Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and colonized its Crimea region, and is still illegally present there and attempting to legitimize its presence through measures like distributing Russian passports to residents of Ukraine. In the east of the country, pro-Russia “separatists” have waged war on Kyiv since 2014, as well. Russian officials claim to have no ties to the war in eastern Donbas, but the Ukrainian government and other international observers have documented extensive evidence of Russian government support for the war there.
Fears of a further Russian invasion into Ukraine escalated last week after President Joe Biden appeared to indicate that America would not defend Ukraine in the event of a “minor incursion” by Russia into the country. Biden also predicted that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would shortly begin a formal invasion of the entirety of Ukraine and his State Department withdrew the families of U.S. embassy workers stationed in Kyiv this weekend, triggering international panic.
The administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has expressed confusion in response to the Biden administration's moves, calling the withdrawal of embassy workers' families “premature” and “excessive,” and insisting that an imminent Russian invasion is “impossible.”
“People are more worried about [home-heating] gas prices, they are worried about the hryvnya [the national currency],” Viktor Andrusiv, the director of the Kyiv School of Public Administration, told the U.S. news service. “Ukrainians, people are more focused on these issues, not on the war.”
Andrusiv attributed Zelensky's insistence that Russia is not about to attempt a seizure of Kyiv to the fact that widespread belief in that potential event would destroy the country's economy and make such an event more likely. Zelensky, he said, has “to make statements to quiet people.”
“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,” he explained.
Zelensky has all but admitted that this is the case. In a speech last week responding to Biden's “minor incursion” press conference, Zelensky asserted that panic triggered by war “hype” was the true threat to Ukraine.
“Didn't the invasion start in 2014? Has the threat of war emerged just now? These risks have existed for more than a year, and they haven't increased,” Zelensky said. “What has increased is the hype around them.”
“All our citizens, especially the elderly, need to understand this. Take a deep breath. Calm down,” Zelensky asked Ukrainians. “Keep your head calm and cool, remain confident in your strength, in your Army, in our Ukraine. Do not get anxious, react smartly to everything, not emotionally! With your head, not your heart.”
On Tuesday night, Zelensky issued more nationally televised remarks apparently addressing concerns around natural gas and heating. Ukraine is currently in the middle of a typically harsh winter; Kyiv is expecting daytime temperatures in the 20s and 30s all week, dropping into the teens at night.
“We're working 24/7 and will continue to do so to make sure you stay warm, full, and healthy,” Zelensky said in remarks on Tuesday, according to the state outlet Ukrinform.
“The fact that some countries extract PART of their diplomats does not imply inevitable escalation, being part of subtleties of a complex diplomatic game,” Zelensky asserted, addressing the State Department pullout.
Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna similarly warned on Tuesday of the potential military consequences of economic destabilization.
“Continued escalation without military invasion is also part of Russia's scenario, which has a strong impact on the Ukrainian economy and stability of the banking sector,” Stefanishyna said, according to Ukrinform.
“This is strongly reflected in the Ukrainian economy and requires massive financial involvement to ensure stability of the banking sector,” she explained. “In fact, the weekly investment in the banking system's stability is equal to all the military assistance that the United States has provided to Ukraine. Every week counts. Continued escalation benefits Russia more.”
Top national security official Oleksiy Danilov similarly asserted in remarks this week that with a stable economy in Ukraine, “the Russians have nothing to do here.”
An American in Lviv, Ukraine, Herb Randall, told RFE/RL that he sensed that Ukrainians “are so inured to war and violence since 2014 that the idea that Russia will invade doesn't qualify as ‘news' for many,” though the Biden administration urging Americans to leave has caused some alarm, and Randall himself has changed his original plans in order to leave as soon as possible.
Adding to the sense that economic concerns in Ukraine are trumping military fears, photojournalists on the frontlines of the Donbas war told RFE/RL on Wednesday that the war front is “quieter than in Kyiv.”
“Everyone here knows what they have to do. There's nothing like the hysteria you see in the media at the moment. Over the past month nothing has really changed on the front lines,” journalist Anatolii Stepanov told the outlet.
Another journalist, Andriy Dubchak, told RFE/RL that people on the front lines of the Donbas war appear to believe that the probability of another Russian invasion is higher than it was in the past.
“People before didn't believe in the possibility. They felt it was the same situation as the similar troop and materiel buildup in the spring,” Dubchak explained. “Now, though, both soldiers and civilians are definitely affected by rumors of an attack. It's hard not to be, with all the news online and on TV.”
Again, however, Dubchak also noted economic concerns were at the forefront.
“The value of the hryvnya is also dropping, and the price of petrol is rising,” he explained. “One soldier told me he's ‘tired of waiting' for a Russian invasion and said he would ‘rather it was under way already.' He thought the chances of a full-scale war are about 50-50.”