Ukraine has felt strangely calm amid a storm of dire western predictions of all-out war, but now the reality of the Russian threat massed on three sides of the country has started to press upon the lives of its 41 million people.
Ukraine’s parliament was expected to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday, as its military began calling up 36,000 army reservists, Ukrainians in Russia were urged to return home and staff at the Russian embassy in Kyiv lowered its flag and left for Moscow.
In Kharkiv, the second city of Ukraine that sits just 35km from the Russian border, mayor Ihor Terekhov was inspecting bomb shelters and dispensing reassurance.
“We’ve prepared very systematically since 2014,” he said, referring to the year the conflict began between the two former allies, when Russia responded to a pro-western revolution in Ukraine by annexing Crimea and starting a war in the Donbas region, to the southeast of Kharkiv.
“We have prepared all the bomb shelters that are required. Our metro system alone can take in 154,000 people. All the conditions are ready there – the ventilation system, air supply, food, medical assistance, water for machinery and for drinking . . . I looked at all the preparations and I was satisfied with them. In the city here we are 100 per cent ready.”
Terekhov said the council had already prepared posters and leaflets which, if military action threatened the university city of 1.4 million, “would be stuck to every doorway and notice board . . . laying out the full plan of how to act – what to take, where to go, step by step. We are peaceful people, but we are ready for all challenges.”
Eight years ago, Kharkivites who supported Ukraine’s so-called Maidan revolution were attacked by local pro-Moscow protesters and men bussed over the nearby border, who briefly seized the regional administration building and raised Russia’s flag on its roof.
The defeat of Russia’s operatives and local supporters in Kharkiv was an important moment in the early weeks of the conflict, which saved this strategic city and region from suffering the same fate as Donetsk and Luhansk, which became self-declared “people’s republics” that are now deeply impoverished and isolated after eight years of fighting that have killed 14,000 people.
Russian president Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of the two pseudo-statelets this week, after questioning Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state in an extraordinary diatribe that appeared to clarify the purpose of the 150,000 troops, tanks, fighter jets, missile systems and warships he has now massed around its borders.
Russian strike groups
Satellite images and countless videos posted on social media over recent weeks have shown a major element of the Russian force gathering – and then apparently dispersing into smaller strike groups – just a few dozen kilometres across the border from Kharkiv.
Roman Dudin, the head of the Kharkiv department of Ukraine’s SBU security service, said some 20,000 Russian troops were now in that area.
“What do we see? Active manoeuvring and movement of Russian troops along our borders. The military presence is gradually increasing, there are no elements of a withdrawal of troops after exercises,” he told local media on Wednesday.
Checkpoints have been set up on routes into Kharkiv, and the SBU said it was on the alert for possible staged incidents that the Kremlin could use as a pretext to invade, after the agency’s officers reportedly prevented an attack this week on an Orthodox church of the Russia-aligned Moscow Patriarchate in the city.
Dudin said seven military brigades were now in the Kharkiv region and its capital city was protected by “two belts of defence”. Ukrainian media reported last week that some 50,000 troops and members of other security services could be called upon to defend the region if necessary.
“The air-defence component has been greatly strengthened. Today you can say, in fact, that the military leadership is fully formed, and all steps the military should take have been taken, including the mining of potential approaches [to Kharkiv],” Dudin added.
He did not reveal what weaponry was in place to guard Kharkiv, but in recent weeks Ukraine has received deliveries of western anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets – but nothing powerful enough to strike high-flying bombers or intercept missiles.
Oleh Synehubov, the governor of Kharkiv region, told reporters that the introduction of a state of emergency would not entail major disruption or implementation of a curfew, but would allow for more security checks in and around the city.
“If there is an evacuation, everyone will know about it . . . Today is not the time to pack your bags,” he added.
“When a person panics, he makes mistakes. Panic is what they [in Russia] want from us,” said Terekhov. “The city is living its normal life. Transport runs and schools, kindergartens, factories and all utilities are working. Yes, there is an emergency, but there are no massive restrictions for anyone.”
The change in tone from Ukrainian officials is stark, but it is still wrenchingly hard for people to grasp what could happen to their hometowns, and their families and friends, if western predictions of missile strikes, a military onslaught and great bloodshed become reality.
“I haven’t prepared anything yet [for an emergency situation]. We’re all hoping this will end peacefully,” said Vladimir Yachin, a scientific researcher in central Kharkiv.
“Surely if the international community speaks with one voice then Putin will have no option but to make concessions, and things will go more smoothly and be resolved in a less violent way,” he added.
“But naturally we’re all becoming tense, you hear the talk about all this on public transport and at work. We’re all waiting and wondering what to do next,” said the 56-year-old, who was born in Russia before moving to Kharkiv some 40 years ago.
“Lots of people, like me, have relatives in Russia and the situation for them is incomprehensible,” he explained.
“I’ve got no plans to leave, not yet. But I suppose it depends how things develop. We’ll just have to wait and see.”