KYIV — Government warnings that Ukrainians should be on the look-out for Russian sabotage and infiltration groups are having an immediate effect.
Stories of Russian agents masquerading as Ukrainians — even in stolen Ukrainian army uniforms — are fanning both suspicion and an increased sense of solidarity in Kyiv. Strangers now smile at each other on the quiet streets or — in a sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans are backfiring — hail each other with “Glory to Ukraine!” (the slogan that became common after the 2014 Maidan revolution).
This heightened camaraderie is accompanied by a growing suspicion of anyone acting strangely — taking photographs, for example, or asking too many questions. On Friday evening, when sirens went off in central Kyiv, a photographer and I were directed to the nearest shelter — an underground parking space — by police on the street. As the space filled up, a man became suspicious of us speaking English and called law enforcement services, who arrived wearing black uniforms and balaclavas. Scrupulously polite, they searched our bags and pockets thoroughly and checked our documents before telling us we had to leave the shelter, as our presence was disturbing local people.
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said national police were eliminating the sabotage groups through Ukraine and videos are appearing on social media of Ukrainians capturing plain-clothes saboteurs. Christo Grozev, executive director of the Bellingcat investigative journalism site, posted films of Ukrainians using the word palyanitsa — meaning a kind of bread — as a way of telling friend from foe because Russians cannot pronounce it.
People are being asked to be particularly vigilant about electronic devices and other markers that are being set out by infiltration units as tags for targeting impending attacks. Britain’s ministry of defense said in a briefing on Saturday that clashes in Kyiv during the night may have been started by groups of pre-positioned saboteurs.
In addition to the high alert over the Russian infiltrators, ordinary Kyivans are also arming rapidly in preparation for street battles with invading forces. Monastyrsky said 25,000 machine guns, cartridges and grenade launchers had been supplied to Kyivans to defend their city. One resident from central Kyiv said, however, that he had been turned away today because there were not enough weapons and equipment.
Otherwise, life is peculiarly quiet. The metro is no longer running. Roads are empty of traffic, including Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Prospect), the main highway heading west out of the city which on Friday was blocked with cars jammed nose-to-tail. There was heavy fighting on Saturday morning further out along this highway.
By afternoon, the city’s pedestrians were surprisingly active, with people enjoying the sunshine and stocking up on food before early closures and curfew.
In one of a chain of small supermarkets, the shelves were still well-stocked apart from bread. A delivery of other groceries came in as customer after customer asked about when there would be bread, until the delivery man threw up his hands in exasperation. “It will come tomorrow! But you should understand that on a global scale right now, bread is the least of your problems!”
“Of course we’ll be open tomorrow,” the cashier assured customers. “Where else would you get your food?” But at around 1 p.m. Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko announced the curfew would start at 5 p.m. (instead of 10 p.m. as on Friday) and continue until 8 a.m. on Monday. The announcement on the Kyiv City Council website read: “Warning! All civilians on the street during the curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups.”