Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine has a large Russian population, but opinion has turned against Russia since the Kemlin stirred up a separatist war in the nearby Donbas and is threatening invasion.


Let’s go to Ukraine’s second largest city, just over the border from Russia. More than 100,000 Russian troops appear ready to invade. And this week’s diplomatic talks in Europe don’t seem to have reduced that threat. Russia still demands that Ukraine never be allowed to join the NATO alliance. The U.S. and NATO still insist that this is a matter for Ukraine to decide.

Meanwhile, as U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter noted, those Russian troops are conducting live fire exercises.


MICHAEL CARPENTER: The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill.

SHAPIRO: NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley is in Kharkiv, Ukraine, about 25 miles from Russia. Hi, Eleanor.


SHAPIRO: Well, do you hear the drums of war beating?

BEARDSLEY: You know what? I don’t. And people here have told me they’re not expecting war. And they say that perhaps the Russians could go into the two areas Donetsk and Lugansk that are already under the control of the Russian-backed separatists, but they don’t expect them here in Kharkiv.

And they’ve gone out of their way to show that Russian troops would not be welcomed. You know, I came here expecting to find pro-Russian sentiment in the east, and I haven’t seen that at all, Ari. To the contrary, there are Ukrainian flags everywhere. And in front of the town hall and the Christmas market, there’s a big exhibit about Russian aggression. There’s, like, pictures showing Putin with a Hitler mustache and signs talking about boycotting Russian products.

And people here even tell me that they’re making an effort now to speak Ukrainian, whereas before everyone mostly always spoke Russian.

SHAPIRO: That is fascinating. Eleanor, you and I were both in eastern Ukraine in 2014 when people predominantly spoke Russian. There was a lot of pro-Russian sentiment. Tell us about this difference that you’re observing.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, Ari. You know, when we were in Donetsk in the beginning of the uprising, which is now under separatist control, there was a lot of excitement there maybe Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second largest city – would come over to the Russian separatist side, but that didn’t happen at all. And now the people have been watching the miserable, chaotic situation of the two so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk for the last eight years, and they want no part of it. You know, this is a university town.

I met a professor here, Tatiana Smitska (ph). She’s been teaching 20 years, and here’s what she told me.

TATIANA SMITSKA: We live in the east. But after 2014, the situation has changed a lot, and a lot of people started to think that Russia is not our friend, but the enemy. And our east support in Kharkiv as well – it became more Ukrainian that it used to be.

SHAPIRO: So interesting. Walk us through what would happen if Russia did decide to invade this part of Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: You know, Ari, it would be like a foreign army invasion – not like Slavic brothers coming to help. You know, today I went to the History Museum of Kharkiv, and it had – has a big exhibit from World War II where the Soviet Army, the Red Army, Russians and Ukrainians together fought the Nazis. And that was fascinating, but there’s a new exhibit – well, since 2015 – about the war in the east that has been stoked by Russia. And, you know, it shows pictures of the Kharkiv sons who have gone to battle and the battalions from here and the civilians helping them. So I spoke with the Museum historian Sergei Deneco (ph), and here’s what he told me in Ukrainian.

SERGEI DENECO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEARDSLEY: He said, you know, the best signal to Putin is that thousands of people from eastern Ukraine, including from Kharkiv region, are serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. And he pointed out also that that war has been going on in eastern Ukraine for eight years.

SHAPIRO: And how has that war in Donetsk and Luhansk affected life in Kharkiv, which is not far away?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you can’t tell there’s a war going on at all. There are Christmas lights everywhere. The city looks beautiful. You know, it’s the Orthodox Christmas season. It’s a university town. There are loads of foreign students here, particularly from India and Africa. So it’s really strange to think of this juxtaposition of these troops on one border, and yet the borders are open to the world, to excited young people studying to be doctors here. And I actually asked some Indian students if they were scared of the Russian invasion, and they just laughed.

SHAPIRO: That’s NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Thank you very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Ari.

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