International Politics

The People’s War

On the frontlines of Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invaders, ordinary Ukrainians and foreign volunteers are taking the fight to the enemy. Voices from the front. 

Volunteers for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense forces training Lviv, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Alamy

‘Dear friends – I am alive! Lack of communication is a result of 24/7 commitment to the defense of our homeland. We are on the 7th day of war and every day we become stronger.”

Petro Kocherhan’s LinkedIn post of two weeks ago is illustrated with a photograph of him in military garb. He faces the camera wearing a helmet, body armour and fatigues and cradling a combat shotgun. He looks every part the soldier. But Petro is no soldier. At least, he wasn’t until Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February, because as for many of his fellow citizens, that was the date his life changed irrevocably.

‘Before I was living for more or less ten years in different countries in Europe. And then I moved back to Ukraine and I was employed by an investment fund, and the last year was very good, very comfortable, financially. But then the war came.’

Petro has no prior military experience. He had never been into guns or shooting. But now, not only has he taken up arms to help defend his country, he’s moved from the relative safety of Lviv in the west of the country to Kyiv, the capital; from his role in logistical support and transport, to one of front-line combatant.

‘There’s no doubt that Kyiv is the main priority for the enemy: If they get Kyiv, they get the country,’ he says, explaining his decision. ‘If I can be of any help it’s better here, than in a safer place.’

Another person in Kyiv is Kateryna Koval. A diplomat, lecturer and reserve officer in the Ukrainian Army, she now briefs journalists and media outlets on Ukraine’s efforts to resist the invaders. But while her job at the moment is to liaise with the world’s press, she’s well aware that should they launch a full-scale assault on the capital, she’ll need to take up arms. ‘The situation in Ukraine is hard: bombings, shootings, killings of civilians, a curfew in the cities, and groups of Russian diversionists and saboteurs on our territory. But the Ukrainian Army shows great results in defending our country’.

Foreigners, too, are flocking to Ukraine’s defence. ‘I’ve spoken to many friends of Ukraine from other countries who are ready to come to Ukraine and defend our territory together,’ Kateryna says. Petro, on the front line as he is, has met them. ‘I’ve encountered Polish and French people. I know there are lots of guys from the UK, Ireland, and Scotland as well. The foreign fighters are mainly European, but also here from the region: there’s a whole division of Georgian guys. I don’t think there’s many Americans so far, I think it’s more difficult for them to leave and join this kind of initiative.’ 

One of these fighters might be Michael (not his real name). A former US Army infantryman, he spoke to The New Voice just before leaving for Ukraine but hasn’t responded since. He said he planned to change phones for OPSEC purposes and would not communicate with journalists from then on. ‘I can’t tell you how I’m getting there,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a lot of contact with the Ukrainian Embassy, the Georgian Legion, the International Foreign Legion.’ Michael wasn’t just going himself, but had organised others, too. ‘I had to filter people who sought me out. There were some who sounded crazy, people who just wanted to go out there to kill somebody. Right now, we’re a group of about forty-five. We’re mostly Americans, but there’s a few from the UK. We have some going as first responders – medics, firefighters, etc. But there are about 35 of us who are veterans who are going to fight.’ Michael has no connection with Ukraine but is appalled by the violence he’s seen. ‘The destruction, and the killing of civilians and kids devastates me. If it was only military combatants I wouldn’t be going,’ he says. 

But others do have connections to the country. Stuart, a man in his sixties, served with the Royal Anglians, a British Army infantry regiment, for four years as a young man in 1958. His wife is Ukrainian and is in Kyiv. Appalled by Russia’s invasion, and worried about his wife, he’s thought seriously about joining the fight. He knows of scores of other veterans, many with Ukrainian family or friends, who have either gone already, or who like himself, are planning to. Thomas is another British man intending to fight for Ukraine. He made friends with Ukrainians at university and many of those have taken up arms. Thomas, who has no military experience himself though he comes from a military family, believes the West has a responsibility to stand up to Putin and defend Ukraine from Russia’s rapaciousness. He has made contact with a group of likeminded people who intend to make the journey shortly.

