KYIV, Ukraine — When Russian troops were bearing down on Kyiv in the first months of their invasion, Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion who has been the mayor of the Ukrainian capital since 2014, had a clear message: “Better that we die than we give up.”
Nine months later, his sentiment is the same, but the battle he is waging is in some ways very different.
He needs to hold together a city of 3.3 million — a population larger than that of Rome or Paris — even as Russia appears intent on making it unlivable. Unrelenting waves of Russian missile strikes have led to persistent power outages, temporarily stopped the flow of running water and disrupted telecommunication systems. Days after the last heavy barrage of strikes, more than 1.5 million residents remain without regular power at any given hour.
While his city has been spared the kind of vast destruction visited on other parts of Ukraine, it has hardly been unscathed. Some 350 residential buildings, 77 educational institutions, 25 transportation facilities and 26 health care facilities have been destroyed by Russian bombs since the start of the war, according to Mr. Klitschko. At least 150 residents have been killed in the city, including four children.
But the statistics do not fully capture how Russia’s long-range missile bombardment aims to tear at the basic fabric of this modern, industrial city.
Mr. Klitschko, 51, faces a complicated messaging challenge: He needs to brace the public for harder days ahead and develop plans for worst-case scenarios without handing the Russians a propaganda victory or suggesting to Moscow that its attacks are succeeding.
After all, he said, Moscow’s missile campaign is intended to set off another wave of refugees into Europe.
“This is actually the main dream of Russia,” he said in an interview in his office on Tuesday.
That is why the discussion around any possible evacuation of residents from Kyiv is so fraught. As things stand, there are no official plans to move large numbers of people from the city. If energy problems grow more dire, officials said, initial efforts would be directed at helping the most vulnerable residents move temporarily to places where they can be better cared for, such as in the Kyiv suburbs.
Many will not want to leave, no matter how hard it gets, Mr. Klitschko said. “It’s not easy, but people stay in their homes — and home is always better — and don’t want to be evacuated,” he said.
The stress of the moment has led to the first public rupture between the mayor and President Volodymyr Zelensky. Amid reports of delays in setting up heating centers and other emergency facilities for residents, Mr. Zelensky issued a rare rebuke of the performance of the city’s leaders over the weekend, saying: “There are many complaints in Kyiv. Please pay attention.”
Asked about those comments, Mr. Klitschko said he did not want to be drawn into a political dispute. He acknowledged “a lot of challenges” but said that his administration was working around the clock to provide services. Nothing would make Moscow happier, he added, than to see “fighting inside the country against each other.”
“They want to destroy the country from inside,” Mr. Klitschko said, “to bring panic and depression to our people.”