PERVOMAIS’KE, Ukraine—The torturous, months-long “will he, won’t he” guessing game that Vladimir Putin has forced upon the world may soon end in bloodshed and devastation, as there is now little doubt that the Russian president will make the earth-shattering decision to invade neighboring Ukraine, according to multiple reports citing NATO and US officials that emerged on Friday.
With Russian aggression along Ukraine’s border escalating, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that though the White House has not definitively concluded that Putin has already ordered an invasion, the threat is now “a very, very distinct possibility” that could take place as early as next week. He encouraged all US citizens to leave the country within the next 48 hours.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Ukrainian town of Pervomais’ke, just a couple of kilometers from the frontlines, thousands anxiously await what’s to come—whatever that may be—with no option to leave. That includes 28-year-old handyman Evgeny Linkin, who spoke with The Daily Beast this week in between scattered gunfire and sudden explosions in the distance.
“If Russia wanted to take all of this, I think that it would be very easy,” Linkin told The Daily Beast, as he stood next to his rusty old bicycle on a snow-covered field on his way back from work. If an invasion does take place, Linkin said, “I will fight to protect my home.”
The real-life consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are painfully visible here in the outskirts of Pervomais’ke. Countless residents have been displaced and over 14,000 killed since 2014, when war broke out between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in the Eastern Donbas region. Residents now fear another escalation on a scale the world has not seen in decades.
“I think that we should do anything to stop the war,” said Linkin, even if that means giving into Putin’s demands that Ukraine never join NATO or the EU “It is really hard to live here. There is almost nothing.”
“I was born here, so why should I leave? I have nowhere to go.”
Russia has more than 100,000 soldiers stationed near the Ukrainian border, the largest number since the 1990s. With them, a terrifying supply of artillery, tanks, and missiles that have raised alarm bells in Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean. Given that Moscow’s troops are stationed along the south, east, and northern parts of Ukraine, a strike could come from virtually any direction. The threat is so imminent that US President Joe Biden has deployed some 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe to protect the region. Roughly 1,700 will go to Poland. Others will go to Romania.
During the intense fighting in Pervomais’ke in 2014 and 2015, 54-year-old Aleksij Savgira knew that it would be just a matter of time before his house was hit. One early morning in 2015, when he was asleep with his family, it finally happened. A mortar hit a house nearby and fragments penetrated his house and destroyed his roof, but spared him and his family.
“It wasn’t any surprise,” Savgira, who has no plans to evacuate, told The Daily Beast. “I have my family here, my mother lives here. I was born here, so why should I leave? I have nowhere to go,” he said. “I really hope that no new invasion will happen, but if it does, I will stay here. I don’t want Russia to take this place, it would be really difficult to live here if they do, but I will have no choice but to stay.”
Like many others near the frontline, Savgira cannot grasp “what it is that Russia would want from this poverty-stricken city.” “My neighbor has very good tomatoes in the summer. I can go to him and ask for a few, even propose to buy a few from him, but I don’t go and steal them,” he told The Daily Beast. “I cannot understand that Russia did this. You don’t just go and invade.”
Meanwhile, the US and its allies have been working on getting “the mother of all sanctions” ready to deter Russia from an invasion. It is still unclear what exactly these measures will look like, but they’re expected to include personal sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, as well as the closure of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Europe.
“They should come here and see for themselves. Experience how it is to live here.”
Through all the turmoil, Putin has denied that he plans to go into Ukraine, even as Western intelligence agencies accused Russia of planning a false-flag operation to use as a pretext for an invasion. Instead, Moscow has labeled NATO the provocateur, demanding the alliance adhere to its list of security demands, which include a guarantee that NATO will limit its military activity in Eastern Europe, and a cast-iron commitment that Ukraine will never join.
The US and NATO have staunchly refused to give in to those demands, leading to a dangerous stalemate that—despite the efforts of French President Emmanuel Macron and other Western leaders who tried to talk down Putin this week—might soon erupt into all-out war .
As war began to seem more and more likely on Friday night, Russia’s foreign ministry took things up a notch by accusing Western journalists of being in on a worldwide “conspiracy” to stoke tensions in Ukraine.
In a lengthy diatribe on its official website, the foreign ministry claimed there was a “conspiracy by authorities of Western countries and the media to escalate artificial tension around Ukraine” by publishing “fake” stories about an impending Russian invasion. The claim, which flies in the face of the tens of thousands of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine’s borders, risks putting journalists on the frontlines in the crosshairs, much like similar propaganda did in the early days of the conflict in the Donbas.
Back in Pervomais’ke, 42-year-old Ekaterina Shulgina heads one of only two kiosks in the city. When asked why she remains in the city, Shulgina repeats a common phrase heard all over Eastern Ukraine’s frontline: “I have nowhere to go,” she told The Daily Beast.
“This was a good town before. We had buses going to Donetsk every day and everyone had work. Now, we have one bus every 14 days, taxis are too expensive, so we are just stuck here,” said Shulgina, the mother of a 4-year-old boy.
Shulgina wants peace even if it means making concessions to Russia, like granting autonomy to territories held by the separatists. According to her, the people who argue that peace can only be achieved through military might are often the ones who live “far away from here.” “They should come here and see for themselves. Experience how it is to live here,” she said.
Pervomais’ke was taken under separatist control back in 2014 for a few months. Shulgina recalls waking up one day to separatists driving into the city, telling her that this is now Russian territory. Back then, she just kept on with her life, the same way she did when the Ukrainian army later claimed the area.
That is also her plan this time around. “I will do the same if Russia attacks,” she told The Daily Beast. “Hide until the fighting is over, and then go back to my life.”