May 16, 2022 4:09 pm

In Ukraine, people are preparing for a possible Russian invasion: “I already have a shelter in case war comes”

KIEV.- In a waterproof bag, Mariya Yutsenko prepared her most important documents and those of her seven-year-old daughter. Passports, some cash in euros and hryvnias (Ukrainian currency), a list of telephone numbers and key addresses. “It is not panic, it is anticipation. Especially for my daughter.” emphasizes. He began to think of an “action plan” in December, when the echo of alerts about another possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A 33-year-old computer engineer, Yutsenko shrugs her shoulders and defines herself as “a practical woman”. “I already have a shelter looked at in case the war comes”, Explain. Is about a basement set up as a protection shelter in your neighborhood, a neighborhood of apartment blocks near the highway, west of Kiev.

The battle with Kremlin-backed pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region is far from the vibrant Ukrainian capital, but he says he has grown used to living in a country in conflict. “I doubt that we are going to return to a hot war, but we must be responsible and be prepared”, nuances

Russia’s constant display of military muscle, its dialectics against Kiev and NATO, and the string of threats of action if the Atlantic Alliance does not sign a guarantee of non-expansion to the East have created a major security crisis in Europe. Ukrainian and American intelligence warn that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, which has concentrated more than 100,000 soldiers on the borders with Ukraine and has deployed troops on various maneuvers—from Belarus to the Black Sea—it could launch another attack on its western neighbor. The aggression, the United States said this week, could be at any time.

Some believe that Putin is waiting and has not yet laid out a plan. But even if he has, says Maria Avdeeva, director of research at the European Association of Experts, the unknown and the current climate of tension also favor him. “It’s his standard practice, he prefers to leave different possibilities open and keep others guessing what his decision will be,” says Avdeeva. The truth, Kremlin specialists and observers agree, is that the Russian president has several hands of cards. And also that you could combine them.

The veteran Russian military expert Mikhail Khodorenok believes that an armed invasion of Ukraine is “highly unlikely”. “It is possible that the Kremlin is using the current situation and the mobilizations as a negotiating mechanism, but the truth is that the strong reaction of the West and its extremely consolidated position for the first time in several decades exceeded all its expectations,” he says. If the situation is reviewed with “political-military realism”, he says, it is seen that Russia would not obtain excessive gains from an open war and would have great losses, he adds. “For now, it seems that the Russian leadership has only one option, to withdraw – except from areas near Donbass – save face and spread the word that ‘the military maneuvers were successfully completed,'” he says.

A Ukrainian military patrols a street near the Verjnotoretske front on Saturday.ANDRIY ANDRIYENKO (AP)

In December, Russia submitted to NATO and Washington a proposal for a binding agreement in which demands that the Atlantic Alliance stop its expansion to the East, withdraw its membership invitation to Ukraine and Georgia (former Soviet republics that Moscow considers part of its sphere of influence) and paralyze all military activity in the Baltic countries or Poland —where it has no bases, but multi-national battalions—, which decades ago they were on the same page as Russia being part of the USSR or the Warsaw pact. Demands that NATO (alliance of which Spain is a member) and the United States have already defined as “red lines” that collide with the “sovereign right” of possible future partners.

But while walking the fragile diplomatic path, Russia continues to concentrate troops, recalls veteran analyst Volodímir Fesenko in Kiev. The Ukrainian intelligence service estimates that Moscow has almost 130,000 soldiers deployed at strike distance, between those stationed on its western borders and preparing for maneuvers in Belarus. “With its dialectic and military escalation, Moscow presents a very aggressive ultimatum“, it states. One of the most plausible scenarios is that of “local operations against Ukraine, for example, open intervention in Donbass “, believes the expert.

Intelligence sources in Kiev and Washington have warned these days that Russia is preparing a “false flag operation” that would involve “provocations” to heat up the conflict. Europe’s latest war, simmering but smoldering in eastern Ukraine, has claimed some 14,000 lives, according to the UN, and is far from over.

These “provocations” could give the Kremlin the “excuse”, points out María Avdeeva, to intervene in order to “protect” the citizens of the region, mostly Russian-speaking and among whom it has distributed around a million passports in the last years. A guideline similar to the one used in 2008 in Georgia, in the four-day war with Tbilisi, which ended with Russian troops in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

On Friday, Ukrainian military espionage also claimed that Moscow is sending mercenaries, heavy weapons and tons of fuel to Donetsk and Lugansk. Unidentified soldiers and defense contractors: a key move from the Kremlin’s playbook, which it has already used to invade the Crimean peninsula (the so-called green men) and in the initial phases of the Donbass conflict, in Syria and Libya.

Valeriy Brahinets has no special contingency plan. “Coming from Russia nobody can be sure of anything. Psychologically, it’s not easy for anyone, but people are ready.” says this 57-year-old businessman. “My plan is to defend my country, I am not going to leave. I would stay to protect the city.” says in Kiev, where small snowflakes are coloring the city center white and on the bridge over the Dnieper River, where several hundred people celebrate with yellow and blue flags the day of the Unity of Ukraine.

Brahinets is part of that 58% of Ukrainians who are ready to take up arms, according to a recent survey. He says that several of his acquaintances have already signed up for the so-called Territorial Defense Brigades, groups of civilian volunteers who receive instruction and train for combat on weekends. The Ukrainian government plans to establish 150 such battalions. A total of 130,000 people, each with an assigned firearm, according to the Defense Ministry.

In this image taken from a video distributed by the press office of the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian armored vehicles drive along a railway platform upon arrival in Belarus
In this image taken from a video distributed by the press office of the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian armored vehicles drive along a railway platform upon arrival in Belarus

Facing the disjointed and ill-equipped forces of 2014, Ukraine has built up its military in recent years, and its troops have received training and advice from Western allies. NATO has made it clear that it will not send forces to the Eastern country in the event of Russian aggression, but Washington has provided funds and has sent defense material. Also, in recent days, the United Kingdom and the Baltic countries. Berlin, which has turned down arms requests from Kiev, will send a field hospital, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said on Saturday. Despite this, the superiority of the Russian Army remains enormous.

A full-scale or even a multi-pronged invasion aimed at dividing the country would be devastating. For years, the option that Moscow tries to capture the coastal city of Mariupol and create a corridor from the annexed Crimea to the Donbass has been considered, so that, in addition, the supply of fresh water to the peninsula, which is limping, is guaranteed. because the Kiev government controls the Soviet-era canal that supplied it. Or take Odessa, a city of a million people with a major port, and work to cut off Ukraine from the sea, analysts say.

At the peak of tension, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has urged this week to remain calm. “Let’s take a deep breath. Don’t run for buckwheat and matches. Keep a cool head.” he said in a message to the country on his social networks. Shortly after, however, the Ukrainian leader spoke of the possibility of Russia invading the city of Kharkiv. “Realistically, I will say that if Russia decides to escalate it will do so in territories where there are historically people who used to have ties to Russia. Kharkiv, which is under the control of the Ukrainian government, could be occupied,” he said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Russia exports chaos very effectively,” remarks the analyst Fesenko.


In Kharkiv, about 40 kilometers from Russia, with 1.5 million inhabitants and one of the most important cities in Ukraine, Ihor Vasilievich says that the population has become accustomed to living with such a level of tension that this escalation has not high. At least for him. “I think nothing will happen,” stresses this 48-year-old waiter. “Things will remain in this complicated status quo. If Russia wanted to attack it would do so by surprise and not showing its troops clearly. So this is either a bluff or a diversion for something else,” he says by phone. “I do not pay attention to the propaganda of one side or the other”, remark.

On the analysts’ table, the scenario of an invasion from Belarus. Until very recently, Kiev did not feel any threat from its neighbor on the northern flank, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba explained in a recent interview, but with the Belarusian authoritarian leader growing closer to Putin Aleksandr Lukashenko (and its dependence on Moscow), and with the migration crisis orchestrated by Minsk, Ukraine decided to reinforce that border. Now, Russia is preparing joint maneuvers near that border with the Belarusian Army in two phases. The first will peak on February 4, when the Russian president is scheduled to visit Beijing; the last will end, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, on February 20. Dates that some analysts have defined as “revealing”. Moscow could use Belarus as a “platform” against Ukraine, says military analyst Mijaylo Samus.

A group of Ukrainians hold the country's flag at a nationalist march on Unity Day
A group of Ukrainians hold the country’s flag at a nationalist march on Unity DayCelestino Arce Lavin – ZUMA Press Wire

The veteran Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, assured on Friday, after a meeting with his American counterpart, Antony Blink, that Russia “has no plans” to attack Ukraine. Although the Russian government speaks of “serious consequences” if NATO does not meet its demands for expansion and presence in areas that, like Ukraine, it considers within its orbit. Putin has threatened to deploy “military-technical” measures. That scenario, considers the political scientist Alexei Arbatov, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, refers to the creation and deployment of new weapons and not to the use of troops. “Could deploy short-range missiles, or nuclear weapons in Belarus [que comparte fronteras también con Polonia y Lituania, miembros de la OTAN], where hypersonic missiles or medium bombers could also be transferred”, says Arbatov.

Khrystyna Bubniuk is stressed by the information about the climb. “So much contradiction… I try to live my normal life, plan spring vacations, think about summer,” says the 22-year-old journalist. His mother, who lives in the west of the country, has asked him to leave with her immediately from Kiev if things get hot: “I don’t have a special plan. If something happens I will continue to work and try to do my best for Ukraine. It’s amazing that we’re talking about this in the 21st century.”

By Maria R. Sahuquillo


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