KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainians say they are increasingly confused and angered after encountering the bellicose rhetoric, aggressive posturing and domineering attitude of a powerful foreign government.
They don’t mean the government in Moscow — but the ones in Washington, London and elsewhere in Western Europe.
Ukrainian officials are grateful for Western aid and assistance, while expressing genuine unease about a Russian invasion. But they’re also barely able to contain their frustration with Washington’s warnings of war.
Many here say they believe that instead of putting Moscow on notice, the warnings are playing directly into its hand — shaking confidence in Ukraine’s leadership and damaging the country’s fragile economy.
“It is not what the West and partners have promised us,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based watchdog group. “They were saying there will be a swift, fast, strong reaction against Russia in case it continues its aggression as is happening now. And it’s Ukraine that is paying the cost.”
As Russia masses an estimated 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, American officials have issued increasingly urgent and specific warnings about Moscow’s intentions. There are warnings of “crisis actors” staging Russian “false flag” terrorist operations to foment a pretext for war. Others have been alarmingly specific, predicting an invasion within days.
Various media reports, unconfirmed by NBC News, even cited Wednesday as the specific invasion date. In a speech Monday that was later posted on his Facebook profile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy brought up those reports in what was an apparent attempt to mock or dismiss them, instead christening Wednesday as a calming “Unity Day” for patriotic dress-up.
“Some have been trying to frighten us by war,” he said. “They’ve even named the concrete date of invasion. This is not the first time.”
Zelenskyy’s apparent attempt at humor or sarcasm was taken at face value by parts of the international media, including NBC News, forcing a clarification from his office.
The business losses and the cost to Ukrainian taxpayers have been considerably less amusing. Airlines have canceled flights into Ukraine because of fears of an invasion and the U.S. skyrocketing insurance costs. On Sunday, the government created a $590 million fund to guarantee flights over Ukrainian territory, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Fitch ratings agency revised down the country’s outlook to “stable” from “positive” nearly two weeks ago. And at least one international airline, the Netherlands’ KLM, has suspended flights to the country.
“Our economy and financial situation are bearing losses. This is a consequence of information hysteria, which is actively supported by some officials and the media in Western countries,” said Danylo Hetmantsev, chairman of the tax committee in the Ukrainian parliament. “There are virtually no grounds to suggest that there are more threats to the escalation of the conflict in the east today than at any other time in the last eight years.”
The Biden administration stepped in to help Monday by offering Ukraine a loan guarantee of $1 billion to help its economy recover from the crisis.
Despite the massive marshaling of ground and naval forces choking Ukraine on three sides, many Ukrainians see the threat level as having barely increased. They note that Ukraine has been at war with Russian-backed separatists for eight years, during which 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed.
Seen in that light, the current bloodless tensions just don’t seem so dire, many in Ukraine say.
Beyond the very immediate financial concerns, the crisis has also left Ukraine in a perverse political position: wounded by the same Western countries that claim to protect it.
As a result, Zelenskyy has become the rare Ukrainian leader to openly question the United States. Just this weekend he demanded that the U.S. government provide proof to back up its claims that a Russian invasion was imminent. And Monday morning, Ukraine’s Security Service released a statement that seemed aimed as much at the American government and the mass media, as at Russia.
It isn’t that Ukrainian officials are brushing off the Russian threat. On the contrary, two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss intelligence and security issues with journalists, said Kyiv is taking the Western warnings seriously and is quietly making rapid preparations for war.
But the calls for calm make sense: panic clearly won’t help the situation, they said.
Some of the intelligence that seems to irk the Ukrainian government the most is speculation about a specific invasion date, and the alleged Russian plan to fabricate a pretext for an invasion using a fake video involving actors.
Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian politicians are quick to note that they have their own assessments, and if Washington’s intelligence is to be believed, it should come with solid proof.
“We don’t see many changes from the Ukrainian side,” Roman Kostenko, a former commander of one of the units of Alpha Group, the special forces of the Security Service, said of Washington’s more immediate warnings.
“If we receive information from our Western partners, from the U.S., the U.K., about the possibility of increasing military threats, then we need to appeal to them and ask for their reconnaissance from their side to understand what they have that we don’t have.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday evening that “we have been very transparent” with Ukrainian officials.
But the overwhelming message from the Ukrainian government is a frustration with the relentless vicissitudes of Western warnings. The on-again, off-again panic has led to a kind of “boy-who-cried-wolf” resignation — especially amongst a population that has dealt with Russian aggression for centuries.
“Now [the U.S.] has raised the bar again, but in my opinion, they have raised the bar of this threat to the maximum,” said Pavlo Kukhta, a Ukrainian economist and the former acting minister of economic development, trade and agriculture. “Keeping the whole country in such a state — ‘tomorrow the Russians attack’ — is impossible because people just get used to it.”