It began in darkness soon after 4.30am local time. There were distant explosions in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the whine of car alarms. A nation shook itself awake. What had been foretold by western governments, by experts, and – late in the day – by the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was actually happening. Russia was attacking and invading.
Vladimir Putin’s apparent goal: the subjugation of a nation, a culture, a people. It was unthinkable in the twenty-first century. And yet, with imperial swagger, Russian troops, tanks and planes were on the move.
The disaster unfurled itself on a grey, ordinary Thursday morning, sprinkled by rain. By 5am friends and loved ones were ringing each other, peering into their phones, making life and death decisions.
Stay or flee? Some packed and got ready to leave; others took refuge in apartment block basements. An underground garage began to fill up in Yaroslaviv Val, close to Kyiv’s historic golden gate, dating back to the eleventh century and to Kyivan Rus, a pre-Moscow dynasty. A family arrived. A mother shepherded her two bleary-eyed children to safety. The children were carrying colouring books, scant defence against Russian missiles.
By breakfast the scale of Russia’s multitudinous military assault became clear. Putin’s ambitions, it turned out, went well beyond the Donbas region, whose separatist territories he recognised earlier this week. They included practically the entire country: east, south, north and even west. The port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov; the city of Kharkiv, home to 1.4 million people; Odesa on the Black Sea and Kherson; Ukrainian-controlled towns and villages on the Donbas frontline – all were being pulverised and bombed.
Russia was clinically targeting Ukraine’s defences: aerodromes, military bases, ammunition dumps. It was shock and awe, done with a ruthless indifference to human cost.
Amid this grandiose onslaught there were moments of normality. A few Kyiv residents emerged to walk their dogs. Queues formed outside cash machines. Most cafes were closed but Aroma Coffee had opened as usual, selling croissants and take-outs.
The mood was one of shock, fear and quiet disgust that Putin – without reason or rational pretext – had decided to unleash war. “Russia is 100% wrong,” said Viktor Alexeyvich, speaking in the capital’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti square. Behind him was the city’s independence monument, a marble column once topped with a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Perched on top – at least for now – was a woman with a rose branch in her arms, symbolising Ukraine’s independence, beneath a golden capital.
What would he do now? “I’ve 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. Maybe the national guard will help.” Alexeyevich said he had rung his son when he heard the first explosions and turned on the TV. He had watched President Zelenskiy address the nation, introduce martial law, and urge citizens to be calm, he said. “Putin is the aggressor here. He’s invade Ukraine because we don’t want to live under his strictures, his model.” The normally-busy square full of tourists and shoppers was sparser than usual. A few people waited in the rain for a municipal trolley-bus.
For months, Kyiv’s pro-western government has said Ukraine will resist Russian attack and occupation. It says the country’s armed forces are in better shape than in 2014, when they wilted under superior Russian firepower. On paper, this is true: Ukraine has 220,000 troops, 400,000 veterans with combat experience and modern weapons recently supplied by the US, UK and other allies. Ukraine’s operational command reported some early successes on Thursday in beating back attacks from the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, run for the past eight years by Moscow’s loyal proxies.
And yet the cars streaming out of Kyiv told their own story. From early in the day the streets were jammed, as civilians sought a way out – to Zhytomyr, west of the city, and from there to Lviv and the Polish border. Traffic on the boulevards moved slowly. There was no panic as such but an awareness that the window to leave was beginning to close.
Reports suggested Russian formations were advancing to the capital from Belarus and the north, two hours’ drive and 160kms away. They had broken through the international check-point and – seemingly – were trundling Kyiv-wards through a primordial landscape of pine trees and swamp. It seemed Belarus was facilitating war on Kyiv too.
Oleg Olegovich, a 30-year-old officer in the Ukrainian army, said he had been summoned at 4am to come in for work. His office was in the centre of Kyiv. “Civilians are leaving. But we will stay,” he said. Could Ukraine defeat mighty Russia, with its vast air power and Black Sea navy? “We will smash them,” he said. “The military is in good shape, our communications are working.”
Lyudmila – 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 said with a smile.
Nearby, the trade union building overlooking the Maidan played the Ukrainian national anthem on a loudspeaker. Few were around to hear it. It played a key role in the Euromaidan protests in 2013 and 2014 against the country’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The uprising saw Yanukovych flee to Russia. Since then the country had moved in an emphatically pro-EU and pro-Nato direction. Putin responded in 2014 by annexing Crimea and kickstarting a pro-Russian revolt in the east. Eight years on, he seems determined to stop Ukraine’s westward integration forever. His tactics are familiar from Russia’s bloody wars in Chechnya: brute military force.
President Zelenskiy – a TV star and comedian before he turned to politics – was still in Kyiv and at work, his press service said. Historians may rebuke him for failing to prepare Ukraine for an inevitable Kremlin attack. But in a speech on Wednesday evening – the eve of invasion as it turned out – Zelenskiy addressed the Russian people directly. He reminded them of Ukraine and Russia’s joint ties – of family, friendship and of love – telling them that the portrait painted by Russian state TV of a fascist Ukraine bore no resemblance to its vibrant, modern and tolerant reality. It was his finest hour.
Zelenskiy’s personal fate and that of the country he leads remains unclear. It seems likely Russia will demand his capitulation and replacement with a pro-Russian puppet administration. For the moment he is in power – just.
Meanwhile, Kyiv’s familiar rhythms continued. The bells of St Michael’s domed monastery tolled the hour, as they have for centuries. The baroque building sits across the square from Saint Sophia cathedral, an eleventh century building done in vivid turquoise. Locals protesting outside the now-empty Russian embassy on Tuesday pointed out wryly that when it was constructed Moscow was a mere forest.
The square’s children’s playground was empty, home now to a few jackdaws and a stray dog. Europe was at war. The world – two decades into the century – had reached a crisis that was likely to reverberate well beyond the early overcast hours of invasion and predation.
It was Mikhail Bulgakov in his masterful novel The White Guard, written almost a century ago, who dubbed Kyiv the City, with an upper case C. The City will endure. But it seems only a matter of time before it has new, harsher masters.