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Citizens of Rostov-on-Don could be caught in the middle of a Russia-Ukraine war

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The number of Russian troops near the border of Ukraine has been growing. Tensions remain high. If President Vladimir Putin chooses to send his army into Ukraine, the main thrust would likely come from the south. The biggest city in that region is Rostov-on-Don, and NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes has spent the past few days there and joins us now. Charles, thanks for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

SIMON: Tell us more about the city you're in and its history with Ukraine.

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, this is a city of just over a million people perched on the Don River. This is - you can actually see barges floating by. Rostov-on-Don is a trade hub dating back centuries. It was the main gateway city to Russia's Caucasus region, but also to the wider Don region, which includes Ukraine's Donbas, during czarist times in the Russian Empire.

And so, of course, today Rostov borders the independent country of Ukraine, and the city was heavily impacted by the war in east Ukraine in 2014. We saw here thousands of Ukrainian refugees pouring across the border when fighting broke out and thousands of Russians who used Rostov-on-Don as a launching point to go fight with separatists against the Ukrainian army. In fact, there's an official monument here to these so-called volunteers, although I should add there's mounds of evidence that they mixed and blurred with paid Russian mercenaries and genuine Russian army units. In fact, it's Russian military bases not far from here that are part of this large military buildup that has put the West on edge about a possible invasion.

SIMON: Charles, how do people you speak with there feel about the possibility of war now?

MAYNES: Well, not surprisingly, it depends on who you talk to. Some clearly feel very strongly that war is coming. I met with a man named Timur Okerp. He's the head of the local union of Donbas volunteers here in Rostov. And Okerp was part of this Russian volunteer force that fought alongside the separatists in east Ukraine in 2014. And he told me these Russian fighters are showing up again, convinced, he says, of a Ukrainian army attack.

TIMUR OKERP: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here Okerp is saying that by his own count, he's recently sent over a thousand Russian volunteers so far back into the Donbas in the face of what he says is an impending Ukrainian military offensive. And he claims that more Russians are showing up every day.

SIMON: How widely held is that view, would you guess?

MAYNES: Well, you know, first of all, you have to keep in mind that people like Okerp want this conflict for political reasons. He's among Russians who were deeply disappointed that the Kremlin didn't annex the Donbas in 2014, and they're clearly hoping for a different outcome this time.

But talking to people around town yesterday, I heard several times people talking about dueling realities. They had this idea that Russian state media was hyping the war, whereas in real life there wasn't that same sense of impending danger. In fact, they would say that most people were concerned about their own lives, their own problems, which includes, of course, the pandemic. There's a shortage of nurses and doctors at local hospitals right now. There's falling incomes as Russia's economy has struggled. But, of course, these concerns all take priority as long as there's no outright fighting. After all, Ukraine is still right next door.

SIMON: Charles, what concerns do you hear about the consequences a war might bring?

MAYNES: Well, sanctions are, of course, on people's minds. Nobody wants them. They watched as the value of the ruble has kind of bounced around lately, losing value, and that certainly got people's attention. I also heard people say, but you know what? We've had to adapt to sanctions since 2014. And for all the hardships that came with it - you know, people closed businesses, they changed careers - they said they were still resilient. You know, they'd reinvented themselves and their livelihoods. And so I think there's a sentiment here that whatever - what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia. Charles, thanks so much for being with us.

MAYNES: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.