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War with Ukraine? Russians on the border just shrug

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The threat of war may be in the air but a short drive from Russia‘s border with Ukraine Artyom Ivanov is sticking to his daily routine and up at the crack of dawn to go ice fishing. “A war?” asks Ivanov, as he lowers his fishing rod to a small hole in the frozen waters of the cross-border Seversky Donets River.

“If a war were coming, I would be polishing my automatic rifle, not fishing,” the 34-year-old tells AFP, as one of his fishing lines gives a distinct tug.

“For my cat,” he smiles as the wriggling fish falls to his feet.

Like Ivanov, many residents of the border town of Maslova Pristan in southwestern Russia are nonchalant about soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over Ukraine.

For them the deployment by Moscow of tens of thousands of troops on the borders with Ukraine is not a sign of an imminent invasion, despite warnings to the contrary from the United States.

Echoing the Kremlin’s rhetoric, Sergei Yaroslavtsev insists Russians do not pose a threat to anyone.

“On our land, we do what we want. Should we ask permission from our neighbour when we want to work in our garden?” he says.

“In any case, Russia never launches hostilities first,” adds the 56-year-old labourer, who is fishing nearby.

– ‘Obligation to intervene’ – Far from the tense diplomatic exchanges between Moscow and Washington, life goes on as usual here.

Snow-covered plains swept by an icy wind stretch as far as the eye can see, lined with bare hedges and trees.

The region has a long military history, dating back to the Russian Empire, and nearly every village here has a memorial to soldiers killed during World War II.

The town of Shebekino is no exception: next to a children’s playground a billboard calls for young men to become paratroopers.

Nearby, Nadezhda Dolya crosses herself outside an Orthodox church before launching a tirade against authorities in Kyiv.

The 65-year-old retiree accuses them of “killing children, mothers and the elderly” in separatist-held regions of eastern Ukraine.

The West and Kyiv accuse the Kremlin of fuelling an insurgency in Ukraine by sending arms and troops across the border, claims denied by Moscow.

In a move that could indicate a change in Russia’s official stance, the ruling party this week urged the Kremlin to start arming the separatists.

Dolya says she supports such a move.

“Who else is going to help them?” she says.

If Kyiv launches an offensive in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has an “obligation to intervene”, says Yaroslavtsev.

– Fear of sanctions – Some residents, however, say they are concerned about the possible consequences of a war and the threat of new Western sanctions if Russia goes on the offensive.

Ilya Ignatyev, a 24-year-old medical student, says he is worried he will no longer be able to travel and that the standard of living will plummet further.

Several rounds of Western sanctions imposed on Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 “have already shown they make everything more difficult”, he says.

“It could have an impact on food prices, daily life, housing,” he explains, holding back his dog as it pulls on its lead.

Back at the frozen river, Ivanov waxes philosophical.

“Everything is in the hands of God,” he says.

“We don’t need more territory,” he adds, but if Ukrainians attack, “of course, we will fight”.

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