KYIV – In an apartment in Kyiv, Oksana prepares for the violence that waits on the edges of her city. She has bought a hammer — a small one, she explains — to defend herself. “If you’re going to hesitate with any weapon, it will be used against you,” she tells me. Oksana has read the stories of the rape and murder of women in Kherson and elsewhere by Russian soldiers.
Half of Kyiv’s residents have already left, according to its mayor. Those remaining in the capital have spent much of the war confined to their homes. Not for them the lure of the hard and crowded floors of the metro. As Oksana puts it, “I like to be scared in some form of comfort.” And so the residents of Kyiv stay inside and try not to give in to fear.
With every day that passes, the invaders aim at some new way of increasing the agony of Ukrainians: targeting civilian areas, shelling humanitarian corridors, and the prospect of chemical weapon attacks, of public executions or of setting Wagner mercenaries and brutalised Chechens loose in the cities. Taking Kyiv street by street would involve a bloodbath that Russia wants to avoid. Instead, its forces are hoping to terrify the population into submission.
“Of course we are afraid,” says Dariya, who works in the film industry, “but we are also very, very angry.” That anger fuels the Ukrainians’ defiance, admired around the world.
Both Ukrainians and Russians make much of their similarities, but Dariya can’t understand why people in Russia continue to swallow what they are told about her country. Even before the war began, she lost friendships with Russians who unquestioningly believed their state media.
A video, widely shared here, is meant to demonstrate a difference between the two peoples. One half shows the reaction in Moscow to the war: a crowd fleeing, followed by an overweight riot policeman in tepid pursuit. The second half shows a Ukrainian in front of a Russian tank, trying to push it backwards with his bare hands.
Perhaps it’s unfair. Brave Russians have protested in numerous cities, but the numbers are clearly nowhere near enough. Ukrainians feel let down by the ordinary Russian. Sure, they say, protests will be met with brutality, but it’s as nothing compared to what is happening to them.
Ukrainian broadcast media have been predictably patriotic, but social media have been weaponised by the people. This sometimes means images and footage too graphic to share on TV: an old woman’s leg blown off, dead children, and the charred bodies of Russian tank crews. But material can also be gentler and relatable. In one photo, a dachshund in an olive-green dog coat lies practically invisible on a green bus stop bench. “I concealed myself in the terrain to strike the saboteur,” reads the caption.
It’s a stark contrast to Russia, where influencers have been spotted reading out identical pro-war (or rather pro-“special operation”) scripts on their TikTok accounts.
Ukraine is winning the information war, sometimes too easily. The 13 defiant occupants of Snake Island, near the mouth of the Danube, who warmly invited a Russian warship “to go f*** yourself”, and whose deaths were announced by Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, as he awarded them posthumous medals, turned out to have been taken prisoner by the Russians. And it seems that the “Ghost of Kyiv”, a Ukrainian fighter-pilot single-handedly tormenting Russian airmen above the capital, is no more than a myth, perpetuated with footage from a flight simulator.
These fables work their magic on Ukrainian morale. The impassioned vulgar riposte to the Russian navy has become a slogan that can be seen everywhere from roadblocks to advertising hoardings. It’s almost as ubiquitous as “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”).
Videos of prisoners of war are shown on TV and shared on social media, although they violate the Geneva Convention, according to the Red Cross. Nonetheless, they support the message that the invaders commit frequent atrocities and are doomed to failure. Some here feel sorry for the captive Russian soldiers weeping on video, but that sympathy is running low. “I bet if these monsters were caught, they would cry like a baby,” says Oksana.
Sergei, a Russian-born resident of Kyiv, tells me that what he has said on social media about the invasion that he abhors could land him at least a decade in a Russian prison. His suggestion was that with the casualties the Russian army was enduring, Ukrainian tanks would be able to go to Moscow in a hundred days. But now he has had to flee his home after the advancing Russians started shelling his village.
The Ukrainian general staff claim terrible Russian losses: more than 12,000 dead and 335 tanks destroyed. Oleksandr, who works for an IT company in the city, has no opinion about the authenticity of these numbers. “It’s not so important,” he says. “What matters to me and to every Ukrainian is how many of our own soldiers have died.”
It is clear from speaking to these brave men and women toughing it out in Kyiv that they refuse to be cowed. Even if Russia wins this war, the cost will be appalling. Zelensky is already calling Russia a terrorist state, but what level of terror will need to be unleashed to make the Ukrainians lay down their arms?