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In Ukraine, life goes on despite threat of Russian invasion

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over 100,000 Russian troops have gathered near the border with Ukraine. And today, a U.S. government official announced that Russia is working on a so-called false flag operation that would provide the pretext for invading Ukraine. But within Ukraine, people are busy celebrating the Christmas season on the Orthodox calendar.

Joining us now from Kyiv is Ukrainian journalist and author Nataliya Gumenyuk. Welcome.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: Hi, good to hear you.

CHANG: So I'm just wondering, Nataliya, how much actual anxiety are people feeling right now during these holidays? Or are most people not really expecting a Russian invasion?

GUMENYUK: It really differs among the people because the people who are politically conscious, they are definitely watching closely the negotiations in Geneva, in Brussels. The first news about the troops on the border were in early November, so it's quite a long time since we're in this mode.

But it's not really like any panic mode because the - there is no - like, a real point of the negotiation. They're not really about Ukraine. There are no real demands towards Ukraine. So for a lot of people, it feels like what it is, to be honest - a big geopolitical discussion in which, of course, the Ukrainians might pay price.

CHANG: You know, what's interesting is that all the international diplomacy we have been hearing about this week, it's barely involved any officials from Ukraine itself. I mean, the talks have mainly been between the U.S. and NATO versus Russia. How have Ukrainians felt about that?

GUMENYUK: I do think that it's really the - how do you say - that how - that it's really the case that Ukraine is not involved. The problem with that - it's the Russian president who wants to talk just to the U.S. Also, the Russian president doesn't really want to talk to EU, to somebody else, to any other country apart from the U.S.

So Ukrainians would like to be presented on the table. But at least from the way how these talks are organized, the Ukrainian opinion is taken by the partners. Ukraine doesn't feel neglected in this way.

CHANG: I mean, just to reiterate, Russia's key demand is that Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO. How do Ukrainians feel about NATO in general? What's your sense?

GUMENYUK: So the recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute said that 54% of the Ukrainians are willing to join the NATO. Ukraine is threatened in particular because it's not a NATO member, so that's the reason why Russia can threaten Ukraine. It feels a bit unfair that the will of the Ukrainian people wouldn't be really considered in the recent time, especially because it could be considered an escalation. But it looks like the support to NATO would grow because of such threats.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, how do people in Ukraine perceive what the government there is doing under President Zelenskyy to try to deescalate tensions with Russia? How do people understand their government's efforts in this?

GUMENYUK: So President Zelensky was running the election with the position of resolving the conflict, so the whole government policy was really aimed at conflict resolution in very classical way as we see that. There were talks, suggestions. That's also create this strange feeling in Ukraine that for a couple of years when the government is really trying to maybe, you know, make some compromises with Russia, it pays back with something totally different.

CHANG: Well, in the event that Russia does invade Ukraine, how prepared do you think Ukraine is for that invasion? How do you think people in Ukraine would feel about their country's preparation?

GUMENYUK: So far, the panic is not there, in particular because we feel like the army is in control. What military experts says that it's quite unique that quite substantial amount of the Ukrainian military have combat experience, and it's really matter (ph). There is some doomed optimism. People feel that, you know, even if the things are very bad and if there are, you know, attacks on critical infrastructure or something, we understand that Ukraine could be substantially damaged. But there is no way to see that it could be conquered or things like that because the people do - are ready to resist.

CHANG: That is Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist and author and founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab in Kyiv. Thank you very much for joining us today.

GUMENYUK: Thank you, and goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.