Kyiv on edge: As Russian forces press in on the capital, Ukrainians are defiant

People look at the damage following a rocket attack on a residential building in Kyiv on Friday.
People look at the damage following a rocket attack on a residential building in Kyiv on Friday. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — With Russian forces pressing into the northern suburbs of this besieged capital this week, Alexei Ianikovskyi took his family into the city’s center. They found sanctuary at a hotel where he worked, one with a basement for a bomb shelter.

By Friday, Ianikovskyi was faced with a difficult choice — one shared by countless Ukrainians: “I really want to join the army,” he said inside the bunker, as explosions rocked the outskirts of the city. “But I also need to protect my family.”

On the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv was on edge. A suspected rocket destroyed an apartment building in the city and its outer neighborhoods were either battlegrounds or no-go zones. Russian forces tried to push closer to the seat of the government, but Ukrainian forces repelled the advance. Still, by nightfall, the Russian bombardment, and the war itself, seemed to be intensifying.

Scores of civilians were displaced from their homes in Kyiv on Feb. 25 after an unidentified projectile struck just outside their apartment block before dawn. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

With each air raid siren, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians descended into underground bunkers or metro stations, unsure what the military and political landscape would be when they re-emerged. Tens of thousands more fled the capital altogether — by car train, bus, hitchhiking. Over the past two days, 100,000 people fled Kyiv and other population centers, the United Nations said.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, warned on his Telegram channel Friday that Russian forces were “very close to the capital.” He vowed this week to take up weapons against the Russians.

“The situation now is threatening for Kyiv, no exaggeration,” he said Friday. “The night and the morning will be difficult.”

Yet even as fear gripped the city, there was also a heavy sense of collective defiance. Thousands heeded government calls to enlist in the military or join local defense forces that were armed and dispatched to secure every neighborhood. Thousands more lined up at health centers to donate blood. Gas stations handed out Ukrainian flags to customers waiting to fill up tanks before the anticipated shortages of fuel.

The country’s leaders led the call to arms. Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar urged citizens to procure weapons, even to make molotov cocktails, the petrol bombs that function as hand grenades.

“It is important that everyone be strong in spirit,” Malyar posted on Facebook. “This is our land. We won’t give up.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a defiant video on social media Friday. As questions mounted over his whereabouts, he declared he would stay put in the capital. He urged citizens to defend themselves because foreign forces weren’t going to do it for them.

“This morning we are defending our state alone as we did yesterday,” said Zelensky, wearing an olive-green pullover. “Stop the enemy wherever you see it. No one but ourselves will control our lives.”

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On Thursday, the 44-year-old leader declared martial law and decreed that all Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 capable of carrying a weapon would be barred from leaving the country.

Friday began with missile strikes and the destruction of an apartment building in southeastern Kyiv during the predawn hours. Zelensky said the last time the capital had experienced such an assault was in 1941 — when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and the city was attacked by Nazi Germany.

Klitschko said rocket debris had struck the complex, engulfing it in flames and injuring several people, including one who remained in serious condition. Some residents said an armed drone had hit the building. It was unclear which of the warring sides were responsible in an area of the city devoid of military bases or government buildings.

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What was clear and palpable was the antagonism among residents, who all blamed Russia. Vladimir Skakun, standing in his shattered apartment, shards of glass covering the floors, declared that the targeting of a residential place filled with civilians was reason enough to fight.

“If someone is still considering in Kyiv whether to enlist, I tell them, ‘Please, do enlist, take up weapons,’ ” said Skakun, 57, a retired Ukrainian border guard, his voice rising with anger. “We need to save Kyiv, the heart of Ukraine. Don’t hesitate.”

Serhiy Serhiyovych Harhun, 58, lived in a neighboring building; he fled to a shelter with his family. He had fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he said, and he understood war.

“I’m not planning to run away,” he said. “I’ll pick up the weapon.”

By midmorning, the defense ministry said, Russian forces had swept into Obolon district, roughly six miles from the city’s center. The ministry urged residents to remain inside their homes. By the afternoon, Ukrainian forces were clashing with Russian forces near Vyshgorod, north of the city.

That’s the suburb Ianikovskyi’s mother, grandmother and 12-year-old brother had fled. He phoned a friend, Sergei, who was watching over his family’s home to learn more about the fighting. What Sergei told him pleased Ianikovskyi.

“The Russians came that far down and deployed their forces against us,” Ianikovskyi relayed, a smile widening across his face. “But our forces managed to send them far back.”

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Yaroslava Kravchenko, a television host and theater producer, took the calls to create molotov cocktails seriously. She said several volunteer groups made up of people from different walks of life, including women and students, were producing the weapons inside houses. Some were procuring the bottles and others the gasoline. Some were transporting the weapons.

“I can’t reveal the number of cocktails, but that’s enough to stop a few tanks,” she said. “The molotov cocktail is already a national dish of Ukrainians.”

She said the homemade bombs were being delivered to territorial defense groups in different districts of the city.

Ianikovskyi, too, was planning to contribute to the war effort. He was searching for a safe place for his family to take shelter. Then, he said, he wants to fight the Russians.

“I can easily join the army because I know I managed to save my family’s lives,” he said.

He also wants to join his friend. On Friday, Sergei enlisted.

Kostiantyn Khudov contributed to this report.