Ukrainians on edge as fighting escalates with Russian-backed rebels

·3 min read
Ukrainians on edge as fighting escalates with Russian-backed rebels

Kyiv, Ukraine — For millions of Ukrainians, there is no evacuation plan if Russia does invade their country. As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports, people across Ukraine have been on edge for weeks, hoping for any sign of a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the country's borders.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba welcomed the possibility of a summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, saying he hoped it might lead to Russia pulling back the estimated 170,000-190,000 troops massed around his country's northern, eastern and southern borders.

But the glimmer of hope for diplomacy came at the end of a weekend full of dramatic developments.

As D'Agata reports, Russia made its most elaborate and choreographed show of force to date, holding nuclear military drills by land, sea and air. And while President Putin was on hand to observe the war games personally, his government knew full well it wasn't just Putin watching.Far more worrying, however, was the announcement that tens of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus — poised to strike from just across Ukraine's northwest border — will remain in the country indefinitely despite previous pledges from Moscow to bring them home after exercises there concluded on Sunday.

Meanwhile, there has been a dramatic escalation in shelling by Russian-backed separatists on the front lines in eastern Ukraine.

A Ukrainian serviceman is seen outside of Svitlodarsk, Ukraine, February 21, 2022. / Credit: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency/Getty
A Ukrainian serviceman is seen outside of Svitlodarsk, Ukraine, February 21, 2022. / Credit: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency/Getty

All this while the rebel leaders ramped up the propaganda war, warning of an alleged impending assault by Ukrainian forces.The rebels say tens of thousands of civilians have been evacuated from their territory into Russia, for their own safety. That has raised fears that Putin might use the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians to justify an invasion of Ukraine.Despite the ominous developments over the weekend, however, it was still business as usual in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv on Monday. But D'Agata says the prevailing calm in the city is being tested more every day by a rising sense of concern."Of course I am worried about my safety, of my family and my children, of course," Kyiv resident Maria told CBS News.

But Alexei, who also lives in the capital, said he had no plans to leave the city yet, "because I think many, many, many information in internet, in social media, is just fake."

He said he wished people would "keep calm and believe in Ukraine."Natalia, who also spoke to CBS News on the streets of Kyiv, admitted to being afraid, however.

"This is our motherland, our people, our children, and that's why I'm afraid," she told D'Agata.

Hundreds of women took part in survival and self-defense courses over the weekend in Kyiv, but they, like all Ukrainians, know their country's forces are no match for the military might of Russia.Nobody in Ukraine wants to believe a full-scale invasion is either imminent or inevitable.

The sharp escalation in fighting in the east is the most pressing concern in Kyiv right now.

Over the weekend, D'Agata and his team went to the front line of the conflict that has simmered already for eight years, visiting a location not far from a recent artillery attack.

Ukrainian commanders there told CBS News the escalation was like nothing they'd seen in years.

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