In a Kyiv under siege, neighbors dig trenches and raise barriers to brace for Russian assault

Andrew M. Santos

An armored personnel carrier with a cannon was covered by a green camouflage tarpaulin. And outside one building, they were making molotov cocktails by the scores. “We are going to give the Russians lots of presents,” promised Yuriy Syrotyuk, 45, a local journalist-turned-warrior, an AK-47 rifle slung over his shoulder.

As Ukrainian and Russian envoys held peace talks at the Belarusian border Monday, Ukrainian forces here, driven by deep mistrust of the Russians and a desire to protect their homeland, were preparing for the worst-case scenario. That scenario was Russian tanks and soldiers pressing into Kyiv and seizing the seat of government.

As Russia intensifies its military campaign, some Ukrainian civilians are taking up arms. Others are preparing food. Everyone, it seems, is doing something. (Whitney Shefte, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

This highway stretching through the city’s northern Obolon district is one of the main routes by which the Russians could attack.

A visit Monday to this fortified patch, an area the Ukrainian fighters described as “their second line,” opened a window into the courageous efforts by ordinary Ukrainians to stand up to Russian aggression. But it also portended a violent urban conflict, with the prospect of street-to-street fighting and guerrilla tactics and thousands of civilians trapped in the crossfire.

“This is their shortest path into Kyiv,” said Oleg, the 53-year-old commander of the Ukrainian army forces at the intersection, who declined to give his last name for what he said were security reasons. “We have weapons for defense and, of course, to attack back, including those we got from the United States. Thank you!”

He was referring to the Javelin antitank missiles that arrived recently as part of a $200 million security package sent by Washington to bolster Ukraine’s capability to fight Russia’s superior military forces. The missiles were not visible at the intersection.

Ukrainian fighters were blocking parts of the highway with large blocks of cement. Bulldozers were gouging more trenches into the ground. Armed fighters in camouflage stood sentry on a nearby overpass.

Reports emerged of a large column of Russian military trucks and other weaponry and manpower moving toward Kyiv, presumably to reinforce the invasion forces in the northern portion of the highway.

Three days earlier, the Russians had entered Obolon, coming as close as six miles to Kyiv’s city center. But Ukrainian forces pushed them back in fierce fighting that in some areas left Russian tanks and armored vehicles burned and destroyed, according to Ukrainian security officials and media reports.

Oleg said the Russians were positioned Monday along the highway just beyond Vishorod, a satellite city about 12 miles from central Kyiv.

Ukrainian military commanders and government officials say the Russians have dispatched saboteurs — infiltrators who have entered the capital to sow mayhem.

The Rev. Viktor Mileyko, pastor of a Ukrainian Orthodox church nearby, said he witnessed a clash between Ukrainian defense units and men he thought were Russian agents in front of his church on Sunday. “The gunmen fired bullets at the apartment buildings,” he said, shaking his head.

The report could not be independently confirmed. But it was clear that tensions and anxiety remained high along the highway on Monday.

At 5 p.m. a gray sedan pulled up to a checkpoint and a single gunshot was fired. Security forces pinned a man wearing black to the ground and dragged him out of the street and into a wooded area.

“We captured someone!” the troops yelled to Oleg. The commander halted an interview with The Washington Post to order his soldiers to assist. It was unclear what the man had done to provoke such a response.

Across the street was Yuriy Syrotyuk’s 17-year-old son, Sviatoslav. He’s been handling a weapon since he was 8 at a scout camp, he said, since Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which ousted the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Now Sviatoslav is training other recruits in how to use a gun.

“From 2014, I knew I would have to fight at some point,” he said.

Short and well-built, with a small brown braid hanging out of his army green winter cap, the archaeology student has taken a break from school to join his father in the territorial defense forces. His mother, grandmother and 13-year-old brother have taken refuge outside of the city. He said he’ll fight until the Russians are pushed out of the country.

“I don’t have any fear in me,” he said. “I want to fight for Ukrainian independence and freedom.

Four days earlier, Volodymyr Nazrenko was an entrepreneur, running an information and data company in the capital. Now the 30-year-old was holed up in a newly established operations base for Kyiv’s territorial defenses.

