On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had been skirting the issue for weeks, finally addressed his people via video about rumors of an imminent Russian invasion. With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops all but encircling his country, Zelensky assured his people that despite “bogeyman stories,” and media “sources of mass hysteria” promoting the notion “that war may start tomorrow,” the reality was that everything was “under control” and “going according to plan."
“Take a deep breath. Calm down,” Zelensky told his countrymen. There was absolutely no reason to panic.
Hours later, however, President Biden sounded a very different tune about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, one that made Ukrainians anxious.
“My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said at a White House press conference on Wednesday when asked if Russia would actually invade Ukraine. Biden’s comments sparked panic in the former Soviet republic.
It was “absolutely absurd,” Oleksiy Sorokin, political editor for the Kyiv Independent news site, told Yahoo News. “We followed Zelensky’s speech and we’re like, ‘OK, so this is the strategy now — don’t panic.’ And then two hours later, we get the president of the United States confirming that Russia will invade and the whole speech of Zelensky, his whole plan, just goes to pieces.”
But what really dropped jaws in Kyiv was Biden’s take on how NATO might respond to a Russian attack on Ukrainian soil.
“I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” Biden said, adding, “It depends on what [Russia] does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, etc.”
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, what am I hearing right now?’” said Sorokin. “It felt like he was giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine. I was thinking, ‘When should I wake up tomorrow, so not to miss the Russian invasion?’”
Olga Rudenko, chief editor of Kyiv Independent, echoed that sentiment on Twitter.
“As a Ukrainian, it feels like Biden has just allowed Putin to invade my country. If it's a ‘minor incursion,’ it will even go unpunished,” she wrote.
The Biden administration quickly attempted to walk back that gaffe.
“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. She later appeared on news shows to further underscore the point, and Biden himself issued a statement regarding his communications with Putin.
“He has no misunderstanding: Any, any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion," Biden said in his statement.
As far as many Ukrainians were concerned, however, the damage had been done. “We are really confused and disoriented by hearing quite contradictory messages from Ukrainian officials and Western, especially American, officials,” Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a think tank in Kyiv, told Yahoo News.
Further highlighting the mixed messages, she noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who arrived in Kyiv on Wednesday to meet with Zelensky — and announce a new $200 million package of military aid — had spoken at the U.S. Embassy, saying that with more Russian forces assembling at Ukraine’s border, Putin could invade “on very short notice.”
A former advertising executive based in Kyiv, Tatiana Vasilenko, said that as a result of the dueling narratives, “tension is growing and people are more and more worried, especially since the Western media is making much more direct statements than the Ukrainian.”
Sorokin, however, is happy to see the flurry of diplomats, who include U.S. senators and European foreign ministers and parliamentarians, swooping down on Kyiv and “basically shielding Ukraine with their presence,” he said. “It feels like that many diplomats are here to just prevent a Russian escalation because while they’re here, Russia, obviously, is not going to attack. I can’t imagine Russian tanks moving across the border when Blinken is in town.”
On the streets of Kyiv, meanwhile, people are still wondering what Biden meant.
“There is no possibility for a so-called small war, which Mr. Biden mentioned last night,” Fedor, a Ukrainian businessman who requested that his last name not be used, told Yahoo News. He wondered what the U.S. would regard as a minor incursion if the Mexican military invaded. “Is it important, for example, to the United States if some Mexican division crosses the border and goes in one kilometer, or if they bombed San Diego? There’s no difference. Either one is a war. So, personally, I don’t understand what does it mean, smaller invasion, big invasion?”
Somewhat reassured after the clarifications from the White House, Sorokin regards Biden’s faux pas in practical terms. “It was oversharing. You can do that at a party, but you can't do it if you're the president of the United States. I appreciate the president being this friendly, open person, but sometimes stuff shouldn't be mentioned. Especially when there’s over 100,000 soldiers planning on invading a foreign country.”
Despite the walk-back of the “minor incursion” remark, Sorokin is still concerned: “The timing of those poorly articulated comments is very disturbing.”
Investigative journalist Tanya Kozyreva is likewise perturbed. “I hope this was just a misunderstanding, but now the government of Ukraine must be ready to respond to the Kremlin’s interpretation of this misunderstanding,” she said.
If Russia does invade Ukraine — which some analysts believe may happen from Belarus, where Russian fighters and equipment are assembling — their army will meet not only a much more prepared military than when it annexed Crimea in 2014, but also civilians who are ready to fight. The Ukrainian government is already putting together battalions of reservists, who could total 150,000 if mobilized.
A survey published in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed that of the 2,000 Ukrainians interviewed, 33 percent said they would take up arms if Russia invaded, while 21 percent indicated they would partake in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.
Some residents of Kyiv, however, are ready to take a very long vacation should Putin give the order to his soldiers to cross the border. After hearing Wednesday’s remarks from Biden and Blinken, Swiss businessman Martin Pfister pulled out his suitcases. “Sadly, I believe something will happen. I am packed, the tank is full, and I’m ready to take off at the first signs.”
Fedor, when asked if he’s got his passport ready if Russia rolls in, scoffed at the thought. “What for — so I can go to the airport? I refer you to videos of the airport in Kabul after the U.S. pulled out.” He said he didn’t have enough gas to get out of Kyiv, much less the country as a whole, which is about the size of Texas, and figures if there’s a prolonged war with Russia, he’ll be drafted.
In the meantime, Getmanchuk has a few suggestions, including that Ukraine have a seat at the table in negotiations regarding its welfare and that governments “coordinate their public messages so as not to make people so confused.”