A Bad Day in Kyiv

As Russia launches a sweeping invasion of Ukraine, a veteran correspondent wanders a capital where life, much gloomier, carries on

A Bad Day in Kyiv
A Ukrainian woman and her cat ride the Metro in Kyiv on the day of Russia’s invasion / John Sweeney / New Lines

It is hard to get a good night’s sleep in Kyiv these days. Last night I went to my favorite bar, tucked away behind Khreshchatyk, the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue, and knocked back a bottle of Italian red in despair. Some young Ukrainians worked out that I was a British reporter — it could have been the camel-colored duffle coat as modeled by Trevor Howard playing Major Calloway in “The Third Man.” We got talking, and when I showed them one of my videos poking Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye with a stick, a woman burst into tears. “They’re coming tonight,” they said — and they were right.

At secret police o’clock, old cobra eyes popped up on the TV to say that he was de-Nazifying Ukraine. Even at this terrible time that was bonkers. Ukraine’s president and former prime minister are Jewish. Not very Jewish, that is — I suspect they both eat bacon sandwiches — but for sure their heels don’t click.

You lay awake waiting for the crumps. Nothing doing in my bit of central Kyiv, just down the slope from the main drag. But Twitter said that there was trouble at Boryspil, the main passenger airport, and I called a Ukrainian friend who lived that way. She confirmed soft garage-slamming noises in the distance. The war was on.

In the morning, my first thought was that the Russians had not taken Boryspil. That was good news. More followed. Footage of Russians tanks with their lids blown off popped up on Ukrainian Twitter and then a Russian attack helicopter, empty, winged by a Stinger or some such, and it was possible to think that the Ukrainians were going to give Putin’s heavy metal a bloody nose.

I took the Metro into town, and a city monstrously on edge punched me in the face like a bully. Ukraine has lived for too long under the smoking Kremlin volcano for its own good, and the sick-think across government and society was nigh-on universal: The Russians will not invade, it doesn’t make sense, they don’t have enough troops, yada, yada. I believed it too.

So when Putin did roll the tanks, the despair of ordinary Ukrainians was all the more stark. On the Metro you could see anxiety scribbled on people’s faces, a mom slapping her kid who was doing no wrong, an old lady mystified while her daughter barked into her phone at a third party, tough men in combat uniform surging in and out of the Metro carriages as if there was a war on. Which, of course, there was.

Out of the Metro I wandered into a shop just to buy a bottle of cold tea. In front of me was an older man and, I presume, his wife. The old guy bought 10 packets of the same cigarettes and nothing else, his unique vice on vulgar display to the world. The woman snapped up every saveloy in the shop, anxiety-buying extra sausages. It was funny, but it was not amusing.

As the day wore on, Kyiv emptied of people and the news got bleaker and bleaker. Dozens of Russian helicopters were seen over the Antonov Air Base nearly 20 miles north of the city. One was shot down, the Ukrainians said. And the others? There was some kind of battle. Who had control of the air base? We kept on asking the Ukrainians the same question, hour after hour. The silence meant that the answer was not good. Eventually, they confirmed that the Russians had control. The Kremlin’s boots were on the ground and not so far from the capital on the very first day, though as of this writing the Ukrainians are still contesting the air base.

Then reports came through that the Russians and/or their Belarusian pals were knocking the Ukrainian forces out of Chernobyl, the poison factory that did it for the Soviet Union. Across the whole country, the news was grim, attacks on Odessa, Kharkiv, a punching through the old lines in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russian bully was giving the Ukrainian weakling a proper thumping.

In the middle of this, I phoned my pal, Semyon Gluzman, the first Soviet psychiatrist to blow the whistle on the state’s abuse of psychiatry and so a gulag prisoner for 10 years. Having watched Putin’s belligerent speech in front of the vegetables in his National Security Council, I challenged Gluzman to defend his position, that Putin was not mad. Gluzman replied: “He is not mad. He is like his friend, Hitler.”

That’s what the man said.

All is not lost. No one expects the Ukrainians to beat Putin’s military. The issue is if they linger for as long as possible, driving up the zinc coffin count to levels not seen since Brezhnev’s insane assault on Afghanistan, then there will be trouble for the master of the Kremlin. Likewise, if the West hits Putin’s proxies with effective sanctions effectively enforced, then that will hurt him too. So badly, he could fall.

The fear is that neither wedge of the vice will snap properly. The president of Ukraine is a comedy actor manque. The West and especially the authorities who run Londongrad fear effective sanctions, lest the price of property in Chelsea and Westminster starts collapsing, big time.

So the most likely outcome at the time of writing is that Putin gets to kill several thousand Ukrainians to cement his rule and the Zelenskyy government will fall to some ghastly proxy. I hope that it is not going to happen but, as someone who has been calling out Putin as a career psychopath since I investigated the Moscow apartment bombs in 1999 and war crimes in Chechnya in 2000, I am beginning to work out how to get out of Russian-controlled Kyiv in a hurry.

I hope to God I am wrong. I fear I may be right.

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