Ukrainians face ‘game of cat and mouse’ with stoic calm

Ukrainians living in the country’s east carry on mostly as usual, despite stark warnings that a Russian attack is imminent.

Ukrainians in the city of Mariupol dancing beneath a chandelier in nightclub tinged with red lighting
People in the eastern town of Mariupol continued to party on Tuesday night despite Western warnings of an imminent invasion by Russia [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Mariupol, Ukraine – Children play in the park, a husky busker sings Pink Floyd under the winter sun, teens giggle as they slip over on an outdoor ice-skating rink – a day like any other, it might seem, not a country on the eve of a possible full-scale invasion by Russia.

While defence monitors said on Tuesday that it appeared Russia was moving some military hardware away from the border with Ukraine, the West remained resolute in its assessment of the current threat posed to the country.

The United States and the United Kingdom have been clear – an attack could come at any moment and without warning.

Over the weekend, US President Joe Biden reportedly told Western leaders that a possible date was February 16, perhaps preceded by a barrage of missile strikes and cyberattacks.

Yet as stark warnings hit Western newspapers, people in Ukraine’s eastern city of Mariupol – just 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from a pre-existing conflict zone – sang along to live music and partied into the early hours. They ate out in restaurants and there was little sign of panic buying – life carried on.

“It feels like the West are far more concerned about us than we are about ourselves,” said Ihor Chertov, deputy head of the city’s Coast Guard unit, which patrols the Azov Sea looking for warships.

Even as cyberattacks began on Tuesday evening, with two banks and the defence ministry website taken out of action, supermarket shoppers in the centre of Mariupol, which is home to half a million people, remained calm.

Two teenage girls dressed in warm winter clothes skate on an outdoor rink in the centre of Mariupol
Life continued as normal for most people in the eastern town of Mariupol with little preparation made for any invasion [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Ukrainians know all too well the threat from Russia, having lost some 14,000 lives to a Russian-backed conflict in its east since 2014. But many have grown accustomed to living in the shadow of President Vladimir Putin. Mariupol itself was briefly captured by separatists.

However, despite the stoic exterior, some are making contingency plans, and taking training classes to learn how to attend to wounds or hold a gun. Medical rep Maryna Hetmanova, 35, has a suitcase packed and keeps her car’s petrol tank full so she is ready to go if anything happens.

“I don’t want to live in Russia. I will go to western Ukraine, maybe Poland, maybe Germany. I don’t know, I just don’t want to die,” she said.

“Maybe an attack will come tomorrow. It could come yesterday. It could come now. You just don’t know,” she said.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Biden expressed scepticism over Moscow’s claim that it had withdrawn some of its troops from near the Ukrainian border, saying Russian armed forces remained in a “threatening position”.

‘No preparation’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has long said that, although he believes Russia is threatening to attack his country, the likelihood of an imminent invasion has been overstated by the West. His government has declared February 16 a “Day of Unity”, encouraging the public to wave flags and sing the national anthem rather than be consumed by fear.

Beyond training a unit of civilian reservists to be on call if needed, little has been done to prepare the public for what they should do if something does happen.

“Most people have a hard time understanding what to do in the event of a bombing. There is no preparation. Plenty of folks do not think there is a real and credible threat,” said Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a think-tank on post-Soviet states, and himself Ukrainian.

Mariupol is vulnerable to attack from three sides, with Russia to the east, territories controlled by the separatists they back to the north and, to the south, the Azov Sea, which Ukraine shares with Russia.

The manager of one of the city’s bomb shelters said little is being done to prepare shelters with basic supplies or even water because few people expect there to be any need for them. Many have been unused for so long they have been turned into spas and restaurants.

Speaking at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Sunday, Putin said Moscow was ready for talks with the US and NATO on limits for missile deployments and military transparency, but that he wants the Ukraine NATO question resolved now and Western assurances are not good enough.

Russia has been pressing for a veto on Ukraine’s membership of the security alliance since last December, and has massed hundreds of thousands of troops at the country’s border and in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Despite the continued efforts of Western leaders to deescalate the tensions, at least 20 chartered flights left Kyiv carrying some of the country’s wealthiest business owners and oligarchs on Sunday.

The government pledged funds to try to keep its airspace open to commercial flights amid cancellations, while the US, the UK, and other countries advised their citizens to leave, moving some operations to western Ukraine and evacuating many embassy staff.

Sources on the Mariupol front told Al Jazeera that Russian jets were seen patrolling on Tuesday for the first time in years – few commercial planes fly over eastern Ukraine since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over separatist-held territory in 2014.

A young woman and an older woman walk along the street in Mariupol in the winter sun
People strolled beneath the winter sun in the city, which lies only a few kilometres from an active conflict zone [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]


Yet for a country that has weathered eight years of war, anything can be normal with Russia as a neighbour.

While Western support in the form of diplomacy and military supplies is widely appreciated, warnings of an “imminent” attack are seen as crying wolf. Putin has said that there are no plans to invade and on Tuesday, said Russia did not want a war in Europe.

Instead, many believe the standoff over Ukraine is a situation that is here to stay for the long haul.

“Local analysts don’t believe it’s Putin’s goal to invade Ukraine. The most reasonable analysis is that we can expect the crisis to last most of 2022,” said Zalmayev.

“This could even last indefinitely – the game of cat and mouse is just getting started.”

Source: Al Jazeera