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Kristina Makarenko, right, sits in a shelter after hearing separatists had returned to their artillery positions in the village of Vrubivka, Ukraine, on Feb. 21, 2022. The village had been shelled earlier in the day.LYNSEY ADDARIO/The New York Times

Sets of stairs leading down from street level across the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson were built to allow residents to access underground emergency shelters – concrete-fortified havens built for protection in case of the kind of war that now looms over the country.

Now, many of those former shelters house subterranean businesses, including a sushi restaurant, women’s fashion shops and a jeweller.

Sold into commercial use by city officials and property owners, the ex-shelters are not simply untended sanctuaries that can easily be restored to their original function. Many of them are no longer capable of offering protection if war breaks out.

“I wouldn’t go into a shelter like this,” said Yevhen Tereschenko, who was minding the counter in an army surplus store that operates out of one of Kherson’s former shelters. He was surrounded by knives, camouflage clothing and air guns shaped like M-16 assault rifles.

Mr. Tereschenko’s shop lacks ventilation. It has only one entrance. It has windows, too, which limit its protective value.

It may have been designed as a safe space. But it’s “not safe,” he said.

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Civilian bunkers across the country have met similar fates. Late last year, official statistics showed that just 11 per cent of Ukraine’s 21,000 underground shelters were operational. Since then, the number of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine has swelled, with an estimated 190,000 soldiers under Moscow’s command now encircling the country.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned about “a continuation of bloodshed” if the Ukrainian government does not “immediately cease military action.” Ukraine, he added “was in full and in whole created by Russia.” His comments raised fears about his ultimate intentions for Russia’s smaller neighbour.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he believes Mr. Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. Russia has denied having any such plans.

But in places like Kherson, such menacing omens have done little to prompt preparations for the worst.

Shortly before Mr. Putin convened a meeting of his National Security Council on Monday, Tetyana Karchevych, the director of health care for the Kherson region, stood before local media to deliver an update. Her discussion was about COVID-19.

At hospitals, she told the Globe and Mail, no additional preparations have been made for conflict. The facilities are working “in a regular mode,” she said in an interview. Asked what additional supplies have been stocked by medical centres, she cited extra reserves of oxygen for COVID-19 patients. “Today we are focusing on COVID and will continue to do so,” she said, adding: “I will not comment on the war today.”

Ella Lebed sits at a desk in an underground apartment shelter in Kherson, Ukraine, on Feb. 21, 2022.The Globe and Mail

Once a Soviet ship-building centre, Kherson lies within 100 kilometres of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Military analysts and Ukraine’s own government have named Kherson as a possible target for invasion by the Russian troops marshalled around Ukraine’s borders.

There are some signs of concern in the city. Kherson schools conducted a gentle form of evacuation drill on Monday. Teachers gave preschoolers a scavenger-hunt-type assignment that took them into shelters to familiarize them with the routes. Primary schoolchildren were led through a “civil defence game,” with school administrators taking care not to incite panic.

Fewer than half of the region’s schools and preschools possess shelters.

Across Kherson, most shelters have been converted into businesses, an inspection by city officials earlier this month found. Most basement spaces could only support people taking shelter for one to four hours, the report said.

People should “demand from the heads of condominiums or service companies to work on the installation of such shelters in basements,” Oleh Holovatiy, chief specialist of the Kherson municipal civil-defence department, said in comments released by the city.

Even the city’s better-equipped shelters have obvious shortcomings.

In one apartment block in central Kherson, residential manager Ella Lebed led The Globe and Mail through a steel door and down steps to an underground concrete vault, where dust-covered floors were lit by a few bare bulbs.

No water or food was stored there. Nor was there a bathroom, although there were 10 chairs. Natural-gas pipes and pressurized hot-water heat lines criss-crossed the walls. On a small desk next to the pipes, Ms. Lebed regularly documents the pressure and temperature of the pipes.

It’s “not a good shelter,” Ms. Lebed said. “But it’s better than being out in the open.”

Large portions of the shelter were purchased by a local parliamentarian, who is using it to store glass cabinets. Other parts were converted into a sushi restaurant – a conversion the residential complex fought in court. They lost.

Nadia Petrovska, the manager of that restaurant, had never heard that the partly underground space was designed as a shelter – although with its bathroom, food and tables, the restaurant was better equipped than the shelter itself.

For some, though, not even the most secure shelter holds any appeal. Mr. Tereschenko served in the military and knows how to handle an assault rifle. If Russia invades, he has no plans to seek cover.

“I would go to war,” he said, “to fight.”

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