Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

War Paranoia Rises Amongst Kiev Residents

Although unrest has been focused on eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, some in the capital live in fear of imminent conflict.
  • Although Kiev is far removed from the trouble in eastern Ukraine, many residents are quietly preparing for the worst. (Photo: John MacLeod)
    Although Kiev is far removed from the trouble in eastern Ukraine, many residents are quietly preparing for the worst. (Photo: John MacLeod)

Svitlana Zubritska, a stay-at-home mother to a 12-year-old daughter, says she has always thought of herself as a reasonable person and not inclined to panic.

But earlier this year, for the first time in her life, she found herself packing an emergency kit for her family in case they needed to escape from Kiev.

Although the capital is hundreds of kilometres away from the unrest in parts of Ukraine's southeast, the conflict there and fears of a possible Russian invasion has had a dramatic impact on many Kiev residents.

Some are suffering mental distress, and are packing bags in case they have to evacuate their homes, while others have bought firearms to protect themselves and their families. Many people say they are putting off plans for travel or major purchases until they can be sure the situation in their country has stabilised.

After the first fatalities in clashes between protesters and police in late January during the Maidan demonstrations in Kiev, Zubritska began ensuring her car always had a full tank of petrol as well as keeping a stock of food ready at home.

“That would enable us to stay in our house for up to a week,” she explained. “At that moment, there was a risk of a state of emergency [being declared] and also the possibility of mass unrest since the authorities had brought in plenty of thugs to the city.”

Her fears grew at the end of February when President Viktor.Yanukovich fled to Russia, and Moscow began its military incursion in the Crimean peninsula.

“We suddenly found ourselves in a state of war. It was unclear whether Russia was about to move further into Ukraine,” said Zubritska.

Although she was born in Russia, speaks the language and identifies herself as Russian, she was horrified by the prospect of seeing soldiers loyal to the Kremlin in Ukraine.

“We live near the main Moscow-Kiev road. If Russia sent its military into Ukraine, the tanks would come along this road,” she said.

At that point, Zubritska began making serious preparations. She packed chocolate bars, bottles of water, cereals, biscuits and sausage, as well as outdoor kit including matches, lighters, flashlights, and sleeping bags and mats. In addition, she assembled a large medical kit including antibiotics, bandages and sedatives.

“We don’t keep our bags fully packed, but all those items are placed in such a way that I can pick everything up and pack within half an hour,” Zubritska explained.

“During the anti-government protests, our aim was to be self-reliant for a few days if the situation deteriorated. But when the Crimean occupation started, I thought that anything could happen – we might even have to go on foot to the western border. That’s when it was the scariest,” she said.

A recent survey carried out by the respected Democratic Initiatives Foundation found that many Ukrainians feared an “invasion of Ukraine or part of its territory by a foreign state”. Nationwide, nearly half of those questioned – 48 per cent – said they felt this was one of the biggest threats to this former Soviet republic of 45 million people. In the west and centre of the country, the figures were 63 and 50 per cent, respectively.

For some, Russia’s Crimean incursion and annexation has revived memories of the Second World War, in which Ukraine lost nine million people.

“Our grandparents used to say, ‘God forbid that there should be war’, and I always took that as just talk. But during the three last months it has become my main preoccupation,” said Olga Dekush, a 37-year old Kiev resident. She has two children and runs a photography studio together with her husband.

“When it all started in Crimea, I was on the brink of madness for two weeks. Then we cooled down and realised that the only thing we could do if the Russians invaded the rest of Ukraine was to flee to Europe,” Dekush continued. “We have visas. The border [with Poland] is at least 500 kilometres from Kiev, so under normal circumstances we should have time to reach the EU by car.

“We were extremely afraid that a full scale war was about to start. Russia was sending its military to the eastern Ukrainian border. Our army was incapable of repelling a possible attack. And we all know the horrors that Russian soldiers commit on occupied territory – bombings, ‘cleansing’ the local population, and looting,” she added.

Dekush and her husband Maxim packed their bags in mid-March, complete with the tools of their trade – photographic equipment and computers. They also prepared a tent, sleeping bags, and basic food supplies as well as sets of summer and winter clothing.

“We understood that if we fled as refugees, we might never come back. I was standing in front of the open wardrobe thinking I needed to take everything and feeling completely hysterical,” Dekush said. “Now it’s all in packed bags standing in the hallway. It would take us only 15 minutes to put everything in the car and leave,” she said.

At the beginning of the unrest, Dekush followed the news constantly, watching TV and checking internet sites, but at the beginning of April she decided to put a stop to this.

“I was sick with stress, I could not eat, drink or sleep,” she said. “I feel better now, but we haven’t unpacked anything. My husband is continuing to monitor the news and our friends in Germany are ready to receive us at any moment.”

Kostyantin, a 33-year-old designer who did not want his full name to be used, has gone even further. He has bought a Kalashnikov rifle and started to take shooting lessons from a former special services officer. His weapon has been modified from military to hunting use and can therefore be legally owned by a private individual.

It took him a month to get all the necessary paperwork and some 1,000 US dollars to buy the gun, about three times the average salary in this country.

Despite the high prices, a brisk trade in firearms and ammunition has sprung up in Kiev in recent months, and some prospective customers have to join a waiting list for weapons.

“My logic was that if Russia sends troops into eastern Ukraine, people will flee and so will we,” said Kostyantin, who has a ten-year-old son. “Those who flee may be attacked by looters. This weapon is no good for war, but it could be useful to scare off bandits,” he explained. “I simply want to protect my family and I hope I will not have to do this.”

Even if many Ukrainians have not gone as far as arming themselves or preparing to escape, the fear of war has seriously slowed down economic activity across the whole country.

According to Hlib Vyshlinsky, deputy managing director of the GfK Ukraine market research agency, “It has most seriously affected domestic demand for products and services that are not primary needs, like household appliances, electronic devices, cars and tourism.”

Several Kiev residents told IWPR that they were postponing major purchases until the situation calmed down.

“It’s impossible to make any plans for the future,” said Zubritska. “We wanted to fly to Turkey at the beginning of May, but we dropped the idea in the end because it was unclear whether we’d be able to come back.”

Vyshlinsky said he had taken some steps including cutting family expenditure and keeping larger amounts of cash readily available. However, he still considers full-scale war unlikely.

“Putin isn’t a military man, he’s a KGB agent, and his goal is not to make war but to destabilise the situation in Ukraine,” Vyshlinsky said. “He aims to discourage opposition protests in Russia and to convince Russians that a revolution can bring no good to a country. That’s why he’s stirring up the unrest and bloodshed that we have seen in eastern Ukraine and Odessa.”

Anya Tsukanova is a journalist in Kiev.