U.S. shuts embassies, holds talks as tensions over Russia mount

President Biden held a high-stakes call with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid warnings that an invasion into Ukraine could begin ‘any day.’ All U.S. Embassy non-emergency personnel have been ordered to leave Ukraine and American citizens have also been advised to leave. Earlier, satellite images showed Russian troops at Ukraine borders. NPR’s correspondent, Frank Langfitt joins from Kherson in Ukraine.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt has been reporting from Ukraine. Earlier today he joined us from Kherson, near the Crimean border. Frank, we've had more and more indications over the past 24 hours that this is getting more serious. We've had calls for evacuations, we've had notices that embassies are starting to pare down their people. What are you hearing on the ground?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Well, I think what I'm hearing on the ground is exactly that, Hari, the United States embassy is going to be sending a lot of its staff out. It will keep some staff. I think the sense that I have is some Western embassy staff may move to the west of Ukraine, not that far from the Polish border, but I'm down here in Kherson, this is not too far from the border with Russian occupied Crimea, and what's really interesting among ordinary folks here is not a sense of panic, and there's no sign of anyone really fully be prepared for the kind of invasion that the Americans say they think is coming.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What kinds of planning, what kind of preparation are they doing where you are?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Yeah. When I found out today, a number of us journalists went to see exercises. They were anti-terror operations. And so we saw a case where a bunch of faux terrorists were going to try to dynamite the dam to have water flow from Ukraine down to Crimea, where there's not anywhere near enough water. We saw another one where Russians would instigate basically a riot and try to take over getting local people and using provocateurs to take over a local police station and city hall. And then, you know, special National Guard police came in and stopped them. And so it was actually a lot of people in the crowd watching this. And what the Ukrainians are very concerned about is not just an invasion, but what people refer to as hybrid warfare is, you know, cyber attacks, disinformation and terror acts to try to create enough panic that it will actually destabilize the government here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Even though this was a drill that it seemed like security forces had a handle on what was happening?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Well, I got to say I've been to these things before. I've seen NATO do them, and they all have a very theatrical element to them. They are in part for show. And people did come out to watch. They have been dealing with these kinds of events since 2014, certainly since the invasion of Crimea. But as I drove around, I was driving around this area in a bus with the military, rather with the police. I didn't see any evidence of major military movements or anything by the Ukrainians where if we look at Twitter, of course we see lots of video coming out of Belarus and places like that with lots of Russian armaments coming in.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there a sense on the ground from people there that the tensions are rising, that this conflagration could be imminent, at least as the U.S. describes it could be?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    It's almost a parallel universe, Hari, in that what you hear in the White House is so completely different than you would hear in small villages where I was today. Of people there, many of them say they don't think the Russians will come. They think that it would be too punishing for them, and a large occupation makes no sense. There's also, at a human level, they love their country, they love their land, they don't want to leave. I spoke to a 17 year old today, a young man who wants to study in I.T. and in university, and he did say, I am scared and I was thinking of perhaps going to Kyiv where he might stay with a family member or Germany. Of course, Kyiv could also very much be a target for the Russians.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What is the leadership in Ukraine have to say about what's going on?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Actually, President Zelensky came to the exercises that we attended, so we watched all of these sort of faux attacks and then the president showed up in front of a bunch of microphones. And what he said is his intelligence does not match what we're hearing out of the White House and the Pentagon. And he said the best friend of our enemies is panic in our country. And so he's very concerned, as he said all along, that some of these these concerns that the West is raising, particularly United States, plays into Vladimir Putin's hands because in terms of a hybrid warfare kind of model wants to sow as much fear in this country and hopefully, from his perspective, help him destabilize the government. That's certainly the way the Ukrainians see it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Frank, the United States says that conversations are continuing. Any expectations?

  • Frank Langfitt:

    I don't know that there are. I mean, I think that things have been deteriorating in terms of diplomacy. The Russians have asked, you know, they asked for things like Ukraine not being allowed to go into NATO, a guarantee of that. The West has not agreed to that at all. And so the sorts of things that the Russians have asked for, it was very unlikely that NATO and the United States would ever grant it, and I think sense is that the opportunities for diplomacy, that window, is continuing to close.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NPR's Frank Langfitt joining us from Ukraine tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Frank Langfitt:

    Good to talk, Hari.

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