BELGOROD, Russia ? On the outskirts of this sleepy city bordering Ukraine, residents were surprised Thursday when a military helicopter lifted off into the dreary sky.
?Look! They brought out the real machines today,? said Viktor Naumov, 28, a courier, who pulled his car over to the shoulder of an adjacent highway to give a shout of appreciation.
The helicopter was one of the few visible signs here of what Western governments, including the United States, say is a muster of tens of thousands of troops deployed by the Kremlin that could preface an invasion of Ukraine, a step that President Vladimir V. Putin has said he might employ to protect Russian-speakers in the country?s east.
Continue reading the main story Related Coverage But in and around Belgorod, which sits a scant 40 miles from Kharkiv, Ukraine?s second-largest city and a likely target in case of an invasion, any increased military presence is largely kept out of the public eye. In a region that appears far from being on the brink of war, life continues as normal here, and many residents say they do not want war, dismissing reports of a buildup as rumors set to discredit Russia.
?It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they?ve got additional plans,? Mr. Obama said in the interview.
Residents here are not so convinced. ?Show me the tanks first, show me anything here that proves all this, and then we can talk about an invasion,? said Pyotr Kudryavtsev, a retiree walking away from the tracks near the Vesyolaya Lopan station south of Belgorod, where scores of military vehicles were filmed being unloaded on March 12. Mr. Kudryavtsev, like other locals interviewed, denied this, saying that the heavy tracks in the mud close to the rails belonged to construction vehicles.
Those weapons of war have now seemingly dispersed, either onto nearby bases or, as some have alleged, into tightly guarded hiding places along the border, ready to strike.
Despite a strong dislike for the interim government in Kiev, most residents of Belgorod and the surrounding towns and villages rejected the idea of any kind of attack against their neighbor.
?At all costs we must avoid war,? said Aleksandr Strelkov, a mechanic, who was visiting the Museum of the Battle of Kursk in downtown Belgorod with his 7-year-old son.
Mr. Strelkov stood in front of a 50-foot-tall, larger-than-life diorama of the Battle of Kursk, featuring plumes of smoke from burning tanks and scores of soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The 1943 battle between Soviet and German forces is considered one of the largest tank battles in history.
Patriotism and a hallowed respect for those killed in World War II run especially strong in Belgorod, which bills itself as the City of the First Salute, after a salvo of fireworks in Moscow was dedicated to the city after its liberation from Nazi forces in 1943.
But today the voices of those in Russia who live closest to Ukraine are far less bellicose than leaders in Russia and in the West. ?Everyone has got an aunt, a cousin, or some relative in Ukraine,? Mr. Strelkov said. ?My wife is Ukrainian. How could we go to war with ourselves??
On the stretch of four-lane highway leading from Belgorod to the border, where a warm patch of spring has brought farmers out to cultivate their fields and trees into bloom, there are signs of heightened precautions.
Border guards, formerly unarmed, now stand with Kalashnikovs. A checkpoint had been bolstered to a six-man patrol and officers often inspect cars with Ukrainian plates.
Yet at least overtly, the military presence is invisible. Rather than waiting tensely for the first shots to ring out, most residents see a slow cooling and cross-border trips becoming more infrequent.
Valery Perfilyev, a taxi driver who regularly ferried Russians across the border to shop in Kharkiv, an industrial hub, and young men visiting the nightclubs and, occasionally, brothels of the city, said that traffic had slowed to a trickle since the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych last month.
?We were the oxygen,? he said, referring to the money that entered Ukraine through Russia. ?Now it is like that has been cut off. They need us as much as we need them.?
At the stations along the railroad that leads from the city to Kharkiv, administrators declined to discuss troop movements or confirm recent videos that showed a column tanks and other military vehicles purportedly being unloaded at a railway stop 10 miles from the border.
A representative of the Ministry of Defense also refused to comment on troop movements.
As the clouds dispersed and the afternoon sun warmed Belgorod?s wide boulevards on Thursday, locals flocked to the promenade on Narodny Boulevard in central Belgorod.
A visual survey of the continuing dispute, including satellite images of Russian naval positions and maps showing political, cultural and economic factors in the crisis.
Many discussed politics, especially fears of growing nationalism in Kiev and reports of widespread lawlessness in eastern Ukraine that have dominated the Russian news media lately.
But would Russia make the next move?
?What will Putin do?? asked Anastasia Yefremova, who wore sunglasses and a lightweight sweater as she sat with friends. ?I suppose he will do the right thing, he will protect us. But he will not attack.?
On the train from Belgorod across the border to Kharkiv, many passengers were Ukrainians returning from Russia laden with goods as men drank beer and exchanged Russian rubles for Ukrainian hryvnia with money-changers roving the cars.
A border official, Aleksei Filiptsov, took extra care as he photographed a journalist?s documents, asking questions about his journey.
?If you fly from Sheremetyevo to Ukraine, these kinds of things don?t happen,? he said, referring to Moscow?s largest airport. ?But lately we?ve had a lot of unstable people around now. Many more than usual.? He declined to elaborate.
A man carrying a Ukrainian passport who gave his name as Aleksei, 37, was carrying four black bags filled with bottles of oil that he would sell in Kharkiv.
?We?re doing what we always do, just the same as before,? he said, as he watched tensely as first Russian border officials checked passports for those exiting the country, and later Ukrainian border police officers walked through the car, paying special attention to Russian arrivals, particularly young men.
As the checks ended and the doors to the train swung open, he gave a happy thumbs up.
?Praise be to God, things won?t get any worse,? he said, exiting the train, now in Ukraine.