The Scene From Ukraine
Ukrainians prepare for war, but relish this moment's peace, as international alarm bells ring louder than ever before
KYIV, UKRAINE - Life carries on in the capital of Ukraine. Though American alarm has only materialized last year, Ukraine has actually been at war since 2014. In the heart of the city, the Alley of Heavenly Hundred Heroes commemorates the souls who perished during that fateful revolution whose outcome reverberates to this day. Those 113 who died then would never know the troubles to come. Fourteen thousand more Ukrainian lives have been lost since, between the devastating war with Russia that cost Ukraine the Crimea, and the civil war with Russian-sponsored separatists that sees two of Ukraine’s regional capitals occupied this very day. Now the Russian military surrounds the nation on four fronts and no one living knows what will happen next, nor how many more will die.
In the five months I have been reporting in Ukraine, I have encountered as many theories as I have Ukrainians. Many don't think Russia will invade at all – it's just games played by Biden and Putin. Some believe it is inevitable, and that it's Putin's will. Some think it will be Biden's fault if it happens. These two camps get into heated arguments all the time. Some Ukrainians take their cues from the daily news. Others from astrology. But war has been a fact of life here for eight years – some say one thousand years – and no Ukrainian panics about it. Not in public at least.
The malls are still full of shoppers. Though prices are on the rise due to inflation and currency devaluation. The clubs are still packed with dancers till past dawn every weekend. Guns and ammunition are flying off the shelves, one store clerk says. Walkie talkies are too, though the clerk warns they will be useless against Russian military radio jammers during invasion. Shooting ranges have been booked solid, with civilians eager for any practical firearms experience they can get.
One of the national banks sent its employees detailed instruction on how to handle terrorist situations at the office. The mayor told citizens that the subway tunnels were prepared for emergency refuge in case of Russian shelling – it is the deepest subway in the world and doubles as nuclear shelter. The city also published a list of essential items all citizens should have packed to go in case of war. The list includes vodka. It is life as usual.
Though evidence of the war is scant in Kyiv – there is a captured Russian tank on display at the national World War Two monument – it is much easier to find the scars of war in the liberated areas which already suffered occupation early.
This maritime industrial city is just 10 kilometers from the occupation line, and 40 from Russia itself. It is of strategic importance because of its access to the Sea of Azov – there are Ukrainian naval stations there – and for the expansive industrial complexes that operate here. It is a continental hub for steel manufacture. It is the only major city once occupied by the separatists now liberated by the Ukrainian army.
Though it has been seven years since liberation, the destroyed husk of the city's police headquarters can still be found not far from the city center. During the occupation, the important municipal buildings were seized by the separatists. This building was destroyed in the fighting that ensued for control of the city. It's charred remains are riddled with bullet holes and fenced off by corrugated steal. The police now operate next door. The intersection is a famous haunt for wild dogs.
The city has been blessed with peace since the last major attack in January of 2015 – one fateful night when separatists launched some hundred rockets into the residential quarters, killing 31 civilians – including women and children – and destroying several buildings. Now there is calm. Residents enjoy a good sunset at the pier feeding geese, and leisurely walks on the seaside train tracks. Children try to climb into the abandoned soviet-era train cars awaiting scrap, and others just drink beer. Some get too drunk and make a scene in the waterfront Georgian restaurant, while an older couple slow dances to the vibrato of the lounge singer's anthem. Life too in Mariupol is as usual as can be.
The same can not be said of this ghost village which exists in a de facto state of military occupation by the Ukrainian army. Access to Lebedynske is tightly controlled by the Ukrainian military. The highway that connects this village to Mariupol is littered with hedgehogs and jersey barriers, two fortified military checkpoints with heavy weapons, and signs warning of mine hazards in the fields on either side. The soldiers forbid any photography of the blockades.
“I wish you wisdom,” said one checkpoint soldier, in Russian, as our car was cleared for entry. “Because if there is no wisdom, the punishment will follow you, even in the States.”
All that separates this village from the frontline is a vast field. The treeline you can see from Lebedynske's eastern edge represents the war itself. The front is just 5 kilometers away. Ever since the village was shelled and occupied in 2014 – liberated in 2015 – about 70 percent of the population has left and not returned. The village is silent except for the constant howling of wild dogs and the twinkling of snow blowing in the wind. A babushka walks repeatedly up and down the main avenue of the village, where a government building has been destroyed by bombs and the elementary school next door is closed indefinitely. She doesn't want to speak to the press. None of the scant few villagers who stayed behind do.
One of the larger houses has been commandeered by the army as an observation post. It is the only lively place in the otherwise deserted village. Violence can erupt at any time. The last flareup at Lebedynske happened just last month, when the separatists opened fire with small arms. It is a near daily occurrence along the eastern frontier. In just the past week there were at least 23 ceasefire violations by the separatists and four casualties suffered by the Ukrainian Defense Forces.
As the world waits for what happens next, only one man knows for sure what that is. With the Black Sea to the south blockaded this week by the Russian navy, simultaneous with the deployment of Russian tanks to the north in Belarus, the feeling is worse than it ever has been. But the biggest sign of panic in the nation so far comes from the United States Embassy, which on Friday gave its most stern warning to date yet.
In an email to American citizens in Ukraine, the State Department said, "those in Ukraine should depart now via commercial or private means. US citizens in Ukraine should be aware that the US government will not be able to evacuate US citizens in the event of Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine. Military action may commence at any time and without warning."
As of Saturday, the embassies of many European nations have followed suit, shutting down operations and instructing their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately.
Photography by John Bolger