If you took a walk around Kyiv earlier this week, you might not have sensed that the neighboring super-power has been amassing troops at the country’s border. People’s lives have gone on mostly uninterrupted, with families and friends going out to eat and enjoying the seasonal outdoor ice rinks. But now—with the U.S. saying that Russia has decided to invade—many civilians are preparing for war. On the outskirts of Kyiv, some citizens are taking time to volunteer for military courses that train them to survive a foreign siege.
A Ukrainian-born journalist, Olga Tokariuk, visited one of the training grounds. She’s worked almost her entire career as a foreign news correspondent, telling Ukrainians about the world. But nowadays, her focus has shifted toward her own country, where she’s working freelance as a Ukraine correspondent as the world anticipates what might happen next. When we spoke on Friday (before President Biden sounded the alarm on a possibly imminent invasion), I asked her about what she’s made of the mixed messages coming out of Russia as 150,000 of its troops have gathered at the border, the mixed feelings Ukrainians have about their neighbors, and how she feels about her own future in the country where she was born.
Aymann Ismail: What is the mood right now where you are in Kiev? How are you hearing people talking about the threat you’re facing?
Olga Takariuk: We are already in the fourth month of the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Since early November when the first news started to pour in, it’s been tiring. It’s exhausting to live in a very uncertain and very dangerous situation for such a long time. A lot of people are anxious, but you wouldn’t notice it if you only just arrived to Kyiv. Walk the streets and you will see people going out and about doing their daily tasks—going to work, sending their children to school. People are still going out and meeting with friends. But when you start talking to people, you realize that actually things have changed.
What are people doing in terms of practical preparations? What stories have you heard?
Over these past weekends, many of my friends have attended medical first aid courses, survival courses on how to survive in an occupied or sieged city. This is not something that you’d usually do if there wasn’t a threat of your country getting invaded. A lot of people are also volunteering to territorial defense units. They would be helping the Ukrainian Armed Forces to protect their cities, but they wouldn’t be sent to the front lines. The people who enroll in them have ordinary jobs—teachers, IT professionals, medical workers, football trainers. I went to one of the territorial defense drills. I talked to those people. These are the professions of those that I met there. Five days a week they’re going to their regular job. But then on the weekend, they gather at the outskirts of Kyiv with some mock weapons like wooden rifles and train for what to do you if their city gets attacked. But this is a minority of people. Most people are continuing with their ordinary lives and hoping that nothing bad will happen. Opinion polls show that about just half of Ukrainians believe that a new Russian attack is highly likely or likely. And another half believes it’s not very likely. Public opinion is divided in half on that.
What do you think is causing that split in opinion?
The Ukrainian government is trying to diffuse tensions, saying there is a threat but it’s nothing new because we’ve been living with Russian aggressions since 2014 [when Russia annexed Crimea], and our military is prepared to defend the country. The Ukraine Armed Forces have been strengthened and battle hardened over the last eight years. We’ve received military assistance from various countries, such as the U.S., the U.K., the Baltic states, and we have new modern weapons that would help us protect our country. These are the messages coming from the Ukrainian government, which sometimes contrast with what we’re hearing out of the U.S. and the U.K. and Ukraine’s other Western partners.
I know that it also caused some perplexity and even irritation in some Western capitals that the Ukrainian government was signaling different messages. But the Ukraine government’s logic is also understandable. First, they want to prevent a panic. Second, they want to limit the damage to the economy because it’s suffered in the past several weeks. The currency has been devalued slightly but steadily. There was also some outflow of investments, Ukraine lost quite a lot of money because of this volatility. And this week, some airlines announced they won’t be flying to Ukraine, which harms tourism and the Ukraine’s image globally. People who were planning to visit Ukraine are postponing their trips. We’ve seen a surge in tourism in recent years, but now people are discouraged from coming, and Ukraine’s economy is suffering. The government has been trying to minimize those losses by trying to calm the population down, saying “We are ready to defend ourselves. Yes, there is a threat but it’s not something that is very different from what has been before.” In general, I think the population actually agrees with this assessment, even those who think the threat is likely or real. They think that it’s a good strategy by the government not to ignite tensions because people still read Western media. It’s translated into Ukrainian and published in the Ukrainian media, and there’s even been some resentment toward Western media and politics. Some people are saying, “Well, it’s too hysterical and it doesn’t help. Ukrainians should keep calm and prepare for whatever might happen.”
Many on the international stage believe the likelihood of an invasion has decreased. Do you feel that the longer this plays out the less likely that it’s going to happen? What is your view on what’s happening now, and likely to happen in the future?
Well, the situation is very fluid. I think even when the West says the likelihood is decreasing, the next day they’re saying it’s increasing again because Russia is sending very confusing and conflicting signals. One day they say they’re pulling away some troops from the Ukrainian border. But then later the same day, they say it might recognize the self-proclaimed republics in Eastern Ukraine, which would be a major escalation. Today, the Ukrainian defense minister said yesterday was the highest number of ceasefire violations recorded since the beginning of this year. Sixty violations of ceasefire, just yesterday. On average this year, it was three or five violations per day.
And yesterday, Russian-controlled forces in Eastern Ukraine shelled Ukrainian-controlled territory. One of the shells landed in a kindergarten in the Luhansk region. It’s a miracle that children were in another room and were not among those hurt, and nobody was severely injured. And just before we started talking, one hour ago, news broke about a Russian proxy leader who announced the evacuation of residents to a territory in Russia because they said that the Ukrainian side is preparing an attack. Everybody understands that this is a complete lie because in eight years since the war began, Ukraine hasn’t tried to retake those territories by force. But now suddenly when Russia has 150,000 troops at Ukrainian border, they say Ukraine wants to launch a military offensive. It’s like they’re staging a fiction movie with these evacuations. And there is already a lot of speculation about what might happen next. Will their buses when they are evacuating be targeted by an artillery strike and Ukraine be blamed for it? I’m not excluding that because false-flag attacks are something Russia has done in the past, not just in Ukraine but in Syria and other places of the world. So, no. There is no feeling that it’s deescalating. On the contrary, I worry now as the Olympics end and the Russian-Belarus military exercises finish on Feb. 20, that Putin will feel more at ease with escalating again. I don’t think people here feel like it’s getting calmer. On the contrary.
Putin is not popular in Ukraine, but something like a third of the population usually says it views Russia favorably. Can you describe the beliefs at work there?
I saw that poll today. Thirty-four percent of Ukrainians said that they viewed Russia favorably. This is understandable because when people answered this question, they mostly intended Russian people, not the Russian government. Since many Ukrainians still have relatives in Russia or some connections with Russia, they might view Russian people in general positively.
What do people not living in Ukraine not understand about what’s happening?
I think the extent to which the country has changed since 2014. There are still narratives that Ukraine is somehow a very divided country with a Russian-leaning east and Western-leaning west, and there are also divisions along the lines of language and ethnicity and all these things. But since 2014, that’s changed. In fact, according to the recent polls, 62 percent of Ukrainians want Ukraine to join NATO. Prior to Russia and Ukraine, that was never more than 30 percent. Now it’s doubled. This is a direct result of Russia’s own actions. So, Ukrainians see NATO membership as a deterrent because Putin has never attacked a NATO member, even small ones like Baltic states, which Russians also rhetorically says they share common history with. Russia attacked Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, which aren’t part of NATO. I think that is not very often represented in the Western media, and in general in the discourse, that now Ukraine is really more united now in its view of the country’s future development and orientation when it comes to foreign policy.
Despite all the problems in war, the economy has been growing. And in these last years, somehow a middle class has been created and we have a particularly booming IT sector. A lot of Ukrainian IT professionals are working either in local Ukrainian startups or are remote workers for international IT companies. People value economic freedom and appreciate that Ukraine is a democratic state. It’s a free state with a market economy that is moving toward the West and want nothing to do with Russia, or going back to a dictatorial regime and giving up on their freedoms. It’s not just IT but other sectors. Ukrainian movies won international acclaim. Last year we had a boom of tourists from the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, opening up Ukraine for them. We’ve seen very encouraging developments despite the war and economic problems. The government has been successful in centralization reform, land reform, an increased transparency of public procurement and the civil society. We have still quite weak institutions but we have a really strong civil society. And this is what makes Ukraine very different from Russia and Belarus, for example, where there is no dissent and all independent voices are crushed. Here the government is accountable to the civil society, to a media that is diverse and largely free. There are opposition parties, and people have a right to protest and the government has to listen.
Can you describe your work as a journalist, and what you are doing as this threat looms?
As a journalist, I’m contributing to the democratic development of this country. Free media is an essential part of democracy. What inspires me and gives me the energy to continue my work is how despite all these problems, Ukraine managed to persevere and continue to develop and exist. Ukrainian people show this incredible resilience. I’m inspired tell also the world what is happening here, what this country is actually and how remarkable the spirit of its people is. It’s a hard time, but this also gives me a sense of purpose and meaning. Especially in this era with so much disinformation and propaganda, I want to give voice to people on the ground whose stories I can tell and whose voice I can become when I translate what they say to me in Ukrainian or Russian into English. So this is what I think of now as my contribution to this spirit of Ukraine resilience, persistence and perseverance.
You’ve written about being six years old and feeling proud of your parents for voting for Ukraine’s independence, encountering revolution after revolution as you grew up. You said you are learning that this will be a lifelong struggle for you, and likely the next generation. How are you thinking about that now? Are you optimistic about Ukraine’s future, and yours?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist since I was a teenager. I was an international news reporter for 15 years and I mostly focused on what was happening around the world because I was curious about other countries. Only recently have I shifted my career telling the world about Ukraine rather than Ukrainians about the world, and maybe it’s a temporary shift because it’s all eyes on Ukraine. It was never my goal to fight for Ukraine’s independence or democracy. And I wrote also in that piece that I was six and I never really appreciated Ukraine as a peaceful and independent country. It was something that was just there and I couldn’t imagine it could be otherwise. And yes, when there was the Orange Revolution, I was a student and I was distributing leaflets and I was an observer at the elections because even when I was a journalism student and then working as a journalist, I think to be a good journalist, you need to be sensitive to injustice and draw attention to problems. So that’s how I ended up reporting when the elections were clearly stolen from the people, when students were beaten up by riot police in 2013, during the second way down. There is a huge injustice that going to happen to Ukraine that Russia without any provocation, without any threat coming from Ukraine, have masked this huge number of troops to Ukrainian and borders and is threaten to invade Ukraine. This is something that I, as a journalist feel like I have to tell things how they really are and whether I’m optimistic or not.
Russia is so much more powerful or at least it looks so on paper when you look at numbers and capability, it’s the second biggest military in the world and Ukraine is incomparable. Despite the fact that yes, we are dealing with a much more powerful nuclear-capable country, the Ukrainian spirit matters. I doubt that Russian soldiers are actually motivated. If they are sent to Ukraine and they are told to risk their lives … in order to do what? To restore the Soviet empire? To preserve Putin’s regime in Russia, which I think most ordinary Russians know already how corrupt it is? The biggest strength the Ukraine now has is its spirit. People know what they are fighting for. They have a lot to lose. After eight years of war and 14,000 lives lost, they are very determined to defend and counter Russia. I don’t know if the spirit will be enough to win but I certainly hope so.
If Russia were to invade tomorrow, what will you do?
I don’t want to disclose my plans for security reasons. There are reports that Russia is making assassination lists of prominent Ukrainians, like politicians and journalists. I hope I’m not on those lists but just for security reasons, I really don’t want to publicly discuss my plans. I have a plan, but that’s all I want to say.
Correction, Feb. 25, 2022: Due to an editing error, the original caption on this article misidentified a photograph taken in Lviv, Ukraine, as taken in Kyiv. The photo has been replaced.