In Kiev, there is a sense of determination – and foreboding

In Kiev, there is a sense of determination – and foreboding

The morning after the night before was one of bright blue skies and golden sunshine in Kiev. But the mood among many was sombre and anxious, after Vladimir Putin had carved away a part of Ukraine and rekindled the very real threat of a war.

This has been a turbulent time for the people of Ukraine, with the massing of Russian troops at the border and the constant warnings from the US, Britain and the west of a conflict to come that could bring devastating loss of life.

But, as the weeks rolled by without the eruption of large-scale fighting, and as Ukrainian politicians, led by president Volodymyr Zelensky, pushed back against western alarm, the atmosphere became more relaxed. Some of the people who had left the capital and other cities close to the border, like Kharkiv, began to return home. Shops and cafes that had hastily shut reopened.

The week began with hopes that diplomacy may, for the time being, have prevailed. Emmanuel Macron’s phone call with Mr Putin was said to have been positive. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was due to hold meetings with his American and French counterparts, Antony Blinken and Jean-Yves Le Drian, later in the week. There was even the chance of another summit between US president Joe Biden and the Russian president next week.

The calling of a special session of Russia’s Security Council in Moscow was, for those who took notice of it, slightly concerning, but it was seen as the stage for some sabre-rattling, perhaps as an effort to concentrate western minds. What followed in that session was extraordinary, and at times almost mesmeric, as Mr Putin – sitting in the vast room of many pillars, with its domed roof of blue and white – summoned his senior officials, sitting across the vast stretch of parquet floor, to give their opinions on what to do with Ukraine.

The main issue was whether to recognise the separatist “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states – something that would mean the end of attempts to negotiate a settlement, and which the Kremlin has not done since the two territories were formed seven years ago.

One of the most surprising and revealing highlights was when Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the intelligence service, was called upon to give his views by Mr Putin. Mr Naryshkin, generally known as a hawk, was asked whether he supported the decision. Looking ill at ease, he muttered that he supported “the LNR and DNR becoming part of Russia”. The president, who had irritably demanded that the intelligence chief “speak directly” on more than one occasion, curtly responded that this was not the issue, and that only the matter of recognition was being discussed.

Western officials had claimed that there were reservations among Russia’s military and security establishment about the military action the Russian president was planning. But understandably, that was not shown at the Security Council. A few looked awkward, but, one by one, they gave their support.

It soon became clear that the decision had been made to recognise the separatist republics. Mr Putin’s speech in the evening was impassioned, and at times angry, as he painted a dark and destructive landscape lying ahead.

Ukraine, said Mr Putin, was never a “genuine state”; its “corrupt” regime was a “puppet” of the US; and the country becoming part of Nato would be a “direct threat to the security of Russia”. Ukraine must stop violence against the “People’s Republics” or face “responsibility for bloodshed which will follow”.

This “violence” refers to false flag operations designed to blame the Ukrainian state for actions carried out by separatists. Ukraine has thus been given an ultimatum to stop doing something it has not been doing. The groundwork, however, had been laid for widespread military action – not just in the Donbas, where separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk have long talked of reuniting the region, but also on a wider scale.

Western states continue to insist that capturing Kiev and carrying out “regime change” remains Moscow’s real goal. Russia has been forced into action, the Kremlin could say; after all, it is the “US and Nato which has turned Ukraine into a ‘theatre of war’”, as Mr Putin declared in his speech.

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Standing at the Maidan in Kiev, where the protests that overthrew the pro-Moscow government of Viktor Yanukovych took place and started the process that has led to the current incendiary crisis, Olena Semenyuk spoke of her sense of foreboding about the future. As a 22-year-old student, Ms Semenyuk took part in the demonstration; she was beaten up and saw her friends seriously injured. “You remember what it was like at the time – the fighting, the shooting, the injuries, the deaths. Our country went through a great trauma,” she said.

“But at the end we felt it was worth it because we had a new nation. There have been quite a lot of things wrong since then, but we still think it was worth it. And now, to hear Putin, to think what his words could mean… I feel despair, but I also feel angry.”

The west has repeatedly said that Russia will pay a “heavy price” for aggression, but there is doubt whether the extent of the punishment would be the same for de facto annexation as for military action. Britain has followed up with sanctions on five Russian banks and three high-net-worth individuals. Germany has put on hold the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. The US is also set to announce new targeted sanctions.

Will this stop Mr Putin? Not according to some on the streets of Kiev. “They put sanctions on Russia after Crimea, after the Donbas all those years ago; has anything changed there?” Yulia Shapoval pointed out. She had gone to a town towards the west of the country with her three children after the first warnings of war, while her husband remained working in the capital.

“But the kids missed their father and he missed them, so we came back”, she said. “We will stay. This is our city, our Kiev – look how lovely it looks in this beautiful weather. We can just hope nothing happens to this place and our people here. I think only one man will decide what happens now; I hope he looks into his soul before he acts.”

Desk Team

Desk Team