But while foreign volunteers are welcomed by Ukrainians and are undoubtedly brave and selfless, and while they are of interest to journalists, the lion’s share of the country’s fight and sacrifice will be made by Ukrainian’s themselves. Someone who is already on the frontlines and has certainly seen combat is Petro. ‘In recent days, it’s been pretty hot. I can’t say whether I’ve killed anyone or not, because usually these attacks have happened at night. They drop some bombs and launch grads – small rockets – and then attack. We counter-attack and push them back.’ 

Unlike Michael, the American former infantryman, or Stuart, the former Royal Anglian, Petro’s preparation for war was brief. ‘Prior to the invasion I signed up with the military defence units. We received a week’s training, to get us used to the usage of weapons and tactics. It was very basic. But everyone knows how use a Kalashnikov, and basic tactics such as how to fight in groups or pairs. But the training’s ongoing. Even now, I’ve been receiving first aid training and training in battlefield medicine.’

He believes he’ll need it, because worse is to come. ‘If you follow the news, you will know what will happen in the next few days: a large-scale assault on Kyiv. This relative silence means preparation for a renewed attempt.’

But can Russia take Ukraine? And is an assault on Kyiv likely to succeed? According to the MOD Defence Intelligence update of 22nd March, Ukrainian forces continued to repulse Russian attempts to occupy the southern city of Mariupol, while elsewhere their progress was limited with most of their forces largely stalled in place. This chimes with reports of Russian forces woefully ill-prepared, with poorly-trained troops lacking adequate equipment and driving badly maintained vehicles, which thus suffered in the muddy conditions. This has led some to wonder whether Russia’s Army risks falling apart, or even that Ukraine might win

But Petro, while proud of the professionalism and heart displayed by Ukraine’s defenders warns against writing the Russians off. ‘I don’t have the same impression. I think that on some fronts they’ve mobilised inexperienced warriors, but Kyiv is the top priority for them. Here they’re putting their best forces. And these are the guys that were fighting in many wars, including Syria recently. Lots of them are experienced soldiers. There are more and more of them coming here. More professional soldiers since this first wave did not work, and the Russians are also trying to get people from Syria, for instance, and private armies, too. So, we need to be careful not to be complacent or too bullish about our abilities.’  

Kateryna also thinks the stalled Russian assault has more to do with hubris than anything else. ‘I think the Russian side didn’t expect the Ukrainian Army to be so strong and prepared. They thought it would take just two days to get Kyiv, our capital. That’s why the operation wasn’t planned in great detail. So, now Russian troops are struggling to adapt according to the situation.’ And rather than collapse, she worries Putin will do something even more desperate. ‘I think we should be ready for every scenario and should not exclude even a nuclear strike.’

Petro also worries about what is to come. The combat he has seen so far has been small skirmishes and he and his comrades-in-arms believe it is just a prelude. ‘There’ll be another attempt to occupy the city. That’s the consensus of both officials and us on the ground. The Russians have accumulated lots of soldiers and tanks and equipment on the outskirts of Kyiv.’

Both Petro and Kateryna are grateful for the West’s support, for the supply of weapons, and to those brave enough to come in person and join the fight. But they know that even with the problems the Russian forces have encountered, the odds remain steeped against Ukraine. They want a no-fly zone, though both understand this is unlikely, and so hope for more anti-aircraft missiles instead. They both hope Putin will see sense or be forced to but aren’t counting on it.

‘The assault on Kyiv will be very brutal, because the first attempt failed,’ Petro says. ‘That’s why I came here and why other guys like myself have come here. Everyone will have to fight. Absolutely everyone. Because like I say, this time it will be much more brutal. The Russians know what to expect, and everyone who wants to leave has left – there’s no movement at the railway station anymore, nobody’s boarding trains to flee – so those who stay, understand why they’re here.’   

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.

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