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Kyiv keeping calm and carrying on even as Kremlin boosts pressure on Ukraine

Kyrylo Kislyakov in his bar, Barman Dictat, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 10. The subterranean venue is also reinforced to serve as a possible bunker. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — To understand how many people in Ukraine’s capital are dealing with Russian threats, a visit to Kyrylo Kislyakov’s basement bar offers some good lessons.

The vibe is chill. The drinks are flowing. And the whole place is designed to turn into a bunker if war suddenly sweeps into Kyiv.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials for the past month have raised alarm over Russia massing significant forces — and perhaps preparing for a fresh offensive — along its border with Ukraine. Russia dismisses the worries as Western fearmongering but has strongly warned that it would never accept a major region realignment such as Ukraine becoming a NATO member.

Meanwhile, the mood in Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people that is roughly 500 miles from the Russian buildup, is mostly a shrug. There’s a life-goes-on normalcy after years of Russian pressure on Ukraine, including its backing of pro-Moscow separatists in a nearly eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainians in Kyiv voiced concern on Dec. 15, as the threat of another Russian invasion has some in the region on edge. (Video: The Washington Post)

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But some in Kyiv worry that this time might really be different. They say they have an emergency suitcase packed in case they need to urgently flee the city. Others know the locations of bunkers and bomb shelters, which date back to Soviet times, but are still skeptical they will be needed.

And then there’s Kislyakov, who has been quietly preparing since Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. He started designing his bar, Barman Dictat, as the conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas was in its bloodiest period in 2014 and 2015. So it wasn’t a coincidence that he insisted on heavy metal doors and metal reinforcements along the walls.

His love of that aesthetic aside, Kislyakov wanted the bar to double as a sturdy bunker if a war with Russia ever reached Kyiv and he suddenly needed shelter. The ashtrays in Barman Dictat are made with bullet shells — sent to Kislyakov from Ukrainian soldiers on the eastern front.

“Even in a bar, you always have to have something that reminds you that the war has not gone anywhere,” he said.

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Preparations for a possible Russian attack are always part of life in Kyiv.

Kyiv authorities say there are about 5,000 underground structures that the city administration has designated as places of refuge in an emergency — up from roughly 1,500 in 2014. These include metro stations, parking garages and an archipelago of cellars, tucked away in the capital’s courtyards and back streets.

However, not all of these would be able to provide a place of safety from an aerial assault.

Roman Tkachuk, head of Kyiv’s department of municipal security, said roughly 19 percent of the locations are unusable, often because of neglect. Authorities are currently reviewing each site and making necessary improvements.

Other locations are now occupied by businesses. Kyiv bunkers listed on Google Maps included a dance studio, an improv theater and an assortment of cafes and salons. Those establishments aren’t required to provide shelter, even if the location used to be one.

But some businesses are already willing.

At the Black Pig — a cellar restaurant in Kyiv’s historical center — the restaurant’s designation as a potential shelter first caused confusion. After staff members spoke among themselves, the restaurant’s accountant informed others that this was indeed the case.

“We’re ready,” said Neli Kalyuzhna, the Black Pig’s director.

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Some civilians have volunteered to take up arms. In 2014, shortly after the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, officials created territorial defense forces throughout the country, which would provide an additional line of defense in case of a full-scale onslaught.

Now, each district in Kyiv will have its own battalion, with “no fewer than 5,000” fighters in the city, said Andriy Kryshchenko, deputy head of Kyiv’s city administration. Under a law passed over the summer, these forces will be under contract with the Ukrainian military.

“The most important thing is getting them training,” Kryshchenko said.

Where these reservists will obtain their weapons is another question. Up until now, many of the territorial defense forces have provided their own guns and equipment, sometimes at considerable personal cost. Officials promise that, as contractual members of the country’s armed forces, the reservists should eventually receive all their equipment from official military stocks.

Kislyakov, the gray-bearded bar owner, said his circle of friends have been stocking up on guns and ammo since 2014. He has three rifles of his own, though he doesn’t consider himself a militaristic person.

“I think any attempt to enter the city will be quite bloody,” Kislyakov said.

“What’s the use in worrying?” he added. “This aggression from Russia happens repeatedly. And every time we have to worry? I just have these simple anti-anxiety drugs: I go to the store and buy three new boxes of bullets. And I feel that I’ve prepared myself.”

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On a Friday night at another popular Kyiv bar, Kosatka, three 30-something friends debated the prospect of war — how Ukraine’s forces might stack up against Russia and what the reasoning would be for the Kremlin to launch an attack.

Anna Bogdanova, 36, said she has often wondered if she should move her mother, who lives in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine near the Crimean Peninsula, to Kyiv.

“I never know when Russia is going to take Kherson as well,” she said.

Her friend, 34-year-old Tata Verbetska, said she recently took a large sum of cash out of the bank — just in case she needs to move quickly.

“You’re the most thoughtful of all of us,” Lidiya Babyak said in response.

But even Verbetska doubted that fresh conflict could be coming.

“I think Russia is doing this to try to prove its strength to the whole world, not just to Ukraine,” she said. “But maybe because we live here, we’ve just gotten used to this.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

Read more:

Putin is testing U.S., NATO with buildup along Russia-Ukraine border, defense minister says

Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns

Biden hits Ukraine’s wish list: Strong warning to Putin against military options

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