Our political editor goes to the heart of Kyiv’s government machine to witness how a country is kept running after a year under attack


Caroline Wheeler

February 18 2023

The Sunday Times


The most striking thing upon entering the Bankova — Ukraine’s equivalent of Downing Street — is how dark it is inside. Every curtain is closed to protect against bomb blasts and the lights are off to reduce the threat of the building being targeted by air attacks or snipers.

On the day I arrived, Kyiv was enduring its most intense bombardment since the early days of the war. The attack appeared to be the Kremlin’s response to a whistlestop tour of the UK and Europe by President Zelensky, which had secured fresh pledges of weapons, equipment and sanctions on Russia.

I had assumed the darkness was a temporary measure because of the latest onslaught, but I am told it is a permanent feature. As I was shown along the vast corridors and up the grand staircase by a guard, I could not even see my feet and was only able to find my way thanks to the torchlight on his phone.

The Bankova, a concrete block of offices, is surrounded by a ring of steel. Checkpoints with armed guards line every street surrounding the compound, with access granted only to those who have the correct documentation and passport. Civilian cars cannot get close, and soldiers ask pedestrians for secret passwords that change daily — often nonsense phrases that Russians would find hard to pronounce.

Earlier that day I had been picked up by security officials at one of the checkpoints and driven in a van through more barriers before entering a courtyard through a huge set of metal gates. Beyond this is the government district, known as the Triangle. Inside, the windows and doors were obscured with sandbags.

Since the start of the war, there have been numerous assassination attempts on Zelensky’s life. Last March, Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, revealed that Zelensky had survived three assassination attempts in one week alone.

Sitting in a waiting room, still with only the light from a phone to illuminate the eerie gloom, I watched as military advisers wearing khaki uniforms bustled in and out of presidential offices.

Barely anyone flinched as the air raids sounded for the fourth time that day — and no one made a move towards the underground shelter. According to a government official, the bunker had been used only once in recent months, after intelligence was received over the summer that the Russians were planning a strike on the government headquarters.

A military strategist, holding a large map folded under his arm, emerged from one of the palatial offices where the military cabinet had been taking place. He sped off down a corridor marked with firing points to help Ukrainian forces protect the president in the event of a siege.

Shortly afterwards, a soldier sitting nearby sprang to his feet. Others in the room also stood to attention as Zelensky, clearly identifiable by his small stature and trademark black hoodie bearing the words “I’m Ukrainian”, strode through the room followed by a group of advisers.

Andriy Yermak, the president’s close friend and most senior adviser, was among them. He and Zelensky had just arrived back from their shuttle diplomacy mission to Europe, modelled on Winston Churchill’s lobbying of America during the Second World War. Yermak was tired, admitting it had been a “long three days” on the road.

The entire past year has been an endurance test for Zelensky and his officials, who work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and often sleep in their dark office building for their own protection. They barely see their families.

Zelensky, who has a grown-up daughter, Oleksandra, manages to see his ten-year-old son Kyrylo about once every ten days. An aide told me that living in the dark away from his wife Olena and children heaped “great pressure” on him.

I had come to Ukraine after interviewing the president last September. That discussion had taken place over Zoom, but having covered Westminster for almost two decades, I was keen to go to Kyiv to discover how a government was able to continue functioning under the extreme pressure of war.

Over the course of a week, I spoke to Zelensky’s closest advisers about the extraordinary challenges faced by the administration in the 12 months since Russia invaded.

Yermak, a former lawyer, is head of the president’s office. Though he rarely gives interviews, he agreed to meet me in one of the Bankova’s oppressive gold leaf and chandelier-festooned reception rooms.

I felt like a mole emerging into sunlight as I was led from the dark of the waiting room into the bright lights of the opulent meeting room, which was briefly illuminated to allow the interview to take place.

How was he coping with the prospect of Putin’s spring offensive?

“We know that they are preparing this offensive and we know that it is . . . a difficult situation,” he told me. However, he was keen to stress that the bombings that day — Russia’s 14th mass missile strike to target critical infrastructure — would have no effect on Ukraine’s resistance. “It’s not changed our positions.”

The immediate crisis during my visit was the brutal battle for control of Bakhmut, a small city in eastern Ukraine once home to a thriving salt mining industry and more than 70,000 people.

Today, 6,000 residents remain, surviving mostly underground without power, water or heating. The months-long battle for Bakhmut has cost hundreds of Ukrainian and Russian casualties per day, according to reports.

Yermak says Ukraine will never give it up. “We have it and we defend it. We are not planning to leave.”

This week will mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. For months, many in Ukraine — including Zelensky — had played down the possibility of invasion, despite persistent warnings from American and British intelligence.

Alexander Rodnyansky, a former academic at Cambridge university who returned home to advise Zelensky on economic policy, woke at 4am to the sound of missile strikes on Kyiv. He was immediately invited to join Zelensky and other aides in the underground bunker beneath the Bankova.

Mykola Solskyi, the minister of agrarian policy and food, told me that the night before the invasion he had sent his family to the relative safety of western Ukraine before returning home to “switch off my telephone, because I really wanted to sleep”.

