Ukrainians across the country try to live life as normal while they prepare for war against Russia alone, reports Tom Mutch from Kyiv

We’d just packed away our lenses from a photoshoot with Inna Boshtan, a 30-year-old fashion model in central Kyiv, when I received a text from Inna in the frontline city of Mariupol. “Holy shit,” she wrote, “I just heard a ton of explosions”. For a moment, we all thought this could be the big one.

“I’m willing to do anything I can to defend my country, said Inna “put on a combat uniform, go to the front as a medic. Anything that is needed. Putin needs to know that he cannot, will not take our nation by force.”

It was a fashion shoot full of some of the world’s most desirable supermodels, but the threat of war even loomed over here. Polina Veller, one of Ukraine’s leading stylists, created an exhibition where she showed off her new dresses next to body armour in a mock trench dugout.

While I was standing backstage shortly before were about to enter their last catwalk, three of them turned towards the assembled press and shouted “remember, Crimea is ours!” In Ukraine, catwalks, and nightclubs have coexisted with sniper fire and mortar bombardments for nearly eight years. Now, things look to get much worse.

Models at Ukraine Fashion Week 2022. Photo: Tom Mutch

The attack force of around 150,000 service people that Russia has built up on Ukraine’s borders is the largest invasion force seen in Europe since the Second World War.

Since the chaos of the 2014 Maidan revolution, the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbas, Ukraine has outstripped the expectations of many in the international community.

The streets of major cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv are clean and bustling, and the country’s main thoroughfare of Kreshatyk is filled with major shopping brands. A vibrant classical and modern cultural scene has expanded and flourished through the conflict. The local opera house has listings for Rigoletto and Madame Butterfly going well into next month while the Pinchuck Arts Center is hosting a contemporary art exhibition for emerging artists from countries as varied as Spain, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

Most importantly, while the country has still struggled with high levels of inequality and corruption, it is still a functioning democracy. After Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on protestors from Belarus in 2020, many journalists and human rights activists fled to take sanctuary in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have urged calm, but one who spoke to Byline Times said had confirmed they expected Mariupol to be one of the first targets of a Russian military invasion. Wedged between occupied Crimea and separatist-controlled Donetsk, Mariupol occupies an important strategic position.

If US intelligence is correct, that invasion could be coming within the next week. Various possibilities have been discussed, from the annexation of Ukraine’s eastern provinces or a breakout from Crimea to create a land bridge to Russian controlled territories in the Donbas. The worst-case scenario would be an overwhelming offensive that could see tanks at the gates of Kyiv in days. 


The UK, US, Australia, and many other countries have urged their citizens to flee the country within the next 48 hours. NATO has made it clear that if Ukraine is invaded, the country will be on its own militarily as western nations have made it clear that they will not provide ground troops. But even at the precipice of war, life in most of Ukraine goes on almost completely as normal. 

Julia Tymoshenko. Photo: Tom Mutch

“Ukrainian people are living in a state of constant emotional terror, trying to go day by day with routine tasks while starting to start to plan evacuation strategies and start packing emergency bags,” said Julia Tymoshenko (pictured ), a 22-year-old corporate consultant from Kyiv said in a viral Instagram post that clocked up over 100,000 shares over just a few days.

As she explained in an interview with Byline Times “in Ukraine now, we live this surreal double life, where during the day we go about our work and lives as if everything is normal. When we get home, we share strategies for survival- we discuss relatives we can stay within western provinces, means of leaving the country or ways we could evacuate if Kyiv was attacked.”

“I expected my post might get shared by a hundred people… not a hundred thousand. The response has been overwhelming, as has the level of support been from all over the world. I’m only now starting to process it. We were even happy to have your Prime Minister here supporting us. We’ve been saying to ourselves, you know you are screwed when your best friend is Boris Johnson!”

Julia stressed “people think this is not just the recent conflict, but it’s not. Ukraine has been struggling for its independence as a nation for centuries. With our own unique culture, language, and literature.” Now the nation faces its greatest test. As a PBS reporter described last night ‘US officials anticipate a horrific, bloody campaign that begins with two days or aerial bombardment and electronic warfare, followed by an invasion, with the possible goal of regime change.’

The attack force of around 150,000 service people that Russia has built up on Ukraine’s borders is the largest invasion force seen in Europe since the Second World War. They have amassed around 100 BTGs (battalion tactical groups) equipped with all the most powerful weapons, vehicles and missile systems in the Kremlin’s arsenal.

The US, UK and other allies have threatened Russia with severe economic reprisals including sanctions, the cancellation of the Nordstream II pipeline and expulsion from the SWIFT international banking system.  They have struck a mostly unified note of condemnation for Russia’s military aggression. But NATO members have made clear that they will not be providing ground troops in the event of an invasion.

Despite the lack of support for Ukraine and the increasingly dire alarm bells ringing, some US officials still sound a triumphant note.  While we shared a pizza at Veterano’s, a restaurant chain in central Kyiv run by Ukrainian soldiers and militiamen, one American diplomat was infuriated by the implication that the US was not doing enough, launched into a passionate defence of the West and NATO’s actions.

“President Putin only understands power, force, and territory. He didn’t understand how when the West stands together, we are united in our determination to fight for freedom, democracy, and our values,” he said. “The best option for Putin now would be to back down and save face.”

When I quoted this Hollywood sounding speech to Neil Hauer, a journalist and regional expert on the post-Soviet region, he snorted and told me “It’s true, of course, the West will fight Russia. To the last drop of Ukrainian blood!”

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