LVIV, Ukraine — Municipal workers were wrapping statues in protective coverings and boarding up the stained-glass windows of the many churches that fill this historic European city in western Ukraine, as the population readied for war.
The city of Lviv, no more than 50 miles from the border with Poland, has been spared any direct attack so far in the first 10 days of Russia’s invasion. But it is rapidly becoming an important rear base — channeling supplies and men to the frontline cities and supporting hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the other way.
This genteel city of cobbled streets and Austro-Hungarian architecture — a UNESCO world heritage site — has already become home for foreign embassies and government departments relocated from the capital, Kyiv, and is the main route in for medicines, equipment and personnel. According to Western intelligence analysts, foreign-supplied weapons are also being brought through this region across the land border with Poland.
“The Lviv region is a live corridor,” said Oksana Yarynets, 44, an economics professor and former member of Parliament who was organizing supplies and medical training for volunteers at a center for army veterans in the city.
The region has five border crossings into the neighboring countries of Poland, Slovakia and Romania, and one through the Carpathian Mountains, she said. “It’s the only point of supply and also the way the refugees can evacuate through.”
Lviv’s train station is clogged with thousands of people waiting for the four trains a day that still ply the route to Poland, and cars packed with families tail back for almost 10 miles at the main land crossing at Medyka.
Officials were bracing for tens of thousands more refugees expected to arrive Friday from a mass exodus from the capital, Kyiv, amid what refugee officials say is already the largest movement of refugees within Europe since World War II.
“We will have a humanitarian crisis in Lviv tonight,” warned Viktoria Khrystenko, a lawmaker on the City Council who is helping direct the effort to support refugees. “We had 30,000 people arrive last night,” she said. “Tonight we will have 100,000.” There are not enough places to sleep, food to distribute and shelter for the crowds, she said.
Yet as people flee, others are returning and regrouping. Volunteers were loading boxes of supplies onto a train heading back east to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has suffered heavy Russian bombardment for days. Groups of men in woolen hats and winter jackets were boarding the train, too. They had left jobs in Europe to come back and enlist in the fight, from Prague, Berlin and Warsaw, one said.
“We are at war and someone has to defend the country,” said Artem Sypii, 41, a welder who had traveled back from Poland and was heading home to eastern Ukraine.
Lviv has so far escaped attack because Russian forces are focusing their attention for now on the largest and most strategic cities, including the capital, Kyiv. But Western and Ukrainian officials say the Russians made an attempt in the first hours of the invasion to drop paratroopers into the woods outside the city. A firefight ensued that thwarted the attempt, the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, said in an interview.