Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
When soldiers of the Russian Federation – the “little green men” – entered Donetsk city in 2014, what was surreal was the way in which they appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I recall entering city hall with the then-chief monitor of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, and confronting the menacing stare of the Russian thugs; on the other side of the building, the congeniality of the last remaining Ukrainian security officials disappeared. There were no air raid sirens; there was no panic on the streets. As we departed on one of the last aircraft out of the sparkling new Donetsk International Airport, which was still under Kyiv’s control, I spotted one last ominous sign: the flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic hoisted above the terminal building.
Fast forward almost eight years later, and things in Ukraine are a different kind of surreal. As the drumbeat of war grows louder, Western intelligence officials have been able to forecast Russia’s next attempted land grab – one that could extend all the way into Kyiv – in excruciating detail. Eyes in the sky have spotted two S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system divisions in neighbouring Belarus, placing the weapons easily within range of Kyiv. More than 100,000 Russian troops have amassed on Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders.
Meanwhile, fatigued Ukrainians, who have been living under a state of war for nearly a decade, are just trying to go about their daily business and get on with life, as much as possible.
What has emerged is a bizarre split screen of life. Western allies, including Canada, have evacuated their diplomats and urged their nationals to either flee while commercial means are still available or to “shelter in place.” Ukrainians who can afford it or are able to work remotely have left Kyiv for countryside dachas. According to Ukrainska Pravda, the municipal airport’s runways are getting a good workout, too, with 20 charters and private jets reportedly owned by Ukrainian oligarchs taking off on Sunday alone.
But save for a reduction in the Ukrainian capital’s notorious gridlock traffic, little has changed for those without many other options other than stoically staying put. Restaurants and bars are still busy (albeit though with far fewer foreigners), though the bar-stool humour now includes lighthearted jabs at the city administration for allowing air raid shelters to be transformed into cafés, bars, storefronts or even a strip club in recent years. Chic women are still stuffing their chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes with designer labels from the Sanahunt fashion boutique (which claims to “set the rhythm and tone of Kyiv cultural life”). City parks are still clogged with families and their pets.
As a visitor who’s been contemplating fleeing to safer regions, I can’t help but feel a sense of guilt as local friends try to set up dinners and coffee dates for later this week – around the time Western intelligence agencies predict that an imminent invasion is a “distinct possibility.”
Taking a break from binge-watching France 24 and CNN, I emerge onto Kyiv’s quieted streets and shake my head in disbelief at the prospect of missiles landing here. It seems inconceivable. And yet the heart still palpitates, with long stretches of sleep impossible. At night, the sound of dogs barking or sirens blaring is enough to make one bolt out of bed.
There’s one thing missing from the split-screen that most Ukrainians are living in, and that’s their comedian-turned-potential-wartime-president, Volodymyr Zelensky. A few of my local friends groan about his seeming inability to step up to the plate to boost morale or provide guidance amid all the dire warnings. Instead, he has been disputing the West’s assessments. On Feb. 12, he said that media reports were “only provoking panic and not helping us.”
That’s left many Ukrainians shaking their heads. “With Zelensky, we have a high bar for him, because he comes from communications, from show business. So we expect him to know what to say and how to say it and to be very effective,” Olga Rudenko, chief editor of the English-language Kyiv Independent, told a Frontline Online panel here. “People expect a lot from him but he’s not really delivering in terms of communications.”
My expectation is that Russia will use this situation to continue to destabilize Ukraine, and to wreak havoc with its infrastructure and economy – all without firing one shot. Sadly, that will mean more pain for the Ukrainian people. The West will need a smart strategy to help inoculate them against Vladimir Putin’s mischief.
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