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KYIV — Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko has been in tough corners before as a heavyweight prizefighter, but now he’s in the bout of his life preparing the city to endure a freezing winter under Russian attack.
Russia “wants Ukraine without Ukrainians,” he told POLITICO in an exclusive interview at his Kyiv city hall office, adding that his compatriots must resist. “They want to freeze us, destroy our electricity, our heating, our generators.
“They are doing everything to move Ukrainians away, but these [are] our homes, our cities and we don’t want to leave,” he added.
Russia’s bombardments have ramped up fears of a new war refugee wave into western Ukraine and the EU, but Klitschko insisted that morale was holding up in the capital. That said, he also stressed his need for new air defense batteries, which could include the Patriot system from the U.S.
Klitschko clarified remarks he and other Ukrainian officials made earlier this month, emphasizing he doesn’t want to see any of Kyiv’s more than 3 million residents leaving or fleeing. Officials including Roman Tkachuk, director of security for the Kyiv municipal government, raised the prospect of a mass evacuation in the case of a complete blackout. He later retracted his remarks.
At worst, if Ukraine’s capital is left without any heat thanks to Russian airstrikes targeting the power grid and “if we can’t deliver water and electricity,” then “I will ask people to look into the possibility of moving to houses in villages and districts around Kyiv where they can have water and warmth,” he said.
That’s Klitschko’s worst-case scenario and he’s urging the city’s residents that, if they don’t want to leave, they “have to be prepared” and they need to ensure they have enough drinking water stored and batteries to charge cell phones and other electrical equipment.
Klitschko explained his winter plans in his office nine floors above Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main street where eight years ago he joined the so-called Maidan protests that led to the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s satrap in Ukraine. “That was a different world,” he said.
Dressed in camouflage green with body armor propped up in a corner in an office full of boxing memorabilia and models for future city building projects, Klitschko said Kyiv has been preparing a thousand centers — mainly schools and pre-schools — to shelter residents for the worst of times. They have bought wood-burning stoves and generators to heat the shelters, although schools were picked because some already have independent heat sources.
And food, water and medical supplies are also being stored. The city has already lost around half of its energy capacity from the Russian missile strikes, and districts are enduring pre-planned rolling outages. Most areas have no street lighting — part of an effort to reduce energy needs.
Klitschko reels off a list of items Kyiv needs from Ukraine’s Western allies to ride out the winter: generators, sleeping bags, warm clothing, mattresses.
But, above all, he stresses Ukraine needs more air-defense systems to interdict fully its skies and to prevent any missiles or drones from getting through. “We have to protect the sky above our heads,” he said.
He labels Russia’s zeroing in on Ukraine’s power grid an act of terror. In Kyiv, the strikes have also been on the historical center “close to our main university and kindergarten playgrounds,” he fumed.
“And that’s why we need right now to protect [the] sky above the head of our citizens and that’s why we need [more] air-defense systems immediately,” he said. Asked if that would include the U.S. Patriot system, he said, “Yes, of course; we would be very happy.”
As he grabbed a hasty lunch — a single chocolate candy bar — he emphasized again what he sees as the Russian goal: “They want people to be depressed and flee. And you know what’s interesting? Nobody is leaving. They aren’t achieving their goals. After the rocket attacks, people aren’t depressed, they’re angry and ready to fight.”