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As Russian forces keep building, Ukrainians resist the urge to panic

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Amid a rush of diplomacy to head off a possible Russian invasion, many Ukrainians are trying to block out the stress and carry on with life as usual. Still, the economic consequences of Russia's menacing troop buildup along the country's borders could be severe.

Vasyl Voronovksy tattoos Iurii Horbachov, a former Ukrainian soldier, in Kyiv. People are trying to go about their lives depsite the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine's borders.(Carly Thomas/CBC)

Ukraine may be at the epicentre of international anxiety over a possible Russian attack, but in the capital, Kyiv, the signs of panic are few.

"Like right now, maybe we [are] a little bit more scared, but the whole of Ukraine lives a normal life," saidInna Prokopchuck, who with her husband, Vasyl Voronovksy, recently opened a tattoo shop a few blocks from Independence Square.

Notably, the business sports the logo of a Canadian Maple Leaf and a grinning, toothy beaver with the words "Great Canadian Ink."

Prokopchuck said the couple recently returned to Ukraine after living in Edmonton for four years to open a shop in Kyiv. Since Canada's brand is strong here, they made it part of their new business.

The logo for the Great Canadian Ink tattoo shop in Kyiv is a testament to its owners' time living in Alberta.(Chris Brown/CBC)

The couple began etching tattoos here just before Christmas, not long before Russia's military began its enormous buildup along Ukraine's borders.

Western defence officials claim Russia now has upward of 100 full-fledged fighting battalions in the border regions, supported by artillery, missile launchers, modern fighter aircraft and a heavy naval presence in the Black Sea — more than 130,000 troops in total.

'We live today, now and here'

Canadian, American and British embassies have already evacuated non-essential personnel from the capital as a precaution.

Nonetheless, at the tattoo shop, business has been strong, Prokopchuck said.

"Like you have everyday [life] — your family, your work, but you must get some emotion. Some people go to concerts; some people get tattoos," she told CBC News on a visit to the shop.

Voronovksy agrees.

"We live today, now and here," he said. "We must live the way other countries live … however, being aware and expecting a Russian attack."

Voronovksy and Inna Prokopchuck own Great Canadian Ink in Kyiv. They lived in Edmonton for four years before recently returning to Ukraine. 'People live their lives, just being on alert," Voronovksy said. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

That stoicism is rooted in the belief of many — if not most — Ukrainians that the country has already been at war with Russia for the better part of eight years. The conflict began with a popular uprising that ousted Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014, which set off separatist unrest in Eastern Ukraine and prompted Putin to eventually seize Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in the south.

The 'I love Ukraine' sign in Kyiv's Maidan, or Independence Square.(Chris Brown/CBC)

The ensuing war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in the breakaway eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has left about 14,000 combatants and civilians dead, according to Ukrainian government estimates.

While Russia claims its government does not play a part in the conflict, Ukraine, its Western allies and some analysts allege there is evidence it has been supplying arms, funds and troops to the separatist-controlled region for years.

Therefore, for many Ukrainians, the current confrontation — while more intense — is a crisis they have grown accustomed to living with.

Russia has been pressing Western nations, NATO and Ukraine to provide what it calls security guarantees before it will stand down its military forces. It has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine never be admitted to the military alliance and asked NATO commit to not deploying troops in any countries that weren't members before its eastern expansion in 1997.

Those demands have been soundly rejected by Western leaders, although the diplomatic engagement is continuing.

Diplomatic negotiations

France's Emmanuel Macron was the latest foreign leader shuttling back and forth between Moscow and Kyiv, meeting with Putin Monday and then Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky Tuesday.

Macron urged Zelensky to recommit to the so-called Minsk Accords, a deal signed in 2015 that lays out a process for ending the separatist war Eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a news briefing following their talks in Kyiv on Tuesday. Zelensky said he doesn't quite trust Russian President Vladimir Putin's words.(Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The accords are toxic to Ukrainian leaders, however, as most feel the settlement will allow Russia to establish what amounts to puppet states inside Ukraine's territorial boundaries.

Instead, on Tuesday, Zelensky urged Putin to stop mobilizing troops along Ukraine's border and begin pulling them back.

"I don't quite trust [Putin's] words," he told a Kyiv news conference.

Tension is having economic effects

At the tattoo shop, CBC met former Ukrainian soldier Iurii Horbachov, who had come in for an appointment.

The 37-year-old is a veteran of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and said he refuses to change his routine because of the possibility of a Russian attack on his country.

"I realize that maybe Russia wants [us] to have a crisis here in our Ukraine," he said.

"But no, we are not afraid, and we don't buy this. People live their lives, just being on alert."

Putin gestures during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, in Moscow on Monday. After that meeting, Putin repeated a warning that Ukraine membership in NATO could trigger a war.(Thibault Camus/Pool via Reuters)

Nonetheless, there are fears that Ukraine's economy, whose GDP fell four per cent last year, could suffer even more severe damage from the continuing uncertainty.

Ukraine also suffers from high unemployment — currently sitting at more than nine per cent.

The European Union recently offered 1.2 billion euros ($1.7 billion Cdn) in emergency loans to Ukraine to help stabilize its financial system and allow the country to meet its debt repayments.

Canada has also offered Ukraine $120 million in similar emergency funding.

President tries to calm fears

Ukraine's currency, the , while stable for the moment, has dropped five per cent since the Russian buildup began.

Ukraine's business community is feeling the impact, says Vasyl Mroshnchenko, a Kyiv-based communications consultant who has been advising international companies affected by the crisis.

"The prospect of Russian escalation is a constant threat which hurts Ukrainian morale, and it discourages investment," he said.

Vasyl Mroshnchenko, a Kyiv communications consultant with CFC Consulting, said the threat of Russian escalation discourages investment in Ukraine.(Carly Thomas/CBC)

Zelensky, Ukraine's president, has notably downplayed the threat of a Russian invasion, in part to try to calm the fears of the business community, but Mroshnchenko says the strategy has only been partially successful.

"Many companies [that] have considered expansion have put it on hold. As well, nobody new is going to come in these circumstances."

He said he knows of some international firms that are considering moving out of the capital to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which is close to the Polish border and considered to be much safer should Putin decide to make a move.

A survey by the European Business Association suggested that 45 per cent of foreign firms indicated they intend to stay in Ukraine no matter what happens, 17 per cent might move elsewhere in Ukraine if the capital is attacked and 10 per cent of firms are considering moving altogether.

A satellite image shows troops and logistics material support units northwest of Yelsk, Belarus, on Feb. 4, 2022.(Maxar Technologies via Reuters)

Key IT sector at risk

Ukraine's crucial IT sector is considered to be especially vulnerable in the event of further hostilities with Russia.

More than 4,000 firms contribute roughly seven per cent, or $3.5 billion US, to Ukraine's annual gross domestic product.

Mroshnchenko says IT workers are highly mobile, and he fears an exodus in the event of an escalation.

"[Companies] are definitely going to just move them out to other parts of Ukraine or move them to Poland, where they can replicate them and continue working with Western clients from the U.K., U.S., Canada," he said.

Voronovksy, the tattoo shop owner, said Ukrainians believe part of Russia's strategy is to weaken the country simply by scaring people.

That's why so many people are resistant to changing their behaviour in spite of the looming threat, he said.

"Everything is the way it was before: people buy cars, organize barbecues, visit each other."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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