‘We’ll fight for Kyiv’: Ukrainian civilians train to repel Russia

Dismissed as ‘militants’ by Russian officials, Ukrainians from a range of backgrounds are spending their spare time preparing for war.

Ukrainian civilians train to become part of territorial defence outside Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Ukrainian civilians train to become part of territorial defence outside Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera] (Restricted Use)

Kyiv, Ukraine – Two years ago, Mariana Zhaglo spent more than $2,000 on a hunting rifle, a protective helmet, camouflage and ammunition.

But the 52-year-old marketing researcher does not use her Zbroyar Z-15 carbine and gear to shoot game.

Instead, every Saturday, the mother of three joins the “territorial defence,” or Ukrainian civilians and reservists that train for warfare against a possible invasion by the Russian army.

Zhaglo follows commands of her instructors, mostly retired officers or veterans of war with pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s southern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that began in 2014, killing more than 13,000 and uprooting millions.

She learns to attack or ambush, move in formation, run and roll on green grass or fallen leaves, in the mud or snow.

In 2020, Zhaglo was the only civilian newcomer in her unit, surrounded by seasoned servicemen and reservists who did not want their skills to get rusty.

These days, dozens of first-timers join her and her battalion of weekend warriors.

With Russia having amassed 100,000 servicemen near the Russian-Ukrainian border, in annexed Crimea and Moscow-friendly Belarus in recent months, these once-peaceful civilians do not want to take any chances.

“If things come to the invasion, we’ll fight for Kyiv,” Zhaglo told Al Jazeera in a park in southwestern Kyiv on a recent Saturday morning.

Mariana Zhaglo, left, and Marta Yuzhkiv, right, during their weekly territorial defense training in Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Mariana Zhaglo, left, and Marta Yuzhkiv, during their weekly territorial defence training in Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Minutes later, she and several dozen trainees walked to a clearing in the park and carefully put their rifles or wooden cut-outs on the ground, leaning them against trees.

They lined up, chanted “Hail Ukraine! Hail heroes!”, and warmed up.

Then they picked up the rifles and began a four-hour drill.

Any Ukrainian civilian can join such a group in their neighbourhood – but only after undergoing a medical commission and a psychiatric evaluation, testing negative for drugs and getting a certificate proving they had not been convicted or jailed.

Many buy their arms and uniforms, including anti-shrapnel glasses and flak jackets, walkie-talkies and medical kits, and train for months.

“I don’t want my family to live under occupation, and I don’t want to flee Ukraine. I want to protect my life, home, country,” Marta Yuzkiv, a clinical researcher and mother of three who has been training every week for almost 10 months, told Al Jazeera.

The bureaucracy does not stop them.

“People volunteer to come here, and this is not a club for them to entertain themselves,” Sergeant Denis Semirog-Orlik, an instructor of Territorial Defence Battalion No. 130, told Al Jazeera.

And some of the instructors refresh their own skills – while advising newcomers.

“I am too old to enlist. But here, I am useful,” said Yuri Boyko, a 68-year-old retired colonel who served in the Soviet air force and was dispatched to advise Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s air force for three years during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

In early January, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a law on territorial defence that prescribes the establishment of 25 territorial defence battalions with up to 10,000 members throughout the ex-Soviet nation of 43 million by May.

He appointed General Yuri Galushkin, a decorated war hero who helped defend the airport in the rebel city of Donetsk in 2014, as head of territorial defence.

Ukraine’s top brass sees it as part of a wider effort to get Russia mired in an un-winnable war.

“The best way to defend Ukraine from further military escalation on the part of Russia is to set conditions under which the aggressor will suffer unacceptable losses and won’t be able to achieve his goal,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote.

Meanwhile, volunteers such as marketing researcher Zhaglo draw headlines – and angry comments from Russia.

Ukrainian civilians train to become part of territorial defence outside Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Ukrainian civilians train to become part of territorial defence outside Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Telegram channel, regarding a story about the civilian armies published by UK newspaper The Times: “This is yet another fake story about the militants Western propaganda describes as anti-Russian ‘freedom fighters’.”

But Ukrainian statistics prove her wrong.

A survey conducted in late January by the Ukraine Institute for the Future, a think tank, showed that 56 percent of Ukrainians are ready to join the territorial defence. Nineteen percent said they would “definitely” enlist should Russia invade, and 37 percent said they were “likely” to enlist, the poll said.

Zakharova’s words echo what the Kremlin says about the escalation – making average Russians believe in a Western plot to start a war between Moscow and Kyiv.

Half of Russians believe that the United States and other NATO members are behind the escalation, according to a survey by the Levada Center, Russia’s last remaining independent pollster, released in mid-December.

Sixteen percent believe that Ukraine initiated the escalation, and only 4 percent think Moscow is behind it, the poll said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is preparing for possible bomb attacks.

The defence ministry and civilian administrations spruce up bomb shelters throughout Ukraine – mostly Soviet-era bunkers built during the Cold War.

Kyiv alone has some 500 of them, plus thousands more temporary shelters in the basements of apartment buildings, schools, libraries and subway stations, territorial defence official Yevgen Gerasimov told Al Jazeera.

Many were converted to restaurants, gyms, offices or stores, and now need better access for panicking crowds.

Despite an overwhelming sense of fear, some officials still also have a sense of humour.

“You can order pizza here, there’s McDonald’s delivery,” safety expert Oleksandr Pilkevich told Al Jazeera, standing inside a bunker underneath a library in northern Kyiv, behind huge steel doors, next to an air filtration system and freshly-painted water tanks.

A Ukrainian man near water tanks in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine
A Ukrainian man near water tanks in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera