Dispatch

Ukraine Waits While Putin Debates

Unity Day came and went in Kyiv. The threat from Russia remains.

A skateboarder wearing a Death Wish hoodie grinds along an edge in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A skateboarder wearing a Death Wish hoodie grinds along an edge in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A skateboarder wearing a Death Wish hoodie grinds along an edge in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 14, in front of a statue of the composer Mykola Lysenko, seen as the father of modern Ukrainian classical music. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures.

Putin’s War

KYIV, UKRAINE—In this cradle of revolution, where mass protests toppled a pro-Russian government eight years ago, barely 100 people gathered in central Kyiv on Wednesday morning to mark a government-declared Unity Day. Handmade posters proclaiming “Unity Is Strength” and “Unity Is Peace” were passed around as the group sang the national anthem under a cold gray sky.

Coinciding with the date that U.S. intelligence had warned that Russian armed forces could invade Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s patriotism-boosting initiative seemed to spark little enthusiasm among the public. Instead, it was met by the same collective shrug that many Ukrainians have given to the heightened threat of war as Moscow encircles the country with vast quantities of armor and infantry—between 130,000 and 150,000 troops, according to recent estimates.

“This ‘day of unity’ isn’t as important as our president wants it to be—a lot of people don’t even know about it,” said Ilya Pakhutsya, a repairman spending his day off across the street from the small gathering in Kyiv, cajoling passersby into paying to pose with his pair of pigeons.

A skateboarder wearing a Death Wish hoodie grinds along an edge in Kyiv, Ukraine.

A skateboarder wearing a Death Wish hoodie grinds along an edge in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 14, in front of a statue of the composer Mykola Lysenko, seen as the father of modern Ukrainian classical music. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

KYIV, UKRAINE—In this cradle of revolution, where mass protests toppled a pro-Russian government eight years ago, barely 100 people gathered in central Kyiv on Wednesday morning to mark a government-declared Unity Day. Handmade posters proclaiming “Unity Is Strength” and “Unity Is Peace” were passed around as the group sang the national anthem under a cold gray sky.

Coinciding with the date that U.S. intelligence had warned that Russian armed forces could invade Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s patriotism-boosting initiative seemed to spark little enthusiasm among the public. Instead, it was met by the same collective shrug that many Ukrainians have given to the heightened threat of war as Moscow encircles the country with vast quantities of armor and infantry—between 130,000 and 150,000 troops, according to recent estimates.

“This ‘day of unity’ isn’t as important as our president wants it to be—a lot of people don’t even know about it,” said Ilya Pakhutsya, a repairman spending his day off across the street from the small gathering in Kyiv, cajoling passersby into paying to pose with his pair of pigeons.

Ilya Pakhutsya stands in Independence Square in central Kyiv.

Ilya Pakhutsya stands in Independence Square in central Kyiv on Feb. 16, looking for paying tourists to pose with his pigeons. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

He is among many unmoved by the drumbeats of war. “I don’t think that will happen. But of course we don’t know. And after a while, not knowing is kind of annoying.”

The mounting threat of invasion has been compounded by dizzying levels of Russian disinformation and doom-mongering in various corners of the media. Yet life in the Ukrainian capital has continued with a palpable calm, with supermarkets well stocked, florists bursting with vibrant bouquets on Valentine’s Day, and its residents going about their business beneath an uplifting city center of ornate, neoclassical facades and medieval, dome-topped cathedrals.

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coercive diplomacy has begun to take a toll on some in this stoic city and its communal sense of quiet and dignified defiance. There is not a single sign of panic, but some now speak of the growing psychological strain caused by Moscow’s relentless military buildup.

“There’s been a change—I’ve felt it,” said Katya, a 23-year-old cafe manager who gave only her first name to protect her privacy. “I’m more worried than I was. There’s just so much pressure. I go running or work out just to let go of the stress. My friends and I are not speaking about it, but my father is worried. He is preparing for war and telling me to come home to our little village.”

Should the worst happen, Katya has no intention of leaving. “This is my country, and I love it,” she said. “Where would I even go?”

Others are frustrated that the frenzied reporting on the brinkmanship between Russia and the West is overshadowing the human impact of such dangerous geopolitical posturing. On Tuesday, as Russia announced troop withdrawals—a claim that has been met with increasing skepticism by both U.S. and NATO officials—Kirill Mikhailov, a military researcher, took to Twitter to urge against “endless pontifications on whether Putin ‘won this round’” and for “more focus on the economic and psychological damage.”

“No one knows how war will affect your life,” Mikhailov later told Foreign Policy by phone. “You have to make plans. You have to prepare an emergency bag. You have to get out cash in case the banks shut down. Then there’s the risk of losing your job if you have to flee, of losing your apartment if you’re no longer living in it and unable to afford rent. I just feel the need to game out this scenario—and I am constantly doing this.”

For Kyiv residents like Mikhailov—who left Russia in 2014, appalled by the government’s intensifying nationalism—even the majestic beauty of his adopted city’s wide cobbled boulevards is unable to dispel the shadow of war.

A TV news crew sets up position outside St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.

A TV news crew sets up position outside St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv on Feb. 16. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

“Whenever I go out to buy groceries, I just look at the streets and can’t shake the feeling that this could be the last time I’ll see this place looking so peaceful and beautiful,” he said.

Yet even with Russian forces amassed to the north in Belarus, some Ukrainians are still dismissive of the risks. “You get people acting like Don’t Look Up,” Mikhailov added, referring to the recent film about humanity’s indifference to impending Armageddon. “Though here, it’s more a case of ‘Don’t Look North.’”

After Moscow announced on Tuesday a “partial withdrawal” from Ukraine’s borders, Western political and military leaders have since said Russia is in fact continuing to send troops, beefing up the biggest concentration of forces in Europe since the Cold War.

“What we see today is that Russia maintains a massive invasion force ready to attack with high-end capabilities from Crimea to Belarus,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday during a break in talks among NATO defense ministers. Intelligence leaks and media reports had tipped Feb. 16 to be the date of invasion, with some outlets even going as far as to pinpoint the hour—sometime between 1 and 3 a.m., depending on the tabloid.

While that assault did not materialize, analysts urged caution over attributing its absence to Moscow’s timidity or Western prowess.

“[Nothing] has changed on the ground in any meaningful way,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia and security issues, wrote on Twitter. “Putin could have invaded yesterday, he can still do so tomorrow. This (latest) alleged date had no magic power or significance.”

A man in a costume walks past a sign saying "I Love Ukraine" in Independence Square in central Kyiv.

A man in a costume walks past a sign saying “I Love Ukraine” in Independence Square in central Kyiv on Feb. 16. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

“[T]riumphalist Western rhetoric … not only fools us into thinking the crisis has peaked,” he added. It risks giving the impression that Russia lost, which could then provoke Putin to “do something more aggressive than he otherwise plans.”

However, far from Kyiv in the front-line neighborhoods of Donetsk, where conflict has raged and simmered periodically for almost eight years, any sense of such triumphalism is utterly absent. Whether pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian, many in that occupied, war-weary city have long given up trying to read the tea leaves of a sought-after peace, instead consigning themselves to the exhausting uncertainty that is now engulfing the rest of the country.

“Choosing to stay calm in the face of all this is a very rational decision,” said Anastasia by phone, a woman in her 40s who asked to withhold her identity out of concerns for her safety. “If you try to work out what’s going to happen, you’ll just go mad. So I shut down my reactions to zero. It doesn’t matter what I feel—either war will happen or it won’t. I can’t influence anything, but I can choose how to react. This helps me survive.”

She qualified the impression of zenlike resilience, though.

“It sounds strong, but to be honest I feel so fragile right now.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer, and filmmaker whose focus spans conflict, conservation, humanitarian issues, and traditional cultures. Twitter: @jacklosh

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