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Ukrainians are divided over whether war with Russia is imminent

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As more than 100,000 Russian troops sit along the border of Ukraine, that country's capital is bracing for the worst. Some in the city believe an attack is imminent; others aren't so sure. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us into the streets of Kyiv.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's a typical night at Kyiv's Musafir restaurant. It specializes in food from the ethnic Tatars of Crimea. It also specializes in Tatar music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMITZ: The three-story restaurant is packed this evening with a line outside the door. Inside, plates of meat pies, fried turnovers and dumplings line the tables. On the face of it, you wouldn't know that just a hundred miles away in Belarus, Russian troops are amassing along Ukraine's border. But the accordionist, whose name is Shevkat, says there are darker feelings underneath the surface.

SHEVKAT: (Through interpreter) We are all worried and in fear, like everyone in Ukraine, because it is the same enemy that has constantly been threatening us for centuries. But now these forces are on our doorstep. Everyone is afraid of an attack.

SCHMITZ: Shevkat doesn't give his surname. He's scared of repercussions to his family back home in Crimea. Russia invaded it in 2014 and has occupied it ever since. He escaped with his wife and children, but his parents and younger brother are still there. They tell him the Russians have turned his hometown into an Orwellian police state.

SHEVKAT: (Through interpreter) There is no rule of law. Everything is based on the powers of law enforcement agencies and desires of the occupiers. They can just intimidate whomever they want. If someone says something wrong, there are persecutions.

SCHMITZ: He says he'll do whatever he can to make sure what happened in Crimea doesn't happen here in his new home of Kyiv. But if it does, Kyiv residents say they're prepared.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRO STATION AMBIENCE)

SCHMITZ: At the Arsenalna metro station in central Kyiv, passengers have to descend 25 stories of escalators before they reach the subway platform. The journey takes five minutes. At 346 feet underneath the Earth, this is the deepest subway station in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRO STATION AMBIENCE)

SCHMITZ: Like most Soviet-era subway stations, Arsenalna doubles as a bomb shelter, and it's where Nadia Ovichinina says she would go if Kyiv were attacked.

NADIA OVICHININA: (Through interpreter) If it gets really dangerous and we have no other choice and we need to protect the children, we'd come down here.

SCHMITZ: She says she hopes there will be peace between Russia and Ukraine. Part of her family lives in Russia, so the current tensions are, for her, heartbreaking. When I ask her which side she's on - the Ukrainian side, the Russian side - she doesn't have to think.

OVICHININA: I'm on the human side.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRO STATION AMBIENCE)

SCHMITZ: On the opposite platform stands Ivan Pokatilov. He's a student of the Academy of Sciences. And he thinks most of Kyiv's residents are ready for a Russian attack.

IVAN POKATILOV: Most people are - they're not afraid; they're just like, yeah, it's going to happen sooner or later. Kyiv will be the top priority target, I think.

SCHMITZ: Really?

POKATILOV: The city can be sieged - not, like, attacked or bombed to the ground but more like sieged.

SCHMITZ: The last time there was significant violence in the city was eight years ago, when dozens of protesters were shot and killed in Kyiv's Independence Square.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: Today, a choral group in a tunnel underneath the square sings a song that goes, oh, Ukraine, we wish you strength to keep your head up through crisis and catastrophe. As they sing, an audience forms, and eventually, several of them take a few steps towards the singers, pivot and face the audience they were once part of, and they begin to sing, too.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Kyiv. 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.