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24.02: The Invasion Reconstructed. Episode 2 – Zaluzhnyi's office, meetings at Zelenskyy's, and the evacuation of the Cabinet of Ministers

— Friday, 8 March 2024, 13:00

"I clearly remember when [Commander-in-Chief] Valerii Zaluzhnyi called: it was just after 4 am", - 

Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Former Minister of Defence, recalls the morning when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

"I had set an alarm on my phone for 6 am because three foreign ministers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which are friendly to us, had arrived the day before, and Dima Kuleba [Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister – ed.] had asked me to take them to Donbas. I’d chartered a flight from Kyiv Zhuliany Airport for the convenience of our counterparts. And we’d planned to take off at 8 am, arrive in Kramatorsk, and take them on a tour of the troops.

But the call came [before that could happen]. I picked up the phone and saw that it was Zaluzhnyi. I listened. And he said, ‘Oleksii Yuriiovych, they’ve attacked.’ It was very brief... We had gone over this all before, so this one phrase was enough for me to understand that this was not just [a minor skirmish] somewhere, but a real attack. I said, ‘Understood, I'll be with you in 20 minutes’."

Ukrainska Pravda presents the second episode of our podcast reconstructing the events of the first day of the Russian invasion.

In this episode, some of the people who were most directly involved in these events recall how the Ukrainian government in Kyiv tried to maintain control of the country, how the first wartime session of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) took place, why the government left and where they went, and why the speaker of the parliament and the president spent a month avoiding each other.

The first episode of this podcast, "Preparing for the Invasion", can be found here.

Please subscribe to the "24.02: The Invasion Reconstructed" updates:

Defense Ministry termite mound and Zaluzhnyi's office 

While the Minister of Defence, woken up by the call from Commander-in-Chief Zaluzhnyi, was on his way to work, most of the country's citizens were still sleeping peacefully. Povitroflotskyi Avenue in Kyiv, where Reznikov was heading, was deserted, as it always was at that time of the day. But as soon as he approached the gate to the Defence Ministry, it became clear that something had changed.

"When you entered the Defence Ministry building before – there are a lot of checkpoints there – all of the men on duty would just be in [normal] uniform. But when I arrived at about 5 am on 24 February, they were all wearing bulletproof vests and helmets and carrying machine guns. In other words, they were in full combat gear. That struck me immediately. And straight away, [sand]bags began to appear – they were being used to build fortifications and combat positions," Reznikov recounts. 

Almost as soon as the first internal reports about the Russian attack came in from the Army, the entire Ministry of Defence building began to resemble a large termite mound, where soldiers carrying sandbags were building their own small section of a large defensive contour. Other government bodies, which Russian propaganda would start to call "decision-making centres", were soon doing the same thing at their headquarters.

Every window became a combat position – even those in the minister's office, which is strictly off-limits to outsiders during normal hours.

After seeing the tension outside, the atmosphere inside the building, which houses the Ministry of Defence and the General Staff of the Armed Forces, felt completely different. 

The way Reznikov remembers it, at first it seemed as if nothing special had happened, the only difference being that work had started at 4AM.

General Zaluzhnyi's office was filled with military personnel, as it usually was, and the Commander-in-Chief himself and his deputies were discussing military activities in his office, as they usually did.

But there was a difference. The combat actions being reported to command were no longer theoretical thought exercises or training drills. There was a full-scale invasion to repel.

Reznikov describes the atmosphere in Zaluzhnyi's office in the first few hours of the invasion.

"They got reports from the relevant commanders on various fronts: what was happening, where, and on what front. After receiving the reports, they gave an appropriate response. They reported, ‘This and that is happening, we are doing this and that.’ Okay. If Zaluzhnyi saw that artillery support, for example, was needed, or a convoy [of Russian vehicles – ed.] was coming, he’d call the person in charge of artillery. He’d say, ‘Can you hit it?’ ‘Yes, pass that on.’ Troops were being commanded in real time.

All means of communication were being used - every kind of channel you may be familiar with. We have our special military communication systems, secure phones, and ordinary messaging apps that everyone knows – they were all being used."

