After eight years of war, many Ukrainians thought Russia’s saber-rattling over the past few months was nothing new.
There had been many build-ups of Russian forces along the border before. But since early 2015, none of them had turned into anything. And, besides, even the 2014 and 2015 incursions took place in the country’s far east, supporting a supposed separatist movement that everyone knew to be a Russian cutout.
But as Russia began upping the pressure in the fall, enveloping Ukraine with a military buildup, Ukrainians still couldn’t believe that Putin would follow through on his most dire threats.
Some prepared go-bags, others queued up for weapons demonstrations. But few were really prepared.
This week, the world – and Ukraine – went from a patina of normalcy to horror, all in a matter of hours.
It wasn’t just average citizens who brushed off the threat until bombs started to fall. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had chosen, since warnings of a potential invasion first sounded in October 2021, to play them off.
Ukrainian officials, embittered by war and the machinations of American politics, said that the danger of an attack had always been there, and that it was more likely the product of Western politicians looking for a distraction from their own problems at home.
“Internal US politics are usually behind any extensive coverage of Ukraine by American media,” a Kyiv friend messaged me in January.
The shift happened fast, leaving people in shock as they sought to flee westwards, beyond what some think will be the limit of the Russian advance, and towards the borders of NATO states; Romania, Poland, Slovakia.
Within hours of the initial assault, the roads out of Kyiv became jammed. People spent the first night in bomb shelters, some real, some makeshift, now looking for any way out.
“Who is leaving Kyiv on the Zhytomyr highway? Take me with you, please,” a friend of mine posted on Facebook.
One person said she had gotten on a train headed from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in the country’s far west.
The train station “has thousands of people and every ticket office has infinite lines that don’t move, your only actual chance is to go to any train and get on it.”
Another sent her daughter off to western Ukraine with her ex-husband.
“Well, I am just hoping it will end,” she messaged me. “With me and my friends and family and everyone else still alive❤️”