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Ukrainians in and near Crimea have seen up close what happens when Russia invades

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The world is watching to see whether Russia will invade Ukraine. In its latest escalation, six Russian warships have deployed to the Black Sea from their home ports in the north. If Russia does invade, it wouldn't be the first time. It invaded Ukraine 8 years ago when it seized Crimea.

We wanted to know what life is like for Ukrainians who have seen up close what happens when Russia invades. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin on Ukraine's boundary with Crimea.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We're at the Ukrainian boundary line. Well, they refuse to call it a border. They call it the administrative boundary line. Russia considers this a proper border.

It's pretty quiet. There's a gas station, a guy selling dried fish out of the trunk of his car, waiting for people to cross. On this side, there's a big Ukrainian flag flying over the checkpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUITCASE ROLLING OVER COBBLESTONE)

ESTRIN: Right now, we're watching a woman walk with her suitcase. She's just handed over her documents to the border guard, and she's crossing by foot into this side.

Most crossing this checkpoint in and out of Crimea don't want to talk to us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She doesn't want to answer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

ESTRIN: There's a lot of fear of being trailed by Russian authorities, but we do meet Oleg coming from Crimea with his suitcase. He's only willing to give his first name.

OLEG: You know how in Russia how it's - when you talk something about the government, against the government, it's very short discussion.

ESTRIN: He lives in Crimea, and he lived there before the annexation. He's with his wife on their way to visit her mother, who lives on the other side under Ukrainian control. Many families are split this way.

OLEG: I saw on the road...

ESTRIN: He passed a Russian military convoy on his journey here. Russia has been sending more troops - a flashback to the takeover in 2014 and maybe a preview of a new invasion deeper into Ukraine.

OLEG: Of course, we are scared a lot because nobody expected seven years ago to have a s situation like this, that it can happen. And now also nobody knows what can happen.

ESTRIN: Crimea used to be the vacation spot for the former Soviet Union. It's got a warm climate and resorts along the Black Sea. At first, many residents of Crimea welcomed Russia's annexation.

OLEG: A lot of people, they are thinking that that was correct choice, that they make some choice.

ESTRIN: And you?

OLEG: And me - my opinion does not matter (laughter).

ESTRIN: He talked with his friends - should we stand up and protest Russia's takeover?

OLEG: But the answer is only one.

ESTRIN: He couldn't bear the risk to his family.

OLEG: Nobody want to fight Russia. This is like fight with a wall. You know you cannot win.

ESTRIN: He says fighting a wall only gets your hands bloody.

OLEG: This fight already lost. The war not finished. The war is not lost.

ESTRIN: It's a war for the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. Should Ukraine stick with the West and distance itself from its Russian neighbor? Or would it just be easier to give in to a Russian bear hug?

We drive half an hour up the Ukrainian coastline to the seaside town of Henichesk. U.S. officials say Russian warships could seize Ukrainian ports on these shores. We walk along the sea where we meet Yelena Korniyenko strolling with her daughter and grandson.

YELENA KORNIYENKO: (Through interpreter) We can see that more Ukrainian military troops are coming. They're patrolling the city. They're patrolling the sea. And we feel their protection.

ESTRIN: The headline in the town newspaper that day reads "The Town Port Could Be Turned Into A Military Port." Korniyenko looks out to the water and pauses.

KORNIYENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "We are hoping for common sense from Vladimir Putin," she says. Putin's annexation of Crimea still baffles many people here.

MYKOLA STAVYTSKYI: And everybody was shocked.

ESTRIN: Mykola Stavytskyi lives in Kherson close to Crimea.

STAVYTSKYI: Here, we thought that, wow, Ukraine, Russia, we're the brothers. Everybody couldn't believe about the occupation of Crimea. In that moment, we understood first time maybe that we are Ukrainians.

ESTRIN: A common enemy helped solidify Ukrainian civil identity. Stavytskyi is half Russian, but after 2014, he became a combat soldier fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east. He was in the trenches with Ukrainians of different backgrounds, soldiers who didn't have much in common.

STAVYTSKYI: They talk in different languages. They go in different churches, but they understand that they are one Ukrainian nation. Now we have Russian enemy. Thanks, Putin.

ESTRIN: Now Ukrainians in this borderland want to strengthen that sense of identity, especially among young people. We visit Kherson State University a few hours north of Crimea. A lot of students say they're nervous about what might come.

YULIIA VOROBIOVA: I'm feeling pretty scared.

ESTRIN: Yuliia Vorobiova lived through the turmoil of 2014 as a teenager. As an adult, she says she's firmly Ukrainian.

VOROBIOVA: We know we will be OK because we are not the people that are going to be with Russia. We're still people who are here and who want to be themselves and be Ukrainian.

ESTRIN: Kids here have grown up next to Russia. But 22-year-old Vitaliy Shutov says that doesn't confuse him at all.

VITALIY SHUTOV: Right now, youth, you know, use the internet and - well, they know what's going on in the world, I think. So I have friends in Russia, and they're nice people. So I consider myself, like, mixed. So I speak Russian really good. I like it that way. But the Russian government is the problem, I think, not the people.

ESTRIN: How would you define yourself? Would you say, I am Ukrainian or...

SHUTOV: No, of course I'm Ukrainian. I'm Ukrainian 100%, not Russian.

ESTRIN: This borderland between Ukraine and Russia has been sort of a gray zone, where cultures and identities have been fluid. But now national identity is solidifying. And as the potential of a new Russian invasion looms, this boundary is getting stronger, too.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Kherson, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.