Clutching his rifle on the steps of the makeshift camp, Nazrenko said he fought Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Now he was in charge of helping train recruits in defense tactics while also helping track Russian movements.

“It’s very likely they’re going to target more civilians,” he said. “My job is to prevent that.”

Fellow volunteers passed in and out of the building with weapons. Across the way, others were filling a shopping cart with glass bottles. Behind the base, a team was turning them into molotov cocktails.

Fresh recruits lined up for a leader who wrapped yellow duct tape around each of their right arms — officially indoctrinating them as allies in the fight against the Russians.

“Glory to Ukraine!” the newcomers shouted in unison.

They included Vitaliy Belinsky, 25, who then joined the molotov cocktail efforts, filling bottles with plastic foam and fuel and stuffing a cloth into the top for a fuse.

Belinsky ordinarily works in advertising. He has some conflict experience but said he wanted to leave the most intense fighting to more experienced soldiers. He was offering his services during the daytime, building barricades and now petrol bombs.

“I decided that my skill is not enough to defend with a weapon,” he said. “I want to help by myself as I can, so I came here.”

In the basement of Mileyko’s church, about a dozen civilians — mostly women and girls — stood around a long table, filling pockets of dough with potato and spices to serve to the troops nearby. They sang Ukrainian folk songs, grinned and laughed.

They carefully pressed piles of dough into vareniki, a traditional Ukrainian dish similar to pierogi. Maria Mileyko, 18, the pastor’s daughter, said she hopes the food will give strength to the local forces. It’s simple to make them en masse, very filling and easy to transport, she said. She began cooking for the troops on Monday.

“We are helping our soldiers, we are helping our people,” she said. “We are actually sick of sitting at home and doing nothing. I just feel like somebody needs me … that I’m helping someone.”

If she could, she said, she’d be on the front line beside them. But her parents refused her demands that she be allowed to carry a weapon.

“They’re really scared, they’re afraid that I’m a girl and that it’s too dangerous for me,” she said. “I really wish I could do more but right now I do whatever I can. Whatever my parents let me.”

Her father said he also tried to enlist in the defense forces, and offered to carry a gun.

“But they didn’t let me join,” he said, and shrugged.

Many members of his congregation have fled the city, as have the residents in neighboring apartment complexes. “Yesterday evening, I went to the street, and the lights were on only in 30 to 40 percent of the apartments,” he said.

Neighbors lined up at a bread shop. Some were buying supplies for three days or longer, convinced that the conflict is going to get worse.

A tall man walked past with his wife and small daughter. He was wheeling a large silver suitcase. The family was headed to the train station, where his wife and daughter would travel south to a relative’s home.

“Yesterday, there was a curfew, and we couldn’t move,” said Alexander, 37, who declined to give his last name. “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It may not be possible to move.”

“I will stay here,” he added. “We will give some bullets to the Russians.”

A line of armored personnel carriers flying Ukrainian flags crossed the fortified intersection. Oleg looked at the cluster of residential buildings, home to thousands. “Everyone who wanted to be evacuated has been,” he said.

Many residents have opted to remain. They included Alla Pichkur, 49, and her daughter Diana, 28, who were out to buy bread. They had already stocked up on food at the grocery stores and taken cash out at the ATM in case the banks close.

Asked how she felt about the conflict reaching Kyiv, Alla Pichkur’s eyes welled up and she couldn’t speak.

“We are scared, but we will win,” Diana said, and the mother nodded. “She can’t talk about it. It’s so awful what has happened.”

“But we believe in our army,” she added.

Alla Pichkur composed herself. She said they haven’t fled because “it is our home and we have lived our entire lives here.” They have hidden inside their bathroom many times — whenever the air raid sirens go off.

A retail worker, she donated 1,000 hyrvinia — roughly $33 — to assist Ukraine’s armed forces after seeing the soldiers fortifying the highway.

“This is our way of helping protect our motherland,” said her daughter, who works in a beauty salon.

Yuriy Syrotyuk signed up to fight for another reason. Both of his grandfathers were killed resisting the Nazis and later the Soviet Union in the 1940s, he said. He wants to see his own grandchildren one day.

“I don’t want to see my son killed,” he said.

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