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Russia could be waiting for Olympics to end to move forward with Ukraine invasion

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Shelling by Russian separatists continues in the east of Ukraine, according to Ukrainian government officials there. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warns of what, quote, "could be the biggest war in Europe since 1945." And with the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics underway, world leaders are watching to see what Russian President Vladimir Putin does next. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Kyiv right now. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Don.

GONYEA: Let's start with that shelling. What's going on in the east of Ukraine right now?

LANGFITT: Yeah, Ukrainian officials are saying these Russian-backed forces are continuing to shell today. It's been on the rise since Thursday - already have killed two Ukrainian soldiers. Meanwhile, the Russian-supported separatists - they blame Ukraine for the death of two civilians, which Ukraine is denying. Ukraine - the government has said it has told the troops whatever you do, don't shoot back because from their perspective, they think Russia is looking for, quote, "any excuse to invade." Russia's argued all along it has no plans to invade. But you know, you got to remember this is at a time where we're seeing the largest troop buildup in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

GONYEA: There are some important items lining up on the calendar. Take us through that.

LANGFITT: Yeah, sure. I mean, first is the Olympics, which you were mentioning. Many have thought the Russians would not take any action until the Olympics were over, and that's to avoid upstaging China. Russian joint military exercises up to the north of us in Belarus - they were scheduled to end today, Don. But the Russian government media's saying because of this increased fighting in the east, those military drills will continue. Of course, that's kind of circular logic because it certainly appears that its Russian proxies are actually responsible for the increased firing in the east. And then down to the south from here, Don, in the Black Sea, there have been these Russian naval drills - they were scheduled to end last night. There is worries here of a possible blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. There's no sign any of those ships are leaving. But based on real-time mapping, maritime traffic in the Black Sea is now kind of flowing more smoothly.

GONYEA: You're in Kyiv. What's going on there?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it remains quiet as if nothing is happening in the east of the country, Don. Last night I was out - it was Saturday night. I was in Independence Square, and it was like any other time. In fact, you can hear here a drummer who was just set up on the sidewalk, banging - bang away. Let's give a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS PLAYING)

LANGFITT: Frankly, a regular Saturday night in Kyiv - now, national police here say they broke up plans for a large rally of paid protesters who were going to go out in front of the Ukrainian president's office. And they wanted the protesters to basically go out and chant, no to war with Russia, to try to actually get this on Russian TV to convince people back in Russia that Ukraine wants to go to war, which, of course, in Ukraine has been very - it's been explicit - it absolutely does not want war. Rent-a-mobs - these are, of course, people who are paid - basically professional protesters. They're common here. And one thing analysts say is they could be used to stoke violence and destabilize the regime. So it's very important to be looking on what's happening on the streets of Kyiv in the coming days.

GONYEA: Today in Munich, Vice President Kamala Harris said, we're talking about the potential for war in Europe. That echoes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. What else has Johnson said?

LANGFITT: Yeah, Johnson is back in Britain now, and he said that President Biden has told Western leaders that intelligence suggests Russian forces could come down from Belarus and surround Kyiv. He told the BBC, quote, "all signs are that the plan has already, in some senses, begun." And at the same time, he said today any kind of invasion by the Russians would be a colossal mistake. This is how he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: You know, you just cannot see how this makes sense for Russia. Imagine the invasion of Ukraine - second-biggest country in Europe geographically, apart from Russia itself. You can't hold it down. There will be a protracted, violent, bloody insurgency.

LANGFITT: And, Don, the view here is exactly the same. Only about 1 in 5 Ukrainians think a full-scale invasion is likely - highly likely. And some security analysts say that Russia could try to topple the government and install somebody more aligned with Putin. But most Ukrainians don't like Putin at all.

GONYEA: OK, that's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.