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‘A permanent struggle’ Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko speaks to RBC Ukraine about aftermath of recent attacks on city and what winter months hold for residents
Interview by RBC Ukraine. English-language version by Emily Laskin.
Since the start of the war, Kyiv has received hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have left their homes in other parts of the country because of Russian aggression, shelling, and destruction. With winter approaching, however, internally displaced people as well as Kyivans wait nervously for cold weather. Nearly weekly missile strikes have damaged, among other things, the capital city’s energy infrastructure. As in other parts of the country, Kyiv experiences large-scale interruptions to electricity, water, and heat supplies. Kyiv’s response has also been a source of rare internal political friction, provoking criticism from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who says Kyiv’s leadership isn’t doing enough for residents. Mayor Vitali Klitschko spoke to RBC Ukraine about the situation in the capital and what residents can expect in the coming months.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko spoke to RBC Ukraine just hours before massive strikes on the city on November 23. At that point, he said with certainty that the Ukrainian capital did not need to be evacuated, despite the risks. After the November 23 attack, when some Kyivans were stuck in unheated apartments without cell or Internet connections for more than 24 hours, the mayor admitted that the coming months will be difficult, though he believes authorities and the military are up to the challenge.
Klitschko said that Kyiv was affected directly by the November 23 strikes, as well as indirectly, by impacts to the energy system in the rest of the country. “Every [missile] strike is a life, or someone’s health, taken away,” he said, adding that the entire city (home to more than three million people) feels the damage from attacks.
The November 23 barrage left Kyiv without municipal water service for more than a day, and residents had trouble heating their apartments. But, says the mayor, water was restored 24 hours, and practically all apartments had heat again by November 26. Another major priority was restoring the city’s subway service: “The Kyiv government’s first priority is that Kyivans have normal conditions at home in their apartments,” said Klitschko, acknowledging that the effort to maintain those conditions is “a permanent struggle.”
As to what will happen if Russia launches an attack more severe than the one on November 23, Klitschko said, “The Russians can’t win on the battlefield. So, they do what they’re capable of. Terrorism. Russia’s goal is to do everything possible so that this is our last winter. Our goal is to make this winter the last for Terrorist No. 1.”
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Though Ukrainian repair crews work round the clock to restore electricity, water, and communications lines damaged by Russian attacks, problems persist — particularly with the country’s badly damaged energy grid. Even though repairs to Kyiv’s electrical systems are rapid, issues in other parts of the country can cause blackouts in the capital. Klitschko resisted discussing the more dire scenarios that some media outlets have reported (for example, a complete blackout that would require a total evacuation of the city) and dismissed some recently circulated reports by saying that “good news doesn’t sell.” Klitschko did admit, more than once, that “it would be a big mistake if we didn’t prepare for various scenarios.” The mayor says his administration doesn’t want to paint too rosy a picture for anyone, but it doesn’t want to scare people, either. “We need to be prepared; there might be outages until spring,” he warned.
Klitschko emphasized how shocking the current situation is — something easily forgotten as the war drags on into its tenth month. “If someone had said last December that the future held murder, war, rape, and genocide, people would have said he was unwell. But unfortunately, that’s now our frightening, difficult reality,” he said.
Klitschko is convinced that European security depends on the stability of Ukraine which is, as Klitschko points out, the largest country in Europe (not counting Russia). He warns that “people get used to everything,” and that Ukraine should do everything it can to prevent its allies from “taking the war in Ukraine as routine.” At the same time, he was circumspect about “media people who love hype,” observing that “it’s hard to hold a gun in one hand and a phone for a selfie in the other.”
Asked explicitly if Kyiv’s residents should prepare to resettle in other parts of the country (or even to leave Ukraine), the mayor insisted that such drastic measures won’t be necessary. However, he urged the public to stockpile supplies of water for drinking and cleaning, food that can be prepared without electricity, warm clothes, charged computers and power banks, and maps and other necessities downloaded to phones for offline access. He also said it would be good for everyone to prepare to stay somewhere outside the city, if they have access to more rural housing, or go with friends, in case the situation takes a turn for the worse. Later in the interview, Klitschko said that the city is providing temporary housing to residents whose homes are damaged, but whether staying or leaving remains a personal decision for these people. “Some choose housing, others choose to move in with relatives or friends — they decide for themselves.”
To prepare for a difficult winter that still falls short of the worst case, Klitschko says Kyiv has opened 430 centers where residents can warm up, get water, charge devices, get online, and access other services. Existing centers are getting up and running, and more will open, he said. All hospitals, daycares, and schools now have generators, and the authorities have ensured an adequate supply of fuel to run them.
President Zelensky recently criticized the city authorities, saying that Kyiv’s residents need more assistance and that Klitschko’s administration wasn’t doing enough to set up “invincibility centers” (emergency service points established across the country to help Ukrainians dealing with outages). Klitschko largely dismissed the criticism, reiterating that Kyiv has hundreds of functioning “warming centers” and says he doesn’t want to participate in any “political battles.” He has been in communication with Zelensky’s office, he said, though relations aren’t always smooth. “Sometimes, it feels like someone pours fuel on the fire,” explained Klitschko, adding that he acts with a certain degree of autonomy from the presidential administration as mayor of Kyiv and the head of the Association of Ukrainian Cities.
Klitschko also shared his own thoughts on Putin and the course of the war: “Some in Ukraine, and among Western partners, made a big mistake when they said that Putin would be pacified by annexing Crimea, as if that would be enough for him.” The threat to Ukraine’s capital is particularly present for the mayor, who calls his city “the heart of the country [and] a symbol of the country.” He feels certain that Russia will try to attack Kyiv if it ever gets the opportunity — it is among the difficult scenarios his administration is preparing for.
At the same time, he expressed some optimism for the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations, at least on an interpersonal level. Like many Ukrainians, Klitschko has Russian friends but has been “confused” to find that even some old and “well-educated” friends are “brainwashed.” One Russian friend told him over the phone, from Georgia, “You’ll wait a long time for Russians to revolt. Those who wanted to say something and weren’t afraid are sitting behind bars. Those who want to say something but are afraid are sitting quietly. Everyone else still doesn’t want this to touch them personally.” But Klitschko says he also spoke to that friend’s 25-year-old son, who told him, “Glory to Ukraine!”
“I’m glad the younger generation is waking up,” Klitschko told his interviewer.
English-language version by Emily Laskin
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