KYIV, Ukraine – Shards of glass, pieces of metal and shell casings, the detritus of a fierce and deadly street fight in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, lay strewn across hundreds of meters of sidewalk. Bloody footprints trailed away from the site.
The fighting, part of a see-saw battle over two nights in northern Kiev, left Russian trucks and a tracked vehicle glowing on a highway. And it signaled that, although vastly outgunned, the Ukrainian military and a growing corps of civilian volunteers are mounting a spirited defense of the capital.
While military experts say the odds are stacked against them, for now the combined Ukrainian defense forces have defied expectations by slowing and in some cases halting the advance of the Russian army, apparently upending war plans. from Moscow. After three days of battle, Russia has yet to take any major cities.
The transition to a war footing was rapid, for some almost disconcerting. What just three days ago was a bustling modern European capital, with plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes, has slipped into a strange wartime footing faster than it seemed imaginable. Pickup trucks and cars with gunmen without uniforms careened along the streets. Checkpoints were apparently erected at every red light, with men and women in civilian clothes, carrying guns, stopping cars.
“When I heard the explosions I decided I was ready,” said Olena Sokolan, a businesswoman who received a gun to help defend the capital. “I am a grown woman, I am in good health and it is my responsibility.”
Newly armed civilians and members of various paramilitary groups fight under the loose command of the military in an organization called the Territorial Defense Forces.
“In the city itself, the territorial defense detachments work quite effectively,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian presidential chief of staff, on Saturday morning. “It turned out that people are coming out, defending their homes. This was not expected by the analysts of the Russian general staff.
In an army recruitment center where Kalashnikov rifles were distributed, several dozen men were busy. Before receiving their weapons, they were asked to form ad hoc units of around 10 men each and choose a commander, several of the men said online.
One group was dressed in a motley assortment of sweatpants and camouflage jackets, some in tennis shoes and others in hiking boots. But they all wore yellow armbands identifying them as members of the Territorial Defense Forces.
The new unit pulled out of the driveway of the recruiting center and headed into town, where booms could be heard throughout the afternoon. “Glory to Ukraine!” shouted the other men who were waiting for their guns. “Glory to his heroes!” cried the members of the new unit.
Men in their 20s to late 50s from a variety of backgrounds showed up. Igor, 37, an economist for an online retail company, who did not want his last name published for security reasons, lined up for his gun. He barely spoke in a low voice and his lips quivered. You could hear the muffled sound of bombs or artillery in the distance.
“I never served in the army or in the police or anything,” he said. He said he hoped he could figure it out. He was worried, he said. “But people who are really scared are sitting at home. They’re not here now.
“Everyone in our country must stand up – women, girls, everyone,” said Denis Matash, 33, manager of Milk, a Kyiv nightclub, standing in line with about 50 other men at the center recruitment. “I don’t think they understand where they’re coming from,” he said of the Russians. “Look what’s going on here.”
Grigory Mamchur, 40, who works as a male stripper dancer at the Milk nightclub, part of Kiev’s now closed but once booming nightlife scene, was also in line for a Kalashnikov.
“There was not even anything to think about,” Mr. Mamchur said. “We will defend the country as best we can. This could be our last chance. capture government buildings.
At the site of the 4 a.m. fight with Russian vehicles and possibly infantry as well – which took place along a central thoroughfare, Victory Prospect, and was less than a mile from the central square of Maidan – Ukrainian soldiers were already digging new trenches on Saturday.
The streets, deserted the day before, partly come back to life. People lined up at ATMs, stocked up on essentials, donated blood or went to sites where weapons were distributed. Air raid sirens blared every hour or so.
Regardless of the efforts, military analysts and even Ukrainian generals speaking out late last year acknowledged that the Ukrainian military was unlikely to hold out for long and it is unclear how civilians armed with assault rifles could prevent artillery from bombarding the city or Russian tanks from rolling through the streets. . After the Saturday morning street brawl that left burned Russian vehicles behind, Ukrainian Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksy Danilov issued a statement around 7 a.m. saying, “We stop the horde, as much as we can”.
But such assessments have not shaken the resolve of the citizens of Kyiv, who have protested or fought in their streets for independence twice this century, in 2004 and again in 2014.
Ihor Zhaloba, 58, a history professor at a Kyiv university and a researcher at the Institute of History of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, said all his family members were worried about him but no one asked him not to volunteer.
“My wife was worried; I worried; everyone is worried,” he said in an interview at the recruitment center. “But nobody told me not to do this, neither my wife nor my daughters. They all think I should be here.
Understanding the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is behind this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has become unnerved by Ukraine’s closeness to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
About a mile away, in another downtown neighborhood, two dozen men and women lined up to donate blood at the regional health care center.
“I’m going to donate blood, it’s the least I can do,” said Oleksandr Horbunov, 24, a programmer, who said he didn’t volunteer to fight because his parents were deeply worried.
“I believe in our soldiers,” he said. “They will protect us. They have resolve. Everyone does.” He added: “They said Kyiv will fall in two days, well, it’s been three days and I don’t see any Russian flags in the city.”
Iryna Koziienko, 42, a psychologist, said she had come so the nurses could “take just a little of my blood to support the bodies of my people”.
After the attack on Kiev began on Friday, she said: “Sometimes I’m scared, but I’m also angry. Do you see this beautiful weather today? It’s sunny, it smells of spring. The birds sing. I don’t want to have war on my land.
At the site of the fighting on Saturday morning, bullets had hit shop windows and a car hundreds of meters away. A tank churned tracks in the asphalt of Victory Prospect. The carcasses of Russian military vehicles on the streets of Kiev had taken on a rich rusty orange color and a pungent smell emanated from them.
Walking through this area created a clink, coming from pieces of metal cut from destroyed vehicles, shell casings, shattered glass, and other debris. Small pieces of human flesh were strewn across the site following an explosion.
A trail of blood spatter and bloody footsteps led to an underground parking lot, suggesting that a wounded soldier had crept inside.
Several families were sheltering in the parking lot, including an elderly woman and a man with a baby, sitting on mats covered with blankets in the parking lots.
Elena, 36, a human resources manager who did not want her last name made public out of concern for her safety, said she was inside the garage during the battle. She listened to the cacophony of pops and pops of small arms fire and thundering explosions outside. She didn’t know how long it had lasted. “It was an eternity for me,” she said.