Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Kyiv Is Calm, but Ukrainians Are Quietly Bracing for War

Officials in Kyiv have downplayed Western warnings of an imminent Russian invasion—but many in the capital are learning self-defense and locating bomb shelters.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Women watch on as an instructor demonstrates self-defense techniques during an urban survival training class organized by the volunteer group the Ukrainian Women’s Guard on February 05, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Women watch on as an instructor demonstrates self-defense techniques during an urban survival training class organized by the volunteer group the Ukrainian Women’s Guard on February 05, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Women watch on as an instructor demonstrates self-defense techniques during an urban survival training class organized by the volunteer group the Ukrainian Women’s Guard on February 05, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Putin’s War

KYIV, Ukraine—On a recent Saturday morning in the Ukrainian capital, some 200 young women sat in the windowless lecture hall of Taras Shevchenko National University’s Institute of Continuing Education, silently taking notes during Oleksandr Biletskyi’s presentation. 

“During any mass upheaval or mass incident, your main task is to survive,” said Biletskyi, who served in the Ukrainian special forces. 

As over 100,000 Russian troops have massed around Ukraine’s borders, this daylong urban survival workshop, organized by the volunteer group Ukrainian Women’s Guard, sought to equip civilian women with emergency preparedness skills should the worst happen: what to pack in an emergency medical kit, how to distill water, how to break a nose.  

KYIV, Ukraine—On a recent Saturday morning in the Ukrainian capital, some 200 young women sat in the windowless lecture hall of Taras Shevchenko National University’s Institute of Continuing Education, silently taking notes during Oleksandr Biletskyi’s presentation. 

“During any mass upheaval or mass incident, your main task is to survive,” said Biletskyi, who served in the Ukrainian special forces. 

As over 100,000 Russian troops have massed around Ukraine’s borders, this daylong urban survival workshop, organized by the volunteer group Ukrainian Women’s Guard, sought to equip civilian women with emergency preparedness skills should the worst happen: what to pack in an emergency medical kit, how to distill water, how to break a nose.  

“It’s better to know this stuff than not know it,” said Maria Vovk, an attendee who works at the university. A psychologist by training, she worked with service members and people who fled to Kyiv from eastern Ukraine, where the Russian armed forces threw their weight behind separatist rebels in 2014, sparking a war with Ukraine in which 14,000 people have been killed and some 1.5 million displaced. “I saw how unprepared society was and how much this fear paralyzes,” she said. 

Washington has issued increasingly dire warnings about Russia’s intentions, with the White House warning on Friday that an attack could be days away. But in Kyiv, which U.S. officials have warned could be targeted by Moscow, the mood is decidedly “keep calm and carry on.” Shops show little signs of panic buying, and the city’s chic cafes and restaurants are full even as the omicron coronavirus variant has swept through the city.

“Based on the intelligence that we have, we don’t see the threat as imminent,” said Yuriy Vitrenko, CEO of the Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz. On Saturday, as the United States announced it was evacuating most of its staff from its embassy in Kyiv, and several European countries urged their citizens to leave the country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rebuked his Western allies. “The best friend for our enemies is panic in our country, and all this information only creates panic, it doesn’t help us,” he said. 

Ukrainians have few illusions about Russia and are quick to point out that they are already at war. Many see the current crisis as part of Moscow’s ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine, efforts that Russia has dialed up and back over the years. 

“We are prepared for it since 2014,” said Olha Reshetylova, co-founder of Media Initiative for Human Rights, a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization. In the event of a Russian invasion, Reshetylova said she plans to take her children to live with her sister elsewhere in Europe, and then to come back and fight. “We don’t have any other homeland,” she said. 

Officials in Washington, however, fear that Russia’s plans this time around may be unprecedented. U.S. President Joe Biden has warned that it could be the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II. “It would change the world,” he said in January. But it’s hard to find people in Kyiv who share quite the same degree of alarm. 

Theories abound about the disconnect in messaging between the two capitals. Some in Kyiv believe Washington is being overly cautious, scared by the rapid fall of the Afghan capital to the Taliban in August 2021. Others believe Zelensky, who was elected in 2019 promising ambitious reforms, is trying to shield the Ukrainian economy from a run on the banks, noting that Russia would be quick to take advantage of any social unrest. “That’s exactly the pretext that Putin is looking for. We don’t want to help Putin occupy our country,” said Vitrenko, the gas executive. 

But beneath the surface in Kyiv, a new vocabulary is creeping into conversations, one of go-bags, satellite phones, and bomb shelters as residents, business owners, and city officials make contingency plans. Many plan to head to Lviv in western Ukraine, thought to be beyond Russia’s reach. (Both the United States and Canada have announced plans to relocate most of their operations from Kyiv to Lviv, as well.) Others plan to stay and fight. 

Masha Nazarova, a combat medic who served on the front line in the Donbass, said she has been overwhelmed with requests for first aid training since the Russian buildup began. “Everybody now wants to train in first aid. There are more requests than I can physically provide,” Nazarova said.

Schools in Kyiv have begun holding evacuation drills, while city officials have dusted off maps of Kyiv’s network of Cold War-era bomb shelters in the event of a Russian bombardment. Some were found to be closed, while others are now occupied by businesses including cafes, a bookstore, and a strip club. The city has identified some 4,500 dual-use facilities including underground parking garages, deep subway stations, and basements that will be used to shelter the city’s nearly 3 million residents in the event of a Russian bombardment, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a statement on Friday. Fuel has been stockpiled and generators put in place, but the city is also asking for support from its international partners. 

“We don’t have enough specialists and enough equipment,” said Dmytro Bilotserkovets, an advisor to the mayor of Kyiv, who said that the city asked the U.S. Embassy for support in procuring walkie-talkies, satellite phones, and electrical equipment, among other items.

Andy Hunder, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, said most businesses are continuing to operate as usual but have detailed contingency plans in place. On Tuesday, as Russia was accelerating its military buildup, Zelensky hosted a swish event in Kyiv to launch Diia City, a special tax and legal regime for the IT industry that seeks to turn Ukraine into the Silicon Valley of Europe. 

As in much of the rest of the world, Hunder said, companies in Ukraine were struggling to reconcile the increasingly alarming reports in the international media with local assessments. In a recent meeting with the head of the Security Service of Ukraine, Ivan Bakanov, Hunder said, “His message was that there’s two scenarios: one that things are going to be good, and one that things are going to be very good.”

Ukraine has a long history of fierce resistance movements. “If we talk about street smarts, Ukrainians are guerrilla smart,” said Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a researcher and member of the supervisory board of Ukraine’s public broadcaster. 

In 2014, when unrest broke out in Ukraine amid political upheavals, Daniel Bilak, senior counsel with the law firm Kinstellar, got together with his neighbors in their village outside of Kyiv to protect their homes from marauders. “I showed up to our inaugural meeting with a hockey stick,” said Bilak, who is Canadian Ukrainian. This time, he has an AR-15 assault rifle at the ready. 

Bilak and his neighbors have again gotten together to organize training exercises on the weekends. A new law that came into effect at the end of January allows for community-based volunteer groups to provide ancillary support to the armed forces in the event of a war. 

“It’s not like, ‘Yeehaw, we’re going off to war,’” he said. “Absolutely nobody wants this. Nobody asked for this. Nobody provoked this. This is going to be a crime against humanity.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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