A signal date—six months into the war, just after the death of a Putin propagandist—has everyone in Kyiv on edge.
As published by Foreign Policy by Jack Detsch, a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Mary Yang, an intern at Foreign Policy.
AUGUST 23, 2022, 5:57 PM
A year ago Wednesday, more than 5,000 Ukrainian and foreign troops made their way down the Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main drag, and past the Maidan—the square where Ukrainians rose up against the country’s pro-Russian leader in 2013—to celebrate 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union. Ukrainian Air Force jets, British Typhoons, and American F-16s flew over the city as delegates from nearly 50 countries took in the spectacle.
Today, on the eve of Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations, the streets of Kyiv are eerily quiet, officials said. After Ukrainian officials filled Khreshchatyk with burned-out Russian tanks and artillery pieces destroyed in the six-month war over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered members of parliament and government workers to be sent home and banned Independence Day festivities in anticipation of possible Russian missile strikes on the capital.
A European diplomat told Foreign Policy that some embassies were putting their staffs closer to bunkers and sending local Ukrainian employees living on the outskirts of Kyiv to hotels with bunkers to protect them in the event of a Russian missile strike on Wednesday, which will also mark six months since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“We all consider Kyiv the most dangerous place tomorrow,” said Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker from Odesa. “It’s absolutely impossible to predict.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv also urged U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine by ground as soon as possible, citing State Department reports that Russia could launch strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and government facilities. The alarm grew further after the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist and sometime Kremlin whisperer died in a car bombing in Russia over the weekend, something Russian security services quickly, and without evidence, blamed on a host of foreign actors.
“We don’t know what things are going to look like two days from now, [but] obviously we don’t want to see any more violence than we’ve already seen over the past six months,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CNN Tuesday morning.
The prospect of Russian strikes on Kyiv, the first in weeks, is also alarming Western officials, as the Kremlin has become increasingly reliant on unguided munitions that could overshoot their targets and hit civilian areas. The European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the security situation, said that Russia’s increasing lack of precision with long-range strikes has officials worried about possible civilian damage if the Kremlin does indeed put Kyiv in the crosshairs. Loading precision weapons for strikes, such as Kalibr cruise missiles, could take days, the European diplomat said.
There is precedent for Russia making such strikes. After Russia’s Victory Day parade in May celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory on the eastern front in World War II, Russian strikes pounded the port city of Odesa and besieged Mariupol, which was occupied by Russian forces just weeks later. Goncharenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker from Odesa, said that Russia had already closed off airspace on its Western border with Ukraine in possible anticipation of strikes. Ukrainian lawmakers said that Russia had also moved multiple launch rocket systems to allied Belarus, which borders Ukraine from the north, to be used in possible strikes.
Russia’s leveling of threats against Ukraine around its Independence Day is historically new, said Markian Dobczansky, an associate of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. In 2001, Putin attended a military parade in Kyiv celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. But in recent years, the day has taken on a more formalized expression of Ukrainian state values, especially since 2014, Dobczansky said. Russia’s latest threats “follow a pattern of Russia trying to intimidate Ukrainians and demoralize them,” he said, in keeping with its attacks on civilian buildings.
Ukrainian independence also marks an important date for Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians, NATO countries whose independence movements came alongside Ukraine’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, said Steven Seegel, a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Ukrainian officials, who already watched Western diplomats flee once before, are frustrated by the latest flight. One Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security precautions, said that Russian strikes on the Ukrainian capital were unlikely to target foreign embassies. But others think the security measures, including Zelensky’s decision to cancel public events in Kyiv, were prudent, owing to the possibility of Russian retaliation as Ukraine tries to take the initiative in a southern counteroffensive.
Others think the security measures, including Zelensky’s decision to cancel public events in Kyiv, were prudent, owing to the possibility of Russian retaliation as Ukraine tries to take the initiative in a southern counteroffensive.
“That and this car bombing in Russia, likely an internal action gone wrong, would lead to the idea that the Russians would lash out,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. The United States is also set to announce a further $3 billion military aid package to Kyiv on Wednesday, the largest batch of American assistance since Russia’s full-scale invasion six months ago, which is likely to focus on long-term assistance, such as providing drones.
“People are right to be cautious,” said Seegel, especially given the significance of the date, the six-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
Though Western and Ukrainian officials believe that Russia has already used many of its levers of conventional military escalation in six months of war in Ukraine, such as expanding the battlefield away from military targets to hit schools, hospitals, churches, theaters, and other public gathering spots, a second Ukrainian official said that Russian provocations could also target civilian and critical infrastructure, such as the energy grid, logistics facilities, and warehouses. (Russia took over a Ukrainian nuclear power plant this spring and keeps lobbing explosive shells at it when not trying to steal its electricity output.)
Sasha Ustinova, another Ukrainian lawmaker, said that Russia might also stage show trials for some of the captured defenders of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel factory, the besieged city’s last remaining holdout that surrendered to Russian forces in May.
A Ukrainian military intelligence alert said Tuesday that Russia’s shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, had raised radioactive dust clouds around the plant and caused elevated radiation levels in the surrounding area.
“They can do something like they did in Olenivka, where they literally killed all of our war prisoners and said it was a [U.S.-supplied] HIMARs,” Ustinova said. “The Russians don’t care.”
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, Twitter: @JackDetsch
Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang