beginning of the year and the end of the reasonably respected July 2020 ceasefire. “In Stanistya [Lukhanska], Luhansk, Donetsk, I guarantee you that all people want is peace. May our almighty leaders finally find a way to come to an agreement,” pleads Iryna.
Whether looking to Kyiv or Moscow, Ukrainians interviewed by BMB Ukraine agree on one point: war, whether it's a few miles away or across the country, limits their prospects for the future. Kyiv officials depict an imminent threat in the hopes of securing support from allies, especially the EU. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities are trying to reassure investors scared away by the prospect of a Russian attack.
Even a slight investment inside the country requires one to think twice, says Volodymyr, who keeps delaying investments in his business. “In the end, many Ukrainians are leaving to find some stability,” he adds. Out of 40mn Ukrainians, 3mn have already gone abroad.