Ukrainians confront mixed messaging as looming threat of war

KIEV — Arriving in the Ukrainian capital last October, John Vsetecka planned to spend his year-long Fulbright fellowship digging into archives dating back to Soviet times to research the terrible 1930s famine known as the Holodomor is known. The research would help support his PhD at Michigan State University.

Well aware of the massive deployment of Russian forces near Ukraine’s borders, he said he wasn’t entirely surprised when the US embassy announced the evacuation of some diplomatic families as well as Fulbright fellows.

“Some think it’s the right choice, others criticize it as bold and overreacting. I don’t pretend to know what the right move is at the moment, but I understand the need to offer a way out to those who want to leave,” Vsetecka told RFE/RL.

The January 23 announcement, which was followed by similar warnings from Britain, Australia, Germany and later Canada, caught many Americans off guard. It has also shaken Ukrainians, for many of whom have muted the drumbeat of a “new” war by the fact that the country is already locked in a nearly eight-year-old war against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region known as Russia Donbass.

“More people seem to be discussing the war and possible threats, but still in hushed tones. The increase in significant arms — from the US, Russia and others — is hard to ignore,” Vsetecka said in an email as he took a packing break to leave the country this week. “People want to voice their fears and concerns, but they don’t want to be accused of overreacting. I think we all feel that to some extent. The competing news reports don’t help with that.”

Leaving Ukraine is doable for most US citizens, although it may be a headache. Officials at a virtual town hall hosted by the US embassy in Kyiv on Jan. 25 were peppered with sometimes angry questions about visas, finances, evacuation flights and the prospect of a major military escalation.

“Excessive Caution”

There is already a dilemma for Ukrainian households. Since December, the national currency hryvnia has lost about 5 percent against the dollar. Lending rates for the Ukrainian government have more than doubled.

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Since the US announcement, the hryvnia has slipped another half a percentage point.

Ukrainian government officials, beginning with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have tried to calm fears and allay fears.

“What’s new? Hasn’t this been a reality for eight years? Didn’t the invasion start in 2014?” Zelenskyy said in a video address to the nation on Jan. 19, referring to the war that has left more than 13,000 combatants and civilians in Donbass killed.” Everything under control. There is no need to panic.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko tried to allay fears following the US announcement by suggesting that the evacuation was unnecessary.

“While we respect [the] We consider such a step to be premature and excessive caution, given the right of foreign nations to ensure the security of their diplomatic missions,” said Nikolenko said on Twitter on January 24th.

Viktor Andrusiv, who heads the Kiev school of public administration, said he divided Ukrainian society into three groups: those actively preparing for a major war; those who do not believe at all in the possibility of a major war; and those waiting for more signals, more evidence one way or another.

“People are more worried [home-heating] Gas prices, they are worried about the hryvnia,” Andrusiv told RFE/RL. “Ukrainians, people are more focused on these issues, not the war.”

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (archive photo)

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (archive photo)

Zelenskyy and other government officials “have to make statements to silent people,” he said. “It’s an economic issue – they don’t want people running to the shops and that’s why they talk like that.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t understand the problem; I can assure you that they fully understand the scale of the problem,” he said. “A lot happens, but in silent mode to avoid panic.”

“We’re going to the dacha”

Natalya, a 33-year-old clerk who works the night shift at a small grocery store within sight of Kiev’s Olympiskiy sports stadium, said it seemed to her that more people, including customers, were speaking openly about the possibility of a new Russian offensive.

She said she and her family became nervous as they took in official statements, headlines and TV broadcasts. In the event of a full-scale invasion, they planned to leave the city and move to their parents’ country house southwest of Kiev.

“We’re going to the dacha. There is food there, harvest from the garden. Sugar, buckwheat, other stuff,” she said, asking that her last name not be published. “It will be good there.”

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, about 50 kilometers from the Russian border on a major thoroughfare, some residents interviewed ahead of the US embassy’s announcement said they were not overly concerned.

“It’s not something I’d like,” said one man, who didn’t give his name told the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL. “Besides that, what else can you do? I have matches. i have salt I have sugar.”

“I will tearfully pray that (another war) doesn’t happen,” said another woman, who gave her name as Halyna. “They say that a bad peace is better than a good war. If you know what war is, you cannot be indifferent.”

While some US citizens were desperately trying to leave Ukraine, US authorities were sending arms and military supplies into the country. A delivery delivered by charter jet Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport on January 25 included dozens more Javelin anti-tank missiles, so-called “bunker-defeat ammunition” and other equipment.

Herb Randall, an American from New Hampshire state, said he has been in and out of Lviv since September, most recently on January 2, when he and his Ukrainian fiancé were trying to collect legal documents for their US visa.

He said he is also starting an English-language proofreading company to serve part of Ukraine’s growing IT sector.

“I feel like the US announcement focuses heads more than I’ve seen so far,” he told RFE/RL. “Unfortunately, I think [Ukrainians] have been so used to war and violence since 2014 that the idea of ​​Russia invading is not ‘new’ to many.”

He said he planned to stay in Lviv until the end of January: “But the evacuation order made me realize that it would probably be best if I got out as soon as possible.”

He booked a flight to Frankfurt on January 25th.

“Quite a lot of Americans, a lot more than I usually see on these flights,” he said.

Oksana Necheporenko from the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL contributed to this report.

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