Ukraine wakes up to war

Ukraine wakes up to war
A deserted Kyiv on Thursday. / bne IntelliNews
By Neil Hauer in Kyiv February 24, 2022

It started at about 5am.

At that moment, a powerful explosion in the distance reverberated throughout Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. It was followed a few minutes later by another, and then another. For the first time since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, a major European capital was under bombardment.

News reports flooding in from across the country soon confirmed what those first missile strikes heralded: Ukraine was at war. From the north, south and east, Russian forces were invading.

The offensive began with cruise missile strikes against Ukrainian military facilities and airfields across the country, hitting targets as far west as Ivano-Frankivsk in an attempt to knock out the Ukrainian airforce on the ground.

Russian troops then launched a full-scale offensive from every available axis: In the north, a combined Russian-Belarusian force rolled across the Belarusian border in the direction of Kyiv. Other units punched across Ukraine’s northeastern frontier, attempting to encircle the city of Kharkiv, while pushing south to cut off Ukrainian forces arrayed against the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics in the east. From the south, Russian forces charged north from Crimea, approaching the cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv in a thrust that covered significant ground in its first half-day alone.

It was near the capital, however, that the most dramatic action unfolded. In the early morning, waves of Russian attack helicopters flooded south from Belarus, heading to an airfield just west of Kyiv. Russian paratroopers seized Antonov airport, pushing back Ukrainian forces and attempting to establish a beachhead for an air bridge. Later that day, a dozen Russian Ilyushin heavy transports took off heading for the airport, bringing hundreds of reinforcements as well as armoured vehicles (though it is not clear if they successfully arrived).

At the time of writing, heavy battles were occurring into the night, as Ukrainian troops launched a ferocious counterattack aimed at capturing the pocket and ending the immediate threat to the capital.

Kyiv itself, meanwhile, was nearly unrecognisable.

On a normally bustling Thursday afternoon, the city’s streets were near-deserted. A few cars were all that populated Khreshatyk street, the main central thoroughfare, which is normally packed with traffic. Shops were almost entirely shuttered, while bank machines – either out of order or dispensing only small amounts of cash – were the centre of attention for the meagre flow of pedestrians.

In the one supermarket open near the street’s end, downcast shoppers loaded up on essentials and non-perishable goods, filling their baskets while still staring at their phones for the latest updates. “This is just a nightmare,” one woman whispered to her friend.

The war was tangibly drawing nearer, too. At mid-afternoon, an air-raid siren suddenly began to wail, triggering a mass flight to the nearby metro station – at 100m deep, a suitable bomb shelter. People clambered down the long escalator and sat long-faced in the cavernous hallway beneath. Later into the evening, these stations would become filled, playing host to hundreds of people escaping the possibility of more Russian missile strikes.

Putin had made it clear he was not interested in diplomacy on Monday, when a raving speech against Ukraine’s sheer existence ended with Russia officially recognising the two separatist republics. Still, few in Ukraine thought it would come to this.

“Were those really explosions?” asked one store clerk early in the morning, following the initial strikes.

“How can they be striking Kyiv? This is a city!” another middle-aged woman said. Neither seemed to really believe this was their new reality.

Ukrainians had hardly expected this. For eight years they had already been at war with Russia, as they saw it. Maybe some new flare-up in the east might occur, but surely that would be it.

The mood began to change on Monday evening, following the Russian recognition of the two separatist republics, something most realised was a dangerous new step. The Ukrainian authorities, too, changed their tune around that time, from one of maintaining calm to urgent preparation.

On Thursday, the shift was complete. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged all willing citizens to ‘take up arms’ in defence of the country, announcing that weapons would be distributed to all who wished. Other units kicked into gear as well, with booths from paramilitary groups such as Right Sector visible on Khreshatyk, organising further volunteers for resistance.

In the fog of war, meanwhile, little was clear on the front. Reports emerged of major cities such as Sumy in the northeast or Kherson in the south falling to Russian forces, only to be corrected hours later. A feared amphibious assault on Odessa, the southwestern port city, had not yet materialised despite bombardment on nearby positions. 

What did seem clear, however, was that Russia had not yet committed the full strength of its forces. While they had taken losses, a pair of Russian armoured columns continued to advance towards the capital, taking the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) as they moved towards an apparent double encirclement of the capital.

Western defence officials were not optimistic about Kyiv’s defences: most estimates placed the fall of the city in days, if not sooner. The Kremlin, for its part, issued its first call for Ukraine’s government to discuss ‘terms of surrender’, largely unconditionally.

In central Kyiv, meanwhile, there was little to do except sit and wait. As the city’s new 10pm curfew fell, none of the city’s residents could say what would come next – except more war.