"There was a lot of activity going on, but I don't remember noticing any particular change in Zaluzhnyi. He’s always been focused and collected ever since I met him. That's why he remained so. Nothing had changed for him. He had been preparing for this attack his whole life, and now the moment had come. Zaluzhnyi was just doing his job. And that always gives you this sort of confidence, because you see him absolutely calm - Moisiuk [Zaluzhnyi's deputy – ed.] and Shaptala [Chief of the General Staff – ed.] are the same way.

He receives the results of the orders on the phone: "Ah, good, well done, that's it, go ahead, okay.". Of course, the commands included a lot of swearing. When the command ‘Fire!’ came, it was expressed with slightly different words. 

The president was absolutely focused too. There was no change [in demeanour] because he was also mentally prepared. We’d discussed this a lot beforehand, when we were flying to and from Munich for the [Security] Conference. So we were all inwardly ready."

"Whoever leaves is a traitor" - the first wartime session of the Rada

At around the same time, on the other side of Kyiv, Ruslan Stefanchuk, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, also woke up to the sound of explosions.

"The first explosion was at about 5 am. My wife and children and I woke up in our apartment in the [east] bank [area] of Kyiv.

And my wife asked, ‘What is it? Has it started?’ I replied, ‘Well, I guess so.’ The first call immediately came in from the late Interior Minister, Denys Monastyrskyi. He said that it had started; that the Russians had already crossed the border".

The Interior Minister’s call was followed by one from Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, who informed Stefanchuk that the President was convening a meeting of the council. Stefanchuk immediately got dressed, went downstairs, and drove to the Office of the President. 

"It wasn’t even 6 AM yet, so I got from the [east] bank to the President’s Office very quickly. Then the president came out in his white shirt and said, ‘Well, fate has chosen us.’ No one was in a panic, but everyone clearly understood that something had to be done and that we had to ensure Ukraine did not fall in the next few days".

The most important thing to be decided at that meeting was the introduction of martial law in Ukraine and the announcement of mobilisation. In order for Zelenskyy's decree to be put into effect, it had to be approved by members of parliament, whom Stefanchuk was gathering for a session.

"I immediately went to the Rada together with the Chief of Staff, and we started gathering the attendees."

The session almost ran into a problem: when MPs began to arrange the [virtual] meeting in chat rooms, it was decided that if the connection faltered, the meeting would instead be held in a room under the Motherland Monument, a Soviet-era statue of a woman personifying Ukraine.

"So some of our colleagues started going there [anyway]. Leaders of factions and groups were arriving there. And one of the more hype-loving MPs started doing a live stream where he revealed where he was going and where we’d be having the meeting. When we saw all of this, we decided that we would instead meet in the Verkhovna Rada at 5 Hrushevskoho Street".

*     *     *

Petro Poroshenko, the former Ukrainian president and leader of the European Solidarity Party, recounts his first few moments after the Russian invasion in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda:

"I didn't hear the explosions until Maryna, my wife, woke me up. The first missiles hit near Boryspil and Vasylkiv. We heard it all – the windows were shaking, the phone was ringing non-stop, and everyone started calling, including women who knew Maryna and were terrified. Mykhailo Zabrodskyi [an MP in Poroshenko’s party] sent me a one-word text message: ‘Started.’

The first thing I said was, ‘Maryna, you have to leave. I'm staying. I don't know when I will leave, but I won’t abandon my country.’ And Maryna made me proud and happy when she said, ‘I'm staying right here with you.’"

At around 7 am, Poroshenko arrived at the Rada. He recalls what he saw there.

"My impression? An enormous number of people were frightened. It wasn’t just the MPs, but also people from the supporting groups who didn’t know what was going to happen. The way they were describing it, it would be necessary to evacuate the parliament in order to ensure that the country kept functioning. I told them that, first of all, if you evacuate the parliament I’m not coming. Secondly, although you have the right to do so, it will send a very strong signal to everyone that they should flee Kyiv. Let those who want to leave leave, but don’t let anyone hear about it, because we have to remain here to show that we are determined and not about to surrender the city."

There was indeed talk of evacuating the parliament among the confused MPs. However, organising such a coordinated action would have been challenging. Oleksandr Kornienko, First Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda:

"The question of evacuation was highly rhetorical. The parliament would have continued to meet via video conferencing if we left the building. And [as we saw], the fact that there were no mass evacuations showed people that the authorities had stayed in Kyiv and would stand and fight. And the President saying 'I need ammunition, not a ride' was crucial. You have to understand that evacuating a vast body like the parliament, with its entire apparatus, structures, wires, and communications, is a huge challenge."

