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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Ukraine’s capital is caught between normality and horror in shadow of war | Ukraine

Dymtro Hurin, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, was a pacifist until Friday, when he signed up for weapons training. “I decided the moment is now,” he said over a coffee at a chic central Kyiv cafe, where tables were still crowded with shoppers taking a break and young workers on laptops. “I need to know how to shoot. It’s a useful skill.”

Ukraine’s capital is poised between normality and horror after a warning from US president Joe Biden that it could be directly targeted during a “catastrophic” Russian invasion. Hurin is one of millions of people trying to decide what they should do if war comes to their doorstep.

Some have headed west, towards the border with Poland, and a few have left the country. But most are staying in their homes, through choice or compulsion, bracing for war, and weighing up whether to fight. More than a third of adult Ukrainians say they would like to join an armed resistance, if Russian troops cross into their country, one recent poll found.

At Veteran Brownie cafe in Kyiv this weekend, owner Roman Nabozhniak is offering free coffee to anyone signed up with a new territorial army of volunteers.

“Come after training, warm up, recharge, smile,” he wrote on Instagram, below a picture of a cappuccino and a paratrooper patch. The government says thousands of volunteers have been recruited since the start of the year.

He wasn’t in the cafe himself because he’s getting ready to be called up again, six years after laying down arms.

“My responsibility is to prepare for every scenario, then wait for something to happen,” he said over a salted caramel bake and coffee that wouldn’t be out of place in Hackney or Brooklyn. “I told my staff your safety is your priority. If serious fighting starts, take care of yourself, not the business.

“I couldn’t imagine myself discussing such topics five or six years ago and being so calm, because it would have seemed like something not from this reality. Now we have to expect anything.”

Ukraine’s east has lived with the daily toll of war for eight years, after Russian-backed separatists carved out territories along the border with Russia in 2014, and Moscow’s troops seized control of Crimea.

Debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine, on 17 February.
Debris after the reported shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine, on 17 February. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Violence has continued in sporadic bursts there ever since, albeit across a frontline largely frozen since 2016. But hundreds of miles away in Kyiv, businesses and bars, shops and factories were emerging, making it the heart of a young democracy’s fight to escape the shadow of its powerful neighbour.

“Russia’s reason to invade us is not about language, or economy or protecting Russian speakers. It’s because they know a free, democratic and economically successful Ukraine is a dangerous model for the Russian people. It shows them there are other possibilities,” said Hurin.

“The irony is that (President Vladimir) Putin lost Ukraine for Russia. Ten years ago, there was a big debate about what kind of country we should be, close to Russia or to the west. Since 2014, support for joining Nato has climbed from 18% to over 60% now.”

On Friday US President Joe Biden said he believed Russia had decided to launch a “catastrophic” war, though he also added that last-minute diplomacy might still offer some hope. Tensions had been rising since Moscow began massing tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s borders last year. The west responded with increasingly urgent warnings that Putin was mulling an invasion, and started shipping weapons to Ukraine, and sending troops to nearby countries including Poland.

Western leaders had highlighted 16 February as the date of a possible invasion, so in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, 21 year-old Oleana and her friends planned to spend the evening together, just in case. “It seemed like we were prepared for everything, but everyone still had an extreme level of anxiety. So we decided to hold an ‘invasion party’,” she said by phone. They watched a comedy, opened a bottle of wine and tried to laugh and chat.

“After 2am struck and we realised nothing is going to happen, we just celebrated another peaceful night and everyone went home. At this point there is nothing we can about the situation. We can only change our attitude towards it.”

Ivona Kostyna, the CEO of Veterans Hub, which supports demobilised fighters, says she is grateful for the western decision to go public about potential Russian invasion plans, and the practical support in the form of military supplies, although she wishes it had come sooner.

“Of course, we are encouraged by the international support, but it’s hard for veterans to understand why it wasn’t there before (when needed),” she said. “For eight years, we knew we were fighting a war, but it seemed the world didn’t notice it. Now everyone is using the same language.”

She worries that the country’s 460,000 veterans, many of whom needed years to recover from the front lines, face “pressure and distress” from escalating tensions, and many could be called up again.

That would leave her organisation short on staff just as demand for their services are soaring, because so many of her 68-strong team are veterans.

No one in Ukraine has any illusions that the west will fight with Ukrainian forces, but many are grateful for the strong stance taken by Biden, Boris Johnson and other western leaders including France’s Emmanuel Macron, who have been shuttling to Moscow and Kyiv in a bid to fend off war.

“We have a joke that that the president who did the most to create modern Ukraine was Putin,” said Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, another member of parliament.

“He is not fighting against Ukraine, he is fighting against western values and way of life, so the more close connections we have with western partners the better.”

The Ukraine which Putin resents is the cosmopolitan city where activists try to shape a different future, and independent journalists root out corruption. At its kiosks, where people gather for their morning coffee, and speakeasy bars where mixologists serve up the latest trends, people are just trying to get on with their lives.

But the roads are thinning of traffic as people stay at home, or slip away to stay with family and friends further west, reunite with relatives in rural areas, or leave the country entirely. Some employers have even helped their entire staff fly overseas.

Alina Viatkina, who spent nearly a year on the front line as a 19-year-old, now works in a mental health support team. She cancelled a trip to the US this week, which had been more than two years in the planning, because she felt she could not leave her family, including her parents and a nephew, in Kyiv without her.

She is grateful for western support, saying: “I look at flight radar and see all the weapons and equipment coming in and I know it’s really expensive for other countries to send it.”

Still, after years of trying to escape the long shadow of combat, she is terrified that her efforts will be destroyed in a moment.

So last Wednesday she and her boyfriend went for dinner at an expensive restaurant. “We thought if Russia is coming, why not?” she said. “I was trying so hard to come back from war (mentally) and now, it’s not even that I am going back to war. War is coming to me.”

Additional reporting by Iryna Gorlach

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