Mariupol, Ukraine – As Ukrainians woke on Wednesday to discover no overnight Russian invasion, few were surprised – after eight years of conflict with their northern neighbor, Western warnings of an imminent bloodbath had received little accord.
February 16, which some Western media reported was a potential date for an all-out attack, was declared “Unity Day” by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an attempt to reclaim it for Ukrainians.
Yet, in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, just 20km (12 miles) from the front line of a conflict with Russian-backed separatists, there was little interest.
Flags were hoisted above the city’s main thoroughfare but few passers-by appeared to notice. Two men in smart suits walked the streets in high spirits, swigging from bottles of champagne. Were they celebrating? “No, it’s my birthday,” he replied.
A small group of people draped in flags gathered in the city’s Freedom Square, taking pictures and shouting “Glory to Ukraine” where a monument to former Soviet leader Lenin once stood. Most of those involved appeared to be from the military.
“We are celebrating no invasion,” said organizer Diana Berg, who was displaced to Mariupol by fighting from her hometown of Donetsk – now under the control of Russian-backed separatists – in 2014.
“Yet this is not over, it will not be over for years, until Russia stops their imperialist expansion.”
In the capital, Kyiv, some said the international journalists reporting on a small Unity Day gathering outnumbered the Ukrainians marking it.
Despite the muted response domestically, international support from allied foreign ministers and ambassadors was aired on social media and solidarity marches are planned in European cities over the coming days.
Today Ukrainians come together in a day of national unity.
The UK remains unwavering in our support for the hard-won peace, freedom and democratic progress that has been made since Ukraine’s independence.#StandWithUkraine 🇬🇧 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/VBdX0V9Oro
– Liz Truss (@trussliz) February 16, 2022
The lack of action was widely mocked in Russia, where pundits revelled in the chance to dunk on Western media.
“What a sad celebration we have today,” said state media talk show host Olga Skabeeva. “The day of no invasion of Ukraine, or perhaps as they say in Ukraine, the day when Putin once again hasn’t attacked.”
According to Taras Berezovets, a Ukrainian political consultant, Ukrainians do not need a national day to feel united because they are all faced with the same existential problem.
“To some extent, [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin has played a huge role in crystallizing consolidation within Ukrainian society. People are not criticizing the government in the way they used to, ”he said.
Zelenskyy, a former comedian who was elected three years ago on a promise to transform relations with Russia, is popular, but a lack of promised reform has eroded trust.
The country’s predominantly Russian-speaking regions in the east are also growing increasingly frustrated with living on the edge of a conflict with Russian-backed separatists when he promised peace.
Yet, with experts predicting the tensions could remain long-term, Zelensky’s standing and even Ukraine’s political system could be undermined as the East and the West jostle over post-Cold War influence and energy supplies.
“Within the next three to four weeks, this current crisis will be over, but we will see more military build-ups on the borders before the end of 2022. Perhaps several – one in spring, for example, a second in autumn and one more in winter, ”Berezovets said.
“The threats will remain at the same level, but the chance of an escalation in Donbas is rising. We will see further cyberattacks on government websites and the banking system and Russia is likely to organize an energy crisis. ”
On Tuesday, Russia said it was returning some of the tens of thousands of troops built up along Ukraine’s borders to base following military exercises. Yet, hours later, a cyberattack rendered the website of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense and two banks unable to provide services.
Cutting through hopes of de-escalation, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Wednesday that Russia is continuing its military build-up. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also said intelligence reports show no evidence of a pullback, while the United Kingdom moved to double the size of its forces in nearby Estonia.
Weeks of panic and confusion, mostly seen on the front pages of Western newspapers while Moscow repeatedly denied plans to attack, could have caused significant damage to Ukraine’s economy, deterring foreign investment into a country that already struggles to attract it.
The head of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, David Arakhamia, told local media that “fake” media reports had cost the country “$ 2-3bn a month”.