Ukrainians in Kyiv shrug off threat of Russian invasion

While many are making contingency plans, life continues as normal in a city that has grown weary of the constant talk of war

As news of the latest grim White House briefing on Ukraine broke late on Friday evening in Kyiv, the bars and restaurants were as full as on any other Friday night, the atmosphere remained jovial, and anyone without access to a Twitter feed would have struggled to divine any sense of foreboding.

While US officials and the Washington journalists briefed by them prophesied a “horrific, bloody” campaign to be launched against Ukraine imminently, nobody except journalists was paying much attention to what, to many in Kyiv, seems like just the latest in a line of apocalyptic briefings.

As the staff at Washington thinktanks wrote of a ruthless campaign to be launched this weekend – one that would deprive Ukraine of power and heating, and take out the top command of the army – the streets of Kyiv, where light snow fell, felt like a parallel reality.

Of course, underneath the surface calm, many Ukrainians are making contingency plans, some to fight off an invasion, others to flee for safer places. It is not possible to buy an electricity generator in the city, and many discuss what they would do if the worst does happen.

Cellars, metro stations and even strip clubs have been mooted as possible bomb shelters in the event of a Russian air attack.

A man reads a book while strap-hanging on the metro in Kyiv
Commuters on the metro in Kyiv. Photograph: Bryan Smith/Zuma/Rex

On Saturday, thousands of Ukrainians rallied in central Kyiv for a “unity march”, waving Ukrainian flags and banners reading “We will resist” and “Invaders must die”. However, the crowd of several thousand was small by the standards of a city used to giant protests, and reflects a weariness at the constant, nagging threat of war.

“Putin is making a huge mistake if he thinks he will be able to destroy Ukraine,” said Andriy Tyshko, on the march with his infant daughter.

Iryna Kuprienko, who was out for a stroll near the protest, said she did not understand the fuss. “We know Putin is capable of doing terrible things but surely even he is not mad enough to try to bomb Kyiv.”

As more embassies announced the evacuation of most diplomatic staff and told their citizens they should leave now or be prepared to get stuck, the increasing tension is getting harder to ignore. American citizens in Kyiv received calls on Friday evening from concerned consular staff, telling them to make plans to leave immediately.

But for many people here, the idea of a full-fledged invasion remains something outlandish and implausible. Many Ukrainians, up to and including the president, say they are well aware of the risk Russia poses but do not quite believe the American insistence that the threat is imminent.

“I’m beginning to get pretty annoyed with this,” said one former Ukrainian MP, who asked not to be named. “I am very pro-western, but the way this invasion news is coming out reminds me of [unverified rumours on] Russian Telegram channels, about unnamed sources and backroom information.

“The media hysteria is extremely annoying, and you start to lose trust in your own government, which is just telling us to keep calm.”


Shaun Walker in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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