Ukraine dust off Cold War bunkers in case of Russian invasion, many believe it won’t happen

Under an administrative building in Kiev, a concrete stairwell leads to a thick metal door – the entrance to a Cold War-era air raid shelter. It is just one of hundreds of shelters that city officials are inspecting in case the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine turns into a full-scale Russian invasion.

“Our goal is to have shelters for 100% of our population,” said Nikolai Budnik, director of the city’s shelter system, as he showed CBC on Monday a bunker built in 1986.

Due to the recent escalation of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, he said, authorities are inspecting shelters and restocking supplies stored inside, such as gas masks.

Diplomatic talks on several fronts to ease ongoing tensions

While Russian officials have denied they are planning an offensive, US and Ukrainian intelligence sources estimate that around 100,000 Russian troops are amassed near the Ukraine-Russia border.

A series of high-level diplomatic talks are underway in an attempt to ease escalating tensions and avoid the risk of war.

US and Russian negotiators met in Geneva on Monday, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is due to meet Russian officials in Brussels on Wednesday. Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, discussed the extension of Canada’s military training mission and the prospect of new sanctions against Moscow during an appeal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday.

Supplies are lined up in an air raid shelter in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The shelters are being assessed to ensure they have enough space and supplies for the nearly three million people who live in the city. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

The particular shelter that CBC visited this week is outfitted with old bunk beds and water tanks and is meant to house essential workers to keep the city running and utilities running in the event of an attack.

Russia has issued a series of demands and repeatedly warned of the dangers of crossing its so-called red lines, gestures by the West towards Ukraine that would trigger a response from Russia. He warned, for example, that Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO, although the United States has already called the request a non-starting.

Officials on both sides have expressed doubts that diplomatic talks will lead to a breakthrough, but that doesn’t mean all Ukrainians believe a bigger war is imminent or even likely.

Inside one of the Cold War era bomb shelters in Kiev being prepared for possible use again. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

“Not the Ukraine of six or seven years ago”

In Kiev’s historic Podil district, crowds strolled through a holiday market on Monday. Some sipped mulled wine, and others took a ride on a Ferris wheel.

“I wouldn’t say we care a lot,” said Oksana Dalko, 23.

“Ukraine now is not the Ukraine of six or seven years ago… we have a strong army now.”

Oksana Dalko, 23, says that while Ukraine traditionally looks like Russia, Ukrainians wish to be more like Western democracies. (Corinne Seminov / CBC)

Ukraine has grown its military in recent years with the help of allies, including the United States and Canada. In 2021 alone, the United States provided $ 400 million in military aid to Ukraine, and Canadian troops helped train the country’s soldiers on Operation UNIFIER.

A war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has continued since 2014, killing around 14,000 people. But, about 750 kilometers into the country’s capital, Dalko says there are few signs of an imminent threat.

The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine is currently divided into government-controlled territory, in yellow, and that held by Russian-backed separatists, in orange. The opposing parties have been fighting since 2014. (SRC)

An invasion poses an economic risk

Volodymyr Korniienko, 27, was among the crowd at the holiday market.

He doesn’t think Ukraine will be allowed to join NATO for years to come, but that it will eventually happen and says Russia should just accept it.

He says he is also not worried about the apparent political stalemate.

“I’m pretty sure that no kind of military escalation will happen on the Russian side,” he said.

“Even if Russia invades Ukraine, it won’t make economic sense.”

Volodymyr Korniienko, 27, believes Ukraine will eventually join NATO, but says the ongoing fighting in the Donbass region means it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. (Briar Stewart / CBC)

He is referring to the new punitive sanctions that the United States and NATO have threatened to impose if Russia launches an attack. Officials have hinted that the sweeping measures could include financial sanctions that could target Russian assets abroad, which would deal a blow to the country and especially to the ultra-rich elite who have investments and accounts. banking abroad.

“They depend on it a lot,” said Illia Ponomarenko, 29, a defense reporter for the Kyiv Independent, an English-language news site.

“Our enemy is nasty but not stupid. They still need their billions in the West. They take advantage of the villas in the south of France.”

Journalist Illia Ponomarenko said Russia’s growing rhetoric was part of a plan to intimidate Ukraine and put pressure on the West. (Jean-François Bisson / CBC)

He worked for the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s main English-language newspaper, until the owner abruptly fired all staff at the newspaper in November. He and some of his colleagues banded together to start the Kyiv Independent.

Ponomarenko, from the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, says he has seen three wars and two revolutions in his life. Thus, he feels less anxious about the situation today than it did last spring, when Russia also amassed troops near the Ukrainian border.

“It was a real apocalyptic atmosphere here in Kiev. I have to admit I was scared. I was really scared.”

A psychological campaign

Now, he says, he’s less emotional. If Russia had wanted to take over all of Ukraine, it would have tried in 2014 when it annexed the Ukrainian peninsula from Crimea, he said.

He suspects that the war rhetoric this time is more of a psychological campaign by Russia to maintain its influence.

Ponomarenko says the more Westward Ukraine leans and develops its democracy and civil liberties, the more likely Russian residents are to take notice.

“They will start to wonder … ‘if the Ukrainians can do it, why can’t we do it too?'”

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