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*     *     *

Although MPs started arriving in parliament as early as 06:30, the parliamentary session only started around 08:00. Ukrainska Pravda has managed to obtain a full transcript of that historic meeting.

"Esteemed colleagues, please take your seats and get ready for registration. We’re just waiting for some materials from the office so that we can read everything properly,"

- Ruslan Stefanchuk, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, announced from the praesidium, opening the Rada’s first wartime session at 08:03.

Before voting for the introduction of martial law, Oleksii Danilov made an address to the MPs, a transcript of which is available to Ukrainska Pravda.

"Honourable Members of Parliament and citizens of our country, at five o'clock this morning, the Russian Federation effectively declared war on our independent nation. Today, Russian troops attacked our peaceful towns and villages. Fighting began on the borders of our country today at 5 o'clock in the morning," – 

Danilov addressed the MPs, asking them to vote for the decree.

"The President of Ukraine convened a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council at 05:30 today, where an urgent decision was adopted to introduce martial law in our country. I’m asking you to please support this decision, this presidential decree, as we desperately need it. Our soldiers are in combat today defending our country; everyone is in their positions, and we will not give up our land to anyone. This is our country, and we will protect it," -  

Danilov concluded his speech to applause from the MPs. A vote was then held, and 300 of the 310 MPs present in the hall voted in favour. [The remaining 10 MPs abstained.]

These 300 included members of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform for Life (OPFL) - at least the faction that was not connected to Putin’s associate Viktor Medvedchuk. However, those who had dared to show up at parliament kept as low a profile as possible.

"I hardly noticed them. They were as quiet as mice! They didn't raise their heads or even make a sound," – 

former president Petro Poroshenko remembers in his interview with Ukrainska Pravda. Stefanchuk recalls that on that day, the pro-Russian MPs looked shocked, to say the least.

"It's hard for me to assess their inner state, but they came, they voted in favour, and they seemed shocked that it was happening," – 

Serhii Rakhmanin, an MP from the Holos (Voice) faction, tells Ukrainska Pravda how desperate Yurii Boiko and his associate Nestor Shufrych looked. Boiko was the leader of the OPFL faction and had gone to Moscow to meet with Putin three years earlier.

"I saw a range of emotions on their faces that would definitely have been difficult to fake. The expressions on [both men’s] faces in late February were confusion and, in the case of Shufrych, something closer to despair."

*     *     *

The second important issue that the MPs voted on after the declaration of martial law concerned the functioning of the parliament during the war.

"I propose to extend this plenary session, not close it now. To give me the right as chairman to determine the time, place and method of voting at plenary sessions of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in the future,"

Stefanchuk announced from the praesidium.

In his interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Stefanchuk explains that this decision was made in order to legally guarantee that the Verkhovna Rada could operate in any scenario, even if Kyiv were encircled.

"A decision could have been made if we had gathered somewhere other than 5 Hrushevskoho Street, as there had been various suggestions, such as the Kyiv metro and locations in other Ukrainian cities. Nobody knew what might happen, so we decided that [if we relocated] we would vote with a show of hands instead of using the Rada voting system. No procedures are required for this; it is simply the right of the person who convenes the Rada."

300 MPs also voted in favour of this decision. The session lasted about 10 minutes. Stefanchuk concluded it with the following words:

"Esteemed colleagues, all MPs are staying in Kyiv. Please be ready if necessary to immediately gather in a particular place at a specific time and work for the Ukrainian state. Anyone who leaves is a traitor. Glory to Ukraine!"

"After that, we agreed with my fellow deputy speakers that we would split up for the time being. I was staying in Kyiv, whereas some were going to one place and some to another to ensure that the work of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine could continue,"

Stefanchuk tells Ukrainska Pravda.

He also says the Rada office prepared manuals for the deputy speakers containing a procedure for them to follow in the event of Stefanchuk's death.

