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Ukraine’s Lviv becomes ‘western capital’ as some diplomats leave Kyiv

A view of buildings in central Lviv on Feb. 15. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/Reuters)

LVIV, Ukraine — There are winding cobblestone streets and delicious pastries. The old Habsburg elegance still runs through Lviv.

And it’s also about as far from Russia as you can get in Ukraine. These days, that makes it a preferred place for some to set up shop amid growing fears that Russia could attack — and possibly put the capital, Kyiv, in its crosshairs.

At least five embassies, including the United States, have moved a part of their operations to Lviv, about 350 miles west of Kyiv and within a short drive to the Polish border.

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“I have ordered these measures for one reason — the safety of our staff,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Monday, explaining the move.

Blinken also “strongly urged” any American citizens to leave Ukraine “immediately” — a message Washington has made a number of times. More than a dozen countries have told their citizens to leave Ukraine, including Britain and Australia.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — who has blamed Western officials and media for sowing panic in Ukraine with predictions of a possible Russian invasion — criticized the diplomatic shifts to Lviv, calling them a “big mistake.”

If an invasion takes place, “it will be everywhere” and not just in the eastern edges of the country, Zelensky said during a news briefing with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Kyiv on Monday. (Germany said it would keep its embassy open in Kyiv, but with reduced staff.)

“You cannot be away from the escalation or problems in five, six hours,” he added, referring to the time needed to drive from Kyiv to Lviv.

“It looks very strange,” Zelensky said. “But this is their choice.”

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On Tuesday, Kristina Kvien, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Ukraine, was quoted by local media as saying: “I want to emphasize again that the move is temporary, and although we really like Lviv, we hope to return to Kyiv quickly.”

Apart from diplomats, actual numbers of people moving to Lviv are hard to determine. No official figures have been published. Further complicating this picture is that many of those relocating are reluctant to publicize that they have fled Kyiv.

Zhanna Shevchenko, a media consultant and reputation manager, said that she is helping about 20 friends find accommodations in Lviv. Among her extended group of acquaintances, she knows that many more have arrived or are planning to.

Shevchenko said that many are afraid to make their move public, taking their cue from the government instructions not to raise the anxiety levels. The Zelensky government said the unease could assist Russia in what Ukrainian officials call Moscow’s “information war” against Ukraine.

“People don’t want to have any panic,” she said. “But, at the same time, they are acting in case to avoid any danger.”

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For some of those who have relocated from Kyiv, the decision was sometimes made at a moment’s notice.

Tymur Levchuk, who runs the LGBT activist group Fulcrum, said that he was visiting his grandmother in central Ukraine over the weekend when his husband called to say that he was being evacuated as part of his job at the Netherlands Embassy in Kyiv.

“It was a really spontaneous decision,” Levchuk said. “On Sunday I discovered that I’m not returning to Kyiv and need to buy tickets directly to Lviv.”

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Now, the future is filled with uncertainty. “A lot of questions, but no answers,” he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next moves, and to the uncertainty of his own circumstances.

Lviv has already played host to Ukrainians in the past. It had an influx of refugees starting eight years ago, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and ignited a war in eastern Ukraine, which to date has killed nearly 14,000 people.

Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said that the city is ready for any scenario if Moscow chooses to escalate its conflict with Ukraine. Preparations extend to providing instruction to city employees in first aid and shooting practice with live rounds, he said.

Sadovyi said that he wants Kyiv to become “stronger and stronger and for the embassies to return there as soon as possible.

But he added that there’s a certain logic to Lviv — center of Ukrainian nationalism and culture, which dates its official founding to more than seven centuries ago — becoming something of a western capital for the country.

“Kyiv is the heart of Ukraine and Lviv is the soul,” he said. “You can transplant a heart, but you can’t transplant a soul.”