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Ukraine looks to civilian volunteers to help counter possible Russian invasion

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Billboards along the highways in Ukraine — some showing a furious, bare-chested man with a baseball bat chasing a bear — have gone up across the country as Russian troops continue massing along its borders. They serve as recruiting tools, encouraging civilians to receive military training and join the volunteer Territorial Defense Forces to guard their hometowns from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army — and thousands of Ukrainians, including women, are signing up.

In fact, a survey released this week by the Ukraine Future Institute found that 56 percent of those polled were “likely” to or would “definitely” join the Territorial Defense Forces if Russia invades. That’s no surprise: Civilian resistance has been part of Ukraine’s heritage. In November 2004, after international monitors warned that the presidential election appeared rigged, Ukrainians protested en masse during what was dubbed the Orange Revolution, demanding — and getting — a revote.

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit
Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit take part in a training on Jan. 15. (Pete Kiehart)

Eight years ago, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych tried to pull his pro-Western countrymen out of negotiations to join the European Union and push them back into the arms of Russia, Ukrainians rose up in the so-called Euromaidan revolution, ultimately sending him packing. Now that same resolve is officially part of the government’s defense strategy, one that hopes to draw at least 11,000 volunteers to bolster the 250,000 active Ukrainian troops in the country’s standing army.

Last summer, in response to the appearance of tens of thousands of Russian troops on his borders that started in April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a new law called “On the Fundamentals of National Resistance.” It calls upon all Ukrainians, whether in the armed forces or not, to protect their country, their territory and their families. It also made the volunteer Territorial Defense Forces a separate branch of the military, one designed to back up the Ukrainian military, to guard critical infrastructure and to maintain order in cities and towns during times of war. The bulk of the forces are training in Ukraine’s largest cities — Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, Dnipro and Kharkiv — but they are being organized countrywide and are viewed as a crucial piece of the national defense strategy.

“Given the escalating hybrid aggression of the Russian Federation [and the] aggravation of the situation around our borders,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, told reporters in capital Kyiv last month, “this law is one of the major safeguards, a mechanism for implementing the concept of comprehensive defense of our state.”

That call to protect the homeland struck a chord with Yehor Soboliev, one of the organizers of the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, who went on to serve as a parliamentarian known for pushing through anticorruption legislation. Now a software engineer, he has been meeting every Saturday for the past seven months on the outskirts of Kyiv with 200 other unpaid volunteers, some in their 20s but the majority of middle age.

Mariana, 52, a marketing researcher who for the past two years has been a volunteer in the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit
Mariana, 52, a marketing researcher who for the past two years has been a volunteer in the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“We all have jobs, most of us have families,” Soboliev told Yahoo News. “We are peaceful regular citizens,” who, because of their geography, he said, are compelled to spend eight hours each weekend preparing to halt another Russian invasion. He hopes that the civilian defense force and the Ukrainian proclivity to rise up will help deter Russia from rolling in, but “if they decide to attack,” he wants to be more prepared than just “simply a software engineer with four kids, a cat and a beautiful wife.”

Every three months, the civilian units train in special military zones using army machine guns and rifles, but for the typical weekend sessions, during which the volunteers partake in maneuvers such as ambushes and counterattacks, the army does not provide weaponry. Some reservists use wood cutouts of guns, while more and more volunteers, said Soboliev, are buying their own firearms, a process that requires the permission of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Impressed by the weapons his fellow volunteers were bringing to training, he purchased his own semiautomatic rifle.

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit
Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit take part in a training at an asphalt plant on the outskirts of Kyiv. (Pete Kiehart)

Brig. Gen. Yuriy Halushkin, commander of the Territorial Defense Forces, told Ukraine’s national news agency Ukrinform last week that the country's military has weapons for its volunteers, which will be stored near their neighborhoods and released when needed. “There are such plans,” said Soboliev, “but right now they are only plans.” Supplying arms to volunteers, he said, “will be absolutely necessary.”

Marta Yuzkiv, a clinical researcher and mother of three, serves in the same unit as Soboliev, one of 10 in Kyiv. History and Russia’s oppression of her country have everything to do with why she is training, she told Yahoo News.

“During our entire history in the Ukraine-Russian relationships, we’ve been forced into the position of having to protect our right as an independent nation to follow our unique way. For some reason this is not accepted by Russia, which is even trying to deny the existence of Ukrainians as a nation,” she said, referring to Putin’s recent push to paint Russians and Ukrainians as one Slavic people united by history and language.

Marta Yuzkiv trains with the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit
Marta Yuzkiv trains with the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit. (Pete Kiehart)

“Over the past century, Ukrainians have fought for independence and freedom from Russia,” Yuzkiv said, ticking off wars and uprisings that go back to 1918, when Ukraine tried to fight off the Russian forces that ultimately roped them into the USSR in 1922. Ukraine’s struggle, she said, is about “trying to preserve our culture, language, faith and history. This is not even about land — this is more about an ideology to remain democratic.”

Soboliev concurs. “The story of Ukraine is a story of rebellions, revolutions and resistance” and a continuous fight for democracy, he said.

Other Ukrainians are taking a different route and signing up for weekend medical seminars on how to treat the wounded on the battlefield or to administer emergency procedures. Yuzkiv also partakes in those. “I would prefer to spend weekends differently,” she said, “but we do not have any other choice than to be prepared. I do not want my family to live under [Russian] occupation, and I do not want to move from Ukraine. I want to protect my life, home, country. I also want my kids to be free for their future.” Even though she has little spare time these days, she said it makes her feel better than simply fretting about a possible war. “When you are doing something, you decrease the pressure,” she said.

Civilian participants in the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit
Civilian participants in the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

But as many Ukrainians rapidly prepare for the worst, they may have a little breathing room. On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in Kyiv that he didn’t think the invasion was as imminent, as the U.S. has been warning over the past week.

“The number of Russian troops amassed along the border of Ukraine and in occupied territories is large, it poses a threat  a direct threat to Ukraine,” said Kuleba. “However,” he added, currently “this number is insufficient for a full-scale offensive along the entire Ukrainian border. They also lack some important military indicators and systems to conduct such a large full-scale offensive.”

But if and when Putin gives the order to roll in, Yuzkiv has a message for him. “We do not [welcome] your soldiers here on our land, and we will be ready to protect our families and our land, and our right to build a democratic country — not a police state, like Russia.”

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