KYIV, Ukraine — Wednesday the 16th of February was the date flagged by U.S. intelligence as when a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin, after months of troop buildups and rising tensions over Ukraine’s relationship with NATO.
But on the eve of the mooted invasion, and hours after Russian claimed it had begun moving some troops away from the border, the mood in Ukraine’s capital was sanguine. Despite the presence of 130,000 Russian troops on their border, many Ukrainians have remained calm.
“We don’t watch the news because we know that everything will be fine,” said Olena, who had just finished shopping in central Kyiv.
“On Saturday I’m going with the girls to eat sushi and smoke hookah.”
The buildup of Russian troops, which began in December, has rattled Ukraine’s Western allies.
Tensions began over an ongoing dispute between Ukraine and Russia over Kyiv’s desire to one day maybe join NATO, the international military alliance formed during the Cold War to check the Soviet Union’s influence. Russia is vehemently opposed.
People in Kyiv are going about their ordinary lives. PHOTO: Matthew Cassel
On Friday night, the fear of war reached a possible climax when unnamed U.S. intelligence officials claimed that the Russian invasion was scheduled to begin on Wednesday. However, on Tuesday - following several high-profile visits from Western leaders to Kyiv and Moscow - Russian troops were reportedly pulling some of their forces back from some positions on the border.
Despite Moscow’s claims on Tuesday that its troops were leaving some border areas, Ukrainian officials have said they’ll believe it when they see it.
Svitlana Zalishchuk, one of the leaders of the Euromaidan protests against Russian interference in Ukraine, still has her bags packed. She fears an escalation in the conflict that followed in the wake of the 2014 revolution that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych.
“Everyone here understands the situation has escalated and all scenarios are still on the table,” said Zalishchuk, a former MP who now works as a foreign policy adviser to the administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zalishchuk said her friends in Kyiv “don’t believe that Russian tanks will be in the streets,” but she pointed to the 2008 Russian war in Georgia, and more recent events in Ukraine when it annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and supported pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. “It wasn’t that long ago.”
“We don’t know if this is the culmination of this big play or if this is just the next stage,” she said.
When fighting broke out eight years ago, pro-Russian separatists backed by the Kremlin declared Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions in the country’s east along the Russian border, as independent.
In a move that many Ukrainians see as provocative, the Russian parliament voted on Tuesday to recommend that Vladimir Putin recognise the two breakaway Ukrainian regions as independent of Ukraine. The foreign ministry in Kyiv tweeted that such a move would indicate a clear breach of a long-stalled peace process.
More than 14,000 people have been killed since 2014, and casualties continue to mount. Nearly 1 million people have been displaced. In January, VICE World News reported from the funeral of one Ukrainian soldier's funeral.
In the ground floor of a Soviet-era building on Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk street - the city’s main street - sits Pavlo Schybrya, a recruiter for the Territorial Defence Forces. He spent Tuesday signing up civilian volunteers who want to take part in the war effort should Russia invade. Thousands have joined in recent months.
“Men, women, dentists, businessmen, taxi drivers… anyone over 18 with arms and legs and a normal mental state can enroll,” Schybrya told VICE World News.
Pavlo Schybrya and Nataliya Skrypka in the Territorial Defence Forces office. PHOTO: Matthew Cassel
He says he doesn’t think a war will happen now. But still, every day a dozen or so volunteers stream into his office to sign up. Nataliya Skrypka is one of them. She’s in her 40s, and wants to play her part in defending Ukraine.
“Nobody knows what will happen on February 16 and what to expect from Russia, but I want to be ready to defend or provide first aid, whatever I can do,” Skrypka said.