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Maksym Bilyk is a young man who thinks carefully before he speaks, works with computers and has never fired a gun in his life after avoiding national service in the army due to a stomach ulcer.
But the 26-year-old, who lives in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, responds instantly when I ask how he might act if there is an invasion of his country by the large number of Russian tanks and troops crossing the border less than 30 kilometers away. .
“He would take up arms and go to the battlefield without the slightest hesitation,” he said. “No one wants to fight, but if there is aggression against us, we must fight back.”
Bilyk admitted to being scared living so close to the border. “The idea of taking up firearms and going into battle is unsettling. I want to live in peace. But this is our land. We have no other place to go. So there is no other but to fight for it.
Such conversations feel incongruous in a cafe full of people chatting over coffee, eating pastries, or typing on computer screens in a bustling city center.
As we spoke, skaters glided down an ice rink in the snow-covered downtown square where a massive statue of Lenin stood, the largest in Ukraine, until it was toppled eight years ago.
That statue was at the center of clashes after pro-democracy protests erupted in Ukraine. Kremlin stooges stormed official buildings and burned flags but were defeated, unlike two eastern cities now under Russian control.
But now, Ukraine’s second-largest city lives in fear of a new assault as diplomatic efforts try to prevent Vladimir Putin from invading it, an illegal move that would spark a chilling new conflict with Kharkiv among potential targets.
Indeed, yesterday Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia might try to occupy Kharkiv and that it would be the start of a “full-scale war”.
Once, the huge city square was named after the founder of the Soviet secret police. But when Ukraine shook off the chains of communism three decades ago, it was renamed Freedom Square.
Bilyk told me how this democratic ideal inspired him as a teenager to join the 2014 protests. “The first ones were against the government, but they became freedom,” he said. “When I saw people with foreign flags on our land, it was unacceptable.”
Born shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he regards freedom as “the most important value in life.” However, he is now being threatened by Putin, a former KGB agent, who seeks to rebuild the Russian empire and stifle democracy.
Countless people wonder what to do in the event of an attack. Some are stocking up on food or thinking about flying, but others are preparing to take on one of the world’s most powerful fighting machines .
They range from idealists like Bilyk to battle-hardened veterans of the eight-year conflict that has dragged on in eastern Ukraine.
It was instigated by Putin in response to protests alongside Russia, which led to two breakaway republics, nearly 14,000 dead and two million displaced.
A Kharkiv city councilor told me that he planned to move his wife and his two children to Lithuania if Russia invades, and then head to the front with a rifle for which he has a hunting permit.
‘If I buy a sniper rifle, it must be for hunting. But what you hunt, well, that’s another question,” said Oleg Abramychev, 35, an event organizer .
It is impossible to predict events in a war, especially in an area like this with such deep commercial, cultural, family, historical, and linguistic ties to Russia and stretching across both sides of the border.
Abramychev epitomizes the complexities of this region: he was born in Siberia, on the other side of Russia, he moved to the Ukraine with his parents as a child, and yet now he feels passionately Ukrainian.
Although he admits to feeling scared, he speaks of ‘svoboda’ (freedom) before speaking of the right of nations to determine their own course.
For his part, Putin atrociously portrays Ukraine as an artificial country wrested from Moscow’s control by its enemies and feels it should be part of a ‘New Russia’, a vision stretching from Kharkiv in the east to Crimea in the south ( that illegally seized in 2014).
However, despite the hostile troop buildup, Putin denies any invasion plans and says he wants the West to stop supporting Ukraine’s armed forces and withdraw its commitment to accept Ukraine as a NATO member.