Ukraine’s capital is caught between normality and horror in the 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’ve decided the time has come,” he said over coffee at a swanky cafe in central Kiev, where tables were still crowded with customers taking a break and young workers at computers. laptops. “I need to know how to shoot. It’s a useful skill.

Ukraine’s capital is balancing between normality and horror after a warning from US President Joe Biden that it could be directly targeted in a ‘catastrophic’ Russian invasion. Hurin is one of millions trying to decide what to do if war comes to their doorstep.

Some headed west towards the border with Poland, and a few left the country. But most stay at home, by choice or by compulsion, preparing for war and wondering whether to fight. More than a third of adult Ukrainians say they would like to join an armed resistance if Russian troops enter their country, according to a recent poll.

At the Veteran Brownie cafe in Kiev this weekend, owner Roman Nabozhniak is offering free coffee to anyone signed up for a new Territorial Volunteer Army.

“Come after practice, warm up, recharge, smile,” he wrote on Instagram, alongside a photo of a cappuccino and a skydiver patch. The government says thousands of volunteers have been recruited since the beginning of the year.

He himself was not at the cafe because he is about to be recalled, six years after laying down his arms.

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

“I couldn’t imagine myself discussing such topics five or six years ago and being so calm, because it would have seemed like it didn’t belong in this reality. Now, everything is to be expected. »

Eastern Ukraine has been living with the daily toll of war for eight years, after Russian-backed separatists carved out territory along the border with Russia in 2014 and troops from Moscow took control of Crimea.

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

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

“The reason why Russia is invading us is not the language, the economy or the protection of Russian speakers. It is because they know that a free, democratic and economically prosperous Ukraine is a dangerous model for the Russian people. It shows them that there are other possibilities,” Hurin said.

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

On Friday, US President Joe Biden said he believed Russia had decided to launch a “catastrophic” war, although he also added that last-minute diplomacy could still offer some hope. Tensions have risen since Moscow began mustering tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s borders last year. The West responded with increasingly urgent warnings that Putin was considering an invasion and began shipping arms to Ukraine and troops to neighboring countries, including Poland.

Western leaders had put forward February 16 as the date for a possible invasion. So in the central Ukrainian town 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 anything, but everyone still had extreme levels of anxiety, so we decided to have an ‘invasion party,'” she said over the phone. watched a comedy, opened a bottle of wine and tried to laugh and chat.

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

Ivona Kostyna, CEO of Veterans Hub, which supports demobilized fighters, says she is grateful for the Western decision to publicize potential Russian invasion plans and practical support in the form of military supplies, although she wishes that it happened earlier.

“Of course we’re encouraged by the international support, but it’s hard for veterans to understand why he wasn’t there before (when needed),” she said. “For eight years we knew we were at war, but it seemed the world hadn’t noticed. Now everyone uses the same language.

She fears the country’s 460,000 veterans, many of whom have taken years to recover from the front lines, will face “the pressure and distress” of escalating tensions, and that many may be recalled.

That would leave his organization short-staffed as demand for their services skyrockets because so many of his 68-member squad are veterans.

No one in Ukraine has any illusions that the West will fight with Ukrainian forces, but many are grateful for the tough stance taken by Biden, Boris Johnson and other Western leaders, including Frenchman Emmanuel Macron, who shuttled to Moscow and Kiev as part of a tender. to repel the war.

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

“He’s not fighting against Ukraine, he’s fighting against Western values ​​and the way of life, so the closer we have to our Western partners, the better.”

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

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

Alina Viatkina, who spent nearly a year on the front lines aged 19, now works in a mental health support team. She canceled a trip to the United States this week, which had been planned for more than two years, because she felt she could not leave her family, including her parents and a nephew, in Kiev without her.

She is grateful for Western support, saying, “I’m looking at the flight radar and I see all the weapons and all the equipment coming in and I know it’s very expensive for other countries to send them.”

Yet after years of trying to escape the shadows of combat, she is terrified that her efforts will be wiped out in an instant.

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

Additional reports by Irina Gorlach

Christi C. Elwood