KYIV — Facing Western warnings of an “imminent” Russian invasion and a hasty official call for a day of national unity, many Ukrainians Wednesday simply shrugged their shoulders and went about their usual business.
A US intelligence warning that Wednesday could be the day Russia invades its neighbor prompted multiple Western governments to tell their citizens to leave the country and to evacuate nonessential diplomatic staff from Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for his part, reacted by declaring a national day of unity to boost morale across the country.
Zelenskiy took part in a ceremonial hoisting of the national flag in the morning to proclaim the “unity of a great people of great Ukraine,” and a giant 200 meter-long flag what carried through Kyiv’s Olympic stadium to the sound of patriotic music. Western ambassadors laid flowers at a commemoration wall in central Kyiv, which honors those who have died since 2014 in the armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Apart from those events, however, it was very much a normal day in Ukraine’s capital, at least by mid-afternoon, with no sign of any new Russian attack.
“I don’t notice this day of unity at all,” Victoria, a personal assistant for a business manager in Kyiv, said near the commemoration wall.
“People go to work as normal, it’s rather quiet,” said Victoria, who declined to give her family name. She added that she had decided to stop worrying about threats of war.
“Frankly, there’s no use worrying too much. People just want to go on with their normal lives here,” she said.
Ruslan Koval, a cook from Odessa who is in Kyiv to visit friends, said that apart from flags hoisted on official buildings, it was hard to notice any difference to the previous day.
On Kyiv’s central Maidan square, the heart of the country’s 2014 revolution, more international reporters and TV crews could be spotted than Ukrainians waving their national flags.
Larger gatherings were reported in western cities such as Lviv other Zhytomyr. And Zelenskiy headed to eastern Ukraine later in the morning to visit places next to the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house, had voted overwhelmingly in favor of sending an appeal directly to Putin to recognize those occupied territories as independent republics.
Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who had faced strong criticism for leaving the country in his private jet earlier this week amid the warnings of an imminent invasion, arrived in the harbor city of Mariupol on Wednesday to visit his Metinvest steel plant.
“Today, the entire world worries about us,” he told his employees, thanking them for loyalty amid “uneasy, dangerous and anxious times” and promising new investments.
Akhmetov also remarked that his home city Donetsk has been occupied for eight years, and argued that it “can only be happy in the united and happy Ukraine.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied in recent days that it will attack Ukraine, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened “military-technical” action against the country if his demands for broader security guarantees from the West are not met.
While the Kremlin has sent some signals of de-escalation in recent days, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday that Russia continues its military buildup on the Ukrainian border.
Back in Kyiv, Anastasiia Paramuda, a barista in a small café in the Podil neighborhood, said she felt relieved that so far everything had stayed peaceful. She said most of her customers seemed to have remained calm despite the spike in tension with Russia but admitted that the war warnings — with some media proclaiming Wednesday at 3 am as the moment an invasion would start — had scared her a lot.
“I tried to ignore it, to not pay so much attention to the news. But yesterday evening was the peak, I was very nervous,” she said. “I was crying, I was terrified. My boyfriend tried to calm me down, said it wouldn’t happen. Luckily I had him to calm me down.”
She added: “I’m particularly worried about all the people who live alone in these difficult times.”
David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.