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Anxiety in Ukraine as Russia and NATO bolster forces, blame each other

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Kyiv, Ukraine — With more than 100,000 Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border, the U.S. government ordered the families of American staff members to leave the country's capital, Kyiv. The State Department advised all private U.S. citizens to do the same, along with American non-essential embassy personnel.

Moscow has denied a British government intelligence report suggesting that President Vladimir Putin wants to install a puppet government in Kyiv. But with his forces now deployed on three sides of Ukraine, American officials say Putin has the capacity to launch an invasion at any point — though they remain uncertain as to whether he's made the decision to do so.

The Kremlin has sent mixed signals. Moscow denies any intention to invade Ukraine, as it did in 2014, but has warned repeatedly of unspecified "military action" if Putin's demands — most notably for NATO to rule out accepting new members in eastern Europe, including Ukraine — are not met.

What are Putin's intentions in Ukraine?

But while American and British diplomats pack their families up and send them home, many Ukrainians tell CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams that they have nowhere to run. They can only hope for peace, while the threat of a Russian attack hangs over them.

Williams traveled from Kyiv to a crossing point on Ukraine's northern border with Russia. Just across the frontier, Russia has massed tens of thousands of its forces — on its own soil. Just to the west, Russian fighter jets, troops and missile systems have been moved into Belarus — a Russian ally that also shares a border with Ukraine — for what Moscow says are military exercises. Three decades after the Cold War inspired hope for a safer, more stable world, a U.S. ally in Europe is living in fear of a Russian invasion. Nina Belaya lives in one of the villages nearest to the border — potentially in the firing line if there is any Russian incursion. She showed Williams her cellar, where she stores food for the winter and where, more recently, she's planned to hole up for shelter if Russia attacks.

Nina Belaya, left, who lives in a Ukrainian village near the border with Russia, speaks with CBS News correspondent Holly Williams. / Credit: CBS News
Nina Belaya, left, who lives in a Ukrainian village near the border with Russia, speaks with CBS News correspondent Holly Williams. / Credit: CBS News

Many Ukrainians now believe their freedom and their country's young democracy are being threatened by their colossal neighbor, and what some believe is Vladimir Putin's ambition to create a new Russian empire. Russia insists there are no plans to launch an invasion, and Putin's government blames the soaring tension on the U.S. and its allies, for arming Ukraine and refusing to reduce the Western military presence in the region.

But the fact is that Ukraine is already fighting Russian-backed separatists, and it has been since Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The U.S. has stepped up its support of Ukraine's forces with both training and weapons. The latest support, $200 million in emergency military assistance from the U.S., has already started arriving.

On Monday, NATO said member states had put forces on standby and deployed at least one warship and fighter jets to Eastern European nations as part of efforts "reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance."

"NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

The Spanish Navy frigate Blas de Lezo sails from Ferrol, in Galicia, Spain, to join NATO's permanent grouping number 2 in the Black Sea, January 22, 2022, after the warship's departure was brought forward by three weeks due to the crisis in Ukraine. / Credit: Jose Diaz/Europa Press/Getty
The Spanish Navy frigate Blas de Lezo sails from Ferrol, in Galicia, Spain, to join NATO's permanent grouping number 2 in the Black Sea, January 22, 2022, after the warship's departure was brought forward by three weeks due to the crisis in Ukraine. / Credit: Jose Diaz/Europa Press/Getty

"We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment," he said, noting Denmark's recent deployment of a warship and some planes to the Baltic states, Spain boosting its naval presence in the Mediterranean and the Netherlands putting one ship and some land-based military units on standby.

A Pentagon official told CBS News' David Martin over the weekend, meanwhile, that President Biden had been presented with options to send "several thousand" American troops to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies in the face of the Russian buildup.

Russia reacted to the NATO movements, and the possibility of more U.S. troops arriving in what it considers its backyard, by claiming it all as further evidence that it is the West stoking tension, not Moscow.

Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov, who heads the defense committee in Russia's parliament, said Moscow would "respond appropriately" if the United States sent more forces to Eastern Europe or the Baltic countries, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

The attempt to frame the crisis as the West's fault is all straight out of Russia's playbook, according to former U.S. National Security Advisor, General HR McMaster.

"What they do is they twist reality," he told CBS News. "They're always denying what is quite obvious in terms of the form of aggression that they're undertaking." McMaster said President Putin only understands one thing: deterrence, and if the U.S. should have learned one thing by now about how to negotiate with his government, it's that the Russian leader will always push his luck.

"It's power. I think Putin understands this," said McMaster. "Putin will take whatever he can get."

Another shipment of U.S. military hardware and munitions was expected to arrive in Kyiv on Tuesday morning.

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