Kyiv dusts off hundreds of Cold War bomb shelters in case of Russian invasion

Evhen Herasimov unlocks the locks and latches on a metal door of a Soviet-era building in a snow-covered courtyard in Kyiv and leads the way down a flight of stairs. At the bottom is a relic of a bygone time: a Cold War-era bunker capable of withstanding a nuclear strike.

For years the shelter was little more than a curiosity to show to tourists, but amid the growing threat of war with Russia, it has been given a facelift and is once again ready for action.

Designed to house 350 people, the bunker’s mustard-coloured walls gleam with fresh paint. Ten bunk beds have been installed as well as an autonomous air-purification system that could sustain life for two weeks.

There are even new gas masks in wooden boxes in the corner – but Mr Herasimov, who manages nearly 400 emergency shelters in his neighbourhood, keeps them under seal.

“We’ve been working to refurbish emergency shelters: give them a fresh coat of paint, clean up, deal with mold because it’s probably for the first time that we’re facing an external threat: from Russia,” Mr Herasimov told The Telegraph, speaking about his country’s post-Soviet history.

A local official shows the location of the bombshelter on a Dniprovskyi district map in Kyiv.

Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk

The flurry of action comes as Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry near Ukraine’s border and made veiled threats to invade. In response, the mayor of Kyiv last month issued a decree to inspect, catalogue and fix all Cold War-era bunkers and any underground premises that could serve as emergency shelters in case of a Russian invasion or attack.

Kyiv now runs 500 fully equipped, bomb shelters along plus over 4,000 underground safety facilities, ranging from basements to parking lots that can protect people in the event of an air raid or any attack on the capital. There is enough room for more than 2.8 million people, roughly the estimated population of Kyiv, according to the City Hall.

Russia’s state TV has dubbed such preparations “hysterics”, but they come amid the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War, with Ukraine in the middle as a key battleground.

Diplomats from Moscow earlier this week held three rounds of talks with officials from the US, Nato and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe aimed at de-escalating the situation. But they ended, according to Russia’s lead negotiator, in “sort of a dead-end.”

The bomb shelter is located deep beneath a residential suburb in Kyiv.

Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk

On Friday, the US accused Moscow of positioning saboteurs to carry out a "false-flag" operation in the country’s east. The White House said the move would involve sabotaging Russia’s own forces and creating a pretext to invade, possibly within the next month.

The Kremlin last month published an unprecedented list of demands urging the US and Nato to pull out troops and weapons from its neighbours in eastern Europe and commit to barring former Soviet nations such as Ukraine from ever joining the alliance.

The top US negotiator described the requests as “non-starters” but president Vladimir Putin last month made it clear that Russia was not prepared to offer any concessions and that this was a take-it-or-leave-it deal. President Putin and other officials have warned they would have to resort to “military and military technical measures” if diplomacy fails.

“We have run out of patience,” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said on Friday, when asked by the Telegraph why Russia was in such a rush to seek what it describes as security guarantees.

“Let’s make it clear: the West has overstepped the mark and gone ahead with an escalation in violation of all agreements.”

Moscow is waiting for the US to table a written response to its demands next week and will then decide on a course of action, Mr Lavrov added.

There are around 500 bomb shelters across Kyiv

Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk

It is not clear exactly what kind of military action Russia would be ready to take against Ukraine, but many fear a repeat of 2014, when Moscow invaded the Crimean peninsula and illegally annexed it. It also sparked a separatist conflict in the east that is still ongoing.

Mr Putin has denied any plan to send troops over the border, but the Ukrainian government is preparing for the worst-case scenario regardless.

Mr Herasimov looks after 380 emergency shelters in Kyiv’s residential district on the left bank of the Dnipro river, including the fall-out bunker underneath his office.

When authorities first thought of dusting off the shelters, they found many of them in a sorry state and in need of updating.

“Careful, fresh paint!” shouts Mr Herasimov as he shows off a newly installed lavatory.

The Kyiv City Hall last month ordered to inspect and refurbish all emergency shelters

Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk/The Telegraph

Beds have been added in case residents need to stay for a longer period of time.

Credit: Oksana Parafeniuk

Mr Herasimov, a middle-aged man who often slips into his native Russian, opens the sink tap to show clean, drinking water running from giant metal cisterns placed in the middle of the room.

Local authorities last month published an online map listing all bunkers and shelters that can be used in the event of war. A small white sign with an arrow and the number of the shelter is painted on the side of the building, but few passers-by pay any heed.

Local resident Volodymyr Shabanin had just returned to Kyiv after spending most of the year at his country cottage. He told the Telegraph he had no idea there was a bunker but said he already checked out a basement underneath his block of flats.

“I have two shelters in my house: They’re easy to find and marked with arrows,” he said.

But for Mr Shabanin, if the Russians invade then hiding is the last thing he will be doing.

“I know what to do in case of a war. I’ve served in the army – I’m going to enlist to defend my country.”

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