The Ukrainian Heartland Prepares for War "I'm Not Leaving My Home!"

The Russian invasion continues to focus primarily on large Ukrainian cities in the north, east and south. But in central Ukraine, towns and villages are preparing for the worst, and many plan to stay and fight.
By Alexandra Rojkov in Vinnytsia, Ukraine
Olena Biletska, who fled the violence in Donetsk, says she refuses to flee a second time and would rather throw Molotov cocktails.

Olena Biletska, who fled the violence in Donetsk, says she refuses to flee a second time and would rather throw Molotov cocktails.

Foto:

Oksana Parafeniuk / DER SPIEGEL

When they arrived at work last Thursday, they discovered that their construction company had suspended operations. That night, the Russian army had invaded Ukraine and war had broken out. And in times of war, nobody is interested in building new homes. So the construction workers gathered together to consider what to do next.

Most are from Hushchyntsi, a village located around 250 kilometers southwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. There’s a supermarket here and a church, though the main street through town isn’t paved. Indeed, the place is so isolated that it seems stuck in a different century, with chickens wandering along the road among the passing horse carts. The war still seems far away. "But it's getting closer," says Volodymyr Avraimov, one of the workers. And the men of Hushchyntsi wanted to be prepared.

Construction worker Volodymyr Avraimov in front of a checkpoint in central Ukraine

Construction worker Volodymyr Avraimov in front of a checkpoint in central Ukraine

Foto: Oksana Parafeniuk / DER SPIEGEL

They asked residents to hand over the sacks they normally use to store corn and filled them with dirt, stacking them at an intersection at the entrance to the village as a barricade to slow the advance of Russian tanks. Somebody suggested piling up cement blocks behind the sacks, saying it would be more effective. And ultimately, the group decided to dig trenches. "It could be that we will soon have to fight," says Avraimov. "Just like the people in Kyiv."

Fighting is still largely concentrated on Ukraine’s larger cities toward the edges of the country. Kyiv in the north has been a focus of fighting in the last 24 hours as Russia seeks to encircle the capital, Kharkiv in the northeast has been hit hard by Russian missiles, and the Ukrainian military said on Wednesday it was still battling to hold onto Kherson in the south. But Ukrainian residents in the country’s interior are fully aware that their current safety is likely only temporary. Russian state television broadcast a map last week that seemed to indicate which areas Russia hoped to occupy with its attack – showing that pretty much all of Ukraine under threat. The village of Hushchyntsi also lies within a region that Putin apparently hopes to seize.

Digging Trenches in Central Ukraine

"We will do our best to prevent it," says Avraimov. For the last three days, he and around 20 other men have been digging trenches at the intersection on the outskirts of the village. They have brought along diggers from their construction company and are also using shovels to get to places where the machines have trouble maneuvering. How do they know how to build trenches? "A few of us spent some time fighting in Donbas," says another one of the construction workers, also named Volodymyr, though he asked that his family name not be used for this article.

Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, is where pro-Russian separatists proclaimed the "people’s republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, areas that were recognized as independent states by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of his recent invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian army spent years fighting in the region, with soldiers coming from all parts of Ukraine to battle the separatists. "Those of us who have fought there know how to dig trenches," says Volodymyr. "And everything else," he says with a grin, "we improvise as we go along."

Across the interior of Ukraine, people everywhere are preparing for the possibility that the Russian military could turn up at any moment. Street signs have been removed to confuse the foreign troops and makeshift checkpoints have been set up between almost all villages. Some of them are merely a bunch of tires piled on top of each other while others are reinforced with bits of concrete. Molotov cocktails are lined up behind the barricades, ready to be thrown if necessary.

The outposts are manned by volunteers who would otherwise be harvesting potatoes or producing ceramics. Instead, they were handed weapons last week so they could fire at the Russian troops if they needed to. "Half of the men in the village are hunters and know how to deal with firearms," says Volodymyr Avraimov, the construction worker from Hushchyntsi. "And the others… Well, they’ll just have to learn."

