Canadian troops are pulling out of Ukraine and the few remaining diplomats are moving from Kyiv to this cultural centre in the country’s west, where local workers spent their Sunday stocking up on bullets – and churchgoers consulted their priest about whether it is better to flee or fight.
Ruslan Vodoviz, 52, walked out of the Ibis gun store with new supplies of shotgun shells. After serving with the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, he built a business in Lviv selling cars. “I’m not frightened. But I’m deeply worried, and I’m actively preparing for possible war.”
Six months ago, he bought a 12-gauge to keep at home for self-defence. He had on his mind the Russians.
“We need to expect that anything can happen,” he said.
Lviv, a city of 725,000 closer to Warsaw than Kyiv, has long been the cradle for a strengthening Ukrainian identity, the colourful facades of its Habsburg-era centre visually underscoring its connection to Europe.
Its distinctiveness and relative remoteness have made it a seeming haven from Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to reassert control over more Russian regions in the country, so much so that some diplomats from Canada and the U.S. are relocating here from Kyiv.
Security concerns have forced the temporary closing of Ottawa’s embassy in Kyiv, Global Affairs Canada wrote in an e-mail to Canadian citizens in the country Sunday.
Meanwhile, uniformed Canadians are leaving. The 38 Canadian members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s short-term monitoring mission are being removed from the country alongside representatives from the U.S. and Britain, a person inside the mission told The Globe and Mail.
Canada is also moving 260 troops from Operation Unifier, a Ukraine military training mission, to Poland, two people said. The Globe is not identifying the three individuals because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
But Mr. Vodoviz isn’t convinced that even Lviv is safe from the more than 100,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine’s borders – “if they come to Kyiv, what would prevent them from coming to Lviv?” he asked – and the city’s bustling cobblestone streets now mask a growing sense of disquiet.
The local application queue for firearm licences has lengthened, while Andrii and Svitlana Tsap, both engineers, have doubled the ammunition they keep at home. They now have 600 rounds. “We have to stand for our land,” Ms. Tsap said. “We really don’t want to live like they live in Russia.”
“If they come, I will shoot until they are dead,” Mr. Tsap added.
U.S. officials have described to allies details of a Russian invasion plan for Feb. 16, according to media reports in Germany and Israel. Preparations in Ukraine have intensified, with more than a dozen cargo jets delivering to Kyiv tons of weapons from the U.S. and Lithuania, including Stinger missiles, Humvees, ammunition and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Diplomatic efforts continued, with little apparent progress. In a Sunday phone call with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, U.S. President Joe Biden promised a swift response to Russian aggression, with both leaders appealing for further diplomacy.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who plans to visit Mr. Zelensky on Monday and Mr. Putin on Tuesday, warned on Sunday that “hard reactions and sanctions” would meet any Russian military aggression. Mr. Scholz and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a “shared commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” in a call Sunday.
Diplomats from Latvia and Iraq joined the exodus from Ukraine, while airlines reconsidered plans for flights to the country, after KLM cancelled its service. Concerns that insurers would drop coverage for commercial service to Ukraine prompted the country to pledge $750-million as a flight-security guarantee. Ukrainian currency-exchange shops on Sunday, however, showed a jump in the cost of U.S. dollars, a marker of growing fear.
Russia has maintained that it has no plans to invade, although Mr. Putin has threatened “military-technical” measures if his demands are not met. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova decried the “propaganda of war” from the U.S. and Britain.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and dispatched military backing to separatist groups in the Donbas region, sparking a conflagration that has, in the years since, killed roughly 14,000 and displaced 1.5 million. Though those battle lines in eastern Ukraine are far from Lviv, the sense of being in a country at war for eight years has weighed heavily.
Now, the prospect of an imminent invasion has jarred people to a new sense of urgency. Ukrainians phoned family and friends living in Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere to assess options for relocating to countries inside NATO’s protective bounds.
At the Halytsky Market flower pavilion in the heart of Lviv, Liliya, who gave only her first name, stood beside pails neatly filled with Ecuadorian roses. One day before Valentine’s, she brooded about the worst moment in her 20 years of selling flowers. First came the coronavirus, then inflation that has raised prices by a quarter since last year, and now a threat of war that had made romance a more distant thought for some.
“We are all deeply concerned because we don’t know what Russia will do to us,” she said. “We don’t want our men and sons to perish for who knows what.”
Nearby, customers jammed into the small confines of Dodo Socks to buy the Ukrainian-made designer foot coverings, after the company promised to give all weekend proceeds to Come Back Alive, a charity that has provided thermal cameras and night-vision devices to soldiers. Local celebrities came by the shop to promote the event. By Sunday night, they had raised nearly $28,000, beating their goal by a fifth.
“I can’t say that we are panicking. We are aware. We are trying to keep calm and help our military,” said Dima Maleev, co-host of the country’s top podcast, who was among those supporting the sock sale. Independent Ukraine has lived beside Russia for three decades, and “Russia is doing crazy things all the time,” he said. For some, that has diminished current anxieties.
At the Lviv airport Sunday, four friends from Turkey arrived with ski bags in tow, ready for a trip to Ukraine’s Bukovel Ski area. They bought tickets five days ago. “We knew there was going to be a war – it was a chance. But we didn’t care,” said Mehmet Tugberk Sanveren, an airline pilot.
Their chief surprise was the price of accommodations. Rather than discounts, they found steep prices. Hotels have little incentive to cut rates, with the number of skiers unchanged from this time last year, said Yuri Ivasyuk, whose family operates the U Yaroslava guesthouse near Bukovel.
“We are ready, of course, to shoot when the enemy arrives. But when the enemy has not yet appeared, we are skiing,” said Volodymyr Luchyshyn, who hosts All and Now, the most popular radio morning show in Lviv.
Yet it has grown increasingly difficult to remain insouciant.
At the University Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, built on a Lviv site previously intended to house a Soviet centre for communist ideology, the number of parishioners has swelled by more than 10 per cent on recent Sundays. Father Andrii Schestak isn’t certain why. Perhaps it’s a consequence of milder weather. Perhaps fear of war has reawakened a religious impulse among those who drifted away during the pandemic.
His church is located on the campus of Ukrainian Catholic University, where students and staff have begun asking each other if they have passports.
Parishioners, meanwhile, want his counsel on whether to leave, or stay and fight. He struggles with whether to sanction bloodshed, and tells people to “ask for peace, but be ready for aggression. And be ready to defend yourself.”
Ukraine’s four million Catholics have particular cause to worry. History has shown that when Russians invade, be they czarist, communist or Putinist, “The Ukrainian Catholic church is wiped out sooner or later,” said Borys Gudziak, Archbishop of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who was preparing to leave Lviv for the Vatican.
He plans to meet Saturday with Pope Francis, who has indicated a willingness to travel to Ukraine this year. The archbishop will ask the pontiff to come at an earlier date.
“The sooner the better,” he said, holding out hope – if faint – that the church can succeed in obtaining a peace the world’s leaders have struggled to secure.
“It would be pretty embarrassing for President Putin to bomb the country when a singular global moral authority is here,” he said.
With reporting from Mark MacKinnon and Robert Fife
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