Here’s how to understand what life is like now in Kyiv: Imagine yourself living normally, going to work, kids at school, and suddenly the air raid sirens go off and you are rushing into subway stations to avoid being bombed.
Sounds like a scene from a black-and-white war movie set in London under the Blitz, doesn’t it? But this is what I’m hearing by phone and WhatsApp from friends and contacts in Kyiv, whom I was interviewing and dining with just two weeks ago: a total sense of unreality as Russian missiles and planes attack a peaceful European city as if Hitler were bombing London in 1940.
Instead it is Vladimir Putin imitating Adolf Hitler in 2022.
‘Something that happens in movies’
“For most people here, it is the first time we’ve experienced war,” I was told Friday by phone by journalist and literary scholar Tetyana Ogarkova, with whom I sat drinking coffee in the center of Kyiv earlier this month. Although Putin first invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, along the border with Russia, and nearly 14,000 Ukrainians have died in the eight years of subsequent fighting, that war was far from the capital.
“We were all convinced that despite the warnings from President Biden, this was a kind of play and Putin would never get to action,” Ogarkova told me. “We couldn’t imagine that this could happen in the 21st century in a European city. Imagine our shock when it becomes real.”
Americans should share Ogarkova’s shock at seeing Ukrainian tanks rolling down her suburban streets in front of her child’s elementary school, as the vehicles raced to escape the Russian bombing of a nearby military base. “This is something that happens in films,” she marveled. “You can’t believe it.”
Yet, she was awoken at 5 a.m. by the terrifying sound of incoming missiles. When she saw scenes on TV of civilians getting hit by rockets, she crammed her family into the car and managed to get them and her parents to the family summer home in a nearby village. Other escapees have not been so lucky, as the highways have become so jammed that cars are stuck for hours, and supplies of gasoline have run out.
My Kyiv translator (whose name I am not using for her safety) now takes her elderly mother to the metro underground several times a day because her building has no shelter. Families with crying children are sleeping there with little food or water.
The new Hitler
The main thing for Americans to grasp is that the Ukrainian people are victims of a war criminal, who believes he can change Europe’s borders by violence. He argues that Russia has a historic right to repossess Ukraine. If he succeeds in Ukraine, there’s no telling what he will try next.
“What we hear from Putin,” says Ogarkova, “is like a man with delirium, who is mentally ill, perhaps because of COVID and isolation.
“This is extremely dangerous not only for Ukraine but for Europe, and the U.S., and the whole world.”
Indeed, Putin’s delusions include the belief that the Ukrainian army will surrender to Russia (he has called on it to do so). But so far that army is fighting back fiercely — even though it is woefully out gunned and has very little capacity to counter Russian planes and missiles. And the Russian leader seems to have misjudged the level of resistance his army will meet from civilian volunteers.
That includes volunteers like Yegor Sobolev, a former member of parliament turned tech businessman and a member of a volunteer territorial defense force unit whose Saturday training session I visited a couple of weeks ago, in a woods just outside Kyiv. At the time, the group included a collection of veterans, businessmen, and tech specialists who had signed up in case they were needed to defend their neighborhoods; they were training with wooden rifles. A barbecue was served after the training.
How times have changed in just two weeks. Now, Sobolev could only answer me by text because he was on patrol with his unit, looking for invading Russian troops. He told me: “We have been issued machine guns and grenade launchers now.” The 250 or so volunteers at the training had almost all shown up, he added, “and hundreds of new people.”
“We are very motivated and confident. We must stop this new Hitler and we will.”
A city in shock
Of course that won’t be easy, and may take much longer than anyone would like to imagine. At this writing, 10,000 Russian troops are being prepared to enter Kyiv, with the goal of deposing the legitimate government and imposing a pro-Russian puppet leader.
While popular resistance may be fierce, Putin reportedly has a long list of politicians, journalists, and activists who are supposed to be arrested — or killed — and his forces won’t hesitate to fire on mass demonstrations. The fight will be bloody, and the odds grim for the resistance.
Yet the shock that has hit Kyiv’s citizens should also be a wake-up call for Americans, warned Kyiv TV talk-show host Yevgeny Kiselyov, with whom I was sharing a dinner of chicken Kiev in the Ukrainian capital just two weeks ago.
“The West should stop treating Putin as a civilized politician and a person with whom you can sit and negotiate,” said Kiselyov, a onetime star host on Russian TV, who left for Kyiv when Putin shut down independent media in Moscow. All Putin’s talk about negotiations, Kiselyov said, was merely a smokescreen to buy time for military preparations.
Kiselyov contends, as do several Kyiv political activists with whom I spoke, that the only way to push Putin back is to help Ukraine’s military defend its own country:
Send more antiaircraft weapons; encourage a coalition of the willing to help Ukraine militarily; and apply all crippling economic sanctions now, including cutting off Moscow from the SWIFT international banking system, which would show that the West was serious. (Many Kyivans want a “no-fly zone,” as the United States used to protect the Kurds against Saddam Hussein, but sadly I think that unlikely.)
To summarize the message I got from my Kyiv contacts:
The city is in shock, but it has an army and a people eager to fight back, if only we assist them, immediately. We need to help the Ukrainians defend their country’s freedom from a dangerous war criminal — a delusional leader who threatens us all.