*     *     *

The morning of 24 February was nerve-wracking on Bankova Street [the street on which the Office of the President is situated]. In fact, it was the same day the previous proceedings had wrapped up - the main actors had left the President's Office around 01:00 and started coming back at 04:00.

Here's how Andrii Yermak, Head of the President’s Office, recalls that moment in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

"I arrived home around 02:00. I understood the situation because we had a lot of information at that point. But almost an hour and a half later, I received information from both the intelligence service and military about the beginning of hostilities.

So I quickly got ready and was in the President's Office at around 05:00.

I’d been informed that fighting had occurred on the border and bombing had begun. So I was at the Office immediately, almost within the first minute [after arriving]. And when I arrived at Bankova Street, the President was there."

Zelenskyy, who just the night before had been trying to convince important businessmen and the rest of the country’s residents that there would be no major invasion, must have felt the greatest responsibility of all the authorities in the face of the new reality. Now he had to ensure that the country that had been lulled to sleep would wake up, gather its strength and withstand the blow.

And the events of the morning of 24 February proved that the president was aware that his role was, without exaggeration, a historic one.

"I thought only about us, about the state," Zelenskyy recalled in an interview on the morning of 24 February. "I immediately went to the office; I was ready and focused. I didn't waste time pondering the situation, because we held a meeting immediately, and so did the military committee. We were ready to fight back. At such a moment, the most important thing is to make decisions, not to think about what will happen tomorrow or the day after. You have to think about now."

No matter which government or military official we talk to, almost everyone remembers how on the morning of the 24th, Zelenskyy woke them up, called them up, sent them on a mission or set them a task, etc.

And it wasn’t just top Ukrainian officials. The President’s Office confirmed to Ukrainska Pravda that Zelenskyy had eight phone calls with the following world leaders at the highest level on 24 February alone:

US President Joe Biden,

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz,

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson,

Austrian Chancellor Karl Negammer,

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson,

President of the European Council Charles Michel,

and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In peacetime, each of these calls would have taken weeks or even months of complex diplomatic negotiations to arrange.

However, after the Russian invasion, "diplomatic time" was compressed to such an extent that the eight calls in one day mentioned above were just the ones that went through the special secure government communications switchboard. In other cases, the president dialled world leaders on WhatsApp, bypassing the usual services and protocols.

The first such conversation occurred around 07:00 when Zelenskyy called Boris Johnson from his office to ask for help.

There were also calls with the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, and Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, which Zelenskyy reported publicly but were not recorded on the special switchboard of the President’s Office.

Later, the president would describe his manner of calling Ukraine’s partners directly.

"Many of the leaders and I are now like close friends. We call each other several times a day. We just talk on our mobile phones. I really like the fact / that I can talk to leaders on WhatsApp without all this bureaucratic bulls**t. When it's challenging to request something, waiting is extremely frustrating, and people are dying."

This desire to simplify communication and speed up all processes would, in fact, be the main characteristic of Zelenskyy's behaviour from the very first day of the invasion. It would be obvious even at a glance.

At 06:42 on 24 February, Zelenskyy would record his first full-scale war address, telling Ukrainians that martial law was being introduced.

"Russia has attacked our military infrastructure and our border guards. There have been explosions in many cities of Ukraine. We are introducing martial law throughout Ukraine.

A moment ago, I had a conversation with US President Joe Biden. The US has started to drum up international support.

What we need from you today is calm. We need you to stay at home if possible. We are working, the army is working, the entire security and defence sector is working. The National Security and Defence Council, the Cabinet of Ministers, and I myself will be in constant contact with you. I will be in touch again soon."

An hour and a half later, Zelenskyy would keep his word and record a new video address, wearing a smart suit for the last time.

In the hour and a half between the two videos, Zelenskyy found time to hold talks with three other Western leaders, but it was clear that there would be no more time for smart dressing or shaving.

The suit would be hung up in his office on Bankova Street to wait for victory, and Zelenskyy would wear a regular military T-shirt, which would become an integral part of his image as the "leader of the free world".

From the very first hours, the issue of Zelenskyy's evacuation from Kyiv - whose encirclement and occupation seemed inevitable to the West - featured as a separate topic in his communication with Western partners.

The president says that he was surprised by such offers.

"I didn’t even think I would receive offers like that. Offers [to be extracted from Kyiv] did come from our partners. But even from within the country, I was told by security people and figures from other political parties that evacuation was necessary because Ukraine could lose its institutional power if there was no president. So I was supposed to ‘move to a safe place’. But I didn't even consider leaving. I realised that it would not inspire confidence in our country: how can the leader leave?"

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how events would have unfolded if the President’s Office, which has become the main "decision-making centre" in recent years, had suddenly disappeared from Kyiv.

On the contrary, on the morning of 24 February, the building on Bankova Street was perhaps the most crowded in the entire government quarter. This was partly because ministers, MPs, journalists and the military did not fully comprehend the danger of being in proximity to "Target Number 1".

"In those first few hours, it didn’t occur to us that we had to take precautions like not gathering together in one room, or gathering in a protected room and so on. But during that day, these realisations sank in," recalls Oleksii Reznikov, who himself visited Bankova Street on 24 February.

After martial law was introduced, most MPs went looking for safe places, and the leaders of the political parties represented in parliament gathered at the office of the Speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk. It became apparent that they needed to meet with the president urgently and make sure they were all on the same page.

Stefanchuk recalls,

"Immediately after the Parliament session, we went downstairs with the party leaders and agreed on one very important thing: at this time, we have no parties or groups, but one party - Ukraine. We are creating an anti-war coalition in the Verkhovna Rada. I called the president to inform him of this and told him that we needed to meet and discuss everything. He said, ‘Okay, I'll let you know when you can come in.’

I went to my office. Because I was conscious that the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada is subordinate to, as well as a proxy for, the president, we agreed with our colleagues that the president and I would try not to cross paths. That is why David Arakhamiia [the head of the Servant of the People parliamentary bloc, Zelenskyy’s party - ed.] would communicate with the president on behalf of parliament, and I would keep in touch with him."

When the parliamentary delegation arrived at Bankova Street, the first conference call with other Ukrainian regions, led by NSDC Secretary Oleksii Danilov, had just begun.

Oleksii Danilov was trying to get some information out of Kherson, because no one from the oblast state administration or law enforcement agencies was joining the video call. At the time, no one knew that almost all of the security forces had fled the city the day before, and that local Security Service officers had leaked defensive plans to the Russians.

This was why, no matter how many times Danilov swore at the empty window representing Kherson on the screen, no one appeared there.

MP Serhii Rakhmanin, who was in the situation room at Bankova Street at the time, recalls those events in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

"We were in the situation room, where the security forces were informing Danilov about the current state of affairs: losses, bombardments and the rather rapid advance of the enemy forces, especially in some areas, particularly the south.

Some were more confused, some less so. In fact, there is no point criticising people who were in a state of confusion. Everyone was trying to accept the new reality for themselves, build their plans accordingly, and find what they could contribute to the common cause. What impressed me personally was that when we saw Zelenskyy, he did not look confused."

"I think 70 to 80 per cent of the MPs vanished [after voting for martial law - ed.]. The same thing happened with the heads of the security forces," Petro Poroshenko recalls in his interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

"We stayed after the meeting with the heads of the parliamentary factions and had a very good and meaningful conversation with Zelenskyy. Razumkov [a former speaker of the Verkhovna Rada] and others were there. We agreed that from now on, it's a clean slate, tabula rasa. ‘I am no longer the leader of the opposition, you are no longer my opponent. We have a common enemy - Putin.’ This is verbatim. And this was not just coming from me, it was Zelenskyy who suggested it. And at least while Kyiv was in a state of semi-siege, this agreement held," Poroshenko adds.

The Speaker, Ruslan Stefanchuk, also attended the meeting with all the parliamentary faction heads. Although he was not supposed to be in the same room as the president, Stefanchuk was compelled to come by a WhatsApp message from David Arakhamiia: "He messages me, ‘Go to Khmelnytskyi.’ I think he’s asking a question, so I message back that no, I'm here, who told you I wasn’t? I send him a selfie from my office, I look hideous in it. And he says, ‘It’s a decision of the high command.’

After that, we went to Bankova Street and had a rather long conversation with the president. When we were parting ways, the matter of my leaving Kyiv came up again. And I told the president one-to-one, ‘I’m prepared to abide by any decision you make during martial law other than this one.’

The meeting between the president and the MPs was suddenly interrupted: a new threat had emerged, and this time the security staff weren’t asking, but demanding that people move into a secure shelter.

"The guys from the president's security came in and said there had been some [Russian military] movement towards Bankova Street, so the president needed to leave," Stefanchuk recalls.

"But during this time, we discussed the issue of working together for Ukraine. All parliamentary factions and groups confirmed this one by one, including the then-Opposition Platform for Life [a now-banned party with links to Russia - ed.].

We also agreed that the president would stay in his protected place, and that I would leave, but remain within a 10-minute journey of the city centre.

That's how we started what we called a month-long merry-go-round around Kyiv: we were constantly moving around, spending the night at a different location each time, but staying near central Kyiv so that we could attend to business immediately in the event of an emergency."

*     *     *

Like hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Oleksii Chernyshov, the Minister for Communities and Territories Development, woke up on 24 February to explosions outside his window. Around five in the morning, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal informed him that the invasion had begun and that he had to get to work quickly.

But as Chernyshov was getting ready and driving to his office on Velyka Zhytomyrska Street in Kyiv, he had no idea that within a few hours he would be entrusted with the role of leading a potential "government in exile", and given the mission of evacuating this "backup government" from the capital.

"At 11 o'clock, a government meeting was held. It was a direct outcome of the meetings between the president and the prime minister," Chernyshov recalls in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

"I even have an artefact - scribbles from that meeting, on a piece of paper. It begins with one phrase: ‘The war has begun. A full-scale invasion.’ This is the first sentence that was addressed to all the ministers.

This decision was announced at the meeting. In fact, the country's top political leaders made a very sensible decision to reduce the risk of losing control of the government – to divide the government into two.

The first group would remain in Kyiv, whilst the second could continue to make decisions from another location while maintaining a minimum number of 12 ministers."

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov explains the thinking behind the division of the Cabinet into "Kyiv" and "away" groups. Reznikov himself had to stay in the capital.

"We decided that we should divide the government into two: one group that has a quorum and which has no business in Kyiv anyway. They will be able to execute any government decision if anything should happen to us or we cannot be reached.

And those who were needed to sustain the defence effort remained in Kyiv. It was a very sensible decision. But even so, we [the "Kyiv" group] wouldn’t be attending government meetings in person. We still joined in, each sitting in our own place: in a bunker, in some random office, in a friend's bathhouse, or on the road.

And the other half of us were tuning in from western Ukraine; this secured the resilience of the governmental system.

Actually, the Covid pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Shmyhal’s government.

During the pandemic, we’d learned to run the government remotely and still keep up to date with everything that was going on. You got used to seeing people drinking tea at home or joining [calls] from their cars. My Maine Coon cat often joined me to say hello to everyone online."

But the decision to move some members of the government to a secure location wasn’t in and of itself sufficient: this plan had to somehow be carried out in the chaos of the morning of 24 February.

Oleksii Chernyshov tells Ukrainska Pravda:

"The prime minister announced that the government would be split into two. I was effectively appointed the acting head of its second half. During the first day, my responsibilities included organising the evacuation, and relocating the second half of the government to a location that would meet certain security standards.

Everything was happening quite quickly, and by around two in the afternoon two trains set out for western Ukraine. As for the location, we considered several options, but the final decision wasn’t made until we were already en route. As everyone now knows, we decided on Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast."

Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov was in his office when he learned that the full-scale war had started. Airport directors in Kharkiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro called him throughout the night, telling him they had blocked the runways in their airports. The directors of Ukraerorukh [Ukraine’s state air traffic control enterprise] informed him that they had closed Ukraine’s airspace at two thirty in the morning.

"My first deputy and I met in my office. At some point that morning we heard a loud bang, and felt the windows tremble," Kubrakov tells Ukrainska Pravda.

"Our ministry doesn’t have a [large bomb] shelter, only a tiny room big enough for five people – not everyone would fit in there. We decided to move everyone to safer locations in western Ukraine that very morning.

After meeting with the prime minister, we decided to charter a train to evacuate ministers, their families, and critical secret documents.