By the time Solskyi woke up and turned on his phone, Zelensky had announced martial law. The leading figures in the Ukrainian government were moved immediately to underground bunkers with orders from the military to stay there until further notice. A Bankova insider said it was a tough existence: “You don’t see the sun, you don’t know the time.” He added: “If Putin was in his bunker [during the pandemic], then it’s not surprising he went crazy. I didn’t want to stay there for long.”

According to one government source, the initial plan was to stay underground for a week. But events outside caused a change of plan. As Russian forces captured several towns and cities in and around Kyiv, it seemed for several weeks that the capital too would surely fall. Zelensky and his most senior aides spent the best part of two months living underground, surfacing intermittently to reassure the people that he had not fled. Those invited to live alongside the president in the underground bunker had to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding them from sharing any details about the bunker’s design, location or amenities. They were not even allowed to talk about the food they ate.

Isolated below, the team experienced the war through their iPhones. The president’s days were often a succession of meetings, interviews and calls to world leaders. Sleep was snatched and often disturbed.

Solskyi remembers the trauma and terror of those early days, saying, “We don’t speak about that much any more.”

Hours after the invasion, guards inside the secure compound turned off the lights as gunfights broke out around the government quarter, and gave bullet-proof vests and assault rifles to Zelensky and a dozen of his aides.

The team inside the Bankova had to innovate. A key moment was when Zelensky, Yermak and other senior advisers briefly emerged from their underground bunker on the second night of the invasion while Ukrainian forces were fighting the Russians in nearby streets, to record a 40-second speech to his people.

The late-night video clip recorded on the president’s phone was a response to Russian disinformation that he had left the country. “We are all here,” Zelensky said. “We are in Kyiv. We defend Ukraine.”

The speech galvanised the nation.

“It was very important,” said Solskiy, in an interview conducted in the ministry of agrarian policy, an austere Soviet block located close to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station, where Zelensky held one of his first impromptu press conferences after the start of the war.

Zelensky’s determination surprised many. But not Solskiy. “I saw many times that he is very resilient,” he said. “Even stubborn.”

To the amazement of the watching world, Ukraine not only resisted the Russian onslaught but began to fight back. “Firstly, [Russia] underestimated our defensive capabilities,” said Rodnyansky, the former Cambridge academic. “Secondly they over-estimated their own abilities.”

Solskiy was blunter. “What we understand about Russians, is not to expect any clever plans,” he told me. “They behaved in an obvious way.”

As Russian troops fled back to defensive positions in eastern Ukraine and the city of Kyiv gradually began to reopen, those inside the Bankova were growing weary of life in the underground bunker. An official told me of the night he decided to take his chances and leave the secure bomb shelter to enjoy a meal at a recently re-opened restaurant.

In a moment of mischief, he took a photo of his meal and sent it to a senior Ukrainian MP who had yet to emerge. The source recalls: “He answered ‘Where are you’ and then a lot of swearing. Then he came to the restaurant, ordered a burger and got takeaway for everyone else and took it back to the bunker.”

Though the Russians had retreated east, the Bankova was still in crisis mode. “There has been no period of time where we didn’t have a complicated situation on the battlefield,” said Dasha Zarivna, one of Zelensky’s most senior aides. “What is very special about the president and his team is that they always set their expectations very high. Even when nobody believes . . . they do everything possible. When you work with them you start to get inspired by their energy and you always push the limits.”

Rodnyansky said he remained amazed at the functionality of the government, which includes a Monday morning meeting — just as in Downing Street — and a media grid.

This is despite the fact that cabinet meetings were for many months being held underground in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station — which also had a surprise visit from the pop group U2, who performed a concert there in May last year. Rodnyansky said: “A government at war is, in many respects, still very much a normal government. But [because] it’s martial law, there are all sorts of constraints. The atmosphere is different. The priorities and the values — mentally — it’s all about survival now. You don’t have the luxury of thinking about things that you used to.”

To the outside world, Kyiv today looks and feels like any bustling capital. The city’s inhabitants go to work, take exercise, visit the cinema and socialise in bars and restaurants. At rush hour, cars sit bumper to bumper on the main roads as people return home from work.

Yet Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine are still enduring power blackouts after the near-constant bombardment of the country’s critical infrastructure by the Russians.

Residents, who are still subject to an 11pm curfew in the capital, are told to reduce their daily usage but are often plunged into darkness without warning when the energy grid gets overwhelmed.

The hum of generators, which help keep the lights on for restaurants, shops and other businesses, can be heard along many of the city’s main commercial streets. Even the nightclubs have found a way to stay open.

Kyiv and its people have adapted to life at war although the city still bears many of the scars from the conflict.

Destroyed buildings in some neighbourhoods dominate the skyline despite an impressive reconstruction programme. Although people are largely able to go about their normal lives, despite regularly having to take cover during the frequent air raids, the city’s playgrounds are virtually empty. Kyiv is a city with few children, with many having fled with their mothers to safer parts of the world.

