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.
The deployment of paratroopers is a recognition of the importance that Lviv has not only as a supply route and rear base, but as a cultural and spiritual center of Ukrainian resistance, especially if the capital, Kyiv, is encircled and cut off.
“Kyiv is the heart of Ukraine, Lviv is the soul,” the mayor said, using a phrase that many inhabitants repeat.
“We are the diplomatic capital of Ukraine right now,” he said. “And a lot of government agencies have their headquarters here right now because they moved here to have adequate accommodation, and so all the government systems are in operation despite the bombardment.”
Lviv has its own singular history that both separates it from the rest of Ukraine and inspires the nation. It is in a largely agricultural region where the people are more conservative, close to nature, and, according to Soviet stereotypes, seen as less sophisticated than those in the more industrialized eastern part of the country, said Bohdan Shumylovych, a professor of Cultural Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
For 200 years of its recent history until 1939, Lviv was a separate state from the rest of the country, first as part of the Hapsburg monarchy and later as part of Poland, Oleksandr Zaitsev, a professor of contemporary history of Ukraine at the same establishment, wrote in an electronic message.
“Besides, Lviv was the center of the Greek Catholic Church, founded in the late 16th century, while most Ukrainians living in the Russian Empire were Orthodox.”
And because Lviv and western Ukraine only came under Moscow’s rule after World War II, it spent a shorter time under Russian and Soviet influence. Ukrainian is much more widely spoken in the western regions than elsewhere, and Lviv was often in the forefront of the Ukrainian national movement, including during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Even in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a strong anti-Soviet sentiment in Lviv,” Mr. Zaitsev wrote. “That is why, in 1990-1991, Lviv residents were among the strongest supporters of Ukraine’s separation from the U.S.S.R.”
That spirit of resistance is now everywhere in Ukraine, and while Kyiv is the center of the resistance today, historians and politicians said, the inhabitants of Lviv remain proud of their reputations as nationalist leaders.
Former members of a militia group, who ran security and medical evacuations when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, were reorganizing this week in a private school in the city. Their motto, “Slaves are not taken to heaven,” was that of a legendary Cossack leader.
Their guards were out on the first night of the war helping defend the airport, said Ivan Sprynskyi, a lawyer who heads the organization. “Now we are organizing people from abroad and getting those who want to go closer to the front.”
The Ukrainian army is better trained and equipped than when the fighting first broke out seven years ago, but their members were supporting them, a veteran of the group said.
“We are here but lots of our brothers are in spots all over Ukraine,” he said, giving only his first name and military nickname, Ihor “Sava.”
A former military engineer from Cleveland, Ihor Koval, said he had already set up a website to help fund raise and bring in nonlethal equipment to help equip new recruits. Two women inside the office were helping with logistics for people volunteering from abroad.
Across town men lined up outside a hunting shop to purchase rifles. And, at a military school, hundreds of men were registering to join the territorial defense force Friday morning. As an air raid siren sounded, noncommissioned army officers led groups of recruits into the basement to demonstrate how to dismantle and operate a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Artists, designers and software developers were among those signing up.
“I think we must, so that we are one people,” said Demyan Voytovych, 42, a designer. “They are already fighting in Kyiv and Kharkiv, so this will show our unity and our strength to the world.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting.