KYIV – Three and a half weeks ago, commanders in the Russian army were boasting of how they would soon be performing victory dances and urinating on the monuments in Maidan Square – or as it’s officially known, Independence Square. The square in Ukraine’s capital, which embodies more than any other place the nation’s aspirations to break free from Russia’s stranglehold, was the epicenter of the Maidan Revolution in 2014. That swept a Kremlin-friendly president from power and brought about the election of governments which tried to draw closer to the West.
It was also the event that sparked a firestorm of Russian nationalism spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, who, determined to prove that Ukraine is an indispensable part of Russia, first sent his army into Crimea and then into the Donbas region. It was the start of the war that is continuing to this day and escalated when Russia once again invaded Ukraine last month.
Maidan was deserted this weekend. No one was looking at the comic panels describing the revolution that are placed around the white marble column with a statue of Berehynia – the Slavic pagan deity of life and death – at its top. The only people walking around the square were soldiers manning the massive anti-tank roadblocks, erected to obstruct the Russian armored columns that have not arrived, limiting traffic on the wide boulevard to a single lane.
The designer shops and restaurants around the square were all closed. The only sign of civilian life was in a grocery nearby, where a small number of local residents who had not fled the city were buying food. There was a warm communal atmosphere as they formed an orderly line to the single till.
The supplies to the city have greatly improved in recent days, after the first couple of weeks when there were more serious shortages. Most of the empty shelves now in stores are due to the absence of vodka and other bottles of alcohol, which are forbidden to sell under wartime laws.
Some packaged products were absent as well, with large sacks of potatoes and other produce in their place. Shoppers joked that it looked like the days of the old Soviet Union, except that then there was less to buy.
There was a sense of relief in Kyiv over the weekend. The dread over the past three weeks of the expected entrance of Russian armored columns was replaced by talk – premature, perhaps – of a Ukrainian victory.
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“We won,” announced Vitaly Dobrovsky, a marketing student before the war and now a volunteer with a Kalashnikov and a uniform – on which he had added a symbol from the "Warhammer" game besides the Ukrainian flag. “We won because all the Ukrainians, from young to old, joined together to fight. Now the bodies of the Russian soldiers are fertilizing our fields,” he said.
He was standing at a roadblock on one of Kyiv’s exits to the west, on the way to the suburb of Irpin that saw fierce fighting in recent days. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims that it managed to push the Russians back from Kyiv, but the army still isn’t allowing citizens and journalists near Irpin. Every few minutes, more vehicles arrived from that direction carrying civilians who were being taken out of the area. “The evacuation has been completed,” said one commander at the roadblock as they continued to arrive.
A group of gray-haired volunteers gathered around a lovingly polished Degtyaryov machine gun, with a drum magazine full of bullets. The Degtyaryov was first used by the Red Army in 1927 and would have been more at home in a museum rather than the frontline of a 21st-century war. “Stalin used this to shoot Hitler,” one of the volunteers laughed. “Now we’re going to use it to shoot Putin.”
Pushing the enemy back
Friday and Saturday were two rare, consecutive nights in which there were no reports of Russian rocket fire on Kyiv. In fact, there was a 48-hour lull following a rocket attack that hit a residential area in the Podil neighborhood in western Kyiv, killing one person.
The rocket fell on a square of muddy grass in between four apartment buildings and a school. There was a deep crater at the impact point, just 10 meters (33 feet) from one of the buildings. The casualty rate would almost certainly have been much greater if children had been playing in the schoolyard. It’s unclear whether the rocket was Russian and had been aimed at a military or strategic target and missed. The residents were not aware of a military base in their area.
The buildings around the crater were still standing, but looked as if they had been “shaved” of their outer walls by the blast. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko had arrived on the scene a few hours after the strike and made defiant speeches, but 24 hours afterward, besides the bomb disposal team, the authorities had still yet to respond.
Instead, large groups of local volunteers were working to remove the debris, including separating the valuable aluminum profiles that had fallen out of the window frames for future use, and help the residents temporarily patch up their apartments with plastic sheeting.
The nearby Sviatoshin neighborhood also saw missile strikes in recent days. The military target there is clear: the small airfield maintained by the Antonov Company. It is the closest landing strip to central Kyiv and can therefore be used both by the Ukrainian government for emergency flights and the Russians as a possible landing area for invading forces.
All the roads leading to the airfield are closed off by the military, and in this instance the roadblocks are manned by serious-looking regular soldiers, not the volunteers you see at some of the other roadblocks.
On Saturday afternoon, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, Col. Oleksandr Motuzniak, said in a press briefing that “there is no change in the enemy’s operations, and they are still regrouping.” He claimed that the “enemy has been stopped wherever they tried to advance and had been pushed back in some places – as much as 70 kilometers back around Kyiv.”
This sounded like an exaggeration, especially as soldiers on the road to Irpin said the Russians were just 5 or 6 kilometers away and the only rocket fire seen over the city that day was a salvo of Grad rockets from a Ukrainian battery in northern Kyiv, fired at Russian targets not that far away.
It does, however, seem that as far as the fighting on the ground goes, the momentum is now on the Ukrainian side. That doesn’t mean the Russians have given up on punishing Kyiv, though.
On Sunday morning, some of the restaurants in the town center reopened for lunch service after three and a half weeks in which their kitchens were kept busy making meals for soldiers. There weren’t many customers, though, and in the early afternoon, after a two-day break, rockets fell again – first on Sviatoshin, near the airfield, and then again in the night on Podil, where an empty shopping mall was destroyed.