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'Why should I leave?' — expats in Ukraine not rushing to depart

Daily life continues, with Kyiv's typical frigid winters

Daily life continues, with Kyiv's typical frigid winters

Jens Daessler is not in a hurry. "I have a phone full of messages," says the German business coach with a weary smile, most of them from friends and relatives asking if he plans to leave his home in Kyiv. It's a familiar story to many foreigners living and working in Ukraine's capital.

While tensions between Russia and Ukraine are nothing new, it was the recent decision by the United States and other Western countries to withdraw embassy staff that really cut through internationally, signaling that war is now a very real possibility.

"Usually I would speak to my parents every month or so; at the moment, I'm speaking to them every two days," says Ken Herbert, who moved to Ukraine from Sydney two years ago.

With Australia also flying out its diplomats and encouraging citizens to steer clear of Ukraine, Herbert received a call from his embassy asking if he was planning to leave. It was a question, he tells us, that caught him off guard.

But like most people DW has spoken to, Herbert is staying.

Invisible threat

Taking the decision to pack up and leave is made all the harder by the fact that in normal times, Kyiv is a very safe city in terms of crime. "I generally feel safer here than I do in Australia, in Sydney I wouldn't walk down an alleyway in the night," says Herbert, something he would have no worries doing in Kyiv.

The threat posed by Vladimir Putin's troops is, for now, still hundreds of kilometers away.

"You don't see soldiers, you don't see aircraft flying, you don't see anything that feels like war or danger," agrees Daessler.

Instead, everyday life continues, and news of new restaurant openings is just as likely to appear in people's social media feeds as updates from the border.

Jens Daessler says he struggles to recognize the picture of his adopted home painted by international media. For him "the sun is still shining, there's pizza and there's sushi, there's everything."

Worldwide attention

"The situation has changed for people outside Ukraine — they're suddenly more aware of what's going on here," says American communications specialist Kari Hiepko-Odermann, who moved to Kyiv with her husband and children in 2018.

For locals, Hiepko-Oldermann points out, Ukrainians have long been living with the threat of conflict with Russia, as this began nearly a decade ago in 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists in the east.

"Ukrainians have been sitting in this hot water for more than eight years," as she phrases it. This is part of the reason, she adds, as to why outsiders are more likely than locals to be alarmed by the current situation.

Hiepko-Odermann admits that while she and her family are staying in Kyiv for now, she has already noticed the impact of the tensions, with her children's classmates disappearing as expat families ditch her Kyiv neighborhood.

Some expats, especially those able to work remotely, are taking extended trips away in the hope they can sit out the tensions in safety and return once they subside.

Mixed messages

Mixed messages coming from the very top of Ukraine's government in recent weeks have added to the confusion.

In a recent video message, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy downplayed the threat of escalation and called upon Ukrainians to stay calm and avoid panic-buying.

But the very next day, he told a reporter from The Washington Post that Ukraine's second-biggest city, Kharkiv, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, was a likely target for Russian occupation.

This was seen as a gaffe in Ukraine, given Zelenskyy's attempts to play the situation down.

A top Ukrainian general recently singled out February 20 as a likely date for a Russian incursion, coinciding as it does with the end of the Winter Olympics in China.

The Kremlin, the argument goes, would not want to anger its allies in Beijing by launching a military campaign that overshadows coverage of the games — as was the case during the 2008 Beijing Games, which coincided with Russia's intervention in Georgia.

At the same time, in briefings of journalists, top Zelenskyy allies have been dismissing Russia's troop buildup as little more than political bluff.

Little wonder, then, that pundits and ordinary Ukrainians alike have been left scratching their heads, trying to understand exactly what is happening in their country.

Ukraine hopes for Western support

In this moment of confusion, many expats are seeing their Ukrainian friends look to the West for reassurance that their country will not be left alone to face Russia.

Berlin's reluctance to send Kyiv defensive weapons is a sore point, and something many German expats say has negatively impacted ordinary Ukrainians' view of Germany. Daessler wishes that "German politicians would step up and give a clear message [of support] for Ukraine."

Recent deliveries of ammunition and anti-tank missiles from the United States have gone down very well with the Ukrainian public, not surprisingly. US President Joe Biden's advanced age, often cited as a weakness, could now be playing out to his advantage, says Hiepko-Odermann.

"He's familiar with how to do Cold War politics."

To go or to stay

While international diplomacy continues — often enough without Ukrainian representatives at the table — Ukrainians and expats are being encouraged to prepare to make a hasty exit, should the situation escalate.

Keeping an "emergency case" packed and ready with documents, cash and a first-aid kit could just make the difference between leaving in time and getting stuck. From vodka to disinfect wounds to emergency flares to attract attention, Ukrainian media and forums are full of conflicting advice on what exactly people should try to take with them.

All that is assuming that people would actually be able to leave their hometowns in time if an escalation were to take place. Analysts warn that gridlock on the roads, communication outages and military checkpoints may mean that even the most carefully laid plans end up proving unworkable.

But not everyone in Kyiv is packing emergency bags and practicing their first aid skills; some members of Kyiv's expat community have chosen a very different route.

"The more you follow the German news or even the American news, the more scared you are," says Daessler.

The answer for him and many others right now is simple: to try to take a break from the news.

Edited by: Sonya Diehn