Lviv Prepares for More War While Sheltering Refugees

Bombs and displaced people both challenge western Ukraine

Lviv Prepares for More War While Sheltering Refugees
On March 27, the day after the city was hit by a Russian missile strike, Lviv residents relax at an outdoor cafe / Joe Raedle / Getty Images

I casually mentioned to the mayor that the town’s name, Truskavets, sounds vaguely Hungarian and, perhaps misunderstanding me, he was quick to note that this is a proud Ukrainian community.

As if this was ever in doubt. The highway linking this small resort town to the regional capital, Lviv, is festooned with billboard after billboard displaying pictures of stoic-looking Ukrainian soldiers, the blue-and-yellow flag, or — my favorite — QR codes for the Ukrainian Army’s Telegram channel in which you can confidentially submit intelligence on Russian troop movements in your neighborhood.

Not that there are Russian troops in this part of the country. Just a lot of (Ukrainian) checkpoints and military vehicles on the roads. And refugees. That cannot be overstated.

Lviv oblast (as Ukrainian provinces are called) is several hundred miles from the front lines of Ukraine’s now monthlong war with Russia. The region has so far avoided the horrific violence that has scarred areas such as Donbas in the east, the national capital of Kyiv, the country’s second city of Kharkiv in the northeast and the southern coasts. Instead, the oblast has transformed into a massive military staging ground, a refugee reception center and a destination-of-first-choice for people from all over the world trying, for one reason or another, to get close to the conflict.

As one Ukrainian who recently arrived in the city from Kyiv put it to me, “Compared to Kyiv, it is so normal here. Even a bit boring.”

She quickly corrected herself.

“But there is, of course, a war. Nothing is really normal.”

Truskavets is a microcosm of how the war is shaping Ukrainian communities far behind the front lines. The town of 20,000, located an hour and a half south of Lviv, is accustomed to visitors, who flock annually to the surrounding mineral springs in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. This makes it a sensible destination for internally displaced persons (IDPs): It is well connected by rail to other cities in Ukraine as well as neighboring Poland and Hungary, and its many hotels and lodges have thousands of beds that largely go unused in the winter off-season.

But accommodating so many IDPs at once has not been easy.

“We have 40,000 refugees, two people for every one Truskavets resident,” Mayor Andrii Kulchynskyi told me. He has not slept much in recent weeks, and I could see his phone lighting up with some request or military news bulletin every 30 seconds throughout our interview.

“America and Europe have been generous to Ukraine since the war started,” he said. “We need all the help they can give us to handle the humanitarian crisis.”

Andrii acknowledged that his office is struggling to sustain some basic municipal activities such as trash collection because the “war effort” requires so much bandwidth. He seemed to use this phrase intentionally since Truskavets’ role is not simply to host IDPs. Those fleeing the war arrive by train from the east and disembark while Truskavets residents load those same trains with humanitarian supplies to return to the front.

“I’m in a WhatsApp group with guys in the east. They’ll confirm when the supplies arrive, since we’re all afraid that Russian aircraft will intercept the trains en route,” Andrii explained.

The restaurants on the main drag outside the mayor’s office bustled with customers, some of them the more affluent among the IDPs, creating an impression of a tourist destination in high season that masks the town’s remarkable mobilization.

The central commercial plaza has been converted into a massive bazaar in which IDPs collect donations of everything from clothing to children’s toys and wet wipes, much of it provided by charities in neighboring EU countries. In an abandoned field outside town, they are erecting a field hospital, funded by the Dutch government, that will serve IDPs and help ease the strain on the region’s limited health care facilities. And in a small museum in the region, residents show up seven days a week to make war materiel out of craft supplies. The museum director, Nadia (certain names have been changed in this article), explained that on the first day of the invasion, she and her staff packed up all the museum artifacts for safekeeping.

“Then, we started to do our part.”

Nadia excitedly showed off several hand-knitted balaclavas in her crowded office before walking me to a group of grandmothers nearby who greeted me with smiles as they sewed camouflage nets. Nadia asked if we ever do anything similar in America, i.e., putting one’s homemaking skills toward a patriotic cause.

I nodded. In middle school, some of my classmates made a quilt for the victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka, I explained. It was to raise money for charity, somehow. I think.

“Oh. … These nets hide our tanks from Russian aircraft,” Nadia noted with an enthusiastic smile.

OK. A bit different.

Western Ukraine is often considered the historical heart of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In villages in Lviv oblast, residents proudly recall how nationalist partisans waged yearslong guerrilla struggles against the Soviets in the surrounding mountains. Today, even as the war is primarily being waged several hundred miles away, there is an unmistakable zeal among those in Lviv oblast to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression. As Vasily Irod, the head of Dobrohostiv village outside Truskavets, said with a broad grin, “If there were mountains in the east like there are here, the Russians would be done with.”

Zeal, of course, can be counterproductive. In this case, it causes traffic.

“In the first days of the war, every farmer with a hunting rifle was setting up checkpoints in the villages looking for saboteurs,” explained Viktor Tkachuk, who served for over 30 years as the mayor of Solonka region in the Lviv suburbs.

“It would take you one hour to travel those few kilometers from that main road [outside Lviv] to this village of Porshna because of all the checkpoints. … Eventually, people realized this was a problem, so now the checkpoints are fewer, and the army and police are responsible for [guarding] the important spots.”

Viktor was referring to the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), an ad hoc umbrella group of local militias that the government first sanctioned in 2014 and has rapidly expanded since the start of the Russian invasion in late February. The TDF operate under the Defense Ministry but the level of professionalization seems to vary greatly. In frontline regions such as Kyiv, the various TDF groups have been subsumed by the Defense Ministry and look like proper paramilitary forces complete with formal training, uniforms and weaponry provided by the government. By contrast, in rural communities in Lviv oblast they appear to be a more rag-tag lot that require little more than the approval of the local authorities to be considered “territorial defense.”

In Dobrohostiv, a portly farmer named Mikola explained that a few days into the war he approached Vasily, the village head, and asked for permission to organize the various vigilantes who had begun erecting checkpoints into some kind of semiformal outfit. “All over the country, we saw people were self-organizing spontaneously and calling themselves Territorial Defense Forces, so we decided we should do the same.”

Vasily chimed in to say that TDF members here do not receive military assistance and can carry only licensed hunting rifles. Mikola maintains a schedule so that each of the volunteers, numbering over 100 in a village of roughly 3,000, can rotate through patrols and checkpoint duty while still having time to look after their family or run their business. (It should be noted that since the war began, many of the town businesses have been repurposed, such as the poultry plant, whose main customer is now the military, or the village’s sole pizzeria-cum-nightclub, which houses several families of IDPs.) The TDF volunteers share information with the military and police in the area but, Mikola acknowledged, the relationship is not very close. Others I spoke with in Lviv oblast stated more explicitly that the military does not take the TDF very seriously here.

A poster calling for a no-fly zone outside a Lviv cafe. A model “Lviv smoothie” (i.e., a Molotov cocktail) hangs in the foreground / James Barnett

The raison d’etre of the TDF in Lviv, at least at this stage of the conflict, is to foil plots by Russian saboteurs. The extent to which such saboteurs are actually operating in the oblast is subject to much rumor and speculation. Everyone is certain that genuine saboteurs have been detained in the area, but details are hard to confirm. Viktor recalled an incident on the fifth day of the war in which some suspected saboteurs were caught by TDF at a checkpoint outside of Lviv city and handed over to Ukrainian intelligence, but there have been no updates since. Others speculate that the sporadic missile strikes that have rocked Lviv oblast since the start of the war were facilitated by saboteurs. Lviv police claim to have captured a spy whom they accuse of providing intelligence for the latest strike on March 26.

There is every reason to suspect that Russia would employ covert agents to destroy critical infrastructure in Lviv oblast. There is also every reason to suspect that wartime paranoia coupled with heightened Russophobia among the public would result in a lot of flimsy accusations of fifth column-ism.

In short, it will likely be some time before we get a clearer picture of what contributions the TDF have made to Ukraine’s defense. For now, checkpoints are a fact of life for anyone traveling through western Ukraine. Thankfully, in contrast to the first days of the war, many of these checkpoints seem to now be jointly controlled by army, police and TDF, with the latter playing a more auxiliary role.

“I’d rather deal with a professional soldier,” my Ukrainian colleague Alex remarked while driving back into Lviv one day. “When a kid has a gun, he thinks he is cool, and who knows what he does?”

It is hard to describe the city of Lviv, the cobblestone-paved capital of the oblast, without resorting to one of the now all-too-familiar phrases such as “relative calm in a country at war” or “refuge near the Polish border” that one sees in the international press. The city, which boasted a prewar population of three-quarters of a million people, has indeed become a refuge for over 200,000 IDPs from the south and east, but that is only part of the story. It has also been invaded from the west by an army of journalists, humanitarian workers, diplomats, adventurers, coy “International Legion” volunteers and at least one group of genuine tourists from Ireland.

Throughout my first week in the city, it seemed that the greatest risk I faced was colliding with another journalist. While there have been no Russian bullets to dodge, I have had to walk carefully to avoid being captured at an unflattering angle by an international camera crew deployed to one of the city’s many plazas (despite my efforts, I fear that my struggles with a messy kebab were broadcast on Romanian public access). On two separate occasions I was approached by a foreign journalist in a public space for a “man on the street” perspective, only for the poor correspondent to catch a glimpse of the press credentials tucked into my jacket, their eyes instantly reflecting a mixture of embarrassment and frustration. (“Don’t worry,” I wanted to say. “I just tried speaking broken Ukrainian to an El Pais correspondent.”) Not that there aren’t genuine challenges for journalists here — for example, finding alcohol in a city under martial law. But, as a general matter, one can pass the day in Lviv’s picturesque city center and renowned cafes as if on holiday.

I had leaned rather heavily into this “island of stability” theme in the initial draft of my first dispatch from the city, which I filed on March 26 just moments before two Russian cruise missiles slammed into an oil depot a couple of miles from the cafe where I was working.

Lviv oblast had experienced two missile strikes since the start of the war but none so close to the city center. Smoke billowed out over the cobblestone streets as soldiers, first responders and (needless to say) international TV crews rushed to the scene. An old lady carrying groceries hobbled up to me on the street and, gesturing in the direction of the smoke, asked me something in Ukrainian of which I only understood the word “bomba.”

Smoke billows over Lviv after a Russian cruise missile strike on an oil storage depot in the city, March 26, 2022 / James Barnett

“Ta, bomba,” I replied, at which she chuckled. She mentioned something about an underground shelter (I think) and then trotted along.

I spent the next hour on the northern edge of the city center, not far from the explosion, and witnessed a mostly business-as-usual approach from Lviv residents, who had grown accustomed to sirens blaring false alarms over the past four weeks. As if to wait out a thunderstorm, a crowd gathered at the entrance to an underground metro stop, but the cafes and plazas above ground remained relatively full. I got an alert on my phone that a second round of strikes had hit a military repair plant in the southern outskirts of the city, which concerned me more than the first explosion. Was Lviv really becoming a target?

The air raid alarm and attendant shelter-in-place order lifted around 8 p.m., which meant that bus service would resume and I could return to my apartment on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, my bus never came, and Uber (yes, it still works in Ukraine) was overloaded with requests, which left me trying to hail a cab alongside a friendly lady named Svitlana with whom I could barely communicate but who, I could discern, lived quite close to my apartment. We tried without success until another air raid siren blared, now less than an hour before the 10 p.m. curfew. Svitlana grabbed my hand and walked me around the block to an old apartment building to which she knew the entry code. I realized it must be her friend’s place and, sure enough, we were greeted by another older lady in a bathrobe who smiled and walked us down into the basement.

The makeshift bomb shelter was equipped with all the essentials: cushioned chairs, jugs of drinking water, icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and a power station linked to the upstairs apartment through which we could charge our phones. Besides Svitlana, me and Svitlana’s friend (Lesya), we shared the space with Lesya’s children, Ostap and Solomya, and her son-in-law, Oleg. We communicated for the next half hour through a combination of pantomiming, German (which Lesya speaks proficiently, and I speak less so), and Oleg’s limited English. Using FaceTime, Solomya also called her son, an English-speaking teenager who studies in Prague, and we had a three-way conversation in which we exchanged jokes about the Russian army, the closest thing to a pan-European language that exists these days.

The air raid alert lifted shortly before the curfew was set to go into effect, not nearly enough time to get home. “You hmmm stay wit us,” Oleg said. “Mother cook for you.”

So, I was treated to a night of hospitality far exceeding anything that I deserved as a foreign journalist bumbling around a war zone without functional knowledge of the local language. Dinner was excellent. Oleg poured copious shots of some liquor that he stored in a jerrycan and had to cut with water, and we smoked cigarettes late into the night as Svitlana and Lesya — both of them former opera singers, as it turns out — regaled us with folk songs and the poetry of national icon Taras Shevchenko. Throughout the night I wondered if there was something about my being a foreign journalist (they were somehow under the impression that the work I did was noble and selfless) that led them to open up their home or if this was some Ukrainian version of the “Blitz spirit.”

As I left my hosts’ apartment the next morning after a hearty breakfast and a round of embraces, I expected to see some visible changes to the city in light of the unprecedented missile attacks. On the contrary, city life was its wartime “normal.” Kids were playing in the parks, the sounds of birds chirping pierced the cold, clear air and old men sat around drinking coffee outside convenience stores.

After an uncertain night, Lviv again felt like a sanctuary.

It is tempting to take for granted that western Ukraine will be spared the full horrors of this war, particularly in light of Russia’s stalled or reversed advances further east. But the truth is that no one has any idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to do next. And that is frightening.

Most Ukrainians I’ve spoken to — whether state officials, militia members or ordinary residents of the oblast — are not worried that the ground war will reach Lviv in the foreseeable future. As Vasily noted, “The Russians would have to move through so many villages [to reach us], and we have seen that every Ukrainian will defend his village.”

The biggest fear is not even that Putin will repeat strikes such as the ones we experienced Saturday, which, thankfully, caused relatively few casualties. Rather, many Ukrainians worry that Russia might employ weapons of mass destruction far behind enemy lines to make up for their staggering losses elsewhere. Or Putin might twist the arm of neighboring strongman Alexander Lukashenko to such a degree as to compel Belarusian forces to enter the war from Ukraine’s northwestern border, just 125 miles from Lviv.

Toward the end of my interview last week with the former Solonka mayor, Viktor, at his wife’s quaint pizza parlor outside Lviv, a chain-smoking septuagenarian who identified himself as Anatoliy approached us and started discussing where he sees the war heading. He’s an IDP from the east, he said, a retired military officer who is too old to fight but is returning to Kyiv soon to work pro bono as an adviser to the Defense Ministry. (I cannot verify Anatoliy’s professional credentials, but, for whatever it’s worth, he offered a convincing overview of the order of battle on the Azov front using parmesan shakers and coffee cups.)

“Russia cannot advance much further west, and they do not have depth of reserves because it is politically unpopular [for Putin] to engage in the same degree of mobilization as we do,” Anatoliy explained to my translator in raspy Ukrainian interspersed with emphysematous coughs. “The problem is the air space. Russian missiles are failing a lot, and our own air defenses in this area are good. But if that madman launches chemical weapons, it will only take one or two successful warheads to psychologically devastate the oblast.”

Ostap Kryvdyk, the well-spoken “international liaison” of the Free Ukraine Resistance Movement (a militia that operates under the TDF) offered a similar prognosis in a small tea shop in the Lviv city center. “The war is not going to end in the next month or two.”

“Putin will not be willing to step back,” Ostap continued. “Russia is an authoritarian place where those who step back are eaten by their own people.” Rather than swallow the bitter pill of a stalemate in the east, Ostap believes, Putin will opt to save face and intimidate the west through an invasion from Belarus or a chemical attack near the Polish border. “Lviv will experience chemical weapons, absolutely.”

I had preferred to think that Anatoliy and Ostap were being alarmist. On March 25, the Russian Ministry of Defense delivered a public briefing that suggested an about-face in which Russian forces might limit themselves to focusing on securing advances in Donbas and the Sea of Azov coast. This had me feeling a bit reassured, until the following day’s strikes on Lviv, which is about as far away from Donbas as Paris is from Zagreb. Were these strikes a simple one-off message to U.S. President Joe Biden, who spent the weekend across the border in Poland, as some Western commentators have suggested?

Maybe, but you’d be a fool to take Putin or his generals at their word. Lviv is calm again as of this writing. But the war is barely a month old, and each day brings new surprises.

If anyone in Lviv needs a visceral reminder of the war, there is no better place to go than the Latin Cathedral, located just a stone’s throw from the city council in the center of town. Walking between meetings one day I stumbled on a funeral procession for a Ukrainian soldier, a native of Lviv, outside the cathedral. There have been several such ceremonies here since Feb. 24, and the cathedral’s stunning interior contains several memorials bearing the photographs of dozens of Ukrainian soldiers who have died in combat since 2014 — the year that, as any Ukrainian will remind you, this war really began.

A memorial for fallen soldiers in Lviv’s Latin Cathedral / James Barnett

Lviv oblast is in the second of four stages of mobilization, meaning that combat veterans and those in the military reserves have been called up while some 15,000 people in the Oblast have joined either the army reserves or the Territorial Defense, according to the head of the oblast’s military administration.

In attendance at the funeral procession that day was a cohort of newly enlisted soldiers. Most of them looked like teenagers. Apart from their uniforms, they were indistinguishable from the kids working in the coffee and kebab stalls in the plaza across from the cathedral. One acned soldier stood by the hearse, practicing the motions for placing the folded Ukrainian flag onto the coffin. An older soldier — an officer, judging by the sidearm — corrected him at one point, then smiled and patted him on the shoulder as if to say, “You’ll do fine.”

Lviv’s cafes and gastropubs are still open, but an entire generation of young men and women here are preparing to fight one of the most destructive armies in the modern world, in their hometown, if it comes to it. This is not “normalcy.” No one knows when any part of Ukraine will see “normalcy” again.

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