But we were caught up in the chaos and confusion of the war. I talked to everyone in the senior management of Ukrzaliznytsia [Ukrainian Railways, the state railway operator] before we could piece together two trains from whatever was available. Nothing luxurious, but people were grateful for it.

Later, once the trains were prepared to depart, we encountered multiple delays. They were supposed to set out at noon, but they didn’t. The clock struck one in the afternoon and they still hadn’t left. The first train didn’t leave until two that afternoon. All the while, I kept fielding calls from Chernyshov, who kept asking, ‘Where is the train? When is it going to depart? Why hasn’t it left yet?’".

"It was a totally normal train," Chernyshov tells Ukrainska Pravda.

"It consisted of a rake of reserve [carriages] or whatever was available at the time. It wasn’t marked in any special way, and the carriages were mismatched. It wasn’t even completely full. The journey took longer than I expected. It wasn’t a scheduled train, and there were quite a few disruptions that day. Our journey took around 20 hours."

*     *     *

While the trains carried some members of the government away to the west of the country, the ministries that remained in Kyiv entered a new phase, one that Kubrakov jokingly calls "the beginning of chaos".

"Here, total chaos ensued: everyone was running around, moving stuff between locations and destroying stuff. People were burning secret documents that, according to the rules, had to be destroyed in the courtyard. They used some sort of chemical substance to make sure all documents were thoroughly burned, and we had people from Okhmatdyt [a children’s hospital located just around the corner from the Ministry of Infrastructure - ed.] complaining that the smoke had enveloped their building. There’s only one word to describe this: chaos - albeit organised chaos."

Petro Poroshenko said that some departments started burning documents even before the full-scale invasion began.

"One of the party council members lives on Saksahanskyi Street, across from the State Bureau of Investigation building. Late on 23 February he called me and said, ‘Petro Oleksiiovych, it’s about to start.’ I asked him why he thought so, and he said, ‘Because [personnel from] the State Bureau of Investigation have been evacuating for a few hours now. They’re packing up boxes and archives and fleeing.’"

Those government officials that remained in Kyiv on 24 February started to scatter.

Oleksii Reznikov says that had he acted in accordance with the safety protocol, he’d have had to go to a Ministry of Defence secure command post in Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv that had already turned into a combat zone.

"The secure command post that was assigned to my staff was located in – don’t laugh – Hostomel, in a ‘secure location’ that happened to be the first one ambushed [by Russian forces]. In theory, had we relocated there within a day or two, half of my ministry would have been there, practically on the verge of being captured [by Russian forces, which were approaching Kyiv from the northwest and captured Hostomel in the early weeks of the full-scale invasion - ed.].

So we just spread across several different Defence Ministry buildings. Thank God that there are quite a few of them in Kyiv; there are several small ones. Different departments dispersed, which enabled us to respond to what was happening.

I ordered the financial officers to be evacuated from Kyiv entirely to make sure they could work in a more or less safe location. We took them to different military facilities outside Kyiv."

Some ministries had no bomb shelters at all. Oleksii Kubrakov told Ukrainska Pravda that the Infrastructure Ministry, which he headed at the time, had a shelter designed to accommodate only five people:

"We were at the Ministry of Infrastructure, but there were no shelters there. The [designated] shelter was in Zolotonosha [a town in Cherkasy Oblast, about two hours to the southeast of Kyiv - ed.]"

While central government officials were dispersing across Kyiv and the rest of the country in order to continue governing, Ukraine’s citizens were also responding to the beginning of the full-scale war. Petro Poroshenko recalls the traffic jam caused by people trying to leave Kyiv when he drove into the city that morning.

"I was surprised by the enormous traffic jams," says Poroshenko, recalling his drive into Kyiv that morning. "I kept wondering how all those people had managed to pack their belongings, literally within the first hour [of the invasion]. There were unbelievable traffic jams on roads leading out of Kyiv, totally uncoordinated. Chaos and panic ensued. I was struck by the total absence of police. There were no police officers on the roads and highways – nobody was controlling the traffic."

While some sat in traffic jams to leave Kyiv, a different sort of traffic materialised in the city itself: queues of people in front of the military enlistment offices.

