Kyiv, jokes one of its residents, is the eye of the hurricane, the calm spot at the centre of the storm. Life in Ukraine’s capital carries on as normal. But fears of impending chaos and destruction are closing in.
For weeks the US has been warning of a massive Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s borders. Hardened by eight years of war since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and orchestration of a separatist war in the Donbas region, many Ukrainians have been either unfazed or incredulous that President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to launch a large-scale invasion. Many still are. But sentiment has shifted in recent days.
“Something has changed,” says Andriy, a 24-year-old HR executive out shopping in a Kyiv mall. “All of my friends feel afraid of this situation with Russia.
“I thought journalists and media were exaggerating the situation. I don’t see panic in the eyes of the people, but in the last few days people are getting more afraid due to the news, news, news.”
There is little sign of panic buying. But Andriy says his friends have started to stock up on pasta and buckwheat. Other Ukrainians are making contingency plans. One western executive says he has packed a grab bag, fuelled up the car and agreed a rendezvous point with his family. They will flee to a safe venue outside the city away from important buildings or facilities and if necessary go there on foot. Others are considering sending family to Lviv, a city far to the west.
This sense of anxiety was first felt among English-speaking Ukrainians exposed to intensive western media coverage and those with foreign friends and family. Two of Kyiv’s international schools are closing. Andriy says he was unnerved by a message sent to an Israeli friend in Ukraine from the Israeli government about a possible evacuation. But now the concerns, repeatedly relayed by senior US officials, are filtering through to the population more widely.
“This is the first time since 2014 that news about a possible invasion is coming from the west and not Ukraine,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a think-tank in Kyiv. Ukrainians are “exhausted” by warnings from their own government and might be more inclined to believe the US president, she suggests.
A decision this week by the US and UK embassies to evacuate diplomatic families and allow non-essential personnel to leave rattled Ukrainians. It also angered the Ukrainian government, which continues to downplay the imminent threat.
“Certainly there is a certain regrouping of Russian Federation military forces around Ukraine, which we are observing constantly,” Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security adviser, tells the FT. “Is it critical for us [in terms of number]? No.
“At issue is something else. The aim of the Russian Federation is to destabilise our country from within. They are doing this constantly and professionally.”
Speaking on Friday, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, played down the prospects of a full-blown invasion. “We do understand what the risks are,” he said at a press conference, adding that “we do not see a bigger escalation” then last spring when Russia’s military build-up started.
A government tourism body has adopted the slogan: “Keep calm and visit Ukraine’.
The official position being taken by Kyiv exposes a remarkable gulf of perceptions with Washington and begs the question: why is a country that for several years beseeched its western allies to take the Russian menace more seriously now playing it down?
Zelensky’s messaging about the threat to his country has been erratic. After meeting US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Kyiv on January 19, the president released a video in which he seemed to make light of the invasion threat, saying Ukrainians could soon relax over a shashlik (barbecue). Yet the next day he told the Washington Post that Kharkiv, a city in the north-east, “could be occupied”.
While Zelensky’s political critics concur with the prevailing view in Kyiv that Putin is unlikely to launch a full invasion, they have also denounced the president’s failure to prepare the public for war and to beef up defences, for example by mobilising the army reserve.
“He should have said: ‘My fellow Ukrainians, Ukraine is under threat. Russia amassed 100,000 troops across the border. Putin wants to take over Ukraine. We have to stay united. I order Ukrainian military to mobilise. I order Ukrainian military to deploy additional troops,’” says Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was prime minister from 2014-16.
Zelensky is preoccupied above all with the economic fallout from the ever more dire invasion warnings, say western diplomats, Ukrainian officials and advisers.
Solid economic growth of 3.2 per cent last year, buoyed by high prices for Ukraine’s commodity exports, was a bright spot for Zelensky, who appears an increasingly isolated and unpopular figure. Since his election in 2019, he has made modest progress in tackling graft, is struggling to reform a corrupt judiciary and is locked in a power struggle with some of the country’s powerful oligarchs.
However, the economy has now taken a sharp turn for the worse. Inflation has shot above 10 per cent. The hryvnia has lost 6 per cent of its value against the US dollar in a month. Companies are struggling with surging energy costs. Ukraine filled up its gas storage facilities last year before prices spiralled, but it will need billions of dollars to meet next winter’s needs.
Investors have taken fright. Ukraine is, in effect, locked out of capital markets, although the biggest bond redemptions of the year are not due until September.