I am told by many of those that I met during my visit that the most difficult thing about life at war is the inability to plan for the future. Outside the main railway station in Kyiv, I met an exhausted soldier, smoking a cigarette. He had just returned from the frontline with a haunted look in his eyes.

Originally from the besieged Donetsk region, he was once a dean in the faculty of information technology, but now finds himself directing Ukrainian drones to spy on the enemy.

In Kyiv on a brief trip to visit his parents, he was pessimistic that the war would end soon. “I think it will go on for long time . . . it’s very hard to defeat the enemy. Their manpower and armoury and weapons are far higher than ours. The only way to win is with Western technologies, and [our] motivation.”

Another soldier, a reservist, who was about to be deployed to the front line, was adamant the conflict needed to end before this autumn. “We have already had one winter without heating and electricity,” he said. “It is very hard for our families to live in such a situation. It would be impossible for us to do this again.”

A priority for the Bankova is to keep the economy running. Since the start of the war, there has been a drop in GDP of 20-30 per cent. “That’s better than we anticipated,” said Rodnyansky. “But of course, it’s a very steep crisis.”

Last summer the country skirted with bankruptcy, which was avoided only when Rodnyansky made a direct appeal to the German foreign minister for additional support.

Half of state revenues now come from foreign aid, with a significant percentage of the rest dependent on its giant agricultural industry.

Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, normally contributes 15 per cent of global corn, 10 per cent of the world’s wheat, 15 per cent of barley and nearly half its sunflower oil. Maintaining production and exports in the face of Russian missiles is the chief responsibility of Solskiy, the minister for agrarian policy. “The farmers have to sell their grain at an extremely low price, because logistics are extremely expensive for everything,” he said. Before the war “logistics expenses from field to port was about $30. At the moment it is at least $100.”

Many farmers have opted to join the armed forces to defend their country, which has significantly impaired production.

The lack of exports has had a startling effect on global food supply, particularly in Africa where several nations have been dependent on Ukrainian grain.

In an attempt to meet several goals simultaneously, Zelenskky announced Grain From Ukraine in November, a humanitarian food programme to export vast stores of food holed up in warehouses across Ukraine to famine-stricken countries in Africa by persuading international funds, foreign governments, charitable organisations and private businesses to buy it for onward transfer.

The Bankova hopes the supply of food can be used as a diplomatic tool to counter Russia’s influence across Africa. Putin’s mercenary Wagner Group provides security for African leaders in countries such as Central African Republic, in return for control over gold, diamonds and other resources.

Nineteen African countries abstained from a UN resolution condemning Moscow’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine in October, while 26 voted in favour. “Russians are present in Africa and they want to promote their point of view,” Solskiy said. “We must improve our presence.”

What’s happening on the front line also has a “massive” effect on the economy, according to Rodnyansky. Military gains create “positive expectations, so people return from abroad, they start investing, producing here and feeling more confidence. If there’s the slightest negative piece of news . . . people become scared, they start fleeing and production stops.”

Over the past few months, Putin has ordered the conscription of up to 800,000 civilians to bolster defences and support Russia’s counter-offensive, which began during my visit to Kyiv.

Though Yermak said the new Russian troops were “not very disciplined” he admitted the sheer “number of the people” was a problem.

To counter this, Ukraine has opened a new voluntary mobilisation scheme with “good results”, according to a Bankova insider, who added: “A lot of people are ready to go and fight. We also have volunteers from other countries. We have Chechens, Polish, Belarussian, Lithuanian, from the UK, US and Canada.”

Ukraine’s fate will be determined by the strength of the support from its Western allies, but senior Bankova sources expressed concern at the prospect of the Republican Party winning the US presidential election in 2024, amid reports that the GOP would prefer to spend money on domestic priorities.

Ukraine spends huge time and resources on diplomatic outreach and Zarivna, the president’s senior aide, said the Bankova was targeting countries that were “not supporters” in the European Parliament. These include Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, who is a critic of Zelensky’s regime and has said he will veto any EU sanctions against Russia affecting nuclear energy. “Some were even saying pro-Russian messages and that was not easy,” Zarivna said. “We need to come and explain and explain and explain.”

Yermak is furious that hundreds of pro-war Russian singers, artists and influencers are able to travel freely in the West. There was shock within the Bankova when Philipp Kirkorov, described as “Putin’s favourite singer”, attended the Grammy awards in Los Angeles this month.

Yermak has written to Western tech giants, including Spotify, asking them to remove the Russian propagandists from their platforms, and to BP and Shell, urging them to cut business with Russia further and stop “profiting from Russian commodities”.

Bankova officials are rightly proud of what they have achieved in the space of a year. Few world leaders thought Ukraine could survive the Russian invasion for so long.

While Yermak is forced to work in the relative darkness of Bankova, he hopes that recent diplomatic efforts have triggered a lightbulb moment for the rest of the world.

On the eve of the first anniversary of this war, he had a stark message for Ukraine’s western allies: “It’s possible to end this war in this year. It’s absolutely not necessary to have a second anniversary. Give us everything which we need to win.”