Ukrainians concerned but not panicked by Putin’s ‘invasion’ plans

According to a recent poll, almost half of Ukrainians believe that an ‘escalation’ of the conflict is possible.

Residents gather outside a shop in the rebel-controlled village of Alexandrovka (Oleksandrivka) in Donetsk Region, Ukraine on December 18, 2021 [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Living just kilometres away from the border with a Russia-backed separatist region, Ivan Rudenko is undoubtedly worried about the possibility of a Russian invasion.

The firefighter and community activist lives in Ukraine’s New York, a curiously named town in the southeastern region of Donetsk, which is dissected by Europe’s hottest armed conflict.

Since 2014, the fighting has killed more than 13,000 people, uprooted millions – and turned Russian President Vladimir Putin into a political pariah.

In recent weeks, as Putin was alleged to have amassed more than 100,000 servicemen next to Russia’s border with Ukraine, Rudenko has been thinking about the consequences of a big war.

“There is a huge risk, and if something happens, we will be first to suffer,” he told Al Jazeera.

But his estimation of the conflict’s probability – based on what he hears from both sides of the border – is 60 percent.

More broadly, about 46 percent of Ukrainians believe that an “escalation” of the conflict is possible, while 23 percent are adamant it is “unlikely”, according to a survey by the Rating Group pollster published on December 9.

In June 2020, just 28 percent of Ukrainians considered such an escalation possible, Rating Group said.

These days, Ukrainians also have other concerns.

About 70 percent are worried about the skyrocketing price of natural gas and central heating and fear the economic meltdown that turned their ex-Soviet nation into one of Europe’s poorest nations, the December 9 poll said.

This is what keeps Kateryna Sidorenko, a notary’s assistant in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, that safely sits more than 700km (434 miles) west of the front line, awake at night.

The hot water supply in her three-bedroom apartment building in northern Kyiv is disrupted, and she has an “enormous” heating bill of almost $150 in a country where average salaries range from $400 to $900 a month.

Her daughters need to study for exams, she is busy trying to prepare for Christmas festivities, and traffic jams are paralysing Kyiv.

So, is she bothered by what Putin may or may not do?

“This is Ukraine, we don’t give a damn. We’ve been at war for almost eight years already, got used to it,” Sidorenko, 36, told Al Jazeera with a weary smile at a crowded shopping mall.

The mood in Kyiv echoes her words.

People are not panicked or desperately trying to flee to Europe.

Property prices are up, restaurants and shopping malls are packed, and shoppers seem more concerned about the prices than the war.

They definitely seem calmer than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“We understand that if there is a full-scale war, there will be thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of victims,” Zelenskyy told journalists after a meeting with NATO’s head Jens Stoltenberg on December 16 in Brussels.

At the briefing, Zelenskyy said that it was Russia that “pushed” Ukraine to seek a NATO membership after Russia started and won a five-day war with the ex-Soviet Republic of Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

NATO pledged membership to Georgia and Ukraine.

“We stand by that decision,” Stoltenberg said without specifying the date.

National security

This promise is what seems to irk Putin the most; he believes Ukraine’s NATO membership will pose a direct risk to Russia’s national security.

“What do they think – that we don’t see these threats? Or do they think that we would just watch them helplessly? We simply have nowhere to go,” Putin told top defence officials on Tuesday.

He has claimed previously that Crimea “returned” to Russia after a “referendum” – but the poll was not been recognised by Ukraine or the West. He also denied helping the separatists, calling the conflict a “civil war”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov in front of a screen showing the map of Ukraine during an annual meeting of the defence ministry board in Moscow on December 21, 2021 [Mikhail Tereshchenko/Sputnik/AFP]

After the active phase in 2014 and 2015, the war has morphed into a smouldering trench conflict.

But in recent weeks, the separatists break ceasefire several times a day, wounding or killing Ukrainian servicemen, and the military is getting ready for a possible escalation.

“There are drills and preparations, but there’s no panic,” an active serviceman told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The civilians who survived the conflict, but lost their homes and family members, are also cautiously optimistic.

“The situation is ambiguous, but looks like Putin simply wants concessions from the West,” Oleh, a former steelworker who fled the separatist city of Luhansk in 2014, told Al Jazeera. He withheld his name because he has relatives living in Luhansk.

He is among a third of Ukrainians who are ready to enlist to resist the Russian invasion, according to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology released on Friday.

Only 18.6 percent “would do nothing”, and less than 10 percent are ready to leave Ukraine, it said.

After the 1991 Soviet collapse, Ukraine was polarised politically and linguistically.

Eastern and southern regions, where the Russian language is still dominant, gravitated towards Moscow culturally and politically, while central and western regions preferred to communicate in Ukrainian and were more oriented towards Europe.

Protecting Russian speakers

Russia used the linguistic division to “protect the rights of Russian speakers” by annexing Crimea and backing the separatists.

The moves followed Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity”, months-long protests that toppled pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych who tried to make Ukraine part of a Moscow-led economic bloc widely seen as a reincarnation of the USSR.

Western sanctions did not devastate Russia’s economy, but Putin has felt increasingly ostracised.

The deployment of troops – this year’s second – and threatening rhetoric may be his way to attract the attention of the West, especially US President Joe Biden, analysts and average Ukrainians say.

“There must be a reason for their sabre rattling, there must be talks, and [Putin] wants some preferences from world leaders,” New York’s Rudenko concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera