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At Ukraine-Belarus border, Ukrainians are pretty calm despite Russian troop buildup

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin in Kyiv, where our team has been reporting for the last week, trying to understand how Ukrainians are living through the current threat from Russia. There are now at least 120,000 Russian troops along Ukraine's borders. The Biden administration says it's ready to deploy more than 10,000 forces to Eastern Europe to help defend against a potential Russian incursion into Ukraine, which, we should say, is a big country. It's the size of New Mexico and Nevada combined and then some. So in order to get a fuller understanding of how people here feel about all this, you need to get on the road.

It's early morning in Kyiv. The sun hasn't come up quite yet. And we are getting ready to head north. We're going to drive about three hours or so up near the border with Belarus. This is where Russian troops have gathered on the Belarussian side. So we're going to go up there, talk to people who live around there and see how they're feeling about everything.

Our destination is the border crossing called Novi Yarylovychi.

So we're headed north on the highway outside of Kyiv. And we just happened upon this convoy of what appears to be military vehicles. There's a police escort. And we've passed - it looks to be at least seven or eight of these big trucks. Some of them are armored, driven by young men in uniform.

They're moving north, too, towards Belarus, where Russia has deployed battle tanks, surface-to-air missile systems, not to mention tens of thousands of Russian troops. About halfway through our journey, we pull over at a roadside convenience store.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You can say, (non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

Inside, we find a woman named Natalia (ph). Like most of the people we talked to, she only wanted us to use her first name, so she could speak openly. She says coffee is her bestseller here. But fresh pastries have just been delivered. And we see displayed on the side shelf a variety of dried fish snacks.

NATALIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: She says she only gets about 20 customers a day in the winter. But the nature of the traffic has changed.

NATALIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: I asked her about the increased presence of Russian troops so nearby.

NATALIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: "I'm worried," she says. "I've got four kids. I'm worried about their future." But when we talk further, it's clear that Natalia's more urgent concerns or practical. COVID lockdowns have kept her kids out of school. Wages are low. And she's a single mom trying to make ends meet as a clerk in this store. A few miles up the road, we hit a security checkpoint.

All right. So we're coming up on some kind of road check, security check.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: That all seemed to go just fine. Now we go. All right. We're just a couple of miles now from the border with Belarus. So we took a left off of the highway. And we're driving down this very snowy road. It's beautiful, actually. We're in a pine forest. And it's really quiet. And we're going to see if we can talk to some of the people who live here right near the border.

We come upon the village of Stari Yarylovychi (ph). Village is generous because this is really just a dozen houses or so. Many of them are abandoned. We stop at a house with blue-and-white-painted shutters and plants in the window.

Hello.

VERA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: An older woman named Vera (ph) comes to the gate.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken) Rachel.

VERA: Vera.

MARTIN: Vera?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Vera.

VERA: Vera, (non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: She's wearing a purple sweater with a small hole on the shoulder. She's got matching purple streaks in her hair. And a couple very prominent gold teeth appear when she smiles.

VERA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: She tells us she hears military planes overhead. But she's so close to the border, that's pretty normal.

VERA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Her husband then appears in this camouflage jacket...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

VERA: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: ...Not trusting who we are. And he asks for our IDs.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He's clearly not interested in talking. And our conversation with Vera comes to an abrupt end.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: The next village over, we meet a man with green mittens and a toothless grin walking down the road. He tells us he's heading back to his job at the gas station on the corner after visiting with his ex-wife. I didn't ask for details.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He thinks Vladimir Putin has already gotten enough of Ukraine. He took Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk. And he won't take anymore. But he says, I'm just a regular guy. And he shrugs his shoulders and heads back down the road. Military analysts in the U.S. say if Russia were to advance further into Ukraine, it's very likely to happen through Belarus. But it's almost like the closer we get to the border, the less likely people are to see the buildup as an existential threat. It's almost too close. To acknowledge it would be just too unsettling. We keep going down the road. We pass a statue of a soldier, a memorial to World War II that you see in a lot of villages around here. And then we spot a fit-looking man wearing an old-style Russian fur hat. His name is Leonid (ph).

LEONID: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He remembers back in 2014. It was stressful. People cleaned out the shelves at grocery stores, he tells me, snatching up essentials in case the conflict spread north. He doesn't fear war in the same way now. But the threat alone is harmful. He says Putin doesn't have to go to war to destabilize Ukraine. Just having troops on the border, making the threat, has been enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE WHIRRING)

MARTIN: OK. So we're standing at the border. To my right, south, is Ukraine. To my left, north, is Belarus. And we're in the in-between.

A young guy shows up to check out our IDs and sign paperwork. At first, we think it's a press officer here to escort us to his boss. Turns out he is the boss, 24-year-old Chief Lieutenant Vladislav Horbin (ph). He won't tell us how many border patrol officers are here or whether any other military units have been deployed in the area.

VLADISLAV HORBIN: This is secret information.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: OK.

HORBIN: OK.

MARTIN: Oh, secret information. Right.

But he does say the Ukrainian footprint here has increased in recent weeks. I asked him if he's seen evidence of the Russian troop buildup on the other side of the border. He says, no. But people who are crossing from Belarus talk about seeing unidentified military convoys.

HORBIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: Does he discuss this with his friends, his colleagues, I ask him, this potential Russian threat that is so close? No, he says. We talk about vacations and girls.

Does your mom worry about you here?

HORBIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: "Yes, everyone is worrying for their children," he tells me. "It's our country. We need to defend our country." We're standing outside, and it's cold. He's a serious guy. And it seemed like he was ready to be done with us. So it was sort of surprising when he asked us to come inside the border tower to his office for tea.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So if you're finished, he want to propose you tea or coffee.

MARTIN: Yes. That would be great.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: OK. OK.

MARTIN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Come with me (laughter).

MARTIN: OK.

Which is where we discovered that a Russian incursion into Ukraine isn't just hypothetical to Lieutenant Horbin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEET THUMPING)

MARTIN: Hey.

HORBIN: Not bad, eh?

MARTIN: It's not bad, not bad.

He's from Luhansk. And he was 16 years old when Russian-backed separatists took control of the region in 2014.

HORBIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: He was going to a special military high school a couple hours from his hometown. But because of the war, his school sent everyone home. And his education was delayed by a year. Now this 24-year-old, with a worried mother back home, is in charge of one of the most important borders in Ukraine, a new possible front line if an attack from Russia materializes. He tells me this moment is different from 2014 in one big way. Now, he says, Ukraine is stronger.

HORBIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: As we get ready to leave, I notice a book laying in the middle of his office desk. It's in Ukrainian. I can't read the title. I ask if it's a novel, something to pass the time during quiet shifts. No, he says, it's a book of military strategy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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