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With Russian troops massed at the border, Ukrainians are preparing for a possible invasion

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The U.S. is warning that Russia is preparing a pretext to invade Ukraine, and Ukrainians are increasingly nervous. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers remain on their border, and last week's international efforts to defuse the crisis ended without even an agreement to continue talking. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has been traveling around Ukraine and joins me now from the capital, Kyiv. Good morning, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What are people in Kyiv doing, and how are they feeling?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Kyiv feels kind of normal. Church bells rang out this morning. But if you go outside of town a little bit, you can find regular Ukrainian citizens doing military training to prepare to defend their city from a possible invasion. Yesterday, I went to one of these trainings, which are held on the outskirts in a forest in a kind of decrepit former industrial site.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: About 60 men and women are learning urban and guerrilla fighting tactics, and a good number of the participants were in their 40s and even 50s. And these people told me they're just fed up. Eight years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin took Crimea, a beloved place for Ukrainians, and stirred up separatist sentiment and a war in eastern Ukraine, and now he's threatening to invade. Here's what 51-year-old - digital marketer in his regular life - Alexeee Vesilchenka told me.

ALEXEEE VESILCHENKA: We - eight years have conflict, war with Russia. When you have crazy neighbors - for example, you have private house around you, go crazy neighbors with a knife and all time say, I will kill you. I will kill you. I need to protect my house, my family, and I need to protect my country.

BEARDSLEY: You know, these people say they're fighting for something bigger than just Ukraine. And they called Putin, many of them, the 21st century's Hitler.

PFEIFFER: Eleanor, do these Ukrainian civilians actually think they can fight the Russian army?

BEARDSLEY: What they know is they're defending their homes and their neighborhoods in Kyiv. Of course, Ukraine has a professional army, Sacha. Of course, it's nowhere near a match for the Russian Army. But I did speak to a retired Ukrainian general, and he told me that the situation compared with 2014 is night and day. He said today the Ukrainian army is bigger, better equipped and trained, and he says the forces are motivated and, most importantly, they're defending their own territory.

PFEIFFER: So I understand the Ukrainians you've talked to say they're willing to die defending Ukrainian independence. But what about people in the east, in the areas that have been under the control of Russian-backed separatists?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know, Sacha, I didn't go to the separatist republics. It's really difficult to get in. But there are many civilians and families who fled them, and they live in Kyiv now. And I did speak with one, 29-year-old, Sasha Popov, and here's what he told me.

SASHA POPOV: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: So he's saying that people in those republics have been brainwashed by Russian propaganda, the mass media. He says his former neighbors are being told that NATO is going to attack them, Russia is protecting them from NATO, and Ukrainians to the west are fascists. And he told me that the two sides now are irreconcilable.

I did go to the east to a big city - Ukraine's second largest, Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the Russian border. And in 2014, there was some pro-Russian sentiment there. It's completely changed now. That's a staunchly pro-Ukrainian town. And people told me that, actually, Putin is helping solidify a Ukrainian national identity.

PFEIFFER: Eleanor, you mentioned that Russia is telling people that NATO is going to attack Ukraine, but Ukraine isn't a member of NATO. So it seems unlikely the U.S. and NATO allies would be sending troops to Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: No, they wouldn't, Sacha. The U.S. and NATO do support the Ukrainian army, but if the Russians do cross the line and invade, they will definitely step up that support. But you're right. Ukraine is nowhere near becoming a member of NATO. But Putin is using that as an excuse to mass these troops on the border and to pressure the west into guaranteeing that Ukraine will never be allowed into NATO. And the west has said, no, countries should be able to choose their own alliances. And what's interesting is that a year ago, just a small minority of Ukrainians wanted to be part of NATO. Today, Putin has actually pushed a majority of Ukrainians to say, yeah, we'd like to belong. So he's pushing them into the arms of NATO and the west.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley at a busy airport in Kyiv. Eleanor, thank you for doing that before a flight.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.