Asia

As civilians leave, fortress Kyiv grimly prepares for Russian advance

Advertisement

An army crane pulls concrete breeze blocks into the middle of the road. A group of youths empty shovel-loads of sand into sacks to make sandbags. Middle-aged men leave their families for long shifts out in the cold.

Over the past week, these makeshift armed positions have sprung up with increasing speed on both major and minor roads on the routes into Kyiv.

The Ukrainian capital is now a fortress, at least partly defended by a volunteer army of local people.

After the first few days of shock when Putin’s war began, an overwhelming effort is now under way to prepare as best as possible for a potential Russian drive to the heart of the Ukrainian state. Emptied of many civilians and fortified with these amateur barricades, Kyiv waits for the Russians.

People wait to board an evacuation train at Kyiv’s main railway station on Saturday. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

“We understand that these posts won’t stop a tank, but they are about finding Russian saboteurs and preserving order,” said a 58-year-old army chaplain, who is running the defence preparations for an area on the outskirts of Kyiv. He sat in a boxy office in a local administration building dressed in khaki fatigues, his Kalashnikov leaning against the radiator.

He had plotted out the location of checkpoints in his small district to create a network of defences that, he hoped, would be impossible to circumvent. Local officials contacted teachers and managers to do cursory checks on those volunteering to receive a gun and guard the posts.

“We work with them, we train them – almost everyone is local. Everyone knows each other. If we hear that someone is not very reliable, then we give them a task without weapons,” he said.

Along the highway from the south to Kyiv, the only route into the capital that for now remains relatively safe, billboards displaying stock images of happy families advertising new apartments or holiday destinations appear like messages from a parallel universe. Others have been hastily replaced with posters bearing the words: “Russian ship, fuck off!”

These were the words allegedly spoken by the defenders of Snake Island in the Black Sea to a Russian ship that threatened to open fire if they did not surrender. Initial reports that all the defenders had been killed were later denied, and the audio exchange has not been verified, but the encounter had already attained legendary status and the phrase has become the unofficial slogan of Ukraine’s war effort.

People look at the gutted remains of Russian military vehicles in Bucha, close to Kyiv. Photograph: Serhii Nuzhnenko/AP

Other messages on huge digital displays in central Kyiv are more subtle, asking Russian soldiers if they want to die for Putin’s oligarchs, or imploring them to return home with a clean conscience.

Whether or not any Russian soldiers will make it into Kyiv in the coming days to see them remains questionable. The Polish ambassador, Bartosz Cichocki, the last remaining EU ambassador in Kyiv, described the city as “uninvadable and unconquerable” in a meeting this week inside his embassy, where he has hunkered down with whisky, cigarettes and a flak jacket.

But after the initial attempts to seize the capital speedily, there are now fears that Russia may do what it has done in cities such as Kharkiv and Chernihiv and bring in airstrikes against civilian targets.

Kyiv, which just a fortnight ago was a bustling European metropolis, is now eerily deserted. The only sounds in the centre are the ringing of church bells and the wail of the air raid sirens, which sound a few times a day. Occasionally, a police car or military vehicle speeds past, daubed with yellow paint or marked with yellow tape, the mark of Ukrainian forces.

In contrast to the silent streets, the train station is a maelstrom of chaotic activity. Inside the cavernous central hall, a grand Soviet structure filled with mosaics, mirrors and two multi-tiered chandeliers, a crush of people waited to get to the platforms.

The Ukrainian rail service has evacuated more than a million people since the war began, and for trains going west, no tickets are required, just patience and sharp elbows. Women and children have top priority, then pensioners. Trains heading eastwards depart mostly empty, while those arriving from in the other direction are mobbed by crowds as soon as they pull into the platform.

Volunteers and paramilitary construct defences in Kyiv. Photograph: Goktay Koraltan/Depo Photos/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“Look at what they did in Kharkiv. Nothing will stop them doing that here,” said Polina, a student trying to get out of Kyiv to resume her studies in Vienna. Tuesday, the day after the first images of destruction in Kharkiv appeared on television, was the start of the crush, as people began to see the “Aleppo option” as a real possibility for Kyiv.

