KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainians have woken up unsure whether February 16, 2022 should be a date that will live in infamy. Or maybe in unity. Or maybe it would just mark another day of the overwhelming geopolitical intrigue they’ve been enduring for months.
For the most part, the day – which some breathless commentators had almost declared to be the date on which Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine – looked like an ordinary Wednesday.
“I have to go to work, that’s all,” said Oleksander, a Kyiv retail manager walking down a street in central Kyiv, who declined to give his last name to protect his privacy. “My wife has to work. And then we’ll meet over coffee.
Oleksander had heard of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for Ukrainians to take control of the date by turning it into ‘Unity Day’, raising flags and singing the national anthem in squares and sidewalks at 10 a.m. He didn’t think he would have time. “He’s actually been busy lately.”
In Kiev’s trendy Podil district, predictions of impending war left Anastasia Kuznetsova puzzled.
“Everybody talks about the war and what’s going to happen and blah blah blah. But for people who work, it’s the same thing. Just an ordinary day,” she told the 24-year-old, who was wearing headphones and working with a vape pen.
Kuznetsova kept a nervous eye on the value of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, as it slid against the dollar and other currencies. So far, its purchasing power has not been eroded. She believes the stalemate that continues indefinitely is far more likely than a full-scale Russian attack, despite the widespread hype.
“Some magazines and such are saying war is coming, but what we see now is just people trying to scare another country,” she said. “But all is calm here.”
Where was it? Maybe not as quiet as it looked, theorized Valera Klymenko, who was reading a nearby exhibit about the history of the neighborhood, one of Kiev’s oldest. The 60-year-old believes his fellow Ukrainians are feeling the heat of the Russian threat despite the cold front they display for each other and the world.
“People are scared inside,” he said.
Like many Ukrainians, Klymenko was following developments. He knew that the Russians had announced that the troops were being withdrawn from the border, but NATO had not yet confirmed a significant withdrawal. Targeted cyberattacks against Ukrainian companies and agencies were still ongoing. He saw predictions that the fighting would start early in the morning.
And were you able to sleep the night before the “day of the invasion”, Mr. Klymenko?
“Of course,” he said.
As 10 a.m. approached, there were few signs that a massive display of patriotism was about to unfold.
Maidan Square, Kiev’s central square that was the cradle of mass protests in 2014 that toppled Ukraine’s last pro-Russian government, had been draped in a huge Ukrainian flag. But the space was empty except for a group near the subway entrance gathered around a portable speaker.
Someone distributed handmade posters – “Ukraine is united” and “Unity equals love”. By the time the first strains of the national anthem began playing, around 100 people had gathered. They sang together in the cold as reporters watched, and two drones buzzed overhead. A car issued a note of solidarity at the wheel.
Anastacia Kuleba, 27, said she answered Zelenksy’s call to form patriotic “flash mobs” because she wanted Russia to know Ukrainians would not be intimidated.
“Ukrainians are united,” said Kuleba, who was forced to flee the eastern city of Donetsk in 2014, the area now controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. Since then she has lived in my many parts of the country, but never again in her house in the East. “My story is the story of Ukraine.”
She didn’t think a battle was likely anytime soon, based on her experience with a near-surprise attack by Russian-backed forces eight years ago.
“There’s not all this talk,” Kuleba said. “It starts in silence.”
The scene was repeated in places across the country, usually at protests organized by government agencies. Employees of the Ministry of Youth and Sports unfurled a Ukrainian flag 200 meters around the track of the Olimpiysky National Sports Complex.
Schools called assemblies for students to sing the anthem while holding blue and yellow balloons – the colors of the Ukrainian flag. In the far western city of Lviv, about two dozen government office workers came out to sing in traditional Ukrainian attire.
In Ukraine’s national parliament, small business owners who have rallied for weeks to oppose possible changes to the country’s tax and retail laws, broke off their protests to join in the moment of unity on Wednesday morning.
“We sang the anthem first as Ukrainians,” said one of the protesters. “But we still have to fight for our businesses.”
Yes, the threat of war is a concern, said protester Yana Kuchery. But even Russia is not the main concern of Ukrainians struggling to recover from the pandemic, inflation, soaring electricity bills and the prospect of higher taxes.
Kuchery, a cafe owner in Kyiv, said US and European leaders had made it harder for Ukrainians by withdrawing embassy staff and stoking fears of invasion.
“If you want to support Ukraine, why leave? she asked. “You should be here today on Unity Day.”
No one seemed to mark the moment of unity around Kiev’s iconic Golden Gate, site of one of the city’s medieval fortifications.
Ksenia Narozhnaya, a single mother of two, was killing time on a bench before a doctor’s appointment. She had considered staying home, just in case.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should stay home with the kids today? “, She said. “But then you turn on your brain and think, ‘Wait, the whole world says the invasion is happening on the 16th, which means it definitely won’t happen on the 16th. “”
Narozhnaya said she wasn’t swept away by Zelensky’s plans for Unity Day, but his message to keep calm resonated with her. Her 14-year-old son came home from school recently, fearing war would start soon.
Narozhnaya showed her three bags she keeps by the door – one with money, one with important documents, and one with food and some toys. If anything happens, she told him, he should grab his 4-year-old sister and go to their neighborhood church bunker. If mom isn’t there, then he would have to wait there for several days. If they are separated, they should meet at the local park the following Wednesday.
The tension with Russia is particularly personal for Narozhnaya. She grew up in Donetsk. His parents still live there, and it is difficult to see them with limited travel in and out of the self-declared republic. There is also the emotional distance. Her parents are sympathetic to Russia and their Russian-speaking neighbors.
They often talk on the phone, but politics is a topic they avoid.
“Every time my mom says something I don’t agree with, I have to remind myself that she’s still my mom,” Narozhnaya said as she burst into tears. “The people who live there, you have to understand that part of them wants something else and part of them just wants to live in Russia. And that’s the truth, no matter how much it hurts to say it .
Narozhnaya gathers in the cold of a morning that could yet see Ukraine’s pain, fear and ambiguity boil over into war. Or whoever can just score another day of waiting.
“But they are family and we love them.”
David L. Stern of The Washington Post in Lviv, Ukraine, and Alex Sipigin in Kyiv contributed to this report.