Ukraine from the inside: "In Kiev nobody hoards food, there will be no war"
In the Ukrainian capital day-to-day life continues oblivious to the threat of a new conflict with Russia
Special envoy in Kiev"I don't think there will be a war, everything is calm here: people are not even hoarding food. But if Putin decides to invade us, we Ukrainians will resist: we are not ready to give up," says Natalia Volova, a 69-year-old pensioner who sets up a pickled vegetable stall at the market in the Livoberezhnyi neighbourhood in western Kiev. She explains that with her 5,000-hrivnia pension (€156), she barely has enough to buy food and that she grows the courgettes, aubergines and cabbage which she pickles and sells herself. As a young woman, when Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union, she worked in an electronic components factory, a time she doesn't remember with any nostalgia: "It was an assembly line and we couldn't even get up to go to the toilet. I didn't live well in Soviet times and I don't live well now: if I don't work, I don't survive, and nobody seems to care". She is in favour of her country joining NATO: "If not, who will protect us? We don't have nuclear weapons."
At the stalls, food prices have skyrocketed by 12% in the last year: a bottle of milk costs €0.90, and the average salary of a teacher in Kiev is barely €360. In the Ukrainian capital, with a population of almost 3 million inhabitants, everyday life continues to be free of the drums of war: the subways and restaurants are full, the supermarket shelves are well stocked, groups of elderly people do morning exercises in the snowy parks, and the atmosphere in the centre at night is quite lively, even if the thermometer reads two or three degrees below zero. Many believe that the diplomatic route will eventually prevail or that, if there is a war, Putin would not dare to attack the capital.
Social networks are acting as alarm amplifiers: people are sharing advice on how to talk about the war with their children or self-help tips to combat stress.
There are some 100,000 Russian troops deployed near Ukraine's borders, but after weeks of diplomatic manoeuvres with statements and counter-statements from the Kremlin, the White House and Brussels, many Ukrainians still can't quite believe that war is imminent. Beneath the tarpaulins that protect stalls from the snow, Dima Hadzhkiev says it is all being blown out of proportion. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital city, he says he has many friends in Russia who tell him that Moscow has no interest in invading Ukraine: Putin is just flexing his muscles. And Ukraine has no purpose in NATO, Russia wouldn't allow it and it would be a constant source of trouble." He says he is much more concerned about corruption in his country : "If the government did not steal, we would be so rich that NATO would knock on our door and not the other way around." Ukraine's president, Volodymir Zelenski, an actor who dabbled in political humour and was elected in May 2019 with 73% of the vote, has disappointed many people since he appeared in the Pandora' papers
Open front for eight years
And the fact is that for Ukrainians, the Russian threat is not new. Since the Euromaidan revolt of 2014 that toppled the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin annexed the Crimean peninsula and promoted the uprising in the eastern region of Donbass, where local forces eventually took power thanks to military and economic support from the Kremlin, which has continued to this day. Since World War II, Ukraine is the only place in Europe where a region has been illegally annexed by another country. It has had an open front for almost eight years, in what is considered a low-intensity conflict, but which has already left 14,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees. According to the latest polls, 67% of the population is in favour of joining the EU and 59% of joining NATO.
There are also those who have been swept up in fatalism, like Svitlana, 45, owner of a hostel that has no customers. "Many people are worried, but what can we do? The fact is that there are mountains of dollars in the world and they have to spend them giving credits to poor countries or selling them weapons. I don't even watch television anymore, because I don't want to get carried away by hysteria. What worries me right now is that nobody comes to the hostel: foreigners don't because they are afraid of war and I don't know if Ukrainians don't it's because of that or because they spent the money they had left buying alcohol for New Year's Eve parties", she says with a shrug.
According to a six-week-old survey by the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev, 33.3% of Ukrainians are ready to take up arms if the Russian invasion finally takes place; 21.7% would resist it with non-violent means such as protests, strikes, boycotts or disobedience actions, while 14.8% would flee to a safe zone inside Ukraine and 9.3% would leave country. Two in ten Ukrainians say they would do nothing.
Olena Halushka, an activist working for one of the many anti-corruption NGOs that emerged after Euromaidan, hopes for the best, but admits she is preparing for the worst, thinking especially of her 2-year-old son. "The democratisation process we have set in motion in Ukraine is a threat to Putin's kleptocracy. The Kremlin has drowned protests in Belarus and more recently in Kazakhstan in blood. Despite all the problems and weaknesses we face, we are making progress, such as the Anti-Corruption Court, which will soon publish its first sentences against high-ranking officials. Ukraine is a very big country and has a strong historical weight, a change here can trigger a domino effect in the whole region."