"I clealy remember being told that there were huge queues at military enlistment offices and at resource and equipment centres to obtain weapons, that people had started to join the Territorial Defence Force, and that there weren’t enough guns to go around. I ordered more guns to be brought in from anywhere that still had them, such as the storage depots in Kyiv and Honcharivske" Oleksii Reznikov recalls.

He says that over 20,000 Kalashnikov rifles were handed out in Kyiv alone over the first two days. Checkpoints mushroomed throughout Ukraine’s capital.

"There were checkpoints on every street: one block to the left, one block to the right, anyone setting up whatever they saw fit, wherever they wanted. Including some guarded by armed personnel. People were anxious and afraid. Anything could happen, even friendly fire. Then gradually that was taken care of. [A system of] passwords and permits [developed], National Police and National Guard officers had to be on duty, taking charge [of the checkpoints], and the military and Territorial Defence forces started working properly. That’s when the Voluntary Territorial Hromada Units [DFTGs, or local paramilitary units formed from volunteers - ed.] first started to appear," Reznikov says.

He recounts an incident that happened to Herman Halushchenko, the Minister of Energy, that illustrates the chaos of the early days well.

"I got a call from Herman Halushchenko as we were being called in for a government meeting. He told me he was denied passage through a checkpoint; he’d been pinned to the ground. He told them he was the Energy Minister, but they didn’t care. He called the now-deceased [Denys] Monastyrskyi [Minister of Internal Affairs at the time - ed.] and said, ‘Denys, can you get someone here, National Police or something like that, to get me through [the checkpoint], because they won’t let me through?’ Denys told him, ‘I doubt I’d be able to guarantee you unobstructed passage, because we don’t actually control most of the checkpoints.’

That’s the sort of chaos that reigned then. Fortunately, Herman was eventually released. We’re lucky that they left our minister unscathed. He just had to spend that day at home."

Not all of the checkpoints were self-organised. Petro Poroshenko recalls:

"We were just given tasks by the Defence Staff. ‘Set up a checkpoint in the Sviatoshyno district, on the ring road, so-called checkpoint No. 1’ – done! ‘Set up another checkpoint a kilometre away from it’ – done! ‘[Set up checkpoints] on the roads between Kyiv and Bucha and Irpin’ – done! ‘[Another one] in the Podil district, near the road to Rybalskyi [peninsula]’ – done. ‘The fifth one should go near the position [of Ukrainian forces] in the Obolon district’ – done. ‘Make sure the government quarter is protected, set up checkpoints there’ – done. Just tell us who to report to. All of that was done within just a couple of hours.

And I told you that here, in certain locations near our office, in one particular location – I won’t tell you where exactly – two large-calibre machine gun emplacements were deployed on high ground to conduct surveillance."

That location was the belfry of Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (the Monastery of the Caves), located across the street from Poroshenko’s office.

The former president says that his employees tried to find some Lavra monks to help them set this up, but weren’t able to – the monastery was deserted.

Just like the rest of Kyiv. Kubrakov recalls that he stopped by his home that day to get a few things to tide him over for the first couple of days.

"The building was totally deserted. Only the concierge was sitting there, all on her own. I ran into an acquaintance on the street. She said, ‘Since you’re [still] here, we’ll stay here a while longer too.’

Though the evacuation train took my colleagues away, I didn’t feel we’d been left behind. But these people - ordinary people - looked really lonely. You could sense that they felt like they’d been abandoned by everyone."

"You know, I didn’t tell anyone where the train was going. Even the passengers didn’t know, for security reasons. And then when the moment came, when we finally arrived, some of the passengers – even some of the ministers – were surprised at where we ended up," Oleksii Chernyshov recalls with a smile on his face.

"But when the train was just setting out [from Kyiv], I and everyone else in the government felt very strongly that we had to come back. And we did, not long after."

Authors: Roman Romaniuk and Fedir Popadiuk

Narrator: Ben McBride

Producer: Alina Poliakova

Co-producer and AI-editor: Dmytro Volkovynskyi

Sound producers: Yevhenii Klimuk and Oleh Labynskyi

Assistant: Anna Khivrenko

Translators: Yelyzaveta Khodatska, Elina Beketova and Olya Loza

Editor: Susan McDonald


24.02: The Invasion Reconstructed

"24.02: The Invasion Reconstructed" is a podcast in which UP recreates the events of the day when Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.