Near Nezalezhnosti Square in central Kyiv, several Ukrainian soldiers were smoking and drinking coffee outdoors. They were about to be deployed to Bakhmut, the city in Eastern Ukraine that has come under vicious attack by Russian forces, so they were enjoying their last moments of downtime away from the front.
One of them, Sergiy, opened the Deep State app on his phone – it maps Russian military movements – to show to a reporter from The Globe and Mail. The map showed that Bakhmut, which has been a front-line city since May, was more than half-encircled by Russian forces.
Could Kyiv come under attack, too, as the first anniversary of the invasion approaches? “Putin is not strong now,” replied Sergiy, who would not provide his last name for security reasons. “He’s having trouble taking Bakhmut, and it’s a small city. He may send missiles to Kyiv, but no soldiers.”
While anxiety levels in the capital are rising somewhat ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary, no one appears in a panic – far from it. Kyivans have adapted remarkably well to the war and seem confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not dare invade the city again as he tried to do almost a year ago.
In a gift shop in central Kyiv, retail worker Lana Shevchenko, 40, said she was nowhere near as afraid now as she was in late February and March of last year, when Kyiv’s downfall seemed imminent. “I think the Russians will not come any time soon,” she said. “Just let them try! We believe in our people. We believe in our military. We cannot forget about the war but we can live almost normally.”
By that she meant that the city is getting used to blackouts, which in recent weeks have become mercifully short as DTEK, Ukrenergo and other power companies become increasingly adept at emergency repairs after power lines and generating plants get hit by cruise missiles and Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones.
When the power goes out, the streets are filled with the cacophony of gasoline-powered generators placed outside many shops and restaurants. Some homes and offices have portable backup batteries that can keep modems and a couple of lights going for a few hours. Bathtubs are turned into reservoirs to ensure there is enough water to flush toilets. Everyone has small flashlights stuffed into their purses or pockets.
There are no shortages of gasoline or diesel fuel, as there were early in the war. Supplies that used to come from Belarus are now coming from eastern European Union countries such as Romania and Bulgaria.
Ms. Shevchenko said that regular blackouts and air-raid alerts kept her 10-year-old daughter’s school closed in the autumn. “They were online for four months,” she said. “Now she is back in the classroom. We don’t panic any more. We get up, take the children to school and go to work just like we used to.”
Stash Luczkiw, an American Ukrainian who works as an editor at the Kyiv Post, said the effort to retain a somewhat normal lifestyle in the face of war has become an act of defiance for Kyivans. “It’s almost like a point of pride not to be cowed by Putin’s missiles,” he said.
In early February, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia was planning an offensive to coincide with the first anniversary of the war. He said the Ukrainian military believed the number of Russian troops amassing along the border and in occupied territories was approaching 500,000 – far more than the general mobilization of 300,000 that Russia revealed in September.
He said the Russian offensive would probably come from the east, the scene of intensive fighting in recent weeks, and the south. The siege of Bakhmut suggests the offensive in the east is under way. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “We see no sign that President Putin is preparing for peace. … We see how they are sending more troops, more weapons, more capabilities.”
A renewed assault on Kyiv, from the north – the city is 220 kilometres south of the border with Belarus – seems unlikely. But Ukrainians know it is not out of the question because Mr. Putin has said that a Russian victory “is assured.”
In an interview, Andrii Ryzhenko, a retired Ukrainian navy captain who is now a consultant for the Centre for Defence Strategies, a security think tank in Kyiv, said the Ukrainian military has reinforced the northern frontier along Russia and Belarus. “If there is a major attack on Kyiv, the enemy could be stopped,” he said.
The capital could come under a sustained missile attack, but the city is bristling with anti-aircraft and anti-missile batteries that have proved adept at downing most, but not all, of the missiles and drones aimed its way. The arrival of advanced NATO-standard weapons, such as the U.S. Patriot surface-to-air missile system, will improve air defences in Kyiv and other cities.
“Sure, Russia can damage Kyiv, but the people believe in the defence abilities of the Ukraine military,” Mr. Ryzhenko said. “Kyivans can enjoy their lives a bit now.”
War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail
The Decibel podcast
A Canadian sniper in Ukraine, codenamed Teflon, told The Globe and Mail about his role in the battle for Bakhmut and the “human wave” tactics Russians have used to attack the city. Correspondent Mark MacKinnon shares his story with The Decibel. Subscribe for more episodes.