While there has been fierce fighting on the western edges of the city, the centre has not seen heavy bombardments this week, except for a strike against the television tower that killed five people. But this grim anticipation is its own kind of torture.

At one metro station in the suburbs on Thursday, there were about 100 people spread out across the platform and sprawled on benches in the open carriages of a train parked in the station, hiding from possible airstrikes.

Some had plastic containers of food, folding furniture and mattresses, while others slept on the cold floor with just a blanket and pillow.

Residents, largely women and children, on a train leaving Irpin in the Kyiv region. Photograph: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Lying on a bench with half a toilet roll, a cup of strong tea and a hunk of bread, 54-year-old Ivan had been inside the station for eight days. He had travelled into Kyiv on 22 February from his home town of Ivankiv, to work a 48-hour shift in his construction job. By the time his shift was over, Russia had invaded and there was fighting in his home town and along the route. Since then, he has been sleeping in the metro, eating food delivered by volunteers, unable to get home to his wife and young daughter.

“It’s a completely impossible situation. When my daughter was born, I was 49 and my wife was 42. We didn’t expect to have a child, but God gave us one. And now she’s a child of war, and I can’t be there,” he said.

In the new reality, some are trying hard to keep some remnants of their old lives functioning. Andriy Hrushchinskyy of Kyivspetstrans, the company responsible for collecting roughly 70% of the city’s household waste, said 14 out of his 30 refuse trucks were out on the roads, even though many workers had left their jobs and gone to fight.

“I have a gun and I’m itching to pick it up and go to fight, but I realise if I don’t do this work, nobody else will, and I’m trying to persuade my guys that they should also stay,” he said in an interview during a brief walk outside the coordination centre from where many of the city’s key services are now run. He said it was important for those left behind in the city to see that services were functioning, as it was a reassuring sign that life goes on.

A missile on a street in the Vydubychi district of Kyiv. Photograph: Andriy Dubchak/AP

Handing out weapons to tens of thousands of people, many of whom have had little training, has led to some problematic situations. With reports of Russian saboteur groups – diversanty – at work in and around the city, tension is high and everyone is a potential source of suspicion.

At one checkpoint outside Kyiv earlier in the week, a man could be seen tied up at the side of the road. Amid persistent rumours that Russian diversanty may in certain cases be disguised as foreign journalists, some nervous residents have taken to calling in sightings of journalists to police. There are many reports of friendly fire incidents.

One man from the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, who has lived in Kyiv since 2015 and is volunteering with a Ukrainian territorial defence unit, said he was no longer able to go outside without his comrades, because of suspicions he could be one of the Chechen assassin groups reportedly sent into Ukraine by Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader.

The man, who did not want to give his name, said the one time he had gone out alone since the start of the war, he was immediately arrested, had a bag put over his head and was driven away for questioning as a suspected diversant, before his commander was called in to vouch that he was fighting on the Ukrainian side.

“Now, my job is that if they catch any suspicious Chechens, I get sent there to question them and work out if they’re Kadyrov’s guys or not,” he said.

Soldiers help fleeing people cross the River Irpin on the outskirts of Kyiv. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

There is a reason for the fear and paranoia: few doubt that Russia really has sent diversionary groups into Ukraine, and there are persistent rumours of a plot to assassinate the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Zelenskiy’s insistence on remaining in Kyiv has amazed foreign diplomats, while his rousing speeches and exhausted but defiant countenance have inspired many Ukrainians over the past 10 days. In the government quarter in the centre of Kyiv, the defence of Zelenskiy is being overseen by a mixture of the army, the national guard, special forces and territorial defence units.

The commander of the territorial defence unit based in a building near the presidential administration is 58-year-old Yevgeny Ptashnik. He said this was his third war, after Afghanistan in the 1980s and east Ukraine in 2014. He volunteered on the first day. He said the current Ukrainian struggle reminded him of the fight of the determined Afghans against the powerful but unmotivated Soviet army.

“However much we criticise Russians, they still have human feelings, they come here and see that old people and women come out to the streets, and they will be scared,” he said, speaking over a series of booms in the distance.

“And unlike the Afghans, we also have a lot of modern weapons, thanks to Europe and America.”