How Ukraine is Responding to the Threat of a Russian Invasion

With tensions rising between Russia and the West and up to 130,000 Russian soldiers massed at its borders, Ukraine is facing an increasingly difficult situation – trying to prepare for the worst while living with the uncertainty of what Russia is for will ultimately decide.

This uncertainty was compounded by a wide discrepancy between US warnings of invasion and Ukraine’s determination not to panic in the face of aggression, whatever form it might take.

US officials Sunday warned that a Russian attack could be imminent, and the US – along with Canada, Germany and the UK – have ordered diplomats stationed in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to evacuate the city.

On Thursday, the State Department also warned that US citizens still in Ukraine should leave the country immediately, and the Pentagon on Saturday pulled US military trainers out of the country and relocated them “elsewhere in Europe,” according to spokesman John kirby The US has repeatedly stressed that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would result in significant sanctions against Russia’s financial system.

But although there have been worrying developments in recent days, particularly in Belarus and the Black Sea, a full-scale invasion has yet to come to fruition, and for weeks the Ukrainian leadership, in sharp deviation from US statements, has been urging calm on all sides – and say their assessment of the situation does not agree with that of the US.

“There are no tanks on the streets,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy late last month. “But the media gives the impression when you’re not here that we have a war, that we have an army in the streets… That’s not the case. We don’t need this panic.”

Other Ukrainian political figures have also expressed their dismay. “I’m very pro-Western, but the way this invasion news is coming out reminds me of that [unverified rumors on] Russian telegram channels, via unnamed sources and backroom information,” an anonymous former MP of Ukraine’s parliament told the Guardian this month.

That might be the point, Donald Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the US Institute of Peace, told Vox. “Washington’s embassies have created confusion in Russia,” Jensen said, telling Vox that Russian officials have been sidelined in diplomatic talks in recent weeks. “Once you pierce the Kremlin bullshit … every day is a different line of propaganda,” Jensen said of changes in Russia’s negotiating tactics, including the recent call for Ukraine to negotiate directly with Donetsk and Luhansk, two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine where Fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military has been going on since 2014.

“We’re probably quieter than some in the West”

In Ukraine, the prospect of a Russian invasion has sparked a wave of nationalism; Demonstrations in support of Ukrainian independence have taken place across the country in recent weeks.

According to Reuters, Ukrainians took part in a massive demonstration in Kiev on Saturday, in which thousands of people carried banners with messages such as “Ukrainians will resist” and “invaders must die” and waved Ukrainian flags.

Demonstrators march behind a banner reading “Ukrainians will resist” in the colors of Ukraine’s national flag during a rally in Kiev February 12.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

As Al Jazeera pointed out on Saturday, the protest was a dramatic show of solidarity, reminiscent of the 2014 Euromaidan protests, when Ukrainians fought back against a corrupt pro-Russian regimes in support of democracy.

“We are here to show that we are not afraid,” one protester, Nazar Novoselsky, told Al Jazeera, while another echoed Zelensky’s warning to panic. “Panic is futile,” said student Maria Shcherbenko on Saturday. “We must unite and fight for independence.”

Some citizens make contingency plans; According to a recent Wall Street Journal report by James Marson, gun sales in Kiev have increased, as have enrollments in first-aid courses. Many companies and individuals are willing to travel to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine further from the front lines of a possible invasion; “The whole country is going to Lviv,” Tetyana Kryva, a Kyiv resident, told Marson. “It will be full.”

“It’s certainly hard to say that people aren’t panicking and trying to go about their normal lives,” Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Kiev-based philosopher and writer, told Vox. Still, as he drove through the city on Sunday, he said: “I have the feeling that Kiev has become emptier. I don’t know if it’s because of Covid… It’s kind of a surreal vibe.”

Yermolenko told Vox that “citizens in every city train” with Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Groups, citizen militias trained by the military.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, Ukrainians have often reinforced to face both internal and external crises; In 2014, protesters formed a civilian security force against the state security apparatus and eventually managed to force corrupt, pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych to resign, even though more than 100 people were killed in the uprising.

When Russian troops annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine that same year, volunteer militias went to the front lines and civilian volunteers made sure the soldiers were clothed, fed and equipped. Some Ukrainians assume they will have to do something similar should Russia launch a new attack this month.

It must be reiterated that Ukrainians have been fighting Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and some 14,000 people have been killed in the intervening years. “For many Ukrainians, we are used to war,” Oleksiy Sorokin, political editor and chief operating officer of the Kyiv Independent, told Vox’s Jen Kirby in January. “For eight years Russia has been invading Ukraine and trying to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs. So to have Russia on our heels, to have this constant threat that Russia is going further – I think a lot of Ukrainians are used to that. That’s probably why we’re more relaxed than some people in the West.”

Should Russia launch a major invasion, Poland’s interior minister said the nation was preparing for an influx of Ukrainian refugees from the conflict, although he gave no further details on how many people were expected or where they would be housed.

The Ukrainian military is in much better shape than it was in 2014

As Kirby et al Vox’s Jonathan Guyer wrote this week that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be incredibly costly for Russia – and while Russia has amassed vital supplies and an estimated 130,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, Ukraine’s newly reinforced military could still exist launching an invasion risky.

“I think Putin himself knows that the stakes are really high,” Natia Seskuria, a fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Kirby and Guyer. “So I think a full-scale invasion is a riskier option for Moscow in terms of possible political and economic causes – but also because of the number of casualties.” Because if we compare Ukraine in 2014 with the Ukrainian army and their capabilities now, they are much more capable.”

Should Russia launch a land invasion, “they cannot keep this country,” Jensen predicted — it would be too expensive, and Ukrainians are ready to fight.

Rather than a diplomatic breakthrough or full-scale invasion, Jensen predicts the outcome of the conflict could be more insidious and protracted, with Russian forces holed up on the border, destabilizing Ukrainian society and a precarious, paranoid near-conflict that lasted “for years will last”.

Still, US and NATO allies have been delivering “deadly security aid” to Ukraine in recent months, including ammunition, Stinger missiles and Humvee military transporters. The US has also facilitated that Transfer of US Made Weapons by Third Parties – originally sold to nations like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania – to Ukraine for use against a Russian invasion. And while Ukraine’s military does not match Russia’s in size, Ukraine’s ground forces are better trained and better prepared than they were in 2014, with some soldiers having years of experience resisting Russian incursions.

Ukraine also has armed UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones — which it has previously deployed in the eastern Donbass region, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. While the Ukrainian Air Force cannot compete with Russia’s capabilities in this sector, the UAVs have been a new acquisition since 2014; Ukraine currently has about 20 such drones, with more in the pipeline, and they can be used for reconnaissance in addition to their defense capabilities.

If Russia launches a full-scale invasion, sustained Western support could be crucial. In a Sunday phone call with Biden, Zelenskyy called for additional US funding and military aid, including more advanced weapons systems; A Ukrainian official told CNN that Zelenskyy stressed that such aid “would show Putin that the West is with Ukraine and that the effects of Putin’s escalation would not bear fruit.”

“We have strengthened the defense of Kiev. We are past the war and the due preparation. That’s why we’re ready to face enemies, and not with flowers, but with Stingers, Javelins, and NLAW [next-generation light anti-tank weapons]” said the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Lt. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, in a statement on Saturday, referring to a number of weapons made available through NATO countries. “Welcome to hell!”

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