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Ukrainians Wary Of Putin's Designs On Their Country



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Crimeans are voting today on whether to break away from Ukraine. The Ukrainian government and the West have condemned the Russian-led referendum. Adding to tensions, on Saturday, Russian forces moved to occupy a gas depot in another Ukrainian region. In the capital city of Kiev, people see the move as further proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin's designs on their country will not end in Crimea.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Kiev.

ARTYOM KLUCHNIKOV: What do you what to do with it?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thirty-six-year-old Artyom Kluchnikov walks home from the subway station to his apartment in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Kiev. Crossing a landscape of gray, Soviet-era apartment blocks, Kluchnikov says he and other neighbors are wrestling with tough decisions about the future.

KLUCHNIKOV: Everybody is thinking about first, exit strategy for the family. And secondly, how are we going to prepare for fighting?

BEARDSLEY: What do you mean exit strategy for the family?

KLUCHNIKOV: Well, I mean if something starts happening at the eastern border of Ukraine, I'm going to send my family to the western part of Ukraine at the least. And if Poland opens its borders for refugees that probably that will be the next step.


BEARDSLEY: We head up two flights of stairs through a dark, graffiti-scrawled hallway to a warm welcome by Kluchnikov's 3-year-old daughter, Olena.

OLENA KLUCHNIKOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Olena helps make tea with her mother, Marina, before breaking into a little song.

KLUCHNIKOV: (Singing in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Kluchnikov works as translator and does other odd jobs. His wife, Marina, is getting her Ph.D. at in economics. The couple has two other children and they live in a three-room flat on a tight budget. Every decision counts, especially these days. Like whether or not they can buy a new skateboard for their 13-year-old son, Nikita.

Because they're expensive or because you can't find one?

KLUCHNIKOV: Well, for us they're expensive.

MARINA KLUCHNIKOV: Because we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow when we need our money to go. Just in case, because they say that, you know, major cities are the main targets, you know, if something happens.


BEARDSLEY: Along with such grim thoughts, I'm served cake and tea with honey. Ukrainian hospitality never wavers. Though they didn't participate in the occupation of Kiev's Maidan Square, the young couple supported the protest movement against their corrupt government. They can hardly believe what's happened in the past few months - the killing of protesters, their president fleeing, and now the stand-off with Russia. The couple is stunned by the Russian military's aggressive moves and what they say is a propaganda war being waged by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But Marina says experience has taught Ukrainians they must go on.

KLUCHNIKOV: We have this saying. (Foreign language spoken). War is war, but the dinner should be ready in time.

BEARDSLEY: The Kluchnikov's say they hope the West will stand by Ukraine. The country gave up its nuclear arsenal with assurances its sovereignty would be guaranteed. Now they wonder if that was perhaps a mistake. But Ukraine must turn toward Europe, says Artyom Kluchnikov.

KLUCHNIKOV: We believe that certain democratic values are appreciated in the West, which are not appreciated and are put down in Russia. And I don't want that for my country. I don't want it for my children.

BEARDSLEY: Some days Marina says all she can do is lie on the couch and cry. She prays a lot. Their son Nikita worries that his father will have to fight in the army. Ten-year-old daughter Masha woke up with nightmares after hearing her parents talk of hastily leaving. Kluchnikov says these days, the only certainty is uncertainty.

KLUCHNIKOV: Because, yeah, people have different ideas about what Putin is going to do. Whether it's going to be just Crimea or eastern and southern parts, or it's going to be Kiev.

BEARDSLEY: Today's referendum on whether Ukraine will lose Crimea is hardly reassuring to the Kluchnikovs.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kiev. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.