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Ukraine's drift away from Russian influence

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was sending troops into Ukraine yesterday, he complained bitterly about how far the nation had drifted towards the West at Moscow's expense. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, Russia's influence in Ukraine has been in decline for years.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is the edge of Independence Square in Kyiv. It's nighttime, and people are strolling up the sidewalk. There are candles all along the sidewalk and photographs of more than a hundred people, who were protesters who died roughly eight years ago, when there was an uprising here against a pro-Russian government that wanted to take Ukraine much closer to Russia, and people wanted to be much closer to Europe. And tonight, they're coming to remember the sacrifices that those people made.

SOFIA TYMOSHENKO: My name is Sofia Tymoshenko.

LANGFITT: Tymoshenko comes here annually to remember those who died in protests in 2014 that led to the toppling of a pro-Russian government.

TYMOSHENKO: And every year, I came here with my child to explain what's going on was here. And now I can't. It's, like, very sad that I'm here alone, without my family.

LANGFITT: That's because her family has fled Ukraine's far west amid fears Russian troops will invade from the north and lay siege to the capital. When Tymoshenko was a girl, she had a good impression of Russia.

TYMOSHENKO: I never felt them - that they're enemy, like - because my mom always learned me that I need to speak Russian.

LANGFITT: Her mother, who grew up when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, read her daughter children's stories in Russian. Now Tymoshenko has a daughter of her own, Anna (ph).

When you read children's to Anna, what language do you read?

TYMOSHENKO: (Laughter) German.

LANGFITT: Oh, really?

TYMOSHENKO: Yes.

LANGFITT: Why?

TYMOSHENKO: Because, like - I think that she need to be global child.

LANGFITT: And do you think she needs to be comfortable in Europe?

TYMOSHENKO: She will. It's not what she needs. She will.

LANGFITT: Polls show Ukrainians have been moving away from Russia and towards the West for years. Sociological group Rating - it's a Ukrainian survey research firm - says support for joining NATO has gone from 34% in 2014 to 62% now. Irina Ferdenitz (ph) is a pollster at the company. She says many towns and cities have lost people in the long-running war with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas.

IRINA FERDENITZ: I think that just shows Ukrainians that maybe, you know, joining NATO is a better alternative than, you know, joining Russia or just, you know, sitting here like a sitting duck.

LANGFITT: Support to join the European Union is even higher - 68%. Ferdenitz cites EU decisions to offer visa-free travel and reduce red tape for Ukrainian exporters. By contrast, only 1 in 5 people here support joining a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

FERDENITZ: Those Ukrainians who viewed Russia as probably - as a good economic and trade partner, they saw that it is an unfriendly country, that it is a country that wages war against Ukraine.

LANGFITT: But there is still support for Russia here. Nestor Shufrych is a lawmaker with the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life. It has about 10% of the seats in Ukraine's Parliament. Shufrych says he doesn't support Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine, but he blames President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the conflict. He says Ukraine needs a government more willing to compromise with Russia.

NESTOR SHUFRYCH: (Through interpreter) Zelenskyy has succumbed to pressure from far-right radicals in the country, and he's just spouting pseudo-patriotic slogans to save his dramatically falling poll ratings.

LANGFITT: He also points out that Zelenskyy's government angered Putin by arresting opposition lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk on charges of treason. The government also shut down TV stations linked to the politician. The Russian president is godfather to Medvedchuk's daughter, Daria. In his speech earlier this week, Putin called the Zelenskyy government a Western puppet that serves Russia's geopolitical rivals. Shufrych says Ukraine has to find a way to get along with its giant neighbor.

SHUFRYCH: (Through interpreter) We have a 2,200-kilometer border between our countries. That's why we have to do something so we have a good relationship with Russia because right now, it's not very good.

LANGFITT: As Shufrych put it, Russia is a reality, and it's not going anywhere. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.