Lviv is preparing for the worst in Russia

As the golden evening sun fell gently on the cobblestone streets, guests sat on the café terraces and enjoyed coffee and sweets. A nearby shop sold bunches of yellow tulips. A mother was pushing a stroller and two other passers-by were walking their dogs. Then the air-raid sirens wailed, incongruously. After four weeks of war, the city’s residents have hardened against the sound. They did not run, but sought shelter.

That was Tuesday. On Saturday – after leaving Ukraine and visiting President Biden Warsaw, some 250 miles from Lviv – explosions rumbled and smoke billowed in this western Ukrainian city of 700,000 people. Earlier this month, Russian missiles hit an aircraft repair plant on the outskirts of Lviv and a military base in Lviv Oblast, but the city itself appeared to be one of the few safe places in Ukraine.

In peacetime, Lviv is known for its easy-going mood and cultural vibrancy. As the war stretches into its second month, it has acquired new political and strategic importance, which could put it at increased risk. “It is a city that ensures the proper functioning of the entire country,” Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said in an interview late last week.

The President and Parliament remain in the capital, Kyiv, but discussions have been held about holding some parliamentary sessions in Lviv. Almost all remaining embassies have moved here. “Certain ministries and central authorities have moved not only to Lviv, but also to various cities in western Ukraine,” said Maksym Kozytskyy, head of the Lviv region. He declined to say more, citing security concerns. Some of the cases in Kyiv’s courts have been assigned to Lviv and other western oblasts, says Sergii Ionushas, ​​​​chairman of the parliamentary committee for prosecution and the law reform commission.

The city “is changing and I don’t know how we’re going to react to that yet,” said Taras Yatsenko, co-founder of popular local media outlet Tvoe Misto (“City of You”). “I wouldn’t call it a capital or second capital,” he continued. “It is a cultural capital, the soul of Ukraine. . . . I would call it a with strong emphasis in the interim second capital because we believe Kyiv will remain strong.”

Lviv’s last days of peace

The western Ukrainian city is known for its easy-going mood and cultural vibrancy in peacetime.

A street scene in Lviv on March 22, four days before Russian missiles landed.

Jillian Kay Melchior

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Mr Sadovyi said Lviv removed all military equipment, facilities and infrastructure from the city to reduce its attractiveness as a destination. But Mr Kozytskyy said the oblast is a key transit point for military equipment and humanitarian aid going to the rest of Ukraine.

“We were better prepared than other cities,” said Mr. Sadovyi. He and his deputy mayor traveled to the UK last year to meet emergency and resilience specialists and plan a crisis response. Lviv stocked medical supplies and diesel generators, and ensured that water could be transferred even if the power went out.

“The preparation is now paying off,” said Mr. Sadovyi. “But how can you be prepared for children being killed and cities being leveled?” The reality of the war was more serious than the worst-case scenarios his team had projected: “We expected around 100,000 refugees – and we have twice as many.”

That’s a lot for a city of just over 700,000 before the war. Overall, the oblast has taken in between 450,000 and 500,000 internally displaced persons. The city is “a place where the wives and children of our fighters feel safe,” Mr. Sadovyi said. “It is important for us that Ukrainians stay in Ukraine, because after the war we need workers to rebuild our country.” Mr. Kozytskyy estimated last week that 1.1 million Ukrainians have passed through the oblast since the war began entered Poland.

The influx to and through Lviv puts a strain on its physical and social infrastructure. Downtown traffic is crawling and parking is hard to find. The mayor says the city is in dire need of quick-build modular homes: “We have to understand that all the hotels, hostels, apartments and other accommodations are full, so there is nothing, not a single space, that is vacant.” Schools, libraries and theaters serve as makeshift shelters, but “people cannot live there forever”.

A Samaritan’s Purse field hospital operates in the underground parking lot of a city mall. “Lviv as a system is not broken, yet there are hundreds of thousands who cannot get medical care,” said Elliott Tenpenny, an American doctor who heads the nonprofit’s international health division. The war has disrupted surgeries and treatment for chronic diseases in Ukrainians’ hometowns. Some patients show up believing they are having heart attacks, which turn out to be panic attacks caused by the stress and trauma of war.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Jillian Melchior, editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Images: Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

Lviv also serves as a haven for Ukrainian companies relocating from Kharkiv, Kyiv, Zaporizhia and other cities under Russian attack or threat. The mayor estimates that 85% of local businesses in Lviv are still operating, “and we are picking up the pace. It is crucial that people continue to work, receive salaries and pay taxes. That is the primary task of all those citizens of Ukraine who are not currently under attack.”

The city imposed a curfew at 10 a.m. every night, and the sale of alcohol was banned. However, the restaurants are open and full, as are the souvenir shops. One sells toilet paper rolls with Vladimir Putin’s face printed on them. Another sells stickers with a pair of comics and a caption that refers to an anti-tank missile: “Love is when he gives you a Javelin.”

“We have one front line, which is our military, and another front line, which is our business and our economy,” said Yaryna Boychuk, CEO of the Ukrainian Catholic University’s business school. It recently launched a platform to connect Ukrainian companies with foreign customers to compensate for lost local customers. Her message to the West: “We need your support in buying our stuff – don’t just give us money, preserve our value.”

Roksolana Holovata from Lviv Interactive, a digital encyclopedia of the city and its history, feels familiar with Lviv’s current experience. Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, she had been doing research on protecting the city’s cultural heritage. (Lviv was part of Poland before the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. It was sandwiched between two invading armies and absorbed into the Soviet Union.) Now she archives information on the same subject during the current war for future historians. She says Lviv residents are discovering what their predecessors knew about bomb shelters and air raids.

“It’s very important for me to see everyday life in cities, how they survive in times of war,” Ms. Holovata said. This war “is just beginning, but I don’t know how this story continues.”

Ms. Melchior is an editor for journal editorial pages.

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