Dispatch from Kyiv: Fear, Frustration, and Fatalism
The weather is unseasonably warm in Ukraine, and the light in Kyiv this weekend has been lovely, but there’s only so much the weather can do to dispel the pervasive, ominous feeling. The months-long political crisis between Russia and the West, with Ukraine as the arena, has reached a critical point. More than 130,000 Russian troops have assembled on Ukraine’s borders. Some have started large-scale and live-fire exercises. The Russian Navy has positioned fleets along the Ukrainian coasts of the Black and Azov Seas, and even without a true blockade, their presence has already begun to frighten off shipping. Airlines are canceling service to Ukraine as insurers refuse to accept the risk—the Ukrainian government has stepped in as the insurer of last resort. Negotiations between NATO and the Russians seem to have arrived a final impasse, and the Biden administration has predicted that a major escalation of the eight-year-old conflict is about to begin.
A deeply frustrated Moscow remains intent on resolving its conflict with Kyiv and breaking the American-led security order in Europe. It’s a truism that only Russian President Vladimir Putin really knows which, if any, of the nightmare scenarios being drawn in bold arrows on countless little maps on social media and TV will be executed. He knows that Kyiv, even if it wanted to, is not politically capable of mustering the will or the votes to implement the Minsk II Accords, the 2015 agreement that was supposed to end the fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region, but has never been fully implemented by either side.
If the last-ditch diplomacy fails, Moscow’s only way to force Kyiv off its path toward an independent future and integration with the West will be via force. The Kremlin has closed off numerous paths to de-escalation and so will see its credibility on the line if it does not produce some sort of victory. But what would constitute victory for the Kremlin? Would Putin be content to take over the Sea of Azov? Would he be satisfied with occupying a single Ukrainian city, such as Kharkiv or Mariupol? Would it be enough merely to recognize the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions? Or does Putin intend to carpet-bomb Kyiv and install a puppet government?
There have been reports—still unconfirmed—that Putin has made a final decision and given the Russian military the final “go” order. While many Ukrainians and the more cynical among the unprecedented hordes of international journalists who have descended upon Kyiv remain skeptical of that assessment, the U.S. government is acting as if the MiGs could take off any minute. The tone of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s press conference Friday was alarming: Americans in Ukraine were told to leave immediately—there would be no cavalry coming to get us out once the shooting starts. Get out while you still can. We will not be coming to get you out later.
The Americans, Russians, British, Israelis, and Canadians have all partially or wholly withdrawn their embassy staffs or their families from Kyiv. The American embassy has been calling the American passport holders among my friends and colleagues here to advise them to leave. Around half of my colleagues from the Atlantic Council have relocated to Lviv near the Polish border. I will be among the journalists and writers who stay. The embassy has backup: Family, friends, and colleagues from around the world call and message and email, imploring us to get out.
Over the weekend, some of the political officers from the American embassy gathered at the Veterano Pizzeria, a popular place run by a Ukrainian Army veteran, to compare notes about which of their colleagues will be moving to Lviv and which would be going home.
The Zelensky government has succeeded in getting the Americans to cease using the word “imminent” about the invasion—somehow, “at any time” has a softer, more diplomatic tone. The Ukrainian military and intelligence agencies continue to insist that nothing has changed, and that large-scale preparations for a total invasion or bombardment of Ukrainian cities can’t yet be seen.
If Putin’s goal all along was not conquest but intimidation and high-stakes coercive diplomacy, are American alarms playing into his hands? “The centrally enforced departure of many Western expats from Ukraine these days is embarrassing. Most Russian politicians, journalists, and businesspeople on whose activities Russia’s regime is based enjoy freedom of travel and interaction,” says the German academic and Ukraine expert Andreas Umland. “Yet Westerners now have to pack their stuff and leave because of Putin’s mind games. It is yet another signal to Moscow that it can further escalate tensions.”
Even as many Ukrainians rush to join the newly established Territorial Defense Force—the modern-day equivalent of the Minutemen facing the British Army, intended to keep the Ukrainian volunteer battalions from fracturing in case the country is smashed into pieces—and stock up on water and food in case the electricity is knocked out, a large portion of the population remains unconcerned to the point of stoic delusion. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told over the previous two weeks that “nothing is going to happen” or reminded that “we have already been at war for the previous eight years.”
The Ukrainian political class, however, remains divided, with many seeing the atmosphere of hysteria as a way to put pressure on Moscow and consolidate Western support. Though no one wants to insult Washington openly, others fear that the United States is artificially intensifying the crisis beyond where it thinks Russia and Ukraine are prepared to go, either to force the Ukrainians to make concessions, or to deter the Russians. That said, the increased cohesion and vigilance among Kyiv’s allies has been a good thing, and more weapons have been forthcoming.
It’s still possible to get a one-way ticket from Kyiv to New York at about the normal price—not that I’m planning on it.