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Americans Out: Ukrainians Confront Mixed Messaging As War Threat Looms

Workers unload a shipment of military aid delivered as part of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, at Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on January 25.
Workers unload a shipment of military aid delivered as part of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, at Boryspil airport outside Kyiv on January 25.

KYIV -- When he arrived in the Ukrainian capital last October, John Vsetecka planned to spend his yearlong Fulbright grant digging into archives dating back to the Soviet era, researching the horrific 1930s famine known as the Holodomor. The research would help underpin his doctoral work at Michigan State University.

He’s been acutely aware of the massive deployment of Russian forces near Ukraine’s borders, so he said he wasn’t wholly surprised when the U.S. Embassy announced an evacuation of some diplomatic families as well as Fulbright scholars.

“Some think it's the right choice, others criticize it for being brash and overreactive. I don't pretend to know what the right move is at this moment, but I understand the need to offer a way out for 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 American citizens off guard. It also rattled Ukrainians, for many of whom the drumbeat of a “new” war has been muted by the fact that the country is already mired in a nearly eight-year-old war against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

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“More people seem to be discussing the war and potential threats, but still in hushed tones. The increase in significant weaponry -- from the U.S., Russia, and others -- is difficult to ignore,” Vsetecka said in an e-mail, as he took a break from packing to leave the country this week. “People want to express their fears and anxieties, but they don't want to be accused of overreacting. I think we all feel this to some extent. The competing news narratives don't help with this.”

For most U.S. citizens, leaving Ukraine is doable, albeit a potential headache. Officials at a virtual town hall hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on January 25 were peppered with sometimes angry questions about visas, finances, evacuation flights, and the prospect of a major military escalation.

'Excessive Caution'

For Ukrainian households, there’s already a pinch. Since December, the national currency, the hryvnya, has lost about 5 percent against the dollar. Borrowing rates for the Ukrainian government have more than doubled.

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Since the U.S. announcement, the hryvnya has slipped another half-percentage point.

Ukrainian government officials, from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on down, have sought to lessen anxieties and discourage fear.

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

Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko sought to allay fears following the U.S. announcement, suggesting that that evacuation was unnecessary.

“While we respect [the] right of foreign nations to ensure safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one and an instance of excessive caution,” Nikolenko said on Twitter on January 24.

Viktor Andrusiv, who directs the Kyiv School of Public Administration, said he divided Ukrainian society into three groups: those who are actively preparing for a wider war; those who don’t believe at all in the possibility of a wider war; and those who are waiting for more signals, more evidence one way or another.

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (file photo)

Zelenskiy and other government officials “have to make statements to quiet people,” he said. “It’s an economic problem -- they don’t want people to run to the shops, and that is why they are speaking in this way.

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

'We'll Go To The Dacha'

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

She said she and her family were getting nervous as they took in official statements, newspaper headlines, and TV broadcasts. In the event of a large-scale invasion, they planned to leave the city for the parents’ country home southwest of Kyiv.

“We’ll go to the dacha. There’s food there, harvest from the garden. Sugar, buckwheat, other stuff,” she said, asking that her last name not be published. “It’ll be fine there.”

In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, located about 50 kilometers from the Russian border along a major highway, some residents interviewed before the U.S. Embassy announcement said they weren’t overly concerned.

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“It’s not something I would like to happen,” one man who didn’t give his name told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “Aside from that, what else can you do? I’ve got matches. I’ve got salt. I’ve got sugar.”

“I’ll be praying in tears that (a new 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 can’t be indifferent about it.”

Meanwhile, as some U.S. citizens scrambled to find ways to leave Ukraine, U.S. authorities sent weaponry and military supplies into the country. A shipment delivered by charter jet to Kyiv’s Boryspil airport on January 25 included scores more Javelin anti-tank missiles, so-called “bunker-defeat munitions,” and other equipment.

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Herb Randall, an American from the state of New Hampshire, said he has been in and out of Lviv since September, most recently arriving on January 2, as he and his Ukrainian fiancée tried to gather legal documents for her U.S. visa.

He said he was also setting up an English-language proofreading business to service some of Ukraine’s growing IT sector.

“My sense is that the U.S. announcement is concentrating minds more than I’ve seen so far,” he told RFE/RL. “Sadly, I think [Ukrainians] are so inured to war and violence since 2014 that the idea that Russia will invade doesn’t qualify as ‘news’ for many.”

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

He booked a flight to Frankfurt on January 25.

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

Oksana Necheporenko of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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