“Even if nothing happens, it is a macroeconomic shock,” says Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former economy minister and adviser to the presidential administration. “It will have an impact on mood, morale and allocation of resources.”
Yevgenii Utkin, a Russian-born entrepreneur in Kyiv, says three international transactions involving investments in tech companies he founded or invested in have stalled in the past month. “Now there is no way to sell,” he says.
The economic damage is part and parcel of Putin’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine, say Zelensky’s allies. Economic hardship could help Moscow turn Ukrainians against their government.
“Those who are spreading panic are helping, intentionally or unintentionally, Mr Putin,” says Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s gas company, who has also been tipped as a future prime minister. “We have been living under a constant threat of invasion and I’m not sure this is very different.”
A pressure campaign?
Ukrainian officials and experts also take a different view from their US and UK counterparts on Russia’s military preparedness and they challenge western assumptions about Russia’s military superiority.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former defence minister and director of the Centre for Defence Strategies, a think-tank, concedes that a large-scale Russian invasion is possible, including an attempt to take Kyiv.
“They are not ready yet, but they will be in a month. They are ready for smaller-scale [conflict]. They could invade Donbas today,” he says.
Zagorodnyuk, who advises the government, takes issue with the confident predictions of US analysts about Putin’s intentions to invade. “Many people are making a false logical construct,” he says. “They can invade, which is why they will, and that means a full occupation of the country.”
“The Russians don’t have a single plan. They have strategic goals and then they have options to meet them. They try something and then they step back. They are very receptive to the response.”
Many Ukrainians, in or out of government, assert that the Kremlin would not launch a large-scale invasion because they insist Putin must know he will meet stiff resistance.
In 2014, Ukraine had 5,000 combat-ready troops. Now it says it has a fully professional army of 250,000, as well as an army reserve of hundreds of thousands. Between them there are 200,000 soldiers with combat experience, the government says.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a former military intelligence officer and adviser to the presidential administration, argues that Russia’s vaunted air supremacy is also overstated. Ukraine has a sophisticated if ageing Soviet-era air defence system which will bring down some Russian jets, he says.
Russia only has 200-300 Kalibr cruise missiles and 150 Iskander short-range missiles and their accuracy is “laughable”, Arestovych claims.
“This illusion has been created that we will have nothing left.”
Ukrainians know Russian aggression comes in many forms on a sliding scale — from cyber attacks and bomb threats to annexation — because they have been on the receiving end since their country became independent in 1991. Analysts and politicians concede that Russia might try to seize chunks of their country. But capturing, let alone occupying, large cities is unlikely because of the military cost, they believe. Kyiv might be the exception, says Zagorodnyuk, given the benefits to Putin of decapitating the government and economy. Taking the port city of Odesa, in the south-west, also has strategic and economic value.
But analysts and government advisers believe Putin’s real intention is to gain influence rather than territory. Despite repeated US reassurances, they still suspect Ukraine will come under intense pressure to compromise with Russia and change the constitution to give permanent autonomy to separatist-held Donbas regions, giving them a veto over future agreements with the EU or Nato — a concession that could provoke a nationalist backlash in Ukraine and endanger the government.
“From the outset they have seen this as a pressure campaign,” says a European diplomat.
Stressing the need to “not panic”, Danilov says Russia’s top priority in threatening a full-blown invasion is to encourage Europe and the US to pressure Kyiv to capitulate on the Minsk peace agreements, which aimed to end the war in Donbas. Such a compromise would, in turn, “achieve domestic destabilisation of our country” followed by regime change.
Asked if western countries would play along with such a proposal in order to prevent a full-blown war, he adds: “I would not want to even think about this, that they are in cahoots. It’s difficult for me to say.”
Nearly every Ukrainian the Financial Times spoke to said they or people they know are ready to take up arms to defend their country. Many Ukrainian households have weapons — about 1m, according to government estimates. Whether their resolve melts away under a Russian offensive is another matter. But for the moment, thinking about defending the homeland is psychologically reassuring at a time when the country feels it is caught in a wider fight between great powers.
Daniel Bilak, a Canadian-Ukrainian who used to run Ukraine’s inward investment agency, is forming a civil defence unit for three villages outside the capital. It is both a psychological prop for Ukrainians to counter “a sense of helplessness” and a tactic for deterring Russia, he says.
“It has become very important. This is where we play psychological games with the Russians,” he says. “They are not all Spetsnaz [special forces] and battle-hardened. When every village becomes a centre of resistance, that plays into [Putin’s] calculations too.”