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Biden cautions Americans to leave Ukraine ahead of any Russian aggression

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Russian troops and armaments continue to amass near the Ukrainian border, President Biden has told Americans to leave. Here's a clip from NBC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: American citizens should leave, should leave now. We're dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. This is a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly.

FADEL: Biden also starkly declared that the U.S. will not rescue Americans if they get stuck in Ukraine to avoid, as he put it, a world war in which Russian and American troops could be shooting at one another. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's in Kyiv. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So how are Americans and other expats there reacting to what Biden said?

LANGFITT: Well, people are waking up to this news, and so far, I think quite calm. You've got to remember from a Ukrainian or an American expat perspective here, Ukraine has been under tremendous pressure from Russia for many years. There was the invasion of Crimea. There's an ongoing low-level war in eastern Ukraine. And this morning, I was at a park. I talked to a guy named John Shmorhun. He's originally from Maryland. He works in the agricultural industry here, and this was his take on it.

JOHN SHMORHUN: Many of us have our roots here in Ukraine for many years. And there's a number of expats that are here, and we've created a life here for ourselves. So I appreciate the warning from the State Department, but we're here. We're here to stay.

LANGFITT: And I've got to say, other European countries have not followed suit yet, for instance, the United Kingdom, to tell that their citizens to leave. There's been a little bit of gallows humor online. There was a Scottish man I saw on Facebook saying he was trying to get from Belarus, where there's a massive Russian military buildup, down here to Kyiv in, you know, the center of the country. And he was trying to map out a route and said, I can't find a tank option to get here. And actually Kyiv, I shouldn't say, is the center of the country. It's actually not that far from Belarus. So people are watching the buildup there very closely from here.

FADEL: How many Americans are in Ukraine? And if they want to leave, how will they do that?

LANGFITT: Yeah, we're not certain. More than 7,000, maybe up to 20,000 It all depends on how many register with the United States Embassy. Commercial airlines still available, but otherwise, if the airport shuts down, you'd be looking at overland routes to Slovakia, Hungary, Poland. The 82nd Airborne is actually going to be in Poland set up to receive Americans if they end up having to come. But they've also been told not to cross the border into Ukraine.

FADEL: What are you hearing from Ukrainians this morning?

LANGFITT: Much the same as what you heard from John earlier. I met a woman named Olga Tokariuk (ph). She's a journalist here, 36 years old. I met her last night at a panel discussion here, and this is what she had to say.

OLGA TOKARIUK: As a Ukrainian, it will not impact, like, my plans. I plan to, you know, keep calm and carry on, stay in Kyiv. I do not plan to leave at this time. I do not believe in a full-scale invasion in an overt invasion because I think Russia really can't afford it.

LANGFITT: And the point she makes and many make here is that a massive invasion would be very costly to Vladimir Putin in terms of loss of troops and the political damage internationally.

FADEL: OK, so what accounts for the different tone on the streets of Kyiv that you're hearing and the intense alarm we hear from the White House, from the British prime minister for that matter?

LANGFITT: Sure. The Ukrainians have been living this for many, many years, and they're afraid that the words out of the White House is actually going to spread fear and contribute to Vladimir Putin's strategy to put maximum psychological pressure on the Ukrainian people. On the other hand, from the American military, they say they've never seen a troop buildup like this before. And American officials are very serious and sober when you talk to them about this.

FADEL: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thank you so much.

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