'War is my biggest horror': Russians brace for deadly conflict, economic hardship as Putin orders invasion

Anna Nemtsova

MOSCOW – As Western leaders denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin and rolled out punishing sanctions for his decision to invade eastern Ukraine, residents of Moscow braced for fresh economic hardship and a deadly war on their doorstep.

"I am too old to be afraid of anything, but the war is my biggest horror," said Svetlana Gracheva, 67, who lives in western Russia and was in Moscow visiting her younger brother to celebrate a national holiday. 

"I wake up thinking about the war with that overwhelming fear that we Russians all have in our genes," she said. "Generations and generations of our boys died in wars, so I hoped I would live my life without seeing another (one), without seeing coffins with killed boys or more crying mothers."

At Moscow's Christmas Market, children played under their mothers' watchful eyes while tourists listened attentively to a guide talking about the debate over whether to keep Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Feb. 15, 2022.

“There will be a quick war; our army is already in Ukraine," said a security guard at the square who declined to give his name out of fear of retribution for speaking to a Western media outlet. "They are going to launch a few rockets at Ukrainian military bases and storages with weapons. And all Ukrainian forces will surrender to or army. And that’s it.”

Russians were glued to their televisions on Monday, like much of the rest of the world, when President Vladimir Putin recognized two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as "independent" and signed decrees sending troops into those territories to "maintain peace."

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His moves were tantamount to an invasion and raised the specter of the worst military conflict in Europe since 1945, unleashing an international backlash with far-reaching consequences.

In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled sanctions against five Russian banks and three wealthy individuals. In Berlin, German officials announced they would halt certification of the $11 billion Russian-owned natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

In Washington, the Biden administration vowed a "severe response," and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said the White House would be rolling out sanctions "in a matter of hours."

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Even before Putin's announcement on Monday, the Russian stock market fell by a record 10.5%, the most in seven years, and continued its slide into Tuesday. The value of the ruble, Russia's currency, plunged as well. Some Russians withdrew cash from ATMs, and housewives – long used to social and political crises – stocked up on buckwheat.

Children take a carousel ride on Red Square in the center of Moscow.

Vladimir Khrykov, /a businessman, told USA TODAY that he felt very unhappy watching Putin’s big television appearance on Monday. “The speech was so murky, so unprepared, but these decisions affect our business, our future, directly,” Khrykov said.

He was even more unsettled by an earlier broadcast Monday in which Putin publicly mocked the head of his foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin. Khrykov said it seemed to reveal cracks and confusion in Putin's inner circle as Naryshkin struggled to respond to Putin's questions.

“It turns out that even inside the Kremlin’s tiny circle of decision-makers, they had no clarity about what to do about Donbas," the Russian businessman said, referring to the region in eastern Ukraine that has been a flash point in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

"Nobody – even Naryshkin – could figure out if Putin wanted to make the self-proclaimed republics a part of Russia or recognize them as independent," Khrykov said. 

The exchange could make foreign powers think Russian authorities are incompetent, he added. 

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Demian Kudryavstev, an investor in Moscow, said he and others were bracing for sanctions from Washington, but he said sanctions will not hurt Russia's wealthiest oligarchs. 

“Ordinary Russians, small business will suffer from the new package of the U.S. sanctions," Kudryavstev said. “As for businessmen worth more than $100 million, they have secured their future by buying foreign passports (and) investing in the West. Some might move to live in Dubai temporarily.”

Putin has an "endless list of options of how to increase pressure" on Russia's neighbor, Kudryavstev said, while "all the West has is sanctions."

Ukrainian military forces conduct live-fire exercises near the town of Chuguev on Feb. 10, 2022.

In Kitai Gorod, the oldest part of Moscow, near the Kremlin, there were no visible signs of the global furor aimed at Putin's Russia.

Nastya, a 25-year-old barista, was making coffee for her clients at the Central Market, a popular place among Moscow’s hipsters. But her thoughts were “storming,” she said.

Putin’s speech made her completely rethink her life, she said.

“Putin is convinced that all Russians would cope with his decision, but lots of young people, my friends, disagree,” Nastya told USA TODAY on Tuesday morning. Like others interviewed, she declined to give her last name for fear of being fired or even arrested. 

She used to tell her mother that she had dreamed of a progressive future in Russia. Not now.

"My plan is to emigrate now," she said. "I will have to explain to my mom that I simply don’t believe in a happy future here anymore."

Nearby, two middle-aged men discussed Putin’s speech over espressos.

“Putin’s last words amused me most: ‘I am sure that Russians will support me,'" Maksim told USA TODAY. 

"He does not have any doubts that we want his war," he added. But “only idiots can support the idea of sanctions and the country’s lost reputation.” 

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Civilians train with members of the Georgian Legion, a paramilitary unit formed mainly by ethnic Georgian volunteers to fight against Russian forces in Ukraine in 2014, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have ordered a full military mobilization amid growing fears in the West that Russia is planning to invade the neighboring country. The announcement on Saturday came amid a spike in violence along the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russia rebels in recent days.