The Battle of Kyiv Begins

Fear of foreign spies and civilians taking up arms to fend off a slow-moving invasion

The Battle of Kyiv Begins
Children in the Kyiv metro station, hiding from Russian bombs / John Sweeney / New Lines

Around 4 a.m. I woke up to the soft crump of artillery. This not being my first rodeo, I grunted and fell asleep again. Eventually I got up, tried to buy some toilet paper — failed — made a few videos about the war on the Kyiv front line and then started my walk into the city center.

The thing is, the front line in Kyiv is nothing as grim as some of the war zones that I’ve ended up in — so far (but read on). The clock striking 13 is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has not thrown anything like his full heft of heavy metal at the city. Maybe he is afraid to blast this beautiful metropolis, the heart of the Rus civilization, to bits. He hasn’t sold his war to the Russian people. The gossip among the military attaches in the Baltic nations is that the Russian army is not keen on this war. All I know for a fact is that today it was hard to track down any fighting in Kyiv, the odd crump here and there was nothing like the artillery barrage I got to know from hanging out in Sarajevo, and no one has bombed me, as happened when I popped into Chechnya way back in early 2000.

From where I’m looking, it seems Putin may have made a miscalculation. He may even be in more trouble than I was when I got arrested today by the Ukrainian army and accused of being a Russian spy. But I may be getting ahead of myself.

I walked from my temporary lodging near the Olympic stadium into town, along Khreshchatyk, the great street of the Ukrainian capital. Halfway along, I start making yet another film for Twitter, when a tough-looking man with a very British accent pointed out that I was walking past the Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, and that is not a good place to be. I explained to my fellow Brit that the Russians are not going to hit the Ukrainian Parliament today — that’s for another day — and move on smartly. By the time I got to the post office building, the air raid sirens started blaring.

I then hurried along to the current home of my pal and fellow journalist, Oz Katerji, a British Lebanese reporter who reminds me of me, although, to be fair, he drinks less. War is terrible, but Oz offered me a cup of Earl Grey. Through the window we heard a big explosion — far off, but never a good sound.

We spend some time trying and failing to get a cab or someone to drive us toward the war and end up taking the metro to Arsenal station. Upon leaving the carriage, a tsunami of human misery washes over us. It was like walking along a train platform during the London Blitz except it’s 2022 not 1940. The sight of two sweet kids and their silly little dog lying on the platform, their home for now, is seared into my memory.

Fuck you, Putin.

On the street, we walked to the Dnipro River, edging north. I had to stop to talk to Jeremy Vine from BBC Radio Two — he’s upper-middle class but a vital conveyor to ordinary people in my country — and Oz moved on. As I walked along, I filmed myself and a couple of Ukrainian soldiers hovering near the Triumphal Arch to the Friendship Between the Russian and Ukrainian Peoples — no irony here, folks — before getting arrested, soldiers waving guns in my general direction.

The man who arrested me, Vlad, wanted my phone camera. I kept on saying, “Look at my Twitter banner!” which shows me poking Putin in the eye with a stick. Vlad was having none of it and whistled up his boss who scowled at me and started calling me a Russian spy. At this, I sat down and laughed uncontrollably.

But my case was inserted into military bureaucracy, which reminded me of BBC management, and we drove off to Ukrainian intelligence HQ. To be fair, the Ukrainian army gave me a cup of tea and a glass of water, and Vlad, a sweet and bright journalist in a previous existence, started googling me, finding me scowling at Putin, then Trump. Vlad then became my champion. If I ever meet him again, I owe him a beer.

After some back and forth, I deleted the images I had taken of the Ukrainian soldiers, said sorry for troubling them, which I was, and I was free.

Never mind.

At the time of writing, Kyiv was not being clobbered Sarajevo-style. I hear the odd explosion and artillery fire, that’s all. The electricity, the internet and I, not a fan of the Kremlin, are still functioning. And that makes me think that the man in serious trouble is not President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or even me, but Putin.

Goodnight from Kyiv and good luck.

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