– Man reading a book, surrounded by snow, at the Independence Square in Kiev, by Sorana Horsia, used un CC BY.
As Emmanuel Macron arrived in Kiev to discuss the de-escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the residents of the capital are trying to get on with their lives.
Every time we told locals that we came to Kiev for the weekend, they showed a mix of surprise and happiness. Some asked us if we were not afraid.
We arrived in Kiev on February 5. The same day American General Mark Milley declared publicly that the capital could be sieged within 72 hours if Russia decided to invade. For the past month and a half, Russian troops have gathered at the border with Ukraine, raising concerns of a potential war. If that is to happen, most NATO members are ready for a military intervention. However, some chose to be more cautious than others: the United States and the United Kingdom already asked their diplomats and citizens to leave Ukraine. One cannot help but feel a sense of panic when reading the headlines published by international media about the situation in Eastern Europe.
Saturday, February 5, 2022
On February 5, the city welcomed us under an unshakeable blanket of snow. In appearance, Kiev could be any other metropolis. Contrary to the image distilled from the international press, the city did not host a single demonstration and we could hardly notice any police officers (much less civilians carrying wooden training weapons preparing for a possible invasion). The city seemed jovial, full of life. Children were playing with their parents in the snow, some people were having coffee by the stands on the main street, others were strolling in the park, along the Dnieper river. Music coming from the street bands filled the streets of the neighborhood Podil, known for its hipster bars. The capital of Ukraine did not seem like a city on the verge of being invaded.
Nonetheless, the recent history of Kiev is anything but calm. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As with many countries transitioning from communism to democracy, it has struggled with economic instability and corrupt politicians, in addition to intense Russian influence.
In November 2013, it seemed like Ukraine was ready to distance itself from Russia, and sign an economic association agreement with the European Union. However, the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych decided at the last minute to suspend it.
Initially, people went out in the streets to show their disapproval of the president’s choice. What started as a peaceful demonstration ended up in unimaginable violence. By the end of November, the police started cracking down on the protesters at the Maidan square in Kiev. The size of the protests grew and evolved into what is known as the Revolution of Dignity. People started building barricades to protect themselves from the violence, while the government began passing laws restricting liberty of expression. The protests lasted until the end of February, when the president fled the country. 107 died. Students, young professionals, retired people – today, pictures of their faces are all over the city.
However, as any capital, Kiev is not representative of the entire country. Some people, especially in the Russian speaking region of Donbass, at the Eastern border, did not support the demonstrations, and were genuinely afraid of the escalation. Russian media took advantage of that and used disinformation to cause more fear. It created a base for the region of Donetsk and Luhansk to ask for self-determination from Ukraine and for Russia to illegally annex Crimea, while Ukraine was still recovering from domestic unrest.
Sunday, February 6, 2022
On Sunday 6, bearers of international flags gathered in front of the Red University Building in Kiev. Stuart McKenzie, a Scottish expat businessman, who has been living in Kiev for more than 20 years, organized the demonstration to show the international community’s solidarity with Ukraine. “We did the same thing when the Maidan protests happened,” he said.
Dozens of protesters with Belgian, British, Indian, Swedish, Swiss, American or Canadian flags marched through the streets of Kiev. Bob Hume, a Film & Media Teacher at Kiev International University, who arrived in the city in 2013, had two Canadian flags: one in the usual colors, the other in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “The immediate effect of amassing troops on the Russian border is confusion – no one knows what tomorrow will bring.” he said. But he deplored that many of their compatriots left the capital. “In these moments, staying home (in Kiev) has value.”
But this demonstration was definitely a “bubble.” Locals were watching it from the side of the street, some with admiration, others with bewilderment. International media swarmed the Maidan square, excited that something was actually happening in the capital. An American reporter approached a French student. “What do you think about your ‘Foreign Minister’ coming to Kiev tomorrow?”, she asked. That ‘foreign minister’ was Emmanuel Macron who was going to come to Kiev in two days, after his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
It felt like the media was there in search of shocking headlines, instead of trying to understand the situation. On Twitter, some local journalists were making fun of the alarmist tone used by international news agencies and criticized them for using misappropriate terms for describing the events. “For us, the threat hanging over Ukraine isn’t just a story we cover, it’s a story we live.” wrote Kiev Independent, a local independent newsroom.
Bob Hume has also observed how regional differences play out in the media: “The North American media has very dire predictions, and I don’t know if they’re wrong, they could be right. But when there is a crisis, staying calm has value.”
While apparently calm, the residents of the capital are not ignoring the international headlines about the Russian military at the borders of their country. “At the beginning they said that Russia will invade by February, now they say that it will wait until the end of the Olympics, to not steal the show from China.” says Maria Romanenko, a local journalist. The concern is real, but the truth is no one knows what will happen. So people choose to get on with their daily lives.
Most people pack a bag and keep the worry of a possible war at the back of their minds. Maria saw a wide range of reactions within her family alone: her brother is dismissive, her mother planned to hide at a friend in Lviv, in Western Ukraine, while her father, who has knee problems, is ready to fight, and even go to the East if needed. As for her, she says she wouldn’t be too good at fighting. Her potential backup plan is to join her boyfriend who lives in the UK. Everyone tries to deal with these uncertain times the best way they can.
Monday, 7th of February 2022
As we were preparing to leave Kiev, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin had talked about de-escalation for 5 hours. Some people we met wished that Macron had visited Kiev first, and then Moscow. They thought that this choice only boosted Putin’s image as the main decision maker over the future of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Apparently, some progress has been made. Vladimir Putin declared that he will take into consideration the proposals of the French president, but that does not rule out a potential escalation of the situation. As Emmanuel Macron arrived in Kiev, the situation looked slightly less dire. Only the future will tell if the French president succeeds in acting as the agent of dialogue between Ukraine and Russia.