Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, remains calm, but prepares its bomb shelters, in the face of the growing threat of war from Russia

Yelena Vasilenko works as a hostess in the Ukrainian folk restaurant Mitla, which can be used as a temporary shelter.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Yelena Vasilenko keeps a smile on her face as she stands on a snowy Kiev street, gleefully trying to lure passers-by into Mitla, the traditional Ukrainian restaurant where she works as a hostess. It’s not until she returns home and listens to the news that the growing possibility of war becomes apparent.

“When I’m here on the street I don’t think about it, but when I turn on my TV I get anxious,” the 66-year-old grandmother of three said during a long break between clients who have given him a lot. time to reflect on the invasion-sized Russian military that has been massed around Ukraine since late last year.

“I need to think about myself. I need to think about the safety of my children and grandchildren. The question is where [war] what will happen. I have a dacha in the Chernihiv region, but should I run there? said Ms. Vasilenko, referring to an area close to the border between Ukraine and Belarus. “We don’t know where it’s going to start or how it’s going to start, so you can’t come up with a plan.”

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Staying in Kyiv and staying calm is not easy. Twice in the past few months, his commute to work in Mitla has been interrupted by fake bomb threats at metro stations – part of what Ukrainian authorities say is a “hybrid war” aimed at demoralize the country before a possible invasion. Dozens of schools, metro stations and government offices have been briefly closed in recent months by hoax threats. “It wears you out,” Ms Vasilenko said.

The Ukrainian folk restaurant Mitla, located in a basement in Kiev, can be used as a refuge in case of emergency.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Mitla captures the mood in Ukraine at the start of 2022 in more ways than one. Not only is the borscht and perogy restaurant nearly deserted on a Sunday afternoon – most Ukrainians say inflation is their biggest concern these days, even ahead of the possibility of war, forcing many to cut back on luxuries like ready meals – but it could serve as a bomb shelter in the previously unthinkable event of large-scale hostilities.

The restaurant, which is located under a central Kiev building, down a flight of stairs and behind a thick steel door, is one of more than 3,000 possible shelters of all kinds listed on an online map that authorities from Kiev published last year.

Many are Cold War relics, built at a time when the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine and Russia were a part, foresaw the possibility of nuclear war with the West. Some are equipped with generators, air filters, running water, telephones and sewer lines. These well-equipped bunkers were originally intended to house essential personnel underground for as long as needed.

Others, like Mitla, are reinforced basements that have been used for other purposes during the relative peace of recent decades. (While Ukraine and Russia have been waging an undeclared war since 2014 that has killed some 14,000 people in the Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine, the front line is more than 700 kilometers away of Kyiv.)

Volodymyr Kotsiuba, a member of Kiev’s Civil Defense Unit, gave The Globe and Mail a tour of a “grade 2” Soviet-era facility on the city’s western edge last week. “I cannot comment on the threat of war, but this shelter, among other things, has been renovated over the past three years and is ready to protect civilians if needed,” he said. The purple-walled bunker – filled with gas masks, duct tape and old-fashioned telephones – is connected to the city’s water and electricity grid and can accommodate up to 350 people.

Volodymyr Kotsiubaa of the Kyiv Civil Defense Unit checks the ventilation of a ‘Grade 2’ Soviet-era facility at the western end of Kyiv.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Level 1 shelters are even larger and are completely self-contained, with their own power and water supply. Some can accommodate up to 2,000 people. “I hope we will never use them” except for tourism purposes, Mr Kotsiuba said.

The preparation of the shelter network here is one of the few visible signs of preparations for a possible war. Separately, life continued as normal in Kyiv over the weekend, although satellite images and social media videos showed Russia continuing to amass military units in the east, south and north of the city. Ukraine – adding to a force that analysts say is already too great to explain as part of any type of exercise.

“There is no panic or hysteria,” Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer Daniel Bilak, a former adviser to Ukraine’s prime minister, said of the atmosphere in Kyiv. “A lot of Ukrainians can’t bring themselves to believe that Putin is going to invade, but everyone I know all says if he does they will fight.”

Russia has repeatedly denied that it intends to attack Ukraine, although Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country will use “military-technical” measures if the West refuses to give him guarantees that the Ukraine would never join the US-led North Atlantic. Treaty Organization Military Alliance.

Russia has announced repeated NATO enlargements since the end of the Cold War have threatened its security, and that the presence of NATO military trainers and equipment in Ukraine – including a Canadian mission of 200 soldiers – crossed a “red line”, obliging it to act.

Several rounds of high-level diplomacy in European capitals over the past two weeks have failed to resolve the crisis. On Friday, the United States agreed to respond in writing to Moscow’s security demands, which the Kremlin released last month – a step that may or may not lead to further talks.

The United States said late Sunday that it was ordering the departure of eligible family members of its embassy staff in Ukraine and that all citizens should consider leaving due to the threat of Russian military action.

The Kremlin earlier in the day attacked the British government, which on Saturday accused Moscow of plotting to depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a pro-Russian government in Kiev. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the British government’s claims – which were based on unspecified intelligence – “disinformation”.

Yevheniy Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who was named in the UK report as a potential candidate to head the Kremlin-installed regime, called the allegations “nonsense” and claimed they were concocted by his political opponents to make them a target of the West. economic sanctions. In an exchange of messages with The Globe, he said there were other politicians in Ukraine whom Moscow would be more likely to support, although he said it would be “unethical” for him to name them. .

With a report by Anton Skyba

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Christi C. Elwood