Expecting a Russian invasion, some Ukrainians are preparing themselves for guerilla warfare.
On a snow-covered square in Kyiv, over three hundred civilians amassed. They’d answered the call of the National Corps, a far-right spolitical party founded by Andriy Biletsky, for every Ukrainian to prepare to defend their city and country. Set to dramatic music, the footage uploaded to YouTube shows civilians being instructed in handling firearms, small unit tactics, and battlefield first aid, by men dressed in camouflage. The training session was not the first such exercise the party offered and neither will it be the last. The next is already scheduled.
The description underneath the video hints at more advanced training too, with participants also schooled in “combat training in the city” – presumably urban combat techniques for fighting in built-up areas – and ambush techniques.
There are many reports of Ukrainian civilians training to resist a Russian invasion, and a plethora of organisations provide this service to those who want it. Branches of the Territorial Defence Force (TDF) are springing up across the country, and Ukrainians of all walks of life are keen to take part.
Marco, who works in IT, is one such person who’s heeded the call. A resident of Kyiv, he fears an invasion, especially now Russia has moved 30’000 troops into Belarus, to the north. He’s alternately skittish and defiant, and says, ‘Putin’s a bully. He thinks he can push Ukrainians around. But he’s wrong. It’s time the world stands up to him. It’s the only way to deal with bullies.’
He praises Boris Johnson and is scathing of Biden, whose comments a few weeks ago that a limited invasion might be acceptable, was seen as a major gaffe and green light to the Russian President. But Marco doesn’t want to divulge his surname and is vague about why. Eventually, he admits he fears repercussions should Russia act on its threats and not just invade but conquer the country.
Kyiv is 383 kilometres from the Belarus border, and whether the Russians would really drive on the capital is open to question. But Marco’s reluctance to be identified is testimony to people’s genuine fear.
Indeed, a pensioner who participated in the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and who now lives in Kyiv echoed Marco’s fears that the capital is too close to comfort to where Russian troops are massing.
The TDF was established in 2014 after a shakeup of the army reserve. But in recent weeks it has sped up recruitment and its ranks have swelled. So much so, that in some of the footage of civilians training, trainees can be seen practising with mock wooden cutouts of guns, hinting perhaps that numbers exceed weapons.
The link between the National Corps and the official Ukrainian military is also of concern to some observers. The neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, from which the Corp draws much of its support, is incorporated into, and under the command of, the National Guard of Ukraine, which is the country’s gendarmerie. But regardless of their politics, these groups are willing to fight. With the country threatened by its more powerful neighbour, it’s understandable people might put aside any scruples they have.
The National Corps itself is happy to talk.
Vladyslav Sobolevsky is the Deputy Head of the Central HQ, and ex-Deputy Chief of Staff of the Azov Regiment. He’s bullish about any conflict with Russia.
‘War with Russia will happen one way or another, this is a matter of time,’ he says. ‘That is, it will start on the 4th of February, or on the 20th of February, or in one or two years. But those forces and their location on the chessboard today mean only one thing: Russia has no other choice but to renew its status as an empire, and it is impossible without Ukraine.’
Marco also believes war is coming. ‘You have to remember that this isn’t new. The war has already started. It started back in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and it’s been going on ever since. It’s only you in the West who think this is something new.’ He believes the West’s weakness has only emboldened Putin, and so the conflict has escalated.
There’s certainly more than a little truth to the sentiment that current hostilities are only the latest iteration of an ongoing conflict. Indeed, a conservative estimate of the number killed in fighting in the country’s east in the years since, is 10’300, while more than 24’000 have been injured.
Fyodor Raichynets, the head of the Department of Theology at the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary, reiterates this point. ‘The factual invasion took place in 2014. Since then, there were different sorts of hybrid attempts at invasion, aiming to destabilize the country, and subvert its integrity.’ But he doesn’t believe there will be an all-out invasion. Instead, he thinks there will be more of the hybrid war, which Russia has become so adept at.
But his appears to be a minority opinion, and while it might sound optimistic, an uptick in the grinding, and unending conflict in the east, which has already claimed so many lives, is hardly a reassuring thought.
Whatever Putin’s intentions, preparations for a worst case continue unabated.
‘I live in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine,’ Fyodor Raichynets says. ‘In case of full-scale invasion, yes, there is a possibility that Kyiv might be occupied, or strategic targets might be bombed. Because of Russia using Belarus as a military springboard and having stationed their troops on Belarusian territory along the Ukrainian border, the attack of Kyiv is very possible. The thing is that it is less than 200 km from Belarus border to Kyiv.’
‘What I know for sure,’ he continues, ‘is that in every region of Ukraine there are territorial defence groups organized and intensively training, not to attack, but to protect their region in case of full-scale invasion.’
Is this something the theologian would consider?
‘No!,’ he answers emphatically. ‘Having experience of living in post-war contexts, such as Balkans (Croatia during the Balkan war and Bosnian and Herzegovina after the war in Sarajevo), I know that during the war there is need to be useful in the home front as well as the war front. It has to do with my personal conviction and current ministry.’
But others have no such qualms.
‘Our main strategy is an irreconcilable struggle on any part of the Ukrainian land,’ Vladyslav Sobolevsky of The National Corps says. ‘If they (the Russians) choose a full-scale war with the capture of Kharkiv, Mariupol or Kyiv, or make a land corridor in the direction of the Crimea, a part of us who are ready to be volunteers today will join the regular units of the Armed Forces. Some of those ready for such work will organize a resistance movement in the possibly occupied territories and will fight the enemy on every inch of the land.’
A similarly combative attitude is expressed by Marco: ‘We’ll fight; we’ll resist,’ he says. ‘Every true Ukrainian throughout the land will fight to the last.’ But then he pauses and says, ‘I hope Putin is pretending. I hope this is a negotiating tactic. But if it’s not, Biden has already said he won’t help. At least Boris Johnson will.’
Marco has touched on two facets of the current conflict. The first is an unpalatable truth, and that is that not all Ukrainians are united in their animosity to Putin. The further north and east one gets, the more sympathy there is for Russia, with cultural and religious ties splitting families. One woman with family in Ukraine spoke of her sister’s ex-husband, who lives in Moscow, falling out with his brother, who lives in Kyiv, over the Crimea and the Donbas. The two brothers, both Ukrainian nationals, now no longer talk.
Similarly, the pensioner who helped clean up the Chernobyl disaster, when asked whether he would participate in any conflict with Russia, said, ‘I don’t have a firearm and I don’t have a desire to have one, I have no desire to shoot Russian brothers.’
The second interesting point, which Marco touched upon, is the affection Ukrainians have for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the British Government. While he’s been engulfed in partygate at home, he’s sprung to the Ukrainian’s defence, and the British military has provided the Ukrainian’s with a shipment of antitank weapons. Indeed, Germany, which has refused to provide weapons and only non-lethal support, refused to allow the RAF to fly over its territory and the flight had to take a longer route.
But what if all this isn’t enough? What if the nightmare scenario unfolds, and the Russian Army invades and conquers large swathes of Ukrainian territory? What if Putin isn’t bluffing?
‘I am sure that in case of occupation there will be all kind of reactions among the occupied people: guerrilla resistance, subversive activities of different kinds, etc,’ Fyodor Raichynets says.
Vladyslav Sobolevsky puts it more bluntly. ‘If urban areas are occupied by Russian troops, Grozny is waiting for them,’ he warns. ‘Recall that once in the history of the Russian army there was a tragedy called “The Storm of Grozny,” and this tragedy will repeat if they try to capture Ukrainian cities, where every window will attack them with grenade fire, where every doorway will bring death to the Russian occupier, where every Russian plane flying over the Ukrainian city will get hit by the Stinger in its engine.’
Asked where ordinary Ukrainians can get weapons to fight the Russians, Sobolevsky says, ‘Today, Ukrainians have over three million units of legal weapons, which they will certainly use in the event of armed aggression by the Russian Federation. Currently, it is not so difficult to get a hunting weapon, both smooth-bore and rifled, which can be used for training in the shooting range, as well as for hunting. Of course, in case of a full-scale war, the law of Ukraine allows the owners of small arms to join resistance movements, which will certainly strengthen it.’
As well as official reports of arms supplies, such as the anti-tank munitions supplied by the British, there are reports of clandestine shipments, and of training provided by Western special forces. The latter is especially controversial because while it’s defensive now, the techniques could be used by an insurgency to kill and maim Russian soldiers. ‘The resistance movements, as well as the territorial defence forces, operate legally and will receive the weapons, which they can legally possess, from the Armed Forces,’ Sobolevsky says. On the subject of Western special forces training National Corps personnel, he adds that ‘we have certainly not heard of such a thing, but if such exercises take place, they will benefit the future of all of Europe, for the resistance forces will contribute to the defence of Ukraine from Russian aggression, and thus to the defence of Europe from Russia.’
A diplomatic answer, perhaps.
So, will Russia invade? And if so, will Ukraine fall? Only time will tell. But if Putin isn’t bluffing, the results are likely to be very bloody and Ukraine’s tragic death toll will certainly rise.
A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic.