Yelena Vasilenko keeps a smile on her face as she stands on a snowy Kyiv street, cheerfully trying to lure passers-by into Mitla, the traditional Ukrainian restaurant where she works as a hostess. It’s only when she gets home and turns on the news that the growing possibility of war intrudes.
“When I’m here on the street I don’t think about it, but when I switch on my television, I get anxious,” the 66-year-old grandmother of three said during a long pause between customers that gave her plenty of time to ponder the invasion-sized Russian army that has been massed around Ukraine since late last year.
“I need to think about myself. I need to think about the safety of my children and grandchildren. The question is where [war] will happen. I have a dacha in Chernihiv region, but should I run to there?” Ms. Vasilenko said, referring to an area close to Ukraine’s border with Belarus. “We don’t know where it will start, or how it will start, so you can’t develop any kind of plan.”
Staying in Kyiv and remaining calm isn’t easy. Twice in recent months, her commute to work at Mitla has been interrupted by false bomb threats called into subway stations – part of what Ukrainian authorities say is a “hybrid war” aimed at demoralizing the country ahead of a possible invasion. Dozens of schools, subway stations and government offices have been briefly shut in recent months by hoax threats. “It just exhausts you,” Ms. Vasilenko said.
Mitla captures the mood in Ukraine in early 2022 in more ways than one. Not only is the borscht-and-perogies restaurant nearly deserted on a Sunday afternoon – most Ukrainians point to inflation as their biggest worry these days, ahead of even the possibility of war, causing many to cut back on luxuries like prepared meals – but it could double as a bomb shelter in the previously unthinkable case of large-scale hostilities.
The restaurant, which is situated under a central Kyiv building, down a flight of stairs and behind a thick steel door, is one of more than 3,000 possible shelters of various sorts listed on an online map that Kyiv authorities published last year.
Many are Cold War relics, built at a time when the Soviet Union, which Ukraine and Russia were both part of, planned for the possibility of nuclear war with the West. Some come complete with power generators, air filters, running water, telephones and sewage lines. These well-equipped bunkers were initially meant to house essential personnel underground for as long as necessary.
Others, like Mitla, are reinforced basements that have been used for other purposes during the relative peace of the past few decades. (While Ukraine and Russia have been fighting an undeclared war since 2014 that has killed some 14,000 people in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, the front line is more than 700 kilometres from Kyiv.)
Volodymyr Kotsiuba, a member of Kyiv’s Civil Defence Unit, gave The Globe and Mail a tour of a “Grade 2″ Soviet-era facility on the western edge of the city last week. “I can’t comment on the threat of war, but this shelter, among others, has been refurbished in the last three years and is ready to protect civilians if needed,” he said. The violet-walled bunker – which is stocked with gas masks, duct tape and old-fashioned telephones – is connected to the city’s water and electricity grid and can host up to 350 people.
Grade 1 shelters are even larger and are completely autonomous, with their own power and water supplies. Some have space for as many as 2,000 people. “I hope we never use them” except for tourism purposes, Mr. Kotsiuba said.
The readying of the network of shelters is one of the few visible signs here of preparations for a possible war. Life otherwise continued as normal in Kyiv this weekend, even as satellite images and social media videos showed that Russia was continuing to amass military units to the east, south and north of Ukraine – adding to a force that analysts say is already too large to be explained away as being part of any kind of drill.
“There is no panic or hysteria,” Ukrainian-Canadian lawyer Daniel Bilak, a former adviser to Ukraine’s Prime Minister, said of the atmosphere in Kyiv. “Many Ukrainians cannot bring themselves to believe that Putin will invade, but everyone I know, they all say that if he does, they will fight.”
Russia has repeatedly denied that it has any intention to attack Ukraine, though Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country will use “military-technical” measures if the West refuses to give it a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.
Russia has said repeated expansions of NATO since the end of the Cold War have threatened its security, and that the presence of NATO trainers and military equipment in Ukraine – including a 200-soldier Canadian mission – crosses a “red line,” forcing it to take action.
Several rounds of high-level diplomacy in European capitals over the past two weeks have failed to resolve the crisis. On Friday, the U.S. agreed to respond in writing to Moscow’s security demands, which the Kremlin published last month – a step that may or may not lead to further talks.
The United States late on Sunday said it was ordering the departure of eligible family members of staff from its embassy in Ukraine and that all citizens should consider leaving due to the threat of military action from Russia.
The Kremlin lashed out earlier in the day at the British government, which on Saturday had accused Moscow of plotting to remove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the British government’s claims – which were based on unspecified intelligence – “disinformation.”
Yevheniy Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who was named in the British report as a potential candidate to head the Kremlin-installed regime, dismissed the allegations as “nonsense,” and claimed they were concocted by his political opponents to make him a target of Western economic sanctions. In an exchange of messages with The Globe, he said there were other politicians in Ukraine who Moscow would be more likely to support, though he said it would “not be ethical” for him to name them.
With a report from Anton Skyba
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.