At weekends Yevgeny Tereshchenko goes to the woods outside Kyiv and practises his shooting. “We need to be ready, morally and physically,” Tereshchenko explained, showing off a video in which he springs athletically into action and fires a rifle several times.
A Ukrainian army officer until two years ago, Tereshchenko is preparing for a possible Russian attack. If Moscow does launch a further military operation against Ukraine, assuming diplomatic talks fail this week, he and his friends are ready to fight, he said. “There are a lot of us. It’s our house, our country,” he pointed out.
Tereshchenko conceded that Russia has a formidable army, with 100,000 troops massed on the border. It could swiftly overrun much of Ukraine “in a Blitzkrieg”, he said. But he predicted that should the Kremlin seize new territory it would quickly find itself embroiled in a bloody and costly partisan war.
“There will be many Russian casualties,” he anticipated. “The Kremlin can seize runways, demand concessions. But they will find it hard to hold cities. During the day they will see a civilian population. At night we will attack them with weapons and grenades.”
As Russia and the US sat down on Monday for talks in Geneva, with Nato-Russia negotiations due to take place on Wednesday, the mood in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was calm. Snow had settled for the first time this winter on the city’s cobbled boulevards and fairytale art nouveau mansions.
Some people, like Tereshchenko, were following political events keenly. Others were doing their best to avoid them. One local journalist said she had gone on vacation, reasoning that it made sense to take a break now before a possible Russian attack later this month.
“Actually I had an exam today. I’m focused on normal life,” said Nikita, a 20-year-old IT student sitting in a downtown coffee bar.
“This situation has been going on since 2014. You can’t live under constant pressure. You adapt.”
His friend Diana admitted: “I’m trying not to think about it. It’s too much negative.
“Yes, the situation with Vladimir Putin is a bit scary. But we have so many other problems in Ukraine, including Covid. To think about one more is hard,” she said, before jumping in an Uber.
Others were fatalistic in the face of Kremlin threats. Last summer Putin published an essay in which he asserted Ukraine and Russia were “one people”. He wants Nato to rule out membership for Ukraine and effectively to return eastern Europe to a Russian zone of influence.
Would there be more war? “What Putin thinks he generally does,” Tatiana, a middle-aged pharmacist, said. “I wouldn’t describe myself at this moment as an optimist.” She added: “Some of the things he has written about history are ridiculous. He twists things for his own purposes. He lies.”
Tereshchenko said he had fought in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists run their own mini-fiefdoms from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. He said there were some “traitors” active in Ukrainian politics, who would be willing to work with Russia in the event of a takeover.
Ukraine and Russia are different countries with different traditions – one democratic, the other strongly autocratic and repressive, he said. He reeled off a series of dates, starting with 1648 when Ukrainian Cossacks allied with Crimean Tartars to throw out their Polish overlords.
The rebellion led to the creation of a hetmanate, a “democratic system” in which Ukrainians voted for a military chief or hetman. At the same time, eastern Ukraine became part of the Russian empire. Over the next two centuries Ukrainian traditions, culture and language were eroded, he said.
Ukrainian statehood was too precious and too hard won to be sacrificed once again to Russian ambitions, he suggested. “There are groups of us in every town. Resistance won’t stop.”
Tereshchenko was scathing about the US-Russia discussions taking place in Switzerland. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was not at the table. “It’s true our leadership is weak. But how can you decide the future of a state without the state present?” he said.