A provisional outpost in Hushchyntsi. The men have scrawled a message for the Russians onto the wall: "Russian soldiers, go fuck yourselves."

A provisional outpost in Hushchyntsi. The men have scrawled a message for the Russians onto the wall: "Russian soldiers, go fuck yourselves."

Foto: Oksana Parafeniuk / DER SPIEGEL

Though the preparations in the bucolic villages of central Ukraine may currently seem absurd, the situation could soon turn deadly serious. Even as the majority of Russian troops are currently focused on Kyiv and cities in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, the shockwaves set off by the invasion have been felt in the center of the country as well. A Ukrainian military base is located just a few kilometers from Hushchyntsi, and it was bombarded in the first days of the invasion. The Ukrainian military was able to shoot down at least one of the Russian missiles, and its remains fell onto the houses of Hushchyntsi. Nobody was hurt, but there are now holes in several roofs around town. "The reality is that the war has already arrived," says Avraimov.

Most people in the area actually thought their towns and cities were safe. Now, though, they find themselves forced to accept that Russian troops may soon show up here too. Many are preparing to flee and are discussing what parts of Ukraine might still be safe. But a lot of residents want to stay. "If the Russian army comes, I’m not leaving says Olena Biletska. "I’d much rather go out on the street and throw Molotov cocktails."

"I Will Stay No Matter What Happens"

Biletska, a serious, alert woman, has dark shadows under her eyes. For the past several days, she has been racing into the cellar of the residential building where she lives, even in the middle of the night. Kyiv isn’t the only place where the air raid sirens are constantly going off, it’s the same story in almost all towns and cities in Ukraine. Places like Vinnytsia in the center of the country, where Biletska lives. "And where I will stay," she says assertively. "No matter what happens."

The 36-year-old German professor has already been forced to flee once before. She is actually from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, she was forced to watch as the city was occupied by outsiders who forced Ukrainian security personnel out and then declared the area to be a "people’s republic."

Biletska initially wanted to remain in Donetsk, but ultimately decided to leave when armed men took over control of the university where she worked and installed their own rector. "I am a Ukrainian and I want to live in Ukraine,” she says. But her hometown no longer has much to do with Ukraine at all. Instead, Donetsk has transformed in recent years into a police state that de facto belongs to Russia. Those who criticize the occupiers or support the Ukrainian soldiers are at risk of being sent to prison.

Until a week ago, Biletska felt completely safe in Vinnytsia. She rents a two-room apartment here and teaches German online. Not too long ago, she went to a film premiere here in town and to the ballet – and it seemed unthinkable that Vinnytsia could become a warzone. Though there had been warnings that the Russians might invade, everyone here in central Ukraine was certain that they wouldn’t be affected.

German professor Olena Biletska in her apartment in Vinnytsia, Ukraine

German professor Olena Biletska in her apartment in Vinnytsia, Ukraine

Foto: Oksana Parafeniuk / DER SPIEGEL

But now, a week after the Russians launched its war of aggression, it has arrived in Vinnytsia as well, with checkpoints set up everywhere and officials controlling each car that passes. Security forces have piled up sandbags around city hall and men wielding assault rifles guard the entrance. They want to prevent Russian soldiers from occupying the city administration building as they were able to do in Donetsk in 2014. Putin’s troops are still far away, but who knows for how long.

"If the Russian army makes it this far, my country will no longer exist," says Biletska, her eyes filling with tears. "Then, it will be like 1937." Back then, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet secret service murdered people at random for allegedly sabotaging the communist regime.

Olena Biletska says she nevertheless refuses to flee from Vinnytsia, "under no circumstances." Instead, she has stockpiled food and water so that she doesn’t have to leave her apartment very often. She is hoping that the Ukrainian army will be able to hold off Putin’s troops. If it is unable to do so, says Biletska, she intends to fight. "I’m not leaving my home for a second time."