In the Ukrainian capital, both carelessness and concern about Russia

Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are ready for battle a few hundred kilometers away. The United States repeats warnings of a “horrific” invasion that could come at any hour. Friendly nations are accelerating arms shipments to help the Ukrainian army under construction repel an attack.

None of this bothers Vasily, a 26-year-old street performer dressed in an oversized bear costume in Kiev’s central square. Only eight years ago, the Maidan was overrun by tens of thousands of protesters who successfully ousted their pro-Russian president, a seismic event that prompted Moscow to seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. These days the square is empty of protesters, with Vasily and his colleagues – one of them dressed as Tony the Tiger – taking selfies with the occasional tourist.

“War? There’s absolutely no war here. Look around you,” he said, sweeping a hairy arm across the snow-speckled flagstones of the square. “Just come here and have fun.”

The jaded attitude is not uncommon here in Kyiv, where many locals seem to face the prospect of an enemy at the gates with a mixture of stoicism and resignation, even bewilderment at the presence of so many outsiders. darkly wondering about an impending conflict.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the ongoing war between Ukrainian security forces and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country, a bitter conflict now entering its ninth year. Although nearly 14,000 people were killed, 34,000 injured and millions displaced, in many ways the war has become routine.

And since the closest point of conflict is a 14-hour drive from Kyiv, it’s easy to feel far away, said Max Ivanov, a 28-year-old graphic designer from the coastal city of Odessa as he strolled with his girlfriend in a park. on a recent cold morning.

“I don’t listen to the news. I do not watch television. In Kiev, in Odessa, we just can’t feel it,” he said of the growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

“It’s the usual situation for us. We got used to it. »

Elsewhere, nothing indicates that this elegant capital perched on the Dnieper is on borrowed time. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, Kyiv residents pour into the streets outside wine bars like P’Yana Vishnya, form chatter centers around Turkish kebabs and try to beat the weekend rush in a local mall.

For those who believe otherwise, the most telling evidence is that a number of foreign embassies have sent non-essential staff to pack their bags. This includes Canadian and British missions, as well as the US Embassy, ​​which on Wednesday asked US citizens in Ukraine seeking flights to contact each other for financial or booking assistance.

Hyuna Ki, a 34-year-old medical student who has been studying in Kyiv for three years, said the South Korean embassy has also urged citizens to leave. She’s been thinking about it, she said, but so far “it’s just the media spreading the news that something is going to happen.”

“People who live here don’t see it that way,” she said, adding that she expected the university to move to online learning as a sign of an impending threat. In the meantime, she checked the South Korean embassy’s website daily.

His classmate Brasin-Tamarapre Odushu, 20, was equally unfazed when he spoke of the risk of hostilities.

“We are not reacting because we haven’t seen anything. It’s just tension – I’m used to it back home, and it’s the same here,” he said, adding with a slight smile that his parents in Abuja, Nigeria, were also carefree.

Protesters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, hold posters decrying Russian President Vladimir Putin.

(Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

“Our embassy here is not telling us to evacuate. So far they have distributed an emergency contact list, but that’s it.

Elsewhere, preparations for a deadly fight are underway.

On Thursday, with a blizzard and winds blowing snow, a Western Global cargo plane landed in a corner of Boryspil airport, 29 km from Kiev, and came to rest near a row of 10 trucks olive green MAZ army jacket.

Inside the plane, instead of tired rows of economy class seats, was a puzzle of rails, plates and rollers that a Belgian technician who gave only his first name, Mike, used to unload pallets containing 85 tons of MK-40 millimeters. 19 rounds of grenades. It was the seventh delivery of US military aid allocated in a $200 million assistance package aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s military.

As a forklift positioned the cartridges in the back of a MAZ truck, a 20-year-old Ukrainian soldier watched approvingly from afar.

“If it helps to avoid conflict, if it’s just for protection, then I’m glad it’s here,” said the soldier, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media. “Of course, I don’t want war to come.”

Besides the army, the government is also preparing a reserve force comprising more than 100,000 citizen-soldiers. In the parks of Kiev on weekends, computer engineers and out-of-shape housewives, among others, take part in military exercises with wooden model machine guns.

One person who appreciates the increased readiness among his fellow Kyiv residents is Leonid Ostaltsev, a 34-year-old bearded man with the appearance of a no-frills bodybuilder. A veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine, he opened Pizza Veterano, a military-themed restaurant that employs fellow ex-soldiers and is famous for offering free pizza to anyone who fought. The tables are topped with glass cases full of bullets.

A sign on the door now offers a free pie to anyone who legally purchased a gun in January for the purpose of defending the country.

“It’s important to show that we, as veterans, support people’s decision to buy a gun, to become a defender as well, not just to be defended by someone,” he says.

Surveys show that more than a third of Ukrainians are ready to take up arms if Russia invades.

“Before, people here didn’t want to think about the war. … But after Russia sent more troops, people here began to understand that this was not just propaganda, nor theory. It’s real – and they want to protect their homes,” Ostaltsev said.

This change in mentality is a measure of how attitudes towards Russia have changed since 2014, he added. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin often insists that Russians and Ukrainians are one people – as he did in a recent 7,000-word essay – Ukrainians are increasingly feeling that Russia is a dangerous neighbor, ready to revisit the worst of the Soviet Union. crimes on them.

On a verdant slice of the Pechersk Hills overlooking the Dnieper, the Holodomor Museum tells the story of the Great Famine (“holodomor” means “death by starvation”), when between 1932 and 1933 almost 4 million Ukrainians died of hunger as a result of Soviet agricultural policies.

For Iryna Kurhanska, 26-year-old deputy director of the museum’s exhibitions department, the escalation of hostilities makes the museum more relevant than ever.

“The Russians committed genocide. They wanted these people to die and take their land. That’s what we’re seeing again now,” she said. “Russia’s imperial ideas are still very powerful today. Nothing has changed. The Soviet Union collapsed, but we see that the policies have not changed.

Ukrainian civilians in the capital Kyiv train for self-defense in the event of a Russian invasion.

Ukrainian civilians in the capital Kyiv train for self-defense in the event of a Russian invasion.

(Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Kurhanska and her friends have made plans in case of an invasion: packing bags, arranging communication with family members, figuring out how to secure their homes if they have to leave.

Outside the museum, the sun was shining and the children were using plastic trays to slide down a snowdrift. University teacher Katya Kiriyeva occasionally watched her 7-year-old son Sasha as he raced down the hill.

“We are ready. We planned to go to a shelter – when I was in school we studied where to go on the subway to hide from the bombs,” she said.

Sasha’s school, fresh from the coronavirus shutdown, is ready to resume distance learning if hostilities break out.

“We are ready to flee,” Kiriyeva said. “But we are here now because nothing happened.”

Christi C. Elwood