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Threat of Russian invasion escalates as both sides amass troops at Ukraine border

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Ukraine's government and military continue to be in a state of watchful waiting, with eyes on its border and on the thousands of Russian troops on the other side. The first shipment of additional lethal aid from the U.S. arrived in Ukraine yesterday. It includes ammunition for the country's armed forces.

NPR's Central Europe correspondent Rob Schmitz is in the capital, Kyiv, and has been talking with lawmakers and defense experts about Ukraine's preparations. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Good morning.

MCCAMMON: What's the mood among the people you're talking to there in Kyiv?

SCHMITZ: I would characterize it as one of patient resolve. Life in Ukraine's capital goes on as normal. Restaurants are full. People are out enjoying the daily dustings of snow here. Kids are sledding on the hills, and outsiders have mistaken these scenes of normalcy as a country that isn't quite sure of what's going on, on its doorstep. But Ukrainians are quick to correct that assumption.

Yesterday, I had a chance to meet Lesia Vasylenko, a member of Ukraine's parliament. It was morning. We met at a cafe, and she had just gotten off a sleeper train from Ukraine's eastern border. She took a delegation from a British parliamentary foreign affairs committee there, and they, too, had asked her why Ukrainians seemed so calm given the looming threat of Russian invasion. And here's what she told them.

LESIA VASYLENKO: We have been living in a state of war for the last seven years, going on eight now. And physically, psychologically, emotionally it would be impossible if all of us up to now would be still stressed, would be concerned 24/7 and showing signs of anxiety. You would see a different Ukraine then if it were that way. You would see people panicking. You would see everyone suffering from depression, panic attacks, locked in, in total lockdown not because of COVID, but because of security situation, or you would see ghost towns under an empty country.

SCHMITZ: And, Sarah, Vasylenko told me that on her trip to the border, it was clear from her conversations with Ukrainian soldiers that the Russian soldiers on the other side of the border were not an army that is preparing to attack but an army wrapped up in its own training exercises. Russia is preparing naval exercises along Ukraine's southern coast, and so is NATO. What Vasylenko is worried about is a potential Russian invasion from Ukraine's northern neighbor Belarus, as well as one from Russia-occupied Crimea on its southern coast along the Black and Azov seas. But she said that Ukrainians are ready for whatever may come.

MCCAMMON: OK, Rob, just last night, Britain's Foreign Ministry said it has information that the Russian government is planning to install a pro-Moscow leader in Kyiv. What are you hearing about this?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, this was a communique by the British issued late last night which said Putin has plans to install Ukrainian politician Yevhen Murayev as its leader after an apparent attack or invasion of the country. Murayev is a pro-Russian politician who opposes Ukraine's integration with the West. He has denied all of this and says he's not a puppet of Putin. The Russian Foreign Ministry labeled this disinformation on its official Facebook site, and it's also possible this could be based on Russian disinformation.

This morning, Ukrainians are reacting to this with incredulity as well, saying that if Russia thinks Murayev would be a good leader of Ukraine, then Putin is hopelessly out of touch with Ukrainian public opinion. But if this piece of intel is true, then it is a sign that Russia's plans perhaps go beyond a brief incursion that would occupy a small part of Ukraine, and that Moscow might be planning a more wide-scale attack that aims to take Kyiv. I spoke to parliament member Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze about the implications of this, and she said if this is the plan, then the West should be on high alert.

IVANNA KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE: American people have to be concerned because if Putin succeeds with conquering Ukraine, with taking it under control, that means that a piece of a free democratic world that is based on values has been given up. And that means that Putin is getting closer to further - and stronger to further attack European Union, the U.S., NATO and so on.

MCCAMMON: And I understand you've also had a chance to speak with war veterans who could be called up again to fight should Russia invade. What are they telling you?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. They're telling me that the Ukrainian military that Russia faced when it invaded eight years ago is a transformed network. In 2014, Ukraine's army couldn't even afford its own uniforms. Now it's better funded. It's better trained. With help from NATO, it's a larger force with 250,000 active duty personnel and twice that in the reserves. Morale is good. Veterans tell me that Ukrainian soldiers understand that they're fighting for the survival of their homeland and that Russian soldiers, although they outnumber Ukrainian troops, are just doing a job and that deep down on the individual level, many of them do not believe in the cause of invading another country like Ukraine.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.