By Matthias Williams
LVIV, Ukraine – Joel Wasserman knew it was time to leave Kyiv when the United States began warning that a Russian offensive on Ukraine could be imminent, and that its capital could be attacked this time.
The 29-year-old American from Maryland took his cat, food out of the freezer and a few possessions and moved to an apartment in Lviv, a city some 470 km (292 miles) away to the west.
Staunch opposition to Russian influence in Ukranian affairs twinned with support for the European Union and NATO have long been widespread in Lviv. Now, it has thrown open its doors to diplomats, companies and individuals who feel unsafe in other cities identified as possible targets of an invasion.
The U.S. embassy has temporarily relocated its core team to the 13th century city, as have diplomats from Germany, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks, ringing alarm bells in the West, though Moscow denies it plans an offensive. This week, Russia has said it is withdrawing some troops from near the borders, a claim met with NATO scepticism.
Long predating the current crisis, Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukranian troops in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that Kyiv says has killed 15,000 people since 2014.
Wasserman first came to Ukraine in 2018 to teach English to veterans of that war. He built a life in the country his great-grandmother emigrated from a century ago.
“Things hadn’t quite come to a head yet two weeks ago but I decided that I wanted to get out,” he said in an interview in the kitchen of his new flat in Lviv, wearing a black Vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered shirt.
By leaving early Wasserman said he avoided the risk of being caught in a crush of people fighting for space on buses and trains, or worse, if things came to head.
“I didn’t want to have to experience gunfire, bombs falling around me, I didn’t want to be in the middle of that panic.”
A city of cobblestone streets and Polish and Austro-Hungarian heritage, Lviv is closer to Warsaw than Kyiv. Busloads of its residents joined the 2014 Maidan street protests in Kyiv that toppled the Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovich.
Western Ukraine is the most staunchly pro-European Union, pro-NATO area of the country, according to a survey last year by the International Republican Institute (IRI).
It is also the most determined to return the eastern Donbass region, now partly occupied by the Russian-backed separatists, and annexed Crimea, back under full control of Ukraine.
“Ukraine is now stuck in the fight of two worlds. A totalitarian regime and the democratic world,” Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi told Reuters in an interview on a city hall balcony overlooking a central square.
“We are free people here. You can feel this freedom right here in the middle of Lviv,” said Sadovyi, who recently visited Donbass and said his city had received refugees from the earlier fighting.
Despite its distance from the border with Russia, the city has made preparations in case of an offensive, including encouraging municipal workers to undergo firearms and emergency medical training, and stockpiling three months’ worth of medicines.
“Two hours on the shooting range gives you more confidence and more courage,” the 53-year-old mayor said.
Speaking to reporters in Lviv on Tuesday, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien said the embassy hoped to be back in Kyiv soon.
Wasserman feels safer in Lviv, he said, but shutting up his flat in Kyiv was unsettling.
“I am worried that I’ll never be able to go back,” he said.