On The Ground In Ukraine As Threat Of Russian Invasion Grows : The NPR Politics Podcast NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been reporting on the life of Ukrainians as Russia continues to amass troops on the country's border. And will Russian President Vladimir Putin's continued aggression drive a wedge between the United States and Europe?

This episode: White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, international correspondent Joanna Kakissis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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On The Ground In Ukraine As Threat Of Russian Invasion Grows

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BEN: Hi, this is Ben (ph) from Bowling Green, Ohio, and I have just submitted my first ever application for my dream job as a public school music teacher. This podcast was recorded at...


It is 1:37 p.m. on February 14. It is a Monday. Happy Valentine's Day.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy Valentine's Day.

BEN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. All right, here's the show.


LIASSON: Oh, wow. Congrats.

RASCOE: That sounds awesome. Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

RASCOE: Russia appears ready to invade Ukraine. At least that's what signs seem to point to at this moment. To help us sort through all of this, NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv. Hey, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello, Ayesha. Hello, Mara.

RASCOE: Thank you so much for joining us, especially - I know you're in Kyiv and talking to people on the ground, but before we get to that, I want to talk to you about the talks that are going on at the very high level. You have Russia still demanding that former Soviet countries, including Ukraine, be barred for joint - from joining NATO, which is a long-standing military alliance in Europe. And then Russia also has some other demands that are basically non-starters from Europe and from the U.S.

Joanna, it seems like right now the U.S. has gone back and forth on whether an invasion was imminent. It had said it was imminent. Then it walked that back. But then at the very end of last week, it just seemed like everything shifted, and the U.S. was telling citizens to get out immediately - started saying they would move some embassy staff. What changed in these last couple of days? Is it just the U.S. rhetoric changed?

KAKISSIS: Well, I mean, that's part of it. The U.S. rhetoric did change, and they are citing U.S. intelligence as a reason to say, yes, you know, you need to get out of the country now because an attack can happen any day. And the U.K. has followed suit on, you know, saying, yeah, the U.S. is right. We believe the same thing.

But, you know, it's turned into this sort of snowball effect, if that makes sense. The beating of the war drums on such a high level - like this is happening. You need to prepare. It's turned into this chain reaction where other western countries - Germany, the Netherlands - have also started to move their embassy staff to the west, to western Ukraine and have told their citizens to leave.

There have been airlines that have been canceling flights, in part because the insurance rates have been fluctuating because of all these dire, dire warnings of imminent invasion. It's growing louder and louder. It's coming. The war is coming. The war is coming.

And what's weird is on the ground things couldn't be more normal. I mean, people are still going about their business as if this is just every other day. They don't feel that war is imminent because they - you have to remember that they have been in a conflict, an ongoing conflict, with Russia for eight years since the 2014 invasion in eastern Ukraine.

So for the Ukrainians - the message that the Ukrainians are getting from this message is - this war is imminent, it could happen every day is - boy, we sure feel abandoned because everyone's leaving. Everyone wants to leave the country and leave us here all on our own.

When they're hearing a major, you know, the major superpower in the world, the U.S. saying, hey, get out, get out of Ukraine. It's super dangerous. Everyone go west, go, you know, hit the borders. Go, go, get outside. That leaves Ukrainians feeling like, OK, it's when things get really bad, everyone's going to leave, and we're going to be left here on our own. And it's a bad feeling to see people running for the hills.

LIASSON: What's the level of resistance there? I mean, we've seen polls that show before Russia started to mass it's 100,000 plus troops on the border, joining NATO wasn't that popular inside Ukraine. Now, it's really popular. So it sounds like Putin's moves have only hardened Ukraine's desire to stay western-oriented, not Russia-oriented.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's correct. That's exactly right, actually. And that started in 2014. I mean, the invasion in 2014 of eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea consolidated the sense of national identity in Ukraine, this national purpose, and this national purpose included looking very much to the west. And the antipathy towards - not Russians - there's no antipathy towards Russian people, but the antipathy towards the Kremlin only increased. And so you saw in Ukraine - Ukrainians wanting to sever cultural ties, essentially with the former imperial ruler of Russia.

So, yeah, I mean, NATO's become much more popular. The European Union's become much more popular. Ukrainians see their future very definitely in the West.

RASCOE: Joanna, do you feel like - I feel like part of the thing about this moment is there seems to be a great uncertainty about what Putin really wants and what he is actually going to do, right? Like it's - he has amassed all these troops. You hear the U.S. saying, oh, there are going to be aerial attacks. This is going to be war. And then there is an idea like, well, maybe he could do something a little less than full-scale war. Maybe he could do a little bit of - do a minor incursion or something. But it seems like - do we know what Putin wants to do, is going to do, or do we really don't know?

KAKISSIS: How I wish I could go into the mind of Vladimir Putin and figure out what he wants.


AYESHA RASCOE AND JOANNA KAKISSIS: We could probably get a lot of money for that.

KAKISSIS: That's right. I mean, Putin is - he sees himself as a master geopolitical strategist, and to some extent he is. He's also, at least in the last few years, been basically cut off from the world. He's surrounded by people who always agree with him. He's got a lot of power. He's been in power a long time. So it's kind of hard to know, you know, what is it that Vladimir Putin wants?

I think - I would guess based on his moves that what has been really bothering him is this drift of Ukraine to the west. I mean, Putin very much sees Ukraine as part of - you know, part of Mother Russia. He has called Ukrainians, you know, basically a term that means little Russians, which the Ukrainians hate, by the way. And he doesn't want to give up this idea that he can maybe recreate the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union in some way.

You have to remember, too, that, you know, Putin was a KGB agent when the Berlin Wall fell, and he saw all - everything that he had based his life on fall apart right in front of him. And he's never really let that go. But as far as, like, you know, why he's doing this now and where he's going to go with this - gosh, I really wish I knew the answer to that, and I think a lot of other people would, too.

RASCOE: All right, let's take a quick break, and then we'll have more on this when we get back in a second.

And we're back. Joanna, you've been reporting in Ukraine for a while now, and I know that you've been talking about how life is going on there. Like this is not - even though people may feel a little bit more worried now because of what the U.S. is saying, life is continuing. Like, what else have you seen in your reporting?

KAKISSIS: So, I mean, what I've found very interesting about Ukrainians - both in Kyiv and in Lviv, where I just returned from a reporting trip there - is, you know, they're very aware of Russia. They're very aware of the threat that the Kremlin has sort of constantly sent their way, and they've learned to live with it. They just live around it.

In Lviv, which is this absolutely stunningly beautiful city with cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings and kids playing in the squares - this is a town that gets daily bomb threats. Every day, someone gets a bomb threat. And what the police discovered is that these bomb threats were coming from bots that were essentially controlled by Russian agents. And what that does is it destabilizes the way you feel.

I talked to this mom, and she's like, yeah, I mean, every time I see an alert on my phone, I think, oh, it's another bomb threat. I better go get my kid. That sort of numbing of fear is something that the Ukrainians are actually concerned about because when you live next door to a constant threat, you can become, to some extent, blind to it.

So you have to understand that the warfare isn't just, like, the troops building up. It's things like messing with fake bomb threats, sending the fake bomb threats every day so people's lives feel disrupted and feel uneasy. And people don't want to invest in a country that's getting bomb threats every day, and businesses don't want to set up their headquarters. So that's sort of another form of warfare that the Russian - that the Kremlin has directed towards Ukraine.

LIASSON: Right, and the kind of giant question, which is who's miscalculating here? Will Putin get away with destabilizing or invading Ukraine as he did, without consequences, when he invaded Crimea and Georgia and assassinated Russians on European soil and interfered in U.S. elections? Or will NATO's sanctions and Ukrainian resistance raise the cost of an invasion so high that it's just not worth it for Putin?

In other words, will he be swallowing the porcupine? That's the metaphor that everyone's using. You know, invading a country that doesn't want you there historically ends in tears for the invader.

KAKISSIS: That's correct. And the Ukrainians won't let him forget it. That is something that the Ukrainians are shouting very loud and clear to Putin. If you even try to come here, we are going to make this so ugly for you.

RASCOE: But at this point, as you said, we still don't know whether that will be enough to keep them out, right?

LIASSON: Right, but we're going to know soon about a major invasion, don't you think? I mean, there's only so long you can keep 130,000 troops on the border.

KAKISSIS: I think we should know something in the next couple of weeks, and that's what the U.S. has been communicating. But we just don't know - we don't know how it's going to end. Will it end violently? We don't know. Will it end with Putin having some concessions that will make Ukraine unhappy but will diffuse a crisis? I don't know. At this point, it's just really - everything is just really up in the air, and here on the ground, we're just trying to make sense of it.

RASCOE: Yeah. All right, well, we'll leave it there. Joanna Kakissis, thank you so much. And stay safe while you're out there.

KAKISSIS: Thank you.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

RASCOE: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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