Three days before Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine, Russia’s neighbour to the west was living in a tense, unreliable calm. On some level, Russia’s open aggression provides a reprieve and vindication for a people that have been on the defensive for years, ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“I would say that the general emotion most people have right now is annoyance and anger, annoyance with all of this tension, with all of this playing games. Mentally it’s very exhausting. And eventually, you don’t have fear as much as just anger and annoyance,” Darina Rebro, a Ukrainian journalist in Kyiv and contributor to the European Conservative said in an interview with this publication on February 21st.
It’s like someone you know takes you by your sweater and raises a fist over your head and he’s like, I will hit you. And he stands like this for three months. And you’re just like, either hit me or let me go. Do something.
At that time, Rebro could not predict what would happen next in the escalation with Russia. The Ukrainian capital had been carrying on with life as usual, in tandem with preparations for a Russian attack. The military had been offering civilians both weapons and first aid training so they could join in the defence of their country should worse come to worst, and citizens were stockpiling basic supplies.
In the early hours of Thursday, February 24th, the sound of explosions initially sent shock waves through the capital. As the orange glow on the horizon faded away, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky put the country under martial law and told citizens to stay home if possible, but also encouraged them to remain calm and have confidence in a Ukrainian victory.
Rebro said that the city was quiet earlier in the morning, except for those scrambling to make last minute purchases of food staples. Lines at supermarkets stretched into the streets, though everyone was calm. By late morning, the initial shock of the first attack had passed and more people ventured out of their homes, though the atmosphere in the city was tense and quiet. Grocery stores had reacted quickly and were restocking eggs, milk, and meat.
According to Rebro, a westward flow of Ukrainians followed the first Russian attacks, confirmed by reports of heavy traffic on roads to safer parts of the country and lines at border crossings into Poland and Hungary. Nevertheless, many Ukrainians have elected to stand their ground.
“The nation works together as a team,” Rebro said Thursday morning. “The police are asking people to report any suspicious person or item in the street.”
The government has also asked veterans to report to government offices to receive firearms. The citizenry, to their credit, have initiated their own operation of reconnaissance where possible.
According to Rebro, citizens are tracking the movements of Russian troops with their phones and posting pictures on the internet.
“So almost every movement of the Russian forces is well-documented. On the other hand, people are urged not to even dare take a picture of anything connected to the Ukrainian army,” she said.
She also said that many people in Russia and Belarus are against Putin’s attack on Ukraine and have been filtering information on Russian troop movements as well.
A map documenting simultaneous attacks on Ukrainian targets on Thursday morning made the rounds on the internet, but it had become so ubiquitous by midday that Rebro couldn’t confirm the original source. She could only confirm the reports of bombardments at cities throughout the country. Other media also reported bombardments in multiple cities.
“Putin’s strategy was to scare all the people simultaneously,” she said.
An official report from the Ukraine military went public at midday, according to Rebro, announcing victories over Russian military in certain areas, including the “return of full control” to the cities of Mariupol and Shastya, and stopping Russian advancement in the Chernihiv region. It also reported destroying Russian tanks, helicopters, and planes, as well as killing 50 “Russian occupiers.” The official Ukrainian report also stated there was heavy fighting in the Kharkiv and Kherson areas of Ukraine.
Russia has negated Ukraine’s claims, asserting that its attacks were only “precision” targeting of Ukrainian military infrastructure to “demilitarise” Ukraine.
Midday Thursday, Daria Fedotova said that the atmosphere was calm at her home, 20 kilometres north of Kyiv.
“We are fine, and I believe it all sounded scarier than it really was today,” she said. “We shall see how the situation develops.”
Fedotova, also a contributor to the European Conservative, lives at her family home. The family estate is, fortunately, upstream from the Kyiv Sea, an artificial lake serves as a reservoir to feed a hydroelectric power station, which is being guarded by Ukrainian soldiers because damage to it could break the dam and flood Kyiv.
She said five helicopters and a few fighter jets had flown low over her home in the early morning, though she wasn’t sure at the time if they were Russian or Ukrainian. She said that according to the official government report, damage to targets has been minimal. Both Fedotova and Rebro agree that Ukraine is much better prepared for this episode of open Russian aggression than it was in 2014. Since Russia started amassing troops at the border several months ago, Ukrainians have been hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, stocking up not only on food but also on weapons. Just before the Russian invasion, Fedotova was in the process of getting a gun permit.
“It will take some time, but why not? It is mostly with the thought of protecting against looters, stuff like that if something starts to happen,” she said in an interview on February 21st. “And again, this is a very popular thing to do now. It is said that it is a very good time for the arms sellers.”
According to Fedotova, a small number of those who could afford it, fled to western Ukraine or to Europe. Some large corporations were also moving their operations further west and offering their employees relocation bonuses to entice them to follow. Since the pandemic had already forced many companies to put teleworking in place, other employers are simply allowing their staff to work from wherever in Ukraine they feel safe.
Her family has opted to remain at home.
“We are staying here, because well, why would we leave? That’s the first question. Second thing is that we have this house, and we cannot really leave it without being afraid for its safety. So, we decided to stay because you see, leaving the family home is not something that we’re historically prepared to do,” she said, two days before the Russia attacks.
Previous generations of her family withstood the Communist revolution, though not without losses. What will be gained and lost in the present conflict remains to be seen.
Rebro said a certain Bible verse has been constantly repeated in the last weeks: “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbour’s boundary stone. And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’”
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.