Civilians rush to defend Ukraine as Russia tensions rise

Olga Salo arrived for her first tactical training exercise in an icy pine forest outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv wearing a pink ski jacket and dark blue jeans.

On a cold Saturday in December, when much of the world was celebrating Christmas, the 39-year-old museum guide lined up in military formation along with hundreds of other civilians who had volunteered. defend the homeland front of Ukraine in case of full force Invasion of Russia.

Potential recruits and recruits were issued wooden replica weapons. More experienced recruits and reserves, many in camouflage suits, carry automatic rifles.

“There is a need to prepare and respond appropriately to the worst-case scenario,” Salo said. “If we were ready, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I think the enemy would not attack if he knew he would be resisted here not only by the regular army but also by the population.”

The rush of volunteers comes amid heightened tensions amid reports that Russia has amassed 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow is preparing an invasion. As part of intense diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis, US President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, Talking on the phone on Thursday, ahead of further talks in January between Washington, Moscow and the NATO powers.

Although Putin previously denied any plans to invade, last week he said he was prepared to use “appropriate technical-military measures” and “react harshly to hostile steps.” ” if Ukraine and its Western supporters ignore Moscow’s “red lines”. These include the freezing of Western military support to Ukraine, the rejection of Kyiv’s attempt to join NATO, and the withdrawal of the military alliance’s forces from Eastern Europe.

Salo is attending one of the regular weekly drills organized by Ukraine’s Territorial Self-Defense Forces around the country, an arm of the country’s regular army established a few years ago to train thousands of people. hundred thousand reservists part-time for support roles in the event of war.

This year, the drills were opened to recruits, with an increasing number of ordinary citizens answering the call on advertisements around the country and social media for applicants. to train and potentially join TDF.

Olga Salo holds a wooden rifle as she trains with other civilians and Ukrainian army reservists
Olga Salo, in a pink ski jacket, trains with other civilians and Ukrainian army reservists © Roman Olearchyk / FT

A survey in December by the International Institute of Sociology of Kyiv found that in this country of 44 million people, 58 percent of men and nearly 13 percent of women were ready to take up arms to defend the country against the Russian army. . About 17% of men and 25.5% of women are ready to fight back by other means, including demonstrations and subversive activities.

“No one here greets them with flowers. . . They will be greeted with bullets,” Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, told the Financial Times. “There will be total drag.”

Ukraine’s regular forces are much outnumbered and outnumbered by Russia’s 1 million-strong force. The country has about 250,000 enlisted soldiers, many of whom are fighting Russian-backed separatists in the remote Donbas region. Poorly equipped and hesitant to fire, the Ukrainian military was caught off guard when conflict erupted shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Thousands of volunteers rag-tag – including known scores football hooligans – played an important role in the early period of the war. Nearly eight years on, Ukraine has regrouped militarily, modernizing its military with precision weapons including the American Javelin anti-tank artillery and Turkish drones. Hundreds of thousands of skilled regulars who served in the conflict, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives, are well prepared if they are called back into service.

Danilov urged Ukraine’s Western supporters to quickly supply the country’s regular army with more defensive weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, as a deterrent to an invasion.

Russia would need to increase its potential invasion force to 500,000 to 600,000 troops to occupy about half of Ukraine’s territory, he said.

On Thursday night, Biden told Putin that the US and its allies were prepared to respond “definitively” if Russia invaded Ukraine.

TDF volunteers holding wooden training rifles in the snow
TDF volunteers train outside Kyiv on December 25. The military plans to set up a 5,000-strong territorial defense force in the Ukrainian capital alone © Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images

About 11,000 TDF recruits are expected to join the Ukrainian army on a part-time basis in the new year. An undisclosed number have signed contracts to form the core of an expanding force to protect critical infrastructure and factories, conduct special operations, and act as partisans. in any new territories occupied by Russia.

Others, including Salo, are training in cities across Ukraine and could be added to a force that Danilov said could total “tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands” and even “millions of people will have a desire to protect our country.”

In addition to the TDF, thousands of Ukrainians are training with dozens of non-governmental paramilitary formations. Some are derived from volunteer combat battalions that first took up arms in 2014.

Back in the pine woods outside Kyiv, recruits are trained for hours by instructors who teach military basics, including how to use a tourniquet to stop bleeding and the importance of keeping their distance. between troops while on patrol to minimize casualties if ambushed. An explosion echoed in the distance, where more advanced teams were practicing throwing grenades.

“I feel threatened,” said Vladislav, a 53-year-old auto mechanic who signed up a month earlier to refresh the skills he first learned while serving in the Soviet army. “If we must retreat, we will do all we can to take the lives of our enemies.”

Military exercises near Kyiv on Christmas Day
About 11,000 TDF recruits are expected to join the Ukrainian army on a part-time basis in early 2022 © Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images

One of the instructors said rookies can be ready to take on basic roles after a few weekend training sessions. He said the plans include the creation of a 5,000-strong territorial defense force in Kyiv alone.

“They live here, train here, know the home environment, and you don’t have to transport them to and from areas they are less familiar with,” said Andriy, an IT worker. news and the military spends weekends training recruits said. .

After hours in freezing temperatures, practicing exercises that include rolling in the snow and learning how to aim a rifle, Salo says, “It’s only cold if you stop moving.”

She is ready to join the TDF while continuing to work as a guide at Kyiv’s museum honoring Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich and hopes to become a role model for friends, she said.

“The more you sign up,” she added, “the better protection we get.”

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