On Edge of War, No Exodus From Ukraine but Anxiety Grows

UKRAINIAN RAILWAYS TRAIN 749 — We boarded the train heading for Lviv, in the northwest corner of Ukraine, near the Polish border and the NATO front lines, expecting to find it crowded with people fleeing ahead of a feared Russian invasion.

But a day after Russian troops moved into eastern Ukraine, and tens of thousands more stood ready to sweep into the country, there were no lines of people clamoring for tickets at the station on Tuesday, no people with jam-packed bags stuffed with precious valuables suggesting they were planning to leave for good.

On the train, in conversations during a seven-hour ride on a 330-mile journey, Emile Ducke, a photographer and translator traveling with me, and I talked to passengers making the journey west to Lviv, often for complicated reasons, many struggling to grasp that what they were seeing was actually happening.

Anna Maklakova, 22, does not dismiss the idea that a war is possible. For much of her life, since she was 14, there has been a smoldering conflict against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

Anna Maklakova said her life is in Kyiv and she would stay in her country no matter what came.

Harder to fathom for her are the dire predictions from many in the West that a new war could be unlike anything the world has seen since 1945, that a bombardment of Kyiv could kill tens of thousands of people and lay waste to what is in every respect a modern western city of 2.8 million people.

“I mean come on, it is the 21st century,” she said. “How could there be such a thing?”

Some people, however, said they started worrying more when they heard President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia speak on Monday — a chilling speech where he denied Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign nation.

Khrystyna Batiuk, 47, was visiting her daughter, Marta Bursuk, in Kyiv when she heard Mr. Putin speak and in an instant, she said, it was clear to her that her daughter’s 1-year-old baby boy, Oleksandr, needed to leave town.

“That person,” she said, referring to Mr. Putin, “is a mentally ill person for whom it is unclear what to expect.”

So here they were — mother, daughter and baby, on a train — one family among millions trying to understand why their lives were being upended by one man in Moscow.

Khrystyna Batiuk, left, with her daughter, Marta Bursuk, and grandson, Oleksandr, onboard the train. 

In conversations up and down the four-car train, people talked about how friends and relatives were trying to find places for them in western Ukraine, closer to NATO forces, where they could come watch and wait.

Ms. Batiuk said she had been flooded with phone calls from friends from across the country asking if she could host them in her family’s home in Ivano-Frankivsk, the last stop along the line in western Ukraine.

And it was not just Ukrainians who were moving west.

Romain, 33, who declined to give his last name, is French but lives in Kyiv, and did not evacuate when France told its citizens to evacuate last week.

But after a few days of thinking, he said, he decided to go to Lviv. He was not worried about bombs but about his ability to work.

“I am 100 percent dependent on the internet, there could be many ways that could be disrupted,” he said.

Ms. Maklakova, however, refused to believe her life was about to be turned upside down. She was only leaving Kyiv for a short trip, she said.

She lives in Kyiv, loves Kyiv and plans to return to Kyiv on Friday.

We talked about the suffering the nation had endured in the 20th century.

It was almost 100 years ago when Stalin directed his murderous impulse on the Ukrainians, leaving four million dead in an orchestrated famine. Many of the towns and villages we passed along the 330-mile route from Kyiv to Lviv were then ravaged during World War II.

Passengers waited to board a train at the central train station in Kyiv on Tuesday.

That tragic history has been repeatedly invoked by Ukrainian officials in recent months as Russian troops massed on the border, raising the specter of another bloody conflict on their soil.

Understand How the Ukraine Crisis Developed

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How it all began. Antagonism between Ukraine and Russia has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a Western-facing government. Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting continued.

Russia’s interests in Ukraine. Russia has been unnerved by NATO’s eastward expansion and Ukraine’s growing closeness with the West. While Ukraine is not part of the European Union or NATO, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

How the recent tensions began. In recent months Russia has built up a military presence near its border with Ukraine. U.S. officials say they have evidence of a Russian war plan that envisions an invasion force of 175,000 troops.

Failed diplomatic efforts. The United States, NATO and Russia have been engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy to prevent an escalation of the conflict. In December, Russia put forth a set of demands, including a guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO. The West dismissed those demands and threatened economic consequences.

The U.S.’s role. In February, the United States began warning that a full-scale invasion might be days away. Some 8,500 American troops have been placed on “high alert” for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, though President Biden has made clear that the United States would not send troops to fight for Ukraine.

Moscow asserts its power. On Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine and ordering troops to carry out “peacekeeping functions” in those areas. In an emotional speech announcing the move, the Russian president laid claim to all of Ukraine as a country “created by Russia.”

What is next? Mr. Putin’s actions appear to be laying the groundwork for wider intervention in Ukraine. But the economic damage of Western-imposed sanctions, and the death toll of a war, might be too great a cost for Moscow to stomach.

But Ms. Maklakova remained convinced that the past would not be revisited.

The only time she brought up the prospect of war unprompted in hours of conversations was when she showed me a tattoo, an abstract image that she said represented family, on her arm. Her mother has the same one.

“She wants me to come be with her,” Ms. Maklakova said. “When times are bad, that is natural.”

She was aware of what was happening around her, but she said she still did not understand why some of her friends were talking about leaving the capital.

“I don’t know why all this attention is on Kyiv,” she said. “If war comes, it comes for everyone.”

Ms. Maklakova, who studied international economic relations in college, works for a French pharmaceutical company and had no doubt she would be back at her office in Kyiv in a few days. She quoted Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, saying that he had eaten breakfast in Kyiv, lunch in Kyiv and would have dinner in Kyiv.

Ms. Maklakova said she felt the same.

The city captured her imagination from the moment she first arrived 2017, she said. There was an energy that enthralled her.

The buzz in the cafes, the beauty of the parks, the sense that her destiny was her own — that is what Kyiv means to her, she said. “I like the nightlife in Kyiv,” she said. “All of my friends love singing and dancing.”

Every car on the train seemed to hold someone with a story about leaving Kyiv — if only to wait and watch.

A few hours into the trip, she took a nap. As I gazed out the window at frostbitten soil, I thought about the warnings that Russia would invade before the spring to make it easier for heavy artillery to move across the land.

Earlier, Ms. Maklakova said she did not think about the news. And if she did, she believed maybe half of what she heard.

The sun was setting, casting a golden glow on the white birch forests rushing by.

When the train pulled into Lviv’s train station, a grand edifice built in 1904, a time when Europe was divided among empires, the smell of smoke and fuel filled the air.

There was a bustle that was missing when I left Kyiv. People seemed to exhale when they got off the train. Lviv is the city of patriotic fervor, where the blue and gold flag adorns buildings and waves from street posts. It is a redoubt for Ukrainian forces and likely the last place to be attacked by Russia should there be an invasion because of its proximity to NATO forces.

On the platform late Tuesday, a group of Ukrainian soldiers prepared to board an eastbound train. A man walked up to them, a stranger, with his hand out. He wished them luck and victory.

A man wishing soldiers luck and victory on the train platform in Lviv. 

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