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26 January 2022updated 28 Jan 2022 11:43am

Dispatch: Instead of panicking, Ukraine prepares for Putin

As Russian aggression increases, Kyiv readies itself for a possible full invasion. Yet the mood remains measured and calm

By Jeremy Cliffe

As snow swirls in Kyiv’s streets outside, Vasyl Filipchuk sits in his office ruminating on the comparison between Ukraine’s situation and the dramaturgical principle known as “Chekhov’s Gun”. Named after the Russian playwright who formulated it, the principle stipulates that if a gun is hanging on a wall in the first act of a play, it should be fired in the next one. No one knows precisely what President Vladimir Putin is planning, says Filipchuk, a Ukrainian former senior diplomat and founder of the digital media outlet Apostrophe. But with about 127,000 Russian troops now deployed on Ukraine’s borders and more arriving every day, the signs point ominously in the direction of deliberate or accidental calamity. “There are too many guns on Ukraine’s wall. And they are all loaded,” he says.

A short walk away, the poignancy of the drama’s opening scene endures on the stage where it played out. It was in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in central Kyiv that, in late 2013, the so-called Euromaidan protests erupted over a refusal by Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly then president, to sign an association agreement with the EU. In February 2014 more than 100 demonstrators were killed when the police stormed the protest camp. Today the dead are commemorated by a memorial wall running up the hill from the square, displaying photos, names and ages (from 17 to 75) of those killed.

Yanukovych’s subsequent fall was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of much of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in March 2014. Conflict between Russian-backed separatists in the region and the Ukrainian government has continued ever since, claiming more than 14,000 Ukrainian lives and freezing the country’s progress towards its long-term aspirations of Nato and EU membership. In recent months Russia has massed its military forces along the country’s southern, eastern and northern borders and, in December, it issued a series of demands to Western capitals, including a ban on Ukraine joining Nato and a removal of Nato forces from eastern member states (such as the Baltics) that have joined the military alliance since 1997. These stipulations are unacceptable to the US and its allies, so multiple rounds of talks have ended in stalemate. At the time of writing, negotiations on 20 January had produced a US commitment to respond to the demands in writing, but no signs of a breakthrough.

Speculation abounds in Kyiv about what could happen and when. During my visit, both the US and UK embassies announced the evacuation of non-essential staff and families. Some suggest Putin won’t strike until after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February; others retort that he has limited time before the ground thaws and mud slows down tanks. Possible scenarios range from acts of hybrid warfare, such as cyber attacks; or targeted conventional warfare to seize the rest of Donbas and a land corridor to the Crimea; to a full-scale invasion of the country preceded by air strikes. Unsubstantiated rumours pulse through Ukrainian social media: of Russian plans for “false flag” provocations as a pretext for action; of people in government moving relatives to the safer western regions; of as-yet undisclosed US intelligence supposedly confirming Russia’s plans to invade.

“One scenario is a blockade of Kyiv,” Oleksandra Ustinova, an MP for the opposition Holos party, tells me in her office at the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. “They would cut the water, electricity, telecoms and in the worst case try to bring down the government. We should be ready for that.” Fears of such an assault on the capital – possibly with the aim of imposing a new pro-Kremlin regime that would turn Ukraine away from the West – have grown as Russian troops have been deployed to nearby southern Belarus. Widely shared videos recently showed the 38th Motor-Rifle Brigade arriving in Yelsk, barely 20 kilometres from the border.

[see also: Will the lights go out in Europe if Russia invades Ukraine?]

Despite all this, life in the Ukrainian capital remains strikingly normal. Children are out sledging in the parks, the big shops on Khreshchatyk Street are busy, at the main railway station crowds bustle to and from trains heading to cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipro and Odessa, which could soon be on the front line. There is no sign of panic buying or queues at banks, the metro runs on time, the pavements are diligently shovelled after each fresh snowfall. In all my meetings with officials, politicians and civil society figures, I am struck by the measured tone and the mild bemusement at some of the more sensational international reactions (twice the word “hysterical” comes up in this context, including in reference to the embassy evacuations).

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Kyivans are not naive. They are making preparations. “Two weeks ago the idea that Ukraine might be invaded made people laugh, but that has now changed,” says Filipchuk. He admits to having stocked up on fuel, conserves and water, and has scanned a map of the city for exit routes through the backstreets in the event of traffic chaos. Some have discussed going to stay with relatives in the countryside and prepared a “go bag” with batteries, money and documents. In April last year the city council published a map of some 3,000 bomb shelters, ranging from the superficial (the pedestrian underpasses beneath the Soviet-era boulevards) to Cold War nuclear shelters (including metro stations such as Arsenalna, the deepest in the world, whose tunnels can be sealed off with blast doors). One widely circulated document advises parents on how to talk to children about the Russian threat, including games involving imitating air raid sirens and throwing oneself on the ground. Yet such measures are treated as pragmatic precautions for something that probably will not happen.

A common explanation for the sangfroid is that Ukraine has already been at war for nearly eight years. Most Kyivans know people directly affected by the fighting but have not witnessed it themselves, so are used to it as a brooding, threatening background presence. “It’s a combination of war-weariness without the ability to imagine Kyiv itself as a war zone,” argues Nataliya Gumenyuk, author of the book The Lost Island on occupied Crimea. We meet in a packed restaurant next to the city’s hip new food market – the setting could easily be Shoreditch, Kreuzberg or Brooklyn – and notions of tanks, shells and air raid sirens do indeed feel utterly remote. Ukraine’s leaders also deserve some credit for setting a calm tone, she adds: “The policy is not to rise to the provocation. It is better to prepare the military but not panic the civilian population. President [Volodymyr] Zelensky has shown restraint where any other leader could easily have whipped up nationalist fervour.”

There is also the reality that Putin would – self-evidently, to Ukrainians at least – be mad to launch a full-scale invasion of the country. Maryan Zabblotskyy, an MP for the governing Servant of the People party, who is active in Ukrainian-US relations, puts the chance of this happening at no more than 10 per cent. “We can’t rule out irrational behaviour from a dictator like Putin, but invading Ukraine would be three steps crazier even than anything he has done so far.” Russia could easily achieve supremacy in the air and in open country, he concedes. But becoming mired in urban warfare – a possibility addressed by Ukraine’s new “On the foundations of national resistance” law – would be a disaster.

“Russia cannot take Kyiv by force. It would be a new Grozny,” agrees Filipchuk, referring to Russia’s catastrophic assault on the Chechen capital in 1994-95. Millions of Ukrainians are prepared to take up arms to resist, and the country has resonant collective memories of past partisan warfare. Where in 2014 it had some 5,000 battle-ready troops, now it has some 150,000. The events eight years ago and since have turned most Ukrainians from being instinctively open towards Russia to being instinctively sceptical. This transformative shift in attitudes makes Putin’s supposed plan to install a pro-Kremlin government, a claim made by the British government on 22 January, look like a hospital pass – a recipe for mass insurrection by a population no longer willing to tolerate Yanukovych-style puppets.

It is in this spirit – of trepidation and stoicism, caution and a willingness to fight – that international responses have been received in Ukraine. My interlocutors are effusive about Britain’s swift deliveries of anti-tank weapons. “God save the Queen!” enthuses one when I raise the subject, a line that has also trended on Twitter in Ukraine in recent days. By contrast, Germany’s reticence generally elicits the opposite reaction (“so, so disappointing” is one of the more printable responses). Rather dismally, given its central place in Ukraine’s long-term geopolitical ambitions, the EU’s muted response inspires few strong feelings, positive or negative.

There is approval in the country of the US government’s cautious negotiating tactics, but suspicion that President Joe Biden might make unacceptable concessions to Russia – perhaps concerning Ukraine’s future prospects of Nato membership – in order to park the subject and concentrate instead on America’s contest with China. Indeed, the theory that Biden’s administration wants the topic out of the way leads some in Kyiv to believe Washington is exaggerating the risk of Russian invasion in order to push Ukraine into enacting the Minsk-2 agreement. This deal, made in a moment of particular Ukrainian weakness in 2015, envisages extensive autonomy for the occupied parts of Donbas within Ukraine in return for a (highly improbable) end to Russian interference.

For Kyiv to implement the deal unilaterally now would be disastrous, says Ustinova. “That is what worries me most,” she says of the prospect of an escalation in the conflict. “That we reach the number of deaths per day where we will be forced into concessions. We have to stand our ground.” This exchange is a sobering moment. Here is a young, liberal MP in a major European city, committed to a democratic and Western future for her country, having to talk about the lives it may be forced to sacrifice to safeguard that future.

But that is what is at stake: Ukraine’s fate, its ability to plot its own course and make its own choices. The country’s political, economic and strategic turn towards the EU and the Atlantic alliance in recent years has been emphatic. For all its struggles with corruption and instability, it is fundamentally a democracy. Ukrainians can and do vote out leaders they no longer want; Russians by contrast cannot. Ukraine’s economy has become more open and resilient since 2014 – at least until this latest military threat, which is spooking investors. A democratic, prosperous, pluralist Ukraine on Russia’s border would be Putin’s nightmare, presenting a much too stark inspiration to his domestic opposition.

Something much bigger is also at stake: the contest between two rival visions of world order. Ukraine is a neuralgic issue for Putin (who published an excruciatingly amateurish and quasi-mystical history essay last summer asserting the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples) but he is also advancing a wider principle by threatening the country. In his vision, great imperial powers decide the fates of lesser ones between themselves, and each thus stakes a claim to its own sphere of influence. As the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny put it recently, Putin wants “to sit down [with Biden] in a smoke-filled room and decide the fate of Europe like we’re back in 1944”.

The US-Russia negotiations in the past weeks have already provided Putin with these optics – an achievement in itself. The next steps must not deliver the substance, or they will create a devastating new precedent. With an eye on Taiwan and concordant with Putin’s view of world order, China is following the talks closely. it is something that any US diplomat tempted to see Ukraine as a mere distraction from the business of superpower rivalry in the Indo-Pacific ought to remember.

“We have to be strong now,” asserts Ustinova. “Everything depends on it.” And so it does: the Ukrainian parents sledging with their children in the park, going home afterwards and having conversations about what to do if the bombs drop; the sacrifices of those commemorated in Maidan, killed exercising their right to demonstrate; the country’s progress, however halting, towards the future it wants for itself. All that is at risk, and with it the essential idea that people everywhere should be free from the tragic subjugation with which Russia is now threatening Ukraine. The line-up of Chekhovian guns on Ukraine’s wall puts that most fundamental of principles, too, in jeopardy.

[see also: Can Europe tame pandemonium?]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed