The night everything changed: waiting for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite all the warning signs, as I sat down for dinner with friends in Kyiv on 23 February, war seemed unreal. Surely, Putin was bluffing?

It was the evening before everything changed. The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov had invited me for dinner. A few friends, he said, and borshch. We had met earlier that winter – a pleasant meal in a Georgian restaurant in Podil, a neighbourhood in the lower part of Kyiv next to the Dnipro River. The date was now 23 February 2022. It was 8.15pm, and I was late. I stopped in a shop, bought a bottle of Kolonist port from a winery in Odesa, and hurried to Kurkov’s flat.

These meetings happened under the shadow of war. The news was alarming, terrible even. A week earlier, Russian-backed separatists had shelled a village in Ukrainian-controlled territory next to the pro-Russian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. The missile had landed in a school gym. Mercifully, no one was killed, but the eight-year conflict in the east was heating up.

Humour was essential in these dark times. Kurkov sent me a meme via WhatsApp. It showed Fyodor Dostoevsky’s disembodied head peering through a hole in the school wall at the rubble. Kurkov was an agreeable companion, the author of many playful and magically luminous books, and Ukraine’s most celebrated living writer. Also, remarkably, he was an optimist. I, by contrast, was increasingly gloomy. The omens pointed in one scarcely believable direction: Russia was about to invade Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin had a longstanding interest in the country. In 2014, he responded to a pro-European uprising in Kyiv by annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and coordinating a counter-rebellion in the Donbas, a region subsequently controlled in part by Russia-installed rebels. By the end of the decade, it had grown into a brooding obsession.

During the pandemic, working in isolation in the Kremlin, Putin had ordered books, files and papers. The result of his labours was a 5,000-word essay. It appears to be his own work. The article appeared in July 2021 on the president’s website. It was a manifesto for revision and upheaval, and arguably his most important text. Its title: On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

Putin lays out his controversial thesis in the first paragraph. He says he is returning to an idea he has long considered to be true: that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. The word in Russian is narod. They are, he writes, a single whole. By way of proof, he goes back more than 1,000 years to the origins of Russian civilisation. Today’s Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are all descendants of Kyivan Rus, an early city state founded in Kyiv, he argues.

The president blames the Mongols, Poles and the west for dividing this lost kingdom. And Lenin. In 1922 Lenin insisted Ukraine should join the new Soviet Union on equal terms with Russia. According to Putin, Moscow was “robbed” of people, territory and co-religionists. The essay is amateurish, chauvinistic and inaccurate. It gives a political and historical “rationale” for what Putin did next.

In late 2021 he sent troops, tanks and armoured vehicles to Russia’s western border with Ukraine and to Belarus, a brother state that Moscow had practically absorbed. The vehicles bore a curious white symbol: the letter V.

Next, Putin issued a series of demands so imperious and swaggering you could only marvel at their audacity. He sought nothing less than the annulment of the security infrastructure that has governed Europe for the three decades since the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. Further, he wanted the Biden administration to guarantee Ukraine would never join Nato, the US-led military alliance set up in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union.

Russia’s president demanded that Nato take its forces and equipment out of European countries that had once been cold war satellites: Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, plus the Baltic states. These countries had joined Nato after 1997; now Moscow wanted to wind the clock back. Putin’s apparent goal was to recreate the USSR’s sphere of influence that had existed across the European continent behind what Winston Churchill called an “iron curtain”. This zone encompassed Belarus and Ukraine – “historic” Russian lands, as Putin saw them – unjustly separated from Moscow by Bolshevik blunder and American meddling. Diplomatic attempts to appease him – a trip to Moscow by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and the offer of a superpower summit from the White House – had gone nowhere.

* * *

In December 2021, Russian tactical battalion groups had started assembling on Ukraine’s borders. Satellite images revealed an array of lethal modern weapons: Sukhoi fighter jets, Buk anti-aircraft missile systems, short-range artillery, fuel and transport vehicles. Two days before my borshch invitation, Putin held an extraordinary summit of his security council, Russia’s top decision-making body. His spy chiefs, senior government colleagues and foreign minister all gave their support for a plan to recognise the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” – DNR and LNR – as independent. It was a bizarre display of fealty in Moscow. Whatever misgivings council members may have had were left unsaid.

Putin’s decision pushed the button on a broader Russian military intervention in Ukraine, which has been a sovereign state for 30 years. The DNR and LNR claimed territory in the Donbas that was under the control of Kyiv’s pro-western government, led by president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former TV star. An unsuccessful eight-year dialogue – named after Minsk, the Belarusian capital – over the status of these Russian-controlled zones was over. A terrible succession was dawning.

Vladimir Putin attending a cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, January 2022
Vladimir Putin attending a cabinet meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, January 2022. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

Putin was seeking to resolve these political questions of lordship and allegiance, language and identity, using tactics familiar from Russia’s dark past: bombs, destruction and the murder of civilians. Over the last decade, Russia had levelled Aleppo and other Syrian cities and demolished Grozny during two Chechen wars, the second as Putin came to power in 2000.

The immediate enemy this time was Ukraine, as well as its Atlanticist leadership. But the war that would play out in 2022 would be bigger and more epochal, a moment in which the world was for ever transformed. Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, called it a Zeitenwende – literally a times-turn, a turning point in history. It would mark the end of a period of relative peace that began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To paraphrase Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen.

Russia’s invasion would become the largest armed conflict on European territory since 1945: an attempt by one nation to devour another. From everywhere other than Moscow, it looked like a classic imperial raid against a refractory one-time colony. Putin’s justification for his adventure seemed preposterous. His aim: to “denazify” and “demilitarise” Ukraine, a country led by a Jewish president whose relatives perished in the Holocaust.

More plausible was the axiom that without Ukraine, Russia could never be an empire or a great power. There was the threat of example, moreover. Ukraine was home to millions of native Russian-speakers. If it could become a successful western-style democracy where critical voices were allowed, then so could Russia.

The consequences of invasion would be transformative, not least for international relations. In a matter of days, unthinkable things happened. Sweden and Finland abandoned neutrality; Germany, pacifism; the UK, post-Brexit estrangement from European neighbours; Poland and Hungary, antipathy towards refugees, at least those from a neighbouring country. By showing solidarity with Ukraine, the US and its allies found a role, a new moral purpose and a collective resilience.

Russia’s battle went beyond Ukraine. It was – to a large degree – a proxy war against the west. The glavniy protivnik – the chief adversary, in dry KGB language – was the US, as well as other democratic governments that had armed the Ukrainians. Washington had sent ammunition and Javelin anti-tank missiles, London the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) system, and the Baltic states additional hardware. These defensive shipments enraged Moscow.

As conceived in the Kremlin, the war was something else, too: a civilisational struggle. One ideological foe was decadent liberalism. In the view of the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill I, who defended and blessed Putin’s endeavour, Europe was permissive and anti-family. The conflict’s scope extended into a transcendent realm; Russia’s armoured vehicles were marked with a mystical Z. What the letter meant was unclear. It became the main propaganda symbol of Russia’s invasion.

Putin wanted nothing less than a new world order. Since becoming Russian president in 2000, he had frequently complained about the post-second world war international system. It led to American hegemony and triumphalism; to disastrous western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; and to blatant encroachment by Nato into Russia’s neighbourhood, he said. Ukraine had become an anti-Russian project, Putin added, hatched by the CIA.

This state of affairs had become intolerable. It was time to end it. Russian foreign ministry officials were evasive about how this might come about. They promised a “military-technical” answer.

* * *

The dinner at Andrey Kurkov’s apartment was special. Kurkov and his British wife, Elizabeth, had invited a handy group of guests: Brazil’s ambassador to Kyiv, who was still in the Ukrainian capital after many of his diplomatic colleagues had fled; the head of the city’s medical history museum, which had its own subterranean morgue; and two writers working for Politico and the New York Review of Books. I apologised for being late. Kurkov brought me a bowl of borshch. It was delicious.

There was honey vodka, Odesan wine and pork zakusky. Kurkov passed around fascinating material taken from the files of the Bolshevik secret police. The daughter of a KGB general had discovered them in an attic after her father’s death. They were source material for Kurkov’s latest novel, and included records of interrogations – some typed, others written in curling Cyrillic letters. The papers dated from 1917 to 1921, when the Red Army had swept away a short-lived independent Ukrainian parliament based in Kyiv and had reclaimed the city for Lenin’s new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Among the files were black-and-white photos of police suspects. They included three young men – one with crimped black hair, wearing a white blouse. Circus performers, the records said. There were portraits of a bourgeois young woman, smiling, debutante-like. And more conventional prison-style mugshots of arrestees with shaved heads. Most, I suspected, vanished into the vortex of the 1920s and 30s. Was history repeating itself a century later, with Moscow once more snuffing out Ukraine’s independence with another invasion?

Despite the premonitions, war that evening seemed unreal. Surely, Putin was bluffing. His uncompromising posture – on Nato and European security – was a gambit, was it not? The international community had listened politely to Putin’s tirades, shot through with familiar anti-western grudges and paranoia. In theory, Ukraine might join Nato. To say it couldn’t would be to violate the country’s democratic rights. But – whisper it in Brussels, where the headquarters of Nato is located – nobody expected Ukraine to join the alliance soon, if ever.

Putin, though, appeared to dwell in a strange and unreachable realm. There was an unexplained urgency to his machinations, a sense of haste. Was he ill? A neuroscientist had written to me diagnosing Parkinson’s disease, based on a review of the president’s rare public appearances, where he had difficulty moving his right arm. Cancer, perhaps? Or steroid addiction, which might explain his puffy cheeks?

Related to this was the more diffuse question of Putin’s mental wellbeing. Most Ukrainians I spoke with thought he had gone nuts. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said he behaved logically within warped parameters. She described him to me as “absolutely rational, cold, cruel, black evil”, adding: “He’s driven by a sense of historical mission.” And then there was the issue of ultimate concern, too awful to contemplate. Was Putin crazy enough to launch a nuclear bomb?

One Ukrainian intelligence officer I spoke to said Putin lived in an alternative reality. He had convinced himself ordinary Ukrainians were “rural Russians” who would rise up and welcome their Russian liberators. The Kremlin’s spy agencies were complicit in this fantasy, the person suggested. This misconception would have large consequences.

Whatever the reason, Putin had gone beyond what you might imagine to be rational considerations of self-interest. The US, the EU and the UK had threatened the Russian government with massive retaliation should it attack Ukraine. This included a package of devastating sanctions that would destroy Russia’s economy if it was enacted. Did Putin really want to return Moscow to a pre-globalised existence without Visa card payments, Big Macs and aircraft parts – a sort of grey 21st-century USSR?

An ‘I love Ukraine’ sign in Kyiv, 3 February 2022
An ‘I love Ukraine’ sign in Kyiv, 3 February 2022. Photograph: Bryan Smith/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

And then there was Kyiv. It was a colourful, modern European city of 3 million people. With its cafes and restaurants, Bolt cars and food-delivery guys on pedal bikes labouring up ancient cobbled boulevards, it felt like a cosmopolitan Berlin or Prague. You could order a taxi or an artisanal pizza by app. There was an art-house cinema and an underground bar not far from the French Renaissance opera house. (The bar was down a flight of steps, in an unmarked basement, open Wednesdays and Saturdays, by password only.) A contemporary capital, in short, where hipsters navigated the hills on electric scooters.

That evening, on the brink of war, people were out and about as usual. Kyivites had come up with a term for a possible Russian invasion – “Day X” – never quite believing it would happen. I was staying in a hotel on Yaroslaviv Val. The street was close to the heart of the capital. I walked past pavement florists selling tulips from buckets, and a violinist, busking in her usual evening spot and playing Édith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose.

It was inconceivable that Russian missiles might soon be landing amid such varied humanity and beauty. Kyiv’s art nouveau mansions were painted in the faded colours of a Victorian stamp album: lilac, buff, cerise and imperial green. My street was home to the Polish embassy. Across the road was the House of Actors, originally a synagogue, built in an imposing Moorish revival style. Four doors farther along was a late 19th-century building called the Baron’s House, a neo-gothic fantasy with a turret and two demonic gargoyles above the door. They had seen and outlasted war, revolution and Nazi occupation.

The dinner done, I embraced Kurkov and his wife before leaving to walk home. Their flat, it seemed at that moment, had everything you might wish for in life: love, good conversation, books, paintings and a tub filled with spring narcissi next to a kitchen window. Why would you ever leave such a place? But like most residents in the city, they had an emergency plan should the worst happen. Out on the street, I took a call from a well-placed contact who had served in Ukraine’s foreign ministry. He knew people, information, rumour. It was approaching midnight. The sky was a dark shiny velvet.

The invasion, he said, would begin at 4am.

* * *

I slept little. The Russian operation began practically on schedule, soon after 4.30am local time. Distant explosions and the whine of car alarms were heard across the capital. A nation shook itself awake.

What had been foretold by the US and other western governments, by military experts and – late in the day – by President Zelenskiy himself was actually happening. Putin was invading Ukraine. His apparent goal: the annihilation of a country, a culture and its citizens. There had been danger signals, intelligence briefings shared among government agencies, diplomatic dispatches, sober assessments in the New York Times … and yet.

With imperial swagger, Russian troops, tanks and planes were on the move. The disaster unfurled on a grey, ordinary Thursday morning, sprinkled by rain. By 5am friends and loved ones were calling each other, peering into their phones, clicking on news updates and making existential decisions. Stay or flee?

Some packed and got ready to leave. Others took refuge in apartment building basements, wondering if the horror might pass. Alerted by colleagues, I threw on my boots and coat and took the stairs to the hotel’s underground garage. The floor filled up with staff and guests. A family arrived. A mother shepherded her two children to safety. The kids perched on chairs. They were carrying colouring books. The war was no longer abstract, a matter for opinion columns and thinktanks. It was a bringer of random death, if not to these children, then to others.

By breakfast, the scale of Russia’s military assault became apparent.

Putin’s ambitions, it turned out, went beyond the Donbas, where – he tendentiously claimed – a “genocide” was going on. They included pretty much the entire country: east, south, north and even west. The port city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov; Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, home to 1.5 million people; Odesa and Kherson, on the Black Sea; Ukrainian-controlled towns on the eastern frontline – all were being bombed and pulverised.

Russia was clinically targeting Ukraine’s defences: airports, military bases, ammunition dumps. It was shock and awe, done with a ruthless indifference to human cost. Sleep-deprived, it was hard for me to make sense of Moscow’s developing war plan, but the bold strokes were visible. An attempted blitzkrieg was under way. The ultimate target was Kyiv and its US-backed government. Putin, you suspected, would wish to kill or capture Zelenskiy and replace him with a pro-Russian puppet governor and administration.

People leaving Kyiv following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022
People leaving Kyiv following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Amid this ferocious onslaught, there were moments of normality. The bombs didn’t appear to be close, so I ventured outside. It was cold, just above zero. I wore a flak jacket and a woolly hat. A few residents were walking their dogs. The first queues had formed outside cash machines. Most shops and cafes were closed. But Aroma Coffee had opened as usual, selling croissants and takeout, as if nothing very remarkable had happened.

Among the locals I spoke to that morning, the mood was one of shock, fear, and quiet disgust that Putin – without cause or reasonable pretext – had decided on war. I passed by the Golden Gate, a Soviet replica of an early fortification built by Prince Yaroslav the Wise during the times of Kyivan Rus, the city’s early medieval dynasty. Twenty-four hours earlier, a floppy-haired guitarist had been singing Oasis numbers in the gardens. Now it was deserted. Its metro station would soon become a bomb shelter.

I turned left towards the old city and its cathedral square.

Kyiv’s familiar sights were intact. The bells of St Michael’s monastery tolled the hour, as they had in ages past. The gold-domed cathedral sits across the plaza from St Sophia, a second great cathedral that dates from the Byzantine 11th century. I took a photo of St Sophia’s baroque turquoise bell tower, just in case. The ensemble of religious buildings is close to the headquarters of the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, at No 33 Volodymyrska; to the offices of the border guard; and to Kyiv’s city police department.

All were obvious targets for Russian bombs.

The square’s playground was empty, home now to a few jackdaws and a dog. With scant traffic, the birdsong seemed louder. I walked down Mykhailivska Street towards Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which translates as Independence Square. This was the scene of the 2004 and 2014 uprisings against the country’s pro-Russian elites. At its centre was a column signifying Ukraine’s independence, a gold statue of a woman holding a rose branch perched on top. How long would she remain there? Statues came and went. An empty plinth marked where Lenin once stood, at the bottom of Shevchenko Boulevard.

The maidan was normally busy with tourists and shoppers, stopping for lunch in the food court of the Globus Mall. They had vanished. A few people waited in the rain for a trolley bus. A coffee kiosk had opened up. I spoke to a customer, Viktor Oleksiivych. “Russia is 100% wrong,” he told me. What would he do now? “I’m going to take my grandson out of the city, and then I will come back,” he said. “I don’t have any weapons, but I’m ready to defend my country.” Viktor said he had phoned his son when he heard the first explosions rock the city’s outskirts. He turned on the TV. He had watched Zelenskiy address the nation, introduce martial law and urge citizens to be calm. “Putin is the aggressor here,” Viktor told me. “He’s invaded Ukraine because we don’t want to live under his strictures, his model.” The model – feudal domination by Moscow – was, Viktor said, unappealing.

Another customer, Liudmyla – a young city police officer who had popped out for coffee – said she would carry on. “I didn’t sleep last night,” she said. “I tried to sleep before work, but I couldn’t manage it.

“Cheerio,” she added with a grin, and returned to her office.

Three Ukrainian soldiers in uniform joined the maidan coffee queue. They were cheerful. Oleh Olehovych, a 30-year-old officer, said he had been summoned at 4.00am. His office was in the centre of the city. “Civilians are leaving. But we will stay,” he said. Could Ukraine defeat mighty Russia, with its vast airpower and Black Sea navy? “We will smash them,” he said. “The military is in good shape; our communications are working.”

* * *

During these first hours of invasion, shaped by confusion and dread, the nation’s fate was hard to predict. Ukraine’s armed forces were in better shape than in 2014, when they wilted under superior Russian firepower. Everyone said so. It appeared to be true. On paper, Ukraine had 220,000 troops, plus 400,000 veterans with combat experience and modern weapons. A smaller force than Russia’s, for sure, but these soldiers were motivated, ready to defend homes and families.

And yet the cars streaming out of Kyiv told another story. From early in the day the streets were jammed, as civilians sought a way out – to Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, and from there to Lviv and the Polish border. Traffic on the boulevards moved slowly, and sometimes not at all. A great exodus had begun. It would grow into Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945. There was no panic as such, but a sense that this newborn war would get dramatically worse.

Reports suggested enemy formations had already crossed the international checkpoint and the border with Belarus. This was two hours’ drive and 160km to the north, beyond the city of Chernihiv. The Russians were trundling Kyiv-wards through a primordial landscape of pine trees and swamp. It seemed Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, was facilitating war on Kyiv, too, at Putin’s personal request.

The war had lent Kyiv a new and frantic tempo. The city moved faster and with greater intensity and purpose than before, as if a million separate atoms had been disturbed and violently shaken. A couple of cars and a yellow municipal bus sped down the Khreshchatyk, rolling past a sign that read “I ♥ UKRAINE”. It was 9am. We were four hours into invasion day – 24 February 2022. The date, you imagined, would take its place alongside other storied ones – 1 September 1939 and 11 September 2001.

Nearby the Ukrainian national anthem rang out from a loudspeaker inside the trade unions building. Few were around to hear it. This office overlooking the maidan had played a key role in the uprising eight years previously, after which then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. The “Heavenly Hundred” road leading off the main square was lined with shrines to demonstrators shot dead by Yanukovych’s security forces.

Since 2014, this European country of 43 million people had moved in an emphatically pro-EU direction. Its progress had been imperfect, but dogged. Putin seemed determined to stop Ukraine’s westward integration for ever.

Paradoxically, his theft of Crimea and war in the east had consolidated Ukrainian nationhood and identity. Differences that once existed melted away. The war made everything simpler. Putin and Russia were the enemy. A struggle for survival had begun. Defeat meant subjugation and extinction.

It was Mikhail Bulgakov, in his masterful novel The White Guard, written a century ago, who dubbed Kyiv “the City”, with an uppercase C. Bulgakov had lived on Andriivskyi Descent, a street linking the upper town with Podil. The City, it seemed on that unhappy morning, would endure. It had lasted more than a thousand years. But how much of it would survive? And would Ukraine – some of it, all of it – gain new, harsher Russian masters?

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Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

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