How are Ukraine’s 99 percent coping with the threat of war? — NV exclusive
Dozens of Ukraine’s richest politicians and oligarchs flew out of Ukraine on their private jets this week, but how are Ukraine’s 99 percent coping with the threat of a new Russian attack?
Korosten, Zhytomyr Oblast – North of Kyiv, next to the Belarusian border, is the Ukrainian town of Korosten – once the Soviet Union’s westernmost defense line.
In the 1930s, the Soviets built 456 concrete bunkers around Korosten to protect Kyiv and the rest of the Soviet Union from a Western invasion. Each bunker housed a battalion, and the town was a military hub until 1995.
But only the mother bunker, allegedly built to house Stalin himself in the event of a war, would be of any use to the residents of Korosten if Russia invades. The concrete fortifications of the other 455 bunkers face westwards, and not towards the eastern or northern borders where Russian troops are currently stationed.
“You can’t pick up the concrete and turn it to face eastwards,” said Orest Brezytskyi, NV’s guide to the mother bunker and a retired army commander in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies.
The so-called Stalin bunker, which is now a local museum, was considered so strategically important that they built a direct telephone line from it to the Kremlin. Unlike the other 455 bunkers, it is fortified on all sides.
The Korosten City Council told NV that if war broke out in the town, it would be used by Ukrainian military personnel.
The bunker has two underground floors, with almost 20 rooms on the first floor – which features its own electricity supply and a well for water, showers, and toilets.
No one knows what’s on the second floor. It was flooded by an underground river when the Germans bombed the town to the ground during WWII. Russia, which holds the plans for the bunker, refuses to give them to Ukraine, according to the museum staff.
“They think the bunker is theirs - let’s just say they have some imperial ambitions,” said Brezytskyi.
“The bunker is still in full working condition.”
With Russian troops stationed 100 kilometers away, and Korosten on one of the main routes to Kyiv, city authorities have been toeing a thin line between preparing their population, without whipping up hysteria.
“You can’t say that there is one unified opinion,” said Natalia Chyzhevska, the deputy head of the Korosten City Council, who will receive classified codes by text message from the local territorial military divisions if anything happens.
“Some people approach the situation with a sense of humour, others are tragically searching for their nearest bomb shelters.”
But while Korosten has over a hundred possible places where people could shelter and is home to hundreds of former army personnel who could be activated, the surrounding villages are less prepared.
“They receive our regional newspapers and have TV reception,” said Chyzhevska who says the village heads have received a list of instructions from the regional territorial forces. “But it really depends on who (is in charge) and how proactive they are.”
Asked what she thinks are the disadvantages of being in Ukraine’s regions in a time of war, Chyzhevska told NV she thinks there are only advantages.
“Tell me what percentage of Kyiv knows how to dig a well, sow potatoes or make bread?” said Chyzhevska.
“In the village, your toilet is outside, and your water is from a well,” said Chyzhevska, who explained that many of the towns’ residents used to live in villages. “Civilization in the context of war is a minus rather than a plus.”
Chyzhevska doesn’t think there will be bombing like in WWII. “It’s enough to do some sort of cyber-attack on the banking and communications systems,” she said.
Back in Kyiv, Chyzhevska’s prediction was ringing true. Ukraine’s two most major banks were hit by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Feb. 15, suspending their online payment systems. DDoS attacks work to shut down a system’s network by overloading it. Ukraine’s defense ministry was also hit. In January, several Ukrainian ministry websites suffered a similar attack.
Ukrainian banks, infrastructure and government offices have suffered a myriad of cyber-attacks since 2015, which Ukrainian authorities say were carried out by Russia.
Reuters reported on Feb. 16 that Western intelligence officers believed that cyber-attacks would be part of the first phase of a potential invasion by Russia.
Like in Korosten, the response to Russia’s military buildup in Kyiv is not uniform. Some people are proactively preparing their local bomb shelters, while others are taking a “wait and see” approach.
The Kyiv district administrations do not have the immediate funds to bring the city’s 4,500 approved shelters up to standard, according to two district press secretaries for central Kyiv that spoke to NV.
Gennady Novikov, 37, an entrepreneur who lives not far from the city center, has rallied his neighbours to apply for money from the city’s civil society budget to renovate the bomb shelter at the bottom of his building – home to around 1,000 people, according to Novikov.
“The (city council) won’t vote to approve the request until the end of May and, even if they approve it, the money won't be issued until next year,” said Novikov, who says he will put pressure on his local councilors to pay for costs to speed up the process. The director of Ukraine’s State Agency for Civil Safety Roman Tkachuk denied these delays to NV, saying the authorities have been working to get open up financing for people asking for their bomb shelters to be renovated.
Novikov’s shelter consists of several long, dark rooms with sandy floors. Unlike most of Kyiv’s shelters, his was purpose-built in the 1950s, also during the Cold War. It has a toilet and thick, iron doors, but there’s no longer any electricity or working plumbing.
Standing in the pitch-black bunker using his smart phone as a light, Novikov told NV that in its current condition, it would be impossible to house residents for any significant stretch of time.
Accompanying Novikov was Svetlana Tarasenko, a representative from the district organization responsible for maintenance. She had to come because she is currently the only person with a set of keys. Though, she told NV, soon a nominated person in each building would be given a set.
In a live TV broadcast, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Feb. 16 – the day US intelligence services reportedly believed could be the day Russia invades – should be a nationwide Day of Unity. He also demanded that Ukraine’s deserting oligarchs return to Ukraine.
Less than 24 hours after Zelensky’s broadcast, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov said that he had flown back to Ukraine. Anna Terekhova, Akhmetov’s spokesperson, told Ukrainian media that his visit to Europe was pre-planned. She said he will be in Mariupol, an eastern Ukrainian city near the front lines of the Donbas conflict, on Feb. 16. Mariupol is not far from Akhmetov’s hometown of Donetsk, the main city in eastern Ukraine, which has been occupied by Russian proxies since 2014.
Akhmetov faced criticism at the beginning of the war for failing to organize unity for Ukraine before it was too late. Akhmetov reportedly sat on the fence for months, waiting to see how things would pan out. He then disappeared from the public eye, spending stretches of time in Europe where he owns a 136-million-pound apartment in London and a 200-million-euro villa in France.
On the three-hour train from Korosten to Kyiv, people from villages and towns along the route climbed aboard to sell pens, crosswords, and children’s coloring books for a dollar or less. One 40-year-old-man with his facemask pulled down below his mouth announced he had fresh pies for UAH 4 each. Almost none of the passengers bought anything and no one spoke.
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