Ukrainians have been used to cycles of escalation and de-escalation since 2014. As the conflict enters its eighth year, over half are willing to put up armed or civil resistance.
An eerie calm presided over the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Friday, despite the prospect of a Russian military operation hanging over the country.
Vigilant eyes were turned on a scheduled meeting in Geneva between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Further talks between Putin and Biden appeared more likely than they did last week, when diplomatic efforts hit a dead end, providing some hope for de-escalation.
Since then, Russia has moved further troops near the Ukrainian border and into Belarus. According to an assessment by Ukraine’s ministry of defence, Russia has now deployed 127,000 troops. The country was also hit by a massive cyberattack last week that disabled several government websites and displayed what appeared to be a warning message to Ukrainians.
“Many people tend to forget this war started in 2014,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a senior analyst at the Razumkov Centre in Kyiv.
“Since then, we've been through a terrible experience of escalations, de-escalations, casualties, dozens of soldiers and civilians killed every day,” he told TRT World. While the apparent calm could appear surprising to foreign eyes, it was just another reminder for Ukrainians of how the last seven years have altered their sense of ‘normality’.
“There’s no people buying cans of food at the supermarket, or fleeing the big cities or the country,” Melnyk added.
Russia began amassing troops near Ukraine’s borders in December, as Putin sought assurances from Western countries against NATO’s further eastward expansion. Russia has strenuously denied the move is part of a plan to invade Ukraine, citing instead security threats posed by increased NATO activity on its western border.
The conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an area known as Donbas, has been ongoing with different degrees of intensity since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized one third of the regions’ territory - its most urbanised part - prompting months of heavy fighting with the Ukrainian army. This is estimated to have killed 14,000 people since, including civilians and military personnel.
Hundreds of thousands of people living close to the so-called ‘contact line’ – the 420-kilometre strip of land that divides the warring parties – continue to suffer from disruption to food, electricity and water supplies, separation from their loved ones, or injury due to mines. The line hasn’t changed much since 2015, when the Minsk II agreement was signed but never implemented as the fighting continues as a ‘trench war’.
Earlier in 2014, Russia annexed the autonomous peninsula of Crimea in southern Ukraine.
Is the West about to ‘flush Ukraine down the toilet’?
Russia is worried that Ukraine, the second most populous former Soviet republic, has been pivoting towards the West in recent years. In its list of demands at the centre of the current negotiations, Putin’s government asked NATO to pledge it will never admit Ukraine as a member, a demand that’s unlikely to be met.
“Increasingly, with successive rounds of escalation in the spring and now at the borders of Ukraine, there's a sense on the part of Ukrainians - especially the establishment, the current government - that the west is not doing enough,” Peter Zalmayev, the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI) told TRT World. “That the West is about, as we say, flush Ukraine down the toilet. Meaning it has other concerns.” Those concerns include China, a geopolitical priority for Washington, and Russian gas provision to the EU.
President Joe Biden’s comment on Thursday about a ‘minor incursion’ caused an uproar in Ukraine.
At the same time, Zalmayev said, on the streets of the capital there was “a kind of complacency that whatever happens is once again going to be localised, that Putin is not going to invade all of your Ukraine, that he’s not going to invade Kiev.” This is unlikely to happen due to the costs of such an operation far outweighing the gains, Zalmayev argued.
“But Putin thrives in a grey zone. He likes to defy expectations,” Zalmayev said, “All options are on the table.”
A poll conducted by the Kyiv international institute of sociology in December shows that 33 percent of Ukrainians living in areas under government control would be willing to take up arms in case of an invasion, while 22 percent would take part in civil resistance actions.
“If Putin is counting on much sympathy for his invading force, then he's obviously wrong. There's much more animosity towards Russia,” Zalmayev said, “The level of militarisation is significantly higher than what we had in 2014. It’s going to be different this time.”