Everything is normal — or appears so.
Outside the grand nineteenth-century city hall in Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine where Western embassies hurriedly relocated consular staff from Kyiv earlier this week, the streets are bustling.
Children squeal with delight as they try to master their roller-skates in an outdoor skating rink nearby. Their breath steams in the chill evening air. Young lovers kiss, some argue, outside restaurants and bars. Older couples saunter through the narrow streets of Lviv’s historic center, seemingly in their twilight years without a care in the world.
Lviv is much more a tourist town than the Ukrainian capital but there are few foreign visitors here now thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, travel restrictions and the talk of war. Outside a bar a couple of inebriated middle-aged Dutchmen, among the few tourists, linger outside the White Rabbit strip club, debating whether to enter. Their discussion concludes much more rapidly than the diplomatic wrangling over Ukraine, and they stagger inside.
Workers hurry home as the evening turns colder.
But everything is not normal on the eve of the day Western intelligence agencies had warned Russia might invade Ukraine.
“We talk about war and whether Russia will invade all the time,” says Anastasia, a 25-year-old waitress. She moved from a small town in Central Ukraine to Lviv for work, and because she loves the city.
Her face clouds when she talks about Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin. “I have family in Russia, too,” she says. “I hope he doesn’t invade; he won’t invade; he can’t; maybe he will,” she says, confused by a riddle that’s also bewildering the statesmen of Europe.
Anastasia shrugs — it is a very Ukrainian gesture, indicating not indifference, just stoicism in the face of the unknown.
For eight years, since Russia annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbas region in the east of the country, Ukraine has been collectively shrugging its shoulders — its way of enduring threats and alarms and not allowing fear to disrupt ordinary life.
And that is what it did as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, the day the Russians were supposed to invade. The country shrugged its shoulders and carried on undaunted. In much the same way it has coped with the coronavirus pandemic, aware of the risks but decidedly reluctant to offer the virus any concessions, like actually wearing masks or frequently disinfecting hands.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy declared earlier this week February 16 a Day of Unity, signing decree number 53/2022. He called on Ukrainians to fly flags and sing the national anthem in unison. Ukrainian government officials stressed that Zelenskiy was not predicting an attack Wednesday but responding skeptically to foreign reports about when an attack was likely to come.
“They tell us Feb. 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity," Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation earlier this week. “They are trying to frighten us by yet again naming a date for the start of military action,” Zelenskiy said. “We will hang our national flags, wear yellow and blue banners, and show the whole world our unity,” he added.
In Lviv, a city all too accustomed through its seven centuries of turbulent and often violent history to invasion and assault, Unity Day was a subdued affair. For most people it was a day much like any other. They just carried on, generally maskless, neither optimistic nor pessimistic: just fatalistic.
“Every president declares this day or that day a holiday, but it is not a religious one,” said Dmitry, a newspaper vendor at a kiosk near St. George's Cathedral. With a hint of exasperation in his voice, he added: “We are not unpatriotic, but carrying on as normal.”
Nearby at a cafe, Denys, a venture capitalist and equities dealer, says there’s normal and then there is “Ukrainian normal.” He asked for his company not to be identified in this article.
“We have lived with a crazy neighbor for a long time — some would say for centuries,” he says. “Until last week, we weren’t really worried. I think most Ukrainians thought this was just more of the same, not dissimilar to what we have seen since 2014,” he added.
“That changed last week because of an accumulation of factors — intensifying news coverage, embassies leaving Kyiv and airlines canceling flights,” says the father of a one-half-year-old, Mia.
Denys and his wife decided last week to relocate for a couple of weeks to Lviv. “It seemed prudent,” he explained as his blue-eyed daughter paraded around the cafe, dragging a blanket and chuckling. He and his partner and their families are originally from Donetsk, and they all left the city in a hurry in 2014, when armed Russian proxies seized the city.
“My company owns property in Lviv and we had a contingency plan for relocation, so we decided just to put it into operation.” He has never thought Putin would gamble by launching a full-scale invasion. “This has been more of an information war and maybe it will allow all sides to win: Joe Biden and other Western leaders being able to say they are peacemakers, and Putin able to present himself as the lone defender of the Russian people,” he says.
Denys plans to return to Kyiv Sunday, but he’s still scrutinizing the news to see if his hunch is correct.