MY latest six-week stint in Kyiv has just come to an end. Life in the city changed a lot in the time I was there, though not, of course, to the extent that Vladimir Putin would like.
I arrived in the middle of April to find the Ukrainian capital quiet and in the final throes of a long winter. During that winter, the Putin regime tried to break the city’s resolve by depriving it of heat and light, a plan that failed as miserably as previous plans to stroll in and take the city in three days, and to besiege the place into submission when the “three days” idea proved to be a fantasy.
Throughout May another tactic has been in action – wearing Kyivians down with nightly drone and missile attacks – and another miserable Kremlin failure.
Two odd incidents came before the city was forced into its current routine of air raid sirens in the early hours, loud explosions and nights spent in bathrooms, hallways and shelters.
First came the still-unexplained flash of light over Kyiv on the night of April 20, which sparked fevered speculation about aliens, meteorites and falling satellites, but mostly aliens.
Then came the odd case of the flying object shot down in a hail of anti-aircraft fire near the iconic Maidan Square in early May. Crowds on the square cheered as the loitering drone went down in flames, but for once, it turned out Russia wasn’t responsible – it was a Bayraktar TB2 drone belonging to Ukraine that had malfunctioned and was shot down to avoid “unintended consequences”.
Whatever the incident on April 20 was, the people I was with that night greeted the air raid sirens that preceded it as almost a novelty, racking their brains to remember the last time they had heard them. By May 5, that was no longer the case.
At first, it seemed Russia’s sudden ramping up of attacks on the capital were just an evil, idiotic prelude to Moscow’s yearly Let’s None Of Us Mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Festival, otherwise known as the “Victory Day” celebrations on May 9. Then it became clear almost nightly attacks were going to be the master strategist’s new tactic for the foreseeable future.
“If you can’t beat them, make them sleep in the bath, further deepening their hatred and contempt for you,” as Sun Tzu may or may not have written.
The figures behind Russia’s May bombardment of Kyiv are astonishing – there were attacks on 20 out of 31 nights, and 300 drones and more than 100 missiles were fired at the city, almost all of them shot down by the capital’s life-saving missile defence batteries. Falling debris from intercepted missiles and drones tragically killed a small number of people, injured others and damaged buildings as the month progressed.
In Ukraine as a whole, Russia sent in more than 400 drones and more than 160 missiles, with a strike on a clinic in Dnipro in the early hours of May 26 a particularly shocking event.
Like everyone in the city, I settled into my own personal air raid routine during May. Mine involved leaving the Air Alert app running on my phone while I was sleeping, moving out of my window-adjacent bed and onto the couch in my windowless living room if/when the sirens sounded. Explosions would sound outside and I would constantly refresh my “Kyiv” search on Twitter for news of what was going on and message other foreign journalists, mostly to complain about how very old this was all becoming.
Foreign journalists in Kyiv have been in as much of a holding pattern as anyone else these past weeks. Waiting for Ukraine’s spring/summer counter-offensive to begin is a national sport at the moment, for journalists and the whole population. When will it start? Where will it start? Has it already started?
The recent cross-border incursions into Russia by Ukrainian-aligned Russian rebel groups, and last week’s drone attack on an upper-middle-class neighbourhood of Moscow are most likely part of Ukraine’s “shaping” efforts – setting the stage for the counter-offensive proper to begin.
Ukraine has denied involvement in the incursions or the drone attacks, but that stretches credibility. In demonstrating that Russia’s stretched military can no longer properly defend its country’s own internationally recognised borders, and showing well-to-do Muscovites that their experience of this war can go far beyond hearing about it on the evening talk shows, both have greatly benefited Ukraine whoever is behind them.
In late May, I attended Strichka 2023, a two-day electronic music festival at the legendary Closer club in the historic Podil district. Last year’s Strichka was unsurprisingly cancelled but this year, it went ahead and was as brilliantly run as ever, providing a weekend of celebration and relative normality in a city that needs and deserves both.
Witnessing the people’s extraordinary feats of bravery and stoicism in Kyiv on a daily basis just now, it would be easy to lapse into simply expecting an event like Strichka to happen so smoothly in spite of everything. Managing to operate at this level under this level of strain is not normal, however, and it should be applauded at every opportunity.
Natalia Sniehur, who was at Strichka with her friend Kateryna, told me “normality” was too big a word for anything happening in Kyiv just now.
“I can’t call our life normal until we win this war and live in peace again,” she said as we talked over shawarma at the festival’s food court.
“The ‘everyday life’ we have just now does include normal things such as work, spending time with relatives and friends and going to events, but it also includes harsh war realities like rocket attacks.
“Every event like this should reflect the Ukrainian fight for peace and freedom. There are many ways to do it, like fundraising for the needs of our defenders and charities and also raising awareness of the situation.
“Closer and Strichka are doing it well here, around the different locations and dance floors, you come across posters with QR codes for donating to the army, orphanages and animal shelters. You also see art with relevant messages, there’s graffiti on the wall over there which says ‘Art is a weapon’, and there’s a dancer wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘We will rave on Putin‘s grave’.
“And I just love how many people are wearing our traditional Ukrainian embroidered clothes, vyshyvankas. Yesterday, at the end of the last set of the day, you saw a crowd of techno lovers singing the Ukrainian national anthem together, which was so emotional and special.”
A few days later I met up with Sasha Shults, a DJ, producer and member of the Closer team, to talk about the festival and the wider situation. Like many Ukrainians I have met lately, Shults is starting to think about what happens after Ukraine wins the war.
“I’m worried about what happens after the victory, when a lot of military guys come back to the cities with weapons and trauma,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have some problems – the government needs to do something for them.
“My father has told me about the soldiers he saw in our village during and after the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. There were huge problems with narcotics, a lot of them were hopelessly addicted to opium. I’m worried similar things could happen after this war if we’re not careful.”
On the nightly attacks, which were in full swing when we met up, and Russia’s continued pursuit of a clearly unwinnable war, Shuilts expressed the mixture of determination, defiance and calm logic that must haunt Vladimir Putin as he desperately tries to intimidate the Ukrainian people.
“I trust in the statistics,” he said. “You’re more likely to die in a plane crash than be hit by missiles and I always have that in mind – at the start of the war, the bombing attacks were scary but now, I go out and watch on my balcony with a cigarette.
“I try to understand why they think like this and why they do these things but I can’t. Their best possible scenario even at the start was that they would kill Zelenskyy and occupy the country, but even then they would have had to kill all of us.
“We hate them, and my children will hate them and their children will hate them. They don’t understand that and they’re scared to stop this now they’ve started.
“The Russian nation lies down to tyranny but in Ukraine we are different, you saw it with the Maidan Revolution, if we don’t like a leader here we come out on the streets and we say ‘fuck off’ and we get rid of them.
“If I step in shit, I want it to be my own fault, I don’t want someone taking my leg and rubbing it in shit for me.”