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For Russian civilians near Ukraine's border, reactions to Putin's moves are mixed

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It's a national holiday today in Russia, Defenders of the Fatherland Day. It honors the country's military and veterans. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the armed forces in a speech on national television and talked about the crisis with Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

RASCOE: "Russia is always open to diplomacy," he said, "but the interests and security of Russia and its citizens are non-negotiable." NPR's Charles Maynes is in southern Russia in the Rostov region, near the border with Ukraine, and joins us now. Welcome, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

RASCOE: So, Charles, what's the scene been there today?

MAYNES: Well, you know, thankfully, the only explosions we've heard have come from this evening's holiday fireworks show. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet here in Rostov-on-Don - that's the main city of Rostov region - even as the U.S. and its allies are predicting this possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is just down the road here.

You know, in the latest, Ukraine imposed a state of emergency across the country and called up its reserve army. Its Foreign Ministry also told Ukrainians to get out of Russia as soon as possible. And this comes as Russia's own Foreign Ministry began pulling out its diplomatic staff from the embassy in Kyiv, as well as all consulates in the country. And, you know, certainly many people will see that as a worrying sign amid predictions of this invasion. We also saw the EU unveil sanctions against President Putin's inner circle, as well as key members of the Kremlin's propaganda machine. So, you know, again, it's calm, but the probably more accurate answer here might be calm for now.

RASCOE: You've been out in the city and the region talking to people. What have you heard?

MAYNES: Well, as you might imagine, you know, the views are varied, but there seems to be a general recognition that this decision by Putin and whatever comes next is extremely fraught, both militarily and economically given Western sanctions. Let's listen in.

VADIM GUSENOV: (Through interpreter) I don't see any benefits. Ukraine's another country. Yes, there's a conflict and they have problems, but they are their problems. Let them resolve it. But now, because of Putin's decision to recognize these republics, I don't know what my life will be like a week from now.

ALEXANDRA KOZLENKA: (Through interpreter) My family and my friends all support Vladimir Putin. We've lived with this tensions in the Donbas since 2014, and we're ready to forego many things and put up with sanctions because these are our family members and friends suffering in the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

NIKOLAI VOLK: (Through interpreter) It means, again, problems with the economy. Again, the currency is going to lose value. Again, incomes will go down. And again, we'll have more fighting. It's not entirely clear what's happening in the Donbas, and most people will never learn the truth. But one way or another, the people will suffer for it.

MAYNES: So that was Vadim Gusenov, who works in IT, Alexandra Kozlenka, who's a lawyer, and Nikolai Volk, a highway engineer.

RASCOE: Putin said in his speech he's open to negotiation, but the U.S. canceled tomorrow's meeting with the Russian foreign minister. What happens next?

MAYNES: Yeah, so Putin's offer seems somewhat disingenuous. You know, Russia's military is still positioned around Ukraine, and, of course, Russia has offered security guarantees to these separatists statelets. You know, yesterday, Putin said that his understanding of their boundaries lies much further than where they currently stand, far into Ukrainian-held territory. You know, and so amid all that, I just note one thing that I've been picking up on in conversations, and that's a certain resignation, you know, a sadness that Russia, Ukraine and the West find themselves in this position. And this idea was put best, I thought, by a pensioner I met not too far from here in the town of Taganrog. And this is 78-year-old Vladimir Ivanov.

VLADIMIR IVANOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We're just too different," he told me. "We never understood one another, and we never will." And Ivanov added that somehow, we on our side and you on yours have got to find a way to live with that.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Charles Maynes in the Rostov region. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.