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Life Under Fire: A Daily Portrait from Kyiv

I am writing this as we enter day 270 of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Increasingly more bloody. Increasingly fraught. Increasingly more politically tenuous. Russia has become more aggressive and vicious in its attacks - launching hundreds of waves of missiles and drones deep into Ukraine. Kyiv, which had not faced attacks from July through September, had faced hundreds of strikes alone since October.

For a short backstory, I am a second-year from New York City studying International Relations. This spring, just after the outbreak of the conflict, I spent two weeks on the Ukrainian-Polish border working with World Central Kitchen to provide food aid to the Ukrainian refugees fleeing across the border. The conflict, and the humanitarian crisis, has changed drastically since I last visited — as has Kyiv.

Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was projected to be overrun within days of the Russian invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy famously replied to a US offer of evacuation with, “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition”. Yet for the past 268 days Kyiv, much to the surprise of early military analysts, has not just survived but has noticeably turned the tide of the war. As Russia, with depleting weapons stockpiles, has turned its strategy towards the destruction of energy infrastructure in face of the coming winter, it has turned its sights back on Kyiv. Utilising the Iranian Shahed-136 drones, Russia has increased its long-range shelling, and there has been a drastic increase of civilian casualties.

Air raids have become a routine in Kyiv. It begins with a Telegram message - many Ukrainian telegram groups share these warnings, namely Повітряна Тривога (Air Alert). Around 300,000 Telegram users in this group will receive the message, specifying an Air Raid Alert in a region. It is common for several regions to receive Air Raid Alerts, as it can’t be determined where the missile or drone will land but only the direction in which it is flying. Shortly after this alert, the piercing of Air Raid sirens breaks the crisp fall air in Kyiv. Speakers in hotels repeat the warning. Some people leave for shelters or metro stations. But many people continue with their daily lives.

“We can’t afford to stop everything all the time”, is a sentiment echoed by many as life goes on. Some rush into the metro stations; Kyiv has the deepest metro system in the world, with stations buried over 100 meters into the earth, an over 5 minute escalator ride down. Some shelter, for a few dozen minutes or for hours. But for many working adults, it simply is not sustainable. Kyiv has faced hundreds of air raid alerts, and many cannot afford to spend hours a day in shelters underground — and so daily life continues. Air sirens wail as a couple pushes their child in a stroller, a musician plays his violin outside the metro station, and a biker continues his sightseeing.

The Russian air raids, despite being increasingly threatened by Western-supplied anti-missile systems, have still managed to leave behind scars on the city of Kyiv. Despite the lull in missile attacks on Kyiv over the summer, the destruction of the bridge between the Crimea peninsula incited Russia to launch new waves of long-range missile attacks on the Ukrainian capital.

Starting the dawn of October 10, Russian missiles landed across Kyiv, hitting an intersection, a bridge, and a playground. A week later, the destruction that had been inflicted upon the city was barely visible. The intersection had been paved over, but the building surrounding it had the marks of shrapnel and boarded windows. The bridge, covered in scorch marks, towered above sightseers, joggers, and people walking their dogs over the covered crater. The playground, bearing a 10-foot deep hole where the missile had struck, was fully filled in just a few days later. Life continued on for this tenacious city’s population.

For a city under siege, Kyiv is shockingly peaceful and normal. Day to day reminders of the war exist in the form of the Air raid sirens, the levy of barricades and checkpoints in the administrative district, and the destroyed Russian military equipment on display.

The city center holds many visible marks of the war; from the tank traps piled on street corners (many of which were taken from old WWII museums in the opening days of the war), and squares with memorials to civilians and soldiers killed in action. To celebrate their Independence Day on August 24, the Kyiv government created a display of destroyed and captured Russian weapons, vehicles and missiles in the main square. A wide range of people can be found viewing the display, from couples writing their initials on the wreckage of a Russian cruise missile, to toddlers trying to crawl on the burnt skeleton of a Russian tank, to young teens taking selfies with Russian weapons.

The National Military History Museum served as a stark reminder that we are witnessing history in the making. The Museum had already opened its exhibit on the current Ukraine war - one that is being constantly updated, a monument to living history. Captured Russian equipment, uniforms, maps, and other pieces were all on display in the same fashion as any other exhibit. The key difference is that the pieces are dated in age, not in years or decades, but in months or days. A Russian flak jacket, captured only a few weeks prior, hangs alongside WWII uniforms.

What importance lies in the Ukraine War? Frankly, I believe the war will be the most decisive of the decade, and perhaps even the millennium thus far. The war, and the Russian aggression questions the very fundamentals of the international institutions and global order of the 21st century. It has the potential to have incredibly far-reaching consequences around questions of sovereignty, order, international law, and the future of warfare between states. The outcome of the war has the potential to shift the global balance of power, and perhaps to enable or constrain the rise of other states such as China, and could be decisive around hot-button issues such as Taiwan. Let us not forget the discussions of nuclear disarmament, and how this conflict runs the risk of tipping into dangerous territory of nuclear use — notably as Russia, a nuclear armed state, invades Ukraine, a state which voluntarily disarmed its nuclear weapons. And as Russia, facing perhaps the least subtle proxy war ever fought by NATO, finds itself in an increasingly desperate position. It is impossible to predict how this conflict will play out, but one thing is certain; we need to care.

Image: Matthew Wesson

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