Why most Ukrainians don’t believe Biden’s warnings, distrust West

A recent poll suggests just 20 percent think an invasion will happen soon, in line with some Ukrainian leaders.

A serviceman of Ukrainian Military Forces inspects a position after a shelling on the front line with Russia.
The disbelief in war goes hand in hand with mistrust in the West [File: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP]

Kyiv, Ukraine – The White House’s increasingly worrying warnings about an imminent Russian invasion in Ukraine are nothing but a political game designed to help Democrats win Senate seats in the autumn.

This is not an opinion of a Capitol Hill political pundit, but what a Ukrainian woman who fled the rebel-controlled Donetsk region thinks about statements US President Joe Biden made in recent weeks – only to allegedly gain political brownie points for deescalating the crisis come election time.

“By the autumn, Biden will look like a super hero, a superman. Because he – think about it – prevented World War III,” Oksana Afenkina, who lives in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv after leaving Donetsk in 2020, told Al Jazeera.

Although Capitol Hill pundits may disagree with her, Afenkina is among the majority of Ukrainians who simply do not believe that Russia is going to invade.

Even as tensions boil with more than 150,000 Russian troops along the border in annexed Crimea and in neighbouring Belarus, just one in five Ukrainians think the full-scale conflict is inevitable.

Only 20.4 percent of Ukrainians believe that a “full-scale invasion” will happen soon, and only 4.4 percent are adamant it is “definitely” taking place, according to a survey by the Gorshenin Institute, an independent pollster, conducted between February 2 and 14.

A staggering 62.5 percent think the invasion is not going to happen “in the nearest future”.

Instead, some Ukrainians such as Afenkina contend that their ex-Soviet nation of 44 million is but a pawn in the geopolitical games in the US, a useful tool to consolidate support and gain votes.

“[US politicians] play, they bluff, because such messages move the stock market, help the business and solve personal problems” of politicians, said the 35-year-old, who still has a piece of shrapnel in her left palm.

Disbelief in war goes hand in hand with mistrust in the West, an observer said.

“There is a critical attitude to predictions from the West, namely, the alarmist notes of the ‘Everything is lost, there will be an invasion’ kind, as well as an assessment of [Ukraine’s] own might,” Kyiv-based Ihar Tyshkevich, a Belarusian political analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, told Al Jazeera.

Thousands of Ukrainians fought in the last war with Russia and many now are active reservists, ready to return to the front lines. They are preparing to counter the Russians – the way they have been pushing back against Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

“For Ukraine, this is a threat. But not a catastrophe,” Tyshkevich said.

Regardless of how much Ukrainians dispute over politics and ideology in the halls of power, they tend to unite and mobilise in the face of a foreign threat, he said.

“Putin – yet again – achieved a reverse effect on the Ukrainian public,” Tyshkevich said.

Some observers say that Washington’s ominous warnings and the geopolitical tug-of-war around Ukraine are beneficial to the West – and Russia.

“Each side achieves its goals at Ukraine’s expense,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

“Russia obtains a way of pressuring Ukraine and the West by generating entropy, uncertainty. It is rather cheap and doesn’t result in sanctions, but slowly kills Ukraine’s economy,” he said.

Western sanctions that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea did not cripple Russia’s economy, and while the West is preparing a new round of sanctions, it will fall short of banning Russia of the SWIFT, a global financial transaction system.

This has disappointed some in Ukraine, as such a move would exact a huge toll on Russia’s economy.

At the same time, Ukrainian leaders have voiced their concerns about the alarmist messages emanating from the West. In late January, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the West of sowing “panic”.

“There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic – how much does it cost for our state?” he told a press conference on January 28.

The head of his Servant of the People party that dominates Ukraine’s parliament accused leading US media outlets of disseminating fake reports based on warnings from the White House and the Pentagon.

“When in two or three weeks this phase [of the confrontation] disappears, we will have to retrospectively analyse how very prominent media outlets began to disseminate information in ways worse than” Kremlin-controlled television channels, David Arakhamiya said in televised remarks on February 15.

He claimed that CNN, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal ran “openly fake reports”.

However, a minority of Ukrainians believe in the imminent war panic, and have chosen to flee.

“I couldn’t sleep for two days, and now I am packing up to leave” for western Ukraine, Hanna Glushko, a software engineer living in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

She and her colleague are driving Monday to the Transcarpathia region in southwestern Ukraine that borders several European Union nations.

They booked a hotel room and are ready to cross into Hungary if Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to roll his troops into Ukraine, said the 37-year-old mother-of-two.

A taxi driver who works in Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport said that the departures hall is “packed”.

“Those who have money want to sit it all out outside Ukraine,” Serhiy Omelyanenko, who drives a rundown black Mercedes minivan, told Al Jazeera.

Dozens of Ukrainian oligarchs and their family members have already opted to take off to more peaceful climes, a Ukrainian daily reported.

The Ukrayinska Pravda said that some 20 charter planes and private jets left Kyiv on February 13 alone.

One of the individuals to leave was Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest businessman and ally of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych who fled Ukraine after months-long Maidan protests in 2014, the daily said.

Source: Al Jazeera