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'Brothers': Russians, Ukrainians wage fragile peace at Winter Olympics amid threat of war

BEIJING – As tensions mount between Moscow and Kyiv over security issues that could lead to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, both nations' athletes are assuming defensive positions on a new border thousands of miles from their military officers, supply lines and missile launchers: the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

With the shadow of war looming between their two countries, the athletes representing Russia and Ukraine have taken a decidedly non-confrontational posture.

They don't discuss the prospect of some 100,000 Russian troops menacingly massed on the Ukraine border. Or the preparations Ukrainians are taking to counter an invasion. Or the international tensions mounting over the crisis.

"I have been told not to talk about this," said Ekaterina Lokteva Zagorshaia, a 19-year-old Russian who competed in the women's snowboard cross event on Wednesday in Zhangjiakou, a popular Chinese ski resort approximately 100 miles northwest of Beijing.

Ukrainian servicemen walk on an armored fighting vehicle during an exercise in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday as tensions with Russia over a possible invasion escalate.
Ukrainian servicemen walk on an armored fighting vehicle during an exercise in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday as tensions with Russia over a possible invasion escalate.

Figure skater Ivan Shmuratko, Ukraine's four-time national champion, avoided the touchy subject as well: "I came here to do my job as best as I can, as an athlete, on the ice. I want to inspire people with my creativity. That's all."

Just as Russia's military is bettered trained and better equipped than Ukraine's, the Russian delegation to the Games outnumbers Ukraine's team by about 5-to-1, with 167 athletes compared to 32. Russia has won 11 medals, two of them gold.

For Ukraine? None so far.

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But on one point the two neighbors, who share close cultural, linguistic and historical ties, agree: they'd rather not talk about what's happening closer to home.

"About everything else, the conflict and all that, you know I'm not a conflict person and I just want people to love each other. I just to need to stay away from that topic," Shmuratko said after competing in a men's figure skating event Thursday.

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Shmuratko, 20, looked visibly relieved when a Ukrainian journalist interrupted USA TODAY's line of questioning to inquire how the Olympian judged his performance from a technical perspective compared to the 2019 European Figure Skating Championships in Minsk, Belarus, where he made his debut on the competitive skating scene.

(Shmuratko finished last in Thursday's men's free skating event where the gold medal went to American Nathan Chen, who completed a nearly flawless routine. Since this story was first published, Ukrainian skeleton athlete Vladyslav Heraskevych flashed a small sign to cameras after he finished a run on Friday night that read "No War in Ukraine." He told reporters after the event: I want peace in my country, and I want peace in the world. It’s my position, so I fight for that. I fight for peace." )

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A few minutes earlier, Russian ice skater Andrei Mozalev also refused to be drawn on whether escalating political tensions, as Moscow has moved tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine's doorstep, was impacting his training and competing in Beijing.

"He says he's not feeling too well," a Russian-speaking journalist translated as Mozalev, 18, put his head down and quickly stormed his way past a gathering place for media at Beijing's Capital Indoor Stadium.

The stadium holds a small, but significant, place in U.S.-China diplomatic history because in 1971 nine members of the U.S. national table tennis team competed here in an event that eventually led to President Richard Nixon visiting China a year later, putting an end to 25 years of U.S and Chinese diplomatic isolation.

Olympic participants from Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. sit in the team area before the start of the figure skating men’s short program event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, on Feb 4, 2022.
Olympic participants from Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. sit in the team area before the start of the figure skating men’s short program event during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, on Feb 4, 2022.

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It was a similar picture up in the mountains north of Beijing, where many of the skiing and snowboarding events are held, with the Russian athletes in particular preferring to remain tight-lipped about weeks of bitter diplomatic feuding between Putin and the West that has threatened to draw in the U.S. and European countries into a messy conflict.

The Biden administration has started moving about 3,000 troops as well as armored vehicles and other military equipment to places such as Germany, Poland and Romania to reinforce NATO allies. Putin has moved approximately 100,000 troops to Ukraine's eastern border with Russia in part because he's concerned about the ex-Soviet state's ambitions to join the 30-nation military alliance and close integration with Europe, which he views as encroaching on Russia's cultural and military sphere of influence.

Analysts remain confounded over how serious Putin is about an invasion. The Kremlin denies planning any military action and accuses NATO of exacerbating tensions by putting forces on standby and sending warships and fighter jets to eastern Europe.

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"No, not that one," said Kristina Paul, another Russian snowboarder said as she strode purposefully by the "mixed zone," where media can put questions to athletes after they compete, in Zhangjiakou. Paul, 23, didn't hang around for a second attempt.

Alexandra Parshina, another Russian snowboarder, had a different excuse.

"Sorry, no, my coach is waiting for me," Parshina, 26, said as she hurried off.

Several other Russian athletes in other disciplines also refused comment.

Still, ahead of the Games, Russia's sports minister, Oleg Matytsin, told state news agency TASS that his country was against the "politicization" of the Olympics.

"If Ukrainian athletes win at the 2022 Games, we will be sincerely happy for them and congratulate them on medals," Matytsin told TASS.

Ivan Shmuratko, left, of Team Ukraine at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Feb. 10, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Ivan Shmuratko, left, of Team Ukraine at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Feb. 10, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Kalyta Iryna, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Olympic delegation, said that Ukrainian athletes had been advised to stay away from Russians in Beijing.

And Uroš Velepec, a Slovenian athlete-turned coach of Ukraine's women’s biathlon team, said it wasn't easy for Ukrainian athletes to be separated from home right now.

"Of course we are worried," he said, as intense diplomatic efforts have so far failed to diffuse the crisis, with Russia seeking "binding" security demands.

President Joe Biden warned Americans on Thursday that they should leave Ukraine.

"There’s nothing we can do. We have to focus. We have to show our greatest here. And try to keep positive, the people of Ukraine, with our results. It’s our job not just to entertain, but to give them hope that we are still here, that we are fighting," Velepec said.

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At the snowboarding in Zhangjiakou, a TV reporter for Russia's Rossiya 24 channel, was insistent he wanted to say "one thing."

"Look, in this Olympic Games all I see is neutrality," said Igor Terentiev, referring to encounters between Russians and Ukrainians.

"Sometimes it's friendly if they know each other and sometimes maybe they don't acknowledge one another because they don't know each other," he said. "But Russians and Ukrainians are brothers and that's all you need to know."

Contributing: Lori Nickel

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russians and Ukrainians wage fragile peace at Winter Games