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10 March 2022updated 16 Mar 2022 6:21pm

I saw Russia’s way of war in Syria. Will its devastation come to Kyiv?

All Ukrainians are wondering whether Putin will repeat the destruction here.

By Jeremy Bowen

Kyiv is waiting and wondering, its people talking endlessly about what happens next. Will the Russians try to break into the centre of the city? Will they hammer it with heavy firepower, as they did in Mariupol and Kharkiv?

Many more would have been killed when Mariupol maternity hospital was bombed if those inside the building hadn’t moved down to the basement. Here in Kyiv many people are already living a subterranean life in cellars and the city’s underground system, built deep in Soviet times in case of war. Will Putin be satisfied with encircling Kyiv? That would be a massive military undertaking for such a big, sprawling city. Does he have enough soldiers even to try?

A Ukrainian man that I’ve been saying hello to most mornings insisted that Kyiv’s centre will not be touched, because Vladimir Putin would never risk damaging the great golden cathedrals in a city and a land that the president himself has said is an essential part of Russia’s identity, history and culture. Yet many people here thought Putin would not invade either, and his war is killing Russian-speaking Ukrainian civilians in the east. As I write, with the Ukrainian winter packing a punch outside, I don’t have the answers. By the time you read this, you might. 

The questions are being asked in flats with curtains pulled tight to respect a partial blackout, and in cellars and Metro stations where thousands spend the nights. Kyiv feels as if it is in a strange in-between place: pristine, shuttered, empty, expectant, though not as scared as you could imagine. Sirens sound from time-to-time, but in the couple of weeks I have been here not one has heralded an attack in this part of town. It will probably happen, but not yet.

On Sunday 13 March, in Podil, the city’s oldest district, I found a rarity, an open coffee shop. It was warm and welcoming, with a queue for homemade pastries, cakes and quiches, and it wouldn’t have looked out of place in any trendy inner-city neighbourhood, except alongside locals and hipsters there were soldiers taking a break from the front line. Two mobilised reservists, one a lawyer and the other a snowboard instructor, showed me the high-powered sniper rifle in their van. They said the Russians kept making badly planned attacks, and they kept killing them.

***

Days end early in Kyiv, with a curfew that runs for 12 hours from eight in the evening. By the time it starts the streets around where I’m staying, near the 11th-century St Sophia’s Cathedral, have already been quiet for hours. Almost every shop is closed all day, except for a few supermarkets, grocery kiosks and pharmacies. Around nine every evening the hotel’s head of security offers a polite goodnight via the building’s loudspeakers, urging guests to close the curtains, dim the lights and head for the shelter. I take all his advice except the last bit. When the historic centre of Kyiv is not being shelled, it is much more restful to sleep in a bed.

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Ukrainians are busy, getting themselves and their city ready for whatever comes next. Weapons training for civilians continues. Community activists in Podil have turned a warren of clubs and bars in a sprawling old factory into a centre for distributing food, making Molotov cocktails and teaching people how to stop traumatic bleeding caused by shrapnel wounds.

[See also: As a new Iron Curtain descends, Europe is already irreversibly changed]

Checkpoints are sprouting more defences and becoming barricades. At one an old Lada saloon, built when Soviet carmakers put robustness before comfort or style, has been turned into a stand for a machine gun. The gun, a modern weapon that must have come into the country as part of the huge shipments from Nato countries, was worth much more than the car. The next time I went to see the checkpoint they had added a pristine Maxim gun, dated 1942. That made it relatively new. The Tsar’s armies had Maxim guns too. Perhaps the older volunteers at the barricade, veterans of Soviet airborne forces, had raided the museum.

Several million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have either travelled to Lviv and the far west, or joined the long queues to leave the country. Men of fighting age, meaning between 18 and 60, have had to stay in the country by law, but I have not found anyone who does not talk about resistance and defiance. Some of the men, seeing off their families at packed platforms at the station, have stifled the pain of saying goodbye, maybe for the last time, by telling their wives and children that it will be easier to fight if they know that they are somewhere safe. Then they go back to the army or volunteer territorial defence force. This is not a city where press gangs roam the streets, rounding up unwilling conscripts.

*** 

The Russians are not far away, in places no more than 20km or so from the city centre. Most journalists travel out close to the warzones because trusting your own eyes and ears is still a vital part of war reporting. I have seen Russian shells exploding, terrifying civilians trying to escape, but I have not seen the invaders so far. I have some idea of what they can do, because I have reported on the Russian way of war before. The first time was in Grozny, capital of Chechnya, a republic in the Caucasus that was trying to break away from the Russian Federation in the winter of 1994-95. The Russians flattened the city and Putin finished the job when he took over from Boris Yeltsin. 

Moscow’s troops made basic tactical errors when I saw them trying to drive rebels out of the centre of Grozny. An attack was stopped when the tanks at either end of an armoured column were destroyed. The street was too narrow for the others to escape, and they were picked off one by one. The assumption was that today’s Russian army was too professional for this sort of behaviour. The Ukrainians, with large numbers of anti-tank missiles supplied by Nato, have harried a new generation into making the old mistakes.

Russia’s way of war dictates that setbacks on the ground can be rescued by heavy weapons and air strikes. After Putin intervened in the Syrian war in 2015, he saved the Assad regime by destroying entire districts in rebel-held Aleppo and in the concrete jungles around Damascus. The only place through which I have walked that was as smashed as eastern Aleppo was Grozny. The thread that connects them runs through the Kremlin. Would Putin bring similar destruction to Kyiv, when he has said repeatedly that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”? If he did, his get-out would be to blame Ukraine’s leaders, who he has condemned as Nazis installed in office by Russia’s enemies in the West. 

***

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators suggested progress over the weekend, but no easy deal is waiting to end this war. I cannot even see its shadow in the public statements of either Putin or the west’s new hero, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. As the wail of sirens drifts in through the window on this dark Kyiv night, I don’t see sanctions, however strict, forcing Putin to admit he’s made a terrible mistake. Equally, the support Zelensky is receiving from Nato makes it hard to imagine him suddenly capitulating or accepting the rump of a country dominated by Putin. That suggests a long war, perhaps some kind of Pyrrhic victory for Putin followed by an insurgency backed by the West. At its worst, that scenario destroys Ukraine with terrible consequences for all of us.

When Ronald Reagan was in the White House during the Cold War, I studied international affairs at a graduate school in Washington DC. In the first week I was told to read the most famous sentence written by the German strategist Carl von Clausewitz. War, he explained, is merely the continuation of policy by other means. If Putin has gone to war to fulfil his policy of eliminating Ukrainian independence and reinstalling the country in Moscow’s camp, diplomats can concentrate on strengthening their country’s alliances, because they won’t be called on to write any peace deals. Putin has every reason to want to fight to win, even if he really did expect an easy victory. Is the West as invested in a victory for Ukraine? If it is, it might find itself heading towards direct military intervention. 

***

I was a toddler in 1962 when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world close to nuclear war. My generation grew up with the uncomfortable knowledge that our best chance of not becoming radioactive ash was the superpowers’ fear of mutually assured destruction. In 1984 I went to Berlin with my class of BBC graduate trainees, to look with horrified fascination at the Soviet soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie, and down dark side streets in East Berlin that were still riddled with Second World War bullets. 

The end of the Cold War lifted a giant weight. Nuclear weapons were still there, but MAD was just not going to happen. I still don’t think it will, but Europe is sliding back into old ways that we thought, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, were in the dustbin of history. 

[See also: Letter from Kyiv: to keep from weeping, we start cursing]

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global