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Kyiv stresses calm even as U.S. warns Russian invasion could be imminent

“The West and Putin are playing each other’s nerves,” one resident told NBC News.
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KYIV, Ukraine — The streets of Ukraine's capital were lined with snow and customers waiting for a morning pastry on Saturday, with the city's residents and leaders maintaining a determined calm even as the United States voiced mounting alarm about a Russian invasion.

A long procession of local residents stood outside a popular café, weekend shoppers milled between well-stocked aisles, and children played soccer and shouted on a neighborhood court.

The U.S. fears the Ukrainian capital may be seized within the first few days of a Russian invasion, which it now says may be increasingly imminent. It is evacuating most staff from its embassy in Kyiv and urging its citizens to leave immediately.

But the city's residents have lived with the reality of Russia's threats for years and kept on even as conflict has raged in the country's east since 2014, when the Kremlin annexed Crimea and backed pro-Moscow separatists.

A woman walks in front of Independence Monument in Kyiv
A woman walks in front of Independence Monument in Kyiv on Friday.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Now, as the West warns a fresh attack is a “distinct possibility” as soon as next week, many in Kyiv aren't convinced.

“I don’t believe that Russia is going to invade Kyiv. The situation is wound up from both sides,” Oleksandr Bovtach, 55, told NBC News. “The West and Putin are playing each other’s nerves.”

Although some are wary of an invasion, few are preparing for that possibility.

“When I start thinking about it — it's scary. But I try not to read too much news, not to panic," said Yevheniia Biliavska, 30. “In 2014 we also didn't believe that Crimea could be annexed," she added. "But Putin is a crazy old man.”

The Kyiv-based DJ said she and her husband were mulling over relocating abroad, but the only concrete preparations they have made is paperwork for their dog.

The Russian president has massed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders and issued a set of bold demands that would include a stop to Ukraine ever joining NATO, the transatlantic military alliance. Moscow has denied it plans to invade and accused the West of anti-Russian hysteria.

Ukraine’s government has also sought to play down the threat, urging calm while its Western allies sound the alarm.

“Today the best friend for enemies is panic in our country and all this information that helps only for panic, doesn’t help us,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters on Saturday as he oversaw security drills in the country's south.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends special tactical training exercises
Ukraine's president attended police drills in the southern Kherson region on Saturday.Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters

“We are not afraid of anyone and we do not panic. We conduct training and keep the situation under control.” the president wrote on his Facebook page.

But its neighbor's military buildup has stirred some action in the Ukrainian capital.

Thousands rallied and chanted at a “Unity March” against a possible Russian attack in the center of Kyiv Saturday. For weeks some Ukrainians have been attending training camps on guerrilla warfare and readying bomb shelters just in case.

The ramped up warnings from Washington also changed the mind of at least one American in the country. Charlie Bonds, a 40-year-old historian from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who arrived in Kyiv less than two weeks ago with the intention to stay permanently.

“I felt that I had to be here. I studied history for 20 years. I have incredibly close contacts and people that I have intimate relationships with here,” he told NBC News on Friday.

The Unity March in Kyiv, Ukraine
Crowds filed through the center of Kyiv on Saturday chanting "Glory to Ukraine" and carrying flags and banners that said "Ukrainians will resist" and "Invaders must die."Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

After the U.S. announced its embassy evacuation on Saturday, however, he made his own plans to leave the capital.

"There’s a sense that nothing is going to happen," Bonds said, "and that is what tells me more than anything that I need to get the hell out of here, the sense that everything is going to be all right."

He plans to take the train out of Kyiv on Sunday and head to Lviv, a city near Ukraine’s western border with Poland that is far away from possible invasion routes and will play host to a reduced U.S. consular presence.

Few in Kyiv are making the same last-minute contingency plans.

“Everything is possible. Nobody can say that it will not happen. But are we preparing? No, we don’t prepare in any way,” Dana Andriash, a 30-year-old civil servant, told NBC News before making her way elsewhere with her newly bought pastries.

Mariia Ulianovska and Oksana Parafeniuk reported from Kyiv, and Rhoda Kwan reported from Melbourne, Australia.