In the past, when you found yourself being interviewed on a rooftop in some benighted, war-torn place, a news presenter in London would always ask you, “What’s the mood in the streets?” They seem to have given that up now, fortunately, though it’s a perfectly valid question. It’s just that, in a city of several million people, there’s likely to be a variety of moods – and your ability to encapsulate them is going to be limited.
Especially here in Kyiv. When I began writing this, on the morning of 10 October, I had the feeling that, in all my 50 years of coming to places that are affected by war and violence, I had never seen a calmer city. In between bouts of pontificating about what President Putin might do to avenge what is assumed to have been Ukrainian special forces’ attack on the Kerch Bridge linking Russia to Crimea – which was opened in 2018 in order to bind the two indissolubly – I recorded an interview with a Ukrainian expert in a delightful outdoor café.
Later I wandered back through lines of stalls selling arts and crafts. Kids played, women and men held hands, old boys laughed and showed their gappy teeth, someone shouted angrily about being given short change. The previous night, the restaurants were so full you needed a reservation to get in, and afterwards the queues for buses to get home before the 11pm curfew were long and jolly.
So what was the mood in the streets? Well, I suspect most people here must feel pretty much as I do: that somewhere in the back of your mind you’re distinctly nervous that Putin might be finally going to put all those threats about using nuclear weapons into action – and that, if he does, he might chuck one here at Kyiv.
This city has endured much trauma over recent months, and it has shaken off the threat from Putin’s forces with courage and grace. In February and March, Russian soldiers got within ten miles of the city before they were repelled. Bucha, where they carried out their appalling atrocities, is a dormitory suburb where people who can’t afford Kyiv property prices take the train in to work. But the possibility of being nuked is on a different scale altogether: something so unthinkable that you might as well carry on with your daily life as usual, otherwise you’d go nuts.
A newly arrived BBC colleague has brought out some packets of potassium iodide powder which, apparently, you’re supposed to shake on to your tongue to help block radioactive iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid following a nuclear explosion. Ukrainians are talking about getting high-dose iodine tablets, which I presume have the same effect; only, again, it’s just so absurdly hard to think about that you carry on with what you were doing anyway.
As if to prove my point, just as I was typing these last words there have been several loud bangs close to our hotel. Bombs? Missiles? Nuclear weapons? Now the sirens are starting up. The thought that it might be something genuinely terrifying is a hard one to come to terms with. Easier, on the whole, to keep on writing.
On 7 October I went to the presidential palace and interviewed Volodymyr Zelensky. It reminded me a bit of being back in Romania’s Central Committee building in Bucharest during the revolution against the appalling Nicolae Ceaușescu in December 1989. Here, too, there are defensive positions made out of sandbags – up the stairs of the grand marble staircase and along the grand Soviet-era corridors – and there is a general air of wariness and of being ready for anything. My colleagues and I had to hand in our watches as well as our phones before the interview began, and the windows at the front of the building were blocked with more sandbags.
There wasn’t any sense of nervousness from the Ukrainian president, however. Sure, he’s an actor and knows how to present himself, and for this brief moment I was his audience. But he’s not doing a Churchill impression, thrusting out his jaw and saying, “Some chicken; some neck.” Zelensky is the ideal man for the moment: not a great policy person, perhaps, but a leader, calmly reassuring his people and putting into eloquent words what they’re thinking but can’t express as well as he can.
An unexcitable voice comes over the tannoy in my room, suggesting, rather than insisting, that all guests should gather in the bomb shelter in the hotel basement. This noticeable absence of hysteria at times of stress is deeply attractive. I’m starting to experience the sort of feeling for this country that my great friend and avatar Martha Gellhorn had for Spain for the rest of her long life, after covering the Civil War there with Ernest Hemingway. She had the opposite feeling about Hemingway, of course. In the end I have compromised, and settled not in the shelter but in the entirely empty bar on the ground floor. Martha would have liked that, too.
I had an hour with Zelensky – more than enough to get a proper sense of the man. He makes mistakes, certainly. That business of seeming to call for pre-emptive strikes on Russia to stop it using nuclear weapons is an example. In our interview he tried to explain it away, saying he was calling for “pre-emptive kicks” – by which, he said, he meant some form of sanctions. Well, maybe. My guess is that he just misspoke. At least he’s not threatening to unleash Judgement Day on Russia, as Putin and his former sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s security council, and that unspeakable cast of characters filling airtime on Russian television day and night, are threatening to do to Ukraine.
Zelensky was right when he told me that Putin was basically afraid of his own people. He couldn’t understand, he said, why Russians didn’t come out on to the streets and demand that this war should be ended right away, since so many of them disapprove of it. And he warned that Putin was readying his people for the possible use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
At this point, Peter Leng, the BBC’s bureau chief in Ukraine, rings me. “Six more missiles are heading our way,” he says, “and I really think you should get down to the shelter along with everyone else.”
Of course I should, but gathering up all my stuff again and trudging down the stairs and trying to find a quiet corner where I can carry on writing is a bit too much. What would Martha have done? “I think I’ll hang on here,” I say, as the lights in the bar blink on and off and the sirens wail outside.
It’s starting to be clear now that the missiles that are being fired at Kyiv are conventional ones. No iodine tablets needed for the time being. And indeed it’s quite hard to think that Putin really wants to wipe Kyiv off the map with a nuclear strike, since in some ludicrously misty, nationalistic way he’s offended that a city so associated with Russia’s history should belong to another country.
Ukraine’s cheeky attack on the Kerch Bridge must mark some new and important stage in this war. If Putin isn’t seen to react in the strongest possible way to it, then his loss of face will be disastrous – possibly fatal – for his authority. If he raises the stakes and does the unthinkable, Russia’s armed forces will be wiped off the face of the Earth. That, at least, was the threat made by the retired US general David Petraeus, a former head of the CIA, on 2 October when he was asked about a likely American response to the use of even a single tactical nuclear missile. He must be right. What seems strange is to be sitting in this attractive, uncomplaining city and knowing that what happens in the next days will be the stuff of history. Assuming, of course, that we survive.
The six missiles have just landed, and the whole structure of the hotel shivered. God knows what has happened to the poor people whose lives have been wiped out by them: we will go out now and film the aftermath. Risking the wrath of the hotel’s security staff, and against all the rules of health and safety, my producer Nick Springate has just appeared in the bar from the basement, bringing me a cup of hot coffee and a croissant.
The hotel tannoy comes on again and tells us conversationally that two more missiles are heading our way. Outside, sirens are starting to scream. There’s no way of forecasting what’s going to happen here in Kyiv. But you can bet that Ukrainians will stay calm and stoical. You can’t bomb that out of people.
John Simpson’s programme “Unspun World” is on Wednesdays on BBC Two at 11.15pm
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?