She looked 80 – a frail and slight old grandmother who stood barely five feet. So when she first approached me as I stood on a Kyiv street corner, I flashed a reassuring smile.
It was not returned. “Where are you from, and what are you doing in Ukraine?” she crisply inquired. “Show me your passport please.”
As my smile began to fade, I noticed she had her mobile phone in her hand, already connected to a commander at the local Kyiv police unit.
And just in case they didn’t get there fast enough, in her other hand was a two-foot long police truncheon.
It is not often that elderly ladies in pink, fur-lined anoraks double as secret police. But in Kyiv right now, hers were just one of the many sets of eyes and ears on the look-out for strangers, lest they be Russian “saboteur groups” trying to infiltrate the city. After a business-like scan of my passport, she smiled curtly and I was on my way.
The nerves are understandable. As the Russian siege of Kyiv nears the end of its first week, the Ukrainian capital is now a ghost town, a city of three million reduced to near silence, save for air-raid sirens and the occasional thump of Russian ordnance. The vast, Soviet-era boulevards are eerily empty, like a lockdown with menaces.
Meanwhile, waiting outside town like some enormous, malevolent millipede, is a column of Russian armour. It contains missile launchers, ground attack helicopters and tens of thousands of troops, and is nearly big enough to be seen from space: it stretches some 64km, covering the entire road from near Antonov airport outside Kyiv to the town of Prybirsk. There is little doubt that it is to be used to complete the Russian stranglehold around the Ukrainian capital, although last night it remained 30km north of the city centre.
For reasons no one is quite sure of, Ukrainian forces, who have given their Russian counterparts several unexpected bloody noses in recent days, have not yet tried to counter-attack it. Some put this down to the talks which the two sides held on the Belarusian border on Friday, which may reconvene on Monday. Others, though, think the Ukrainians fear that if they attack the column before it reaches Kyiv, Mr Putin will use it as an excuse to simply flatten Kyiv altogether. A snowy high noon appears to beckon.
Amid signs that their land advances have been slowing, Russian forces have also been attacking from afar. In the cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv, north and east of Kyiv, at least 10 people were killed and 35 more injured after intensive Russian shelling. Video footage from Kharkiv showed Russian munitions, including cluster bombs, peppering an area of residential housing blocks, and the city’s opera house and concert hall were also hit.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence said yesterday that the increase in artillery fire was probably down to the “logistical difficulties” the Russians were facing on the ground, including shortages of food and fuel.
Kyiv is now also bracing itself to face the same fate as Kharkiv and Chernihiv.
Yesterday afternoon, Russian forces aimed several rounds at the city’s main television tower, destroying it, along with several buildings.
Shortly beforehand, the Russian military had warned in advance that it would be shelling unspecified communications towers used by Ukrainian military intelligence, advising civilians to evacuate nearby homes.
However, it failed to specify which ones and, in the end, fired several blasts at the city’s main television tower, killing at least five civilians nearby. Social media footage showed charred corpses lying near a wrecked building.
The shelling is just one reason why Kyiv remains on high alert for Russian saboteurs, who carry out tasks including identifying targets and guiding in artillery. Others, they say, have been caught driving around with cars filled with weapons and land mines.
The saboteur strategy has backfired, however, in that it has made local security forces hyper-vigilant. They change their own truck markings regularly, to prevent Russian saboteurs imitating them, and check any vehicle deemed remotely suspicious.
Yet, despite the horrors of a conflict that Ukrainian officials say has now killed 352 of their people, including 16 children, some aspects of life in Kyiv remain jarringly normal. For example, to travel into this war zone, there is no need to take an armoured car. Instead, one can just buy a ticket for the Kyiv Express.
Despite the fighting nationwide, the regular train connecting Kyiv to the city of Lviv near the Polish border is still running daily, mainly ferrying refugees to Europe. It then returns to Lviv virtually empty.
Also still operating – for now anyway – are many supermarkets, despite reports that the city is running short of food. At one in downtown Kyiv, queues were very long, but it was still possible to buy everything from fresh fruit through to caviar and carp.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is said to be angry at the way the invasion is progressing, with no substantial victories under the Russians’ belts to date.
Moscow has now sent nearly four-fifths of its pre-staged troops into Ukraine and launched more than 400 missiles on Ukrainian targets, but still does not have any major cities under its control.
After the crippling economic sanctions that his invasion has prompted, the Russian leader may now feel has little more to lose. Reports from the US indicate he has been lashing out at his inner circle, trying to find a scapegoat. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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