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The messaging from Ukrainian officials is that a Russian invasion isn't imminent


Listening to the rhetoric from the U.S. and some European capitals, you might think a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, but Ukrainian national leaders are sending a very different message. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been on the streets of Kyiv trying to assess the mood.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I watch crowds of Ukrainians from across the country march in downtown Kyiv blowing little horns. War was the last thing on their minds.

What are you protesting?

DENIS KASYANOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

ESTRIN: Small business owners were protesting a tax law that requires them to give customers proper receipts. This man, Denis Kasyanov, isn't worried about the bigger problem looming - possible war with Russia. He doesn't think it'll happen.

That was yesterday. The day before, I also heard some noise and saw demonstrators marching with flags.

SERHEY HORLOV: Marching and protesting - not vaccine.

ESTRIN: No to COVID-19 vaccines - Serhey Horlov, a 37-year-old construction worker, follows a Telegram channel that warns against the vaccines. Ukrainian intelligence and independent researchers say Russia is pushing anti-vaccine sentiment on Telegram.

What I am not seeing on the streets are demonstrations against the Russian buildup along Ukraine's borders. Today, NPR did meet some Ukrainians whose families are stockpiling food, but the message from Ukrainian national leaders has been don't panic.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "You need to breathe, calm down. There's no need to rush to buy buckwheat and matches." That's Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week in an Instagram video.


DAVID ARAKHAMIA: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Zelensky's party leader in Parliament, David Arakhamia, said yesterday that the Russian military tents and mobile barracks across the border are half empty. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov gave this assessment to Parliament yesterday.


OLEKSII REZNIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said, as of today, there are no grounds to believe Russia will invade imminently, all this in distinct contrast to U.S. assessments that a Russian incursion could come any day.

More than 100,000 troops are already on Ukraine's eastern, southern and northern borders. The U.S. charge d'affaires in Kyiv, Kristina Kvien, went to the airport yesterday to greet the latest delivery of American Javelin anti-tank missiles and ammunition to the Ukrainian military.


KRISTINA KVIEN: Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine at the behest of the Kremlin will face fierce resistance. The losses to Russia will be heavy.

ESTRIN: More U.S. military aid is being rushed to Ukraine. I asked Ukrainian media researcher Vitalii Rybak how he's making sense of these mixed messages.

VITALII RYBAK: Frankly speaking, I am just as lost as to where this might go. There are loud statements from Western officials, from Western intelligence and also statements from Ukrainian officials which often are not in line but contradict each other.

ESTRIN: Like many people here, Rybak tends to believe Ukrainian officials' assurances that war is not imminent. Instead, he thinks Russia is using the crisis to extract concessions from the U.S. and NATO's.

RYBAK: Cornered people are very dangerous, and if Russia were cornered, who knows what it might do?

ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.