The growing threat of Russian aggression means that more and more Ukrainians are deciding to prepare themselves to defend the country.
An abandoned factory on the outskirts of Kyiv has been put to new use: The training of territorial defense reservists every Saturday. A more experienced group practices securing the facility, setting up camp in run-down buildings. Recruits who have just come for their first training, on the other hand, learn mainly the basics: holding weapons, moving, falling to the ground, executing orders and maneuvers in a group.
One of the beginner groups is led by 46-year-old Denys Semyroh-Orłyk, a reserve junior sergeant and an architect in civilian life. He was not mobilized during waves of conscription for the army, but for years he has helped the military at the front by sending necessary supplies. In 2014, this included basically everything—from water and potatoes to uniforms and camouflage nets.
At present, the territorial defense forces are better equipped than the army was at the start of the war in eastern Ukraine eight years ago. Semyroh-Orlyk joined the territorial defense almost immediately after its creation three years ago. He claