War  Comes  to  Kyiv

Residents are facing nightly air strikes, food shortages, and the prospect of taking up arms to defend the capital.

By Joshua Yaffa

The New Yorker

A woman walks past an apartment building in Kyiv that was damaged in a missile strike on Saturday morning.Photographs by Emanuele Satolli for The New Yorker

The road into Kyiv is lined with military checkpoints, many of which are manned by local volunteers from whatever town the highway passes through. In the outskirts of the city on Saturday morning, I stopped to get out at one—an improvised construction of cement blocks and sand bags—and was greeted with wary suspicion by a sizable middle-aged man with a silver beard. He told me that he was a veteran of Ukraine’s war against Russian proxy forces in the Donbass region and, for the last several months, had been preparing for an invasion: gathering together other veterans in the area, securing supplies, deciding who would do what when the attack came. I asked whether he thought their makeshift barrier could impede a Russian assault. “We won’t just be shooting from here,” he said. “But from the houses, from the yards, from the basement—we’ll be spread out everywhere. We know this place. It’s ours.”

Closer to Kyiv, the checkpoints were manned by professional soldiers who seemed uninterested in wasting time, and we were quickly on our way. As we rode into town, the streets were marked with an ominous quiet. Kyiv was hit with missile and rocket strikes from the very start of Russia’s invasion, on February 24th; that same day, Russian paratroopers tried to capture a military airfield just outside city limits—an attack that was initially successful, then repelled, and then, if reports are to be believed, ultimately decisive. The northern suburbs have seen ongoing gun battles. It is clear that Russia’s invasion has little to do with the unresolved war in the Donbass, which had been seen as an obvious pretext, and is instead focussed on regime change. To remove Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, and install a pliant, pro-Russia replacement, however, requires taking the capital.

We pulled up to an apartment block on Lobanovskyi Prospect, a wide boulevard in the city’s southwest. At 8 a.m., a missile strike had torn through the building’s right side, leaving a three-story gash in its façade. Chunks of concrete and iron swayed in the breeze; every now and then, a piece of rubble crashed noisily onto the asphalt below. Glass dusted the street for blocks. In a way, the residents of the building were saved by how intense the nighttime shelling in Kyiv has already been: nearly everyone had left, either heading out of town or to spend the night in the neighborhood bomb shelter. Two women in their seventies who live nearby had come to have a look. One of them had heard that a family had, in fact, been inside when the building was struck—but they were already having breakfast in the kitchen, and the missile tore through the bedroom, leaving them unscathed. Didn’t scenes like this make her want to leave? “It’s terrible, of course,” she said. “But we’re sticking around to help.” A number of men in her neighborhood had formed their own self-defense unit. “If nothing else, I can make them sandwiches.”

Kyiv residents take shelter inside the Beresteiska metro station.

The fighting on Friday evening had been particularly nasty. “This night the enemy will use all the forces available to break our resistance,” Zelensky had warned. “This night we have to withstand. The fate of Ukraine is now being decided.” The impact of ballistic-missile strikes let off orange flashes all over the city; on Friday, Ukraine’s military said its forces had shot down a Russian transport plane carrying up to a hundred and twenty-five paratroopers near Vasylkiv, a city south of the capital. Russia possesses a fearsome and perhaps ultimately overwhelming military machine. But it seems that Putin’s invasion plans, which had posited that it could all be over within a few days, were rushed and hubristic. By daybreak on Saturday, at least, it was clear that Kyiv had not fallen.

We came to an overpass not far from the zoo, where Ukrainian soldiers had apparently repelled an attempt by Russian forces to infiltrate an advance force and weapons supply deep into the city. It was, by any measure, a terrible scene. Two burned-out shells of military vehicles stood prone in the street, with burn marks and shards of metal and glass trailing for half a mile. Twisted remains of explosive shells dotted the road. On the pavement, I saw pieces of what I thought might be flesh but tried not to pay too much attention.

Nearby, at the Beresteiska metro station, dozens of people had gathered to hide out from the fighting above. Near the entrance, I came across a group of three young people, and struck up a chat with one of them, Masha, who is twenty-three and works in I.T. The last few days, she and her friends have been in and out of the metro too many times to count, she said. “You’re at home, and the siren goes off, so you come here; you wait two or three hours, return home, and before you can have a real nap or meal, it goes off again.” They were tired, and freaked out, and looking to catch a train out of Kyiv; they even had tickets. A taxi was supposedly on its way to drive them to the station, but they had been waiting for hours. Masha told me that her main goal was to donate a portion of her earnings to the Ukrainian effort. In order to do so, she said, “I need a quiet and safe place for me and my laptop.”

A burned-out vehicle litters the site of fighting between

Ukrainian and Russian forces in Kyiv, on Saturday.

I took the escalator down to the platform, which dates to the early seventies, and is set off with a rather striking Soviet-era mosaic showing a square-jawed scientist and a muscular factory worker. Around sixty or so people milled about, most of them lying on blankets on the cold floor. The place had been packed the previous night, when missiles rained down, but it had thinned out as people ventured above ground to get personal items or groceries, which makes for an increasingly complicated quest in Kyiv these days. All restaurants are closed, and only a handful of supermarkets are open, all with lines that can stretch on for hours. That it is no easy task to secure food in a major city in the center of Europe, with a population larger than that of Rome or Paris, seemed as grimly surreal as the missiles.

A pair of three-year-old twins played tag along the platform, shrieking and giggling as they gave chase. Their mom, Victoria, said they had been down here for two days already. “I don’t tell them any fairy tales,” she said. “I say these sirens are for a reason, there are tanks, they are shooting, and you should hide in order to keep safe.” They had a small patch of concrete near a wall, on which Victoria had laid a number of blankets, along with plastic bags of food. Victoria told me that the girls call the air-raid sirens “the cows” because they think they sound like mooing. They already have an established routine: wake up, wash hands, brush teeth, eat some yogurt or pasta that Victoria boiled at home, and then read a book about dinosaurs.

The fact that Ukraine’s army has so far held out against the Russian invasion force seems to be a point of near-universal pride in Kyiv. Ukraine’s defense minister has declared that any citizen who wants a rifle can obtain one by showing up at official distribution centers and presenting a passport. Thousands of guns in the hands of everyday citizens scattered all over the city might not fend off an invasion, but they would certainly complicate any occupation. I went to have a look at one such center, set up on the grounds of a public school. A hundred or so people milled about; dozens of green crates full of rifles stood behind an iron gate.

Outside, I ran into two women in their forties, Olena and Oksana, who had signed up the day before. Each had an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. Olena is a university administrator; Oksana owns a wood-processing company. “Of course, it’s scary; it couldn’t be otherwise,” Olena said. But she had to do something, she said. Oksana said that her husband was in the Ukrainian military. “I couldn’t leave him, and my land, all on their own.” The two women, friends for years, had a buoyant, almost cheery energy. We stood on the street and talked about cities in Ukraine and Olena’s Cossack roots and old Russian folk songs—for a moment, you could almost forget about how absolutely terrible this all is.

The moment, alas, didn’t last. As the war drags on, Russia’s frustration with the lack of quick victory may translate into more indiscriminate violence. The prospects of wide-scale fighting inside Kyiv are horrific. At 11 p.m., Ukrainian authorities sent out an alert that, overnight, the capital was expected to weather the heaviest barrage of air strikes and rocket attacks seen so far in this long and awful week.

Joshua Yaffa is a Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker and the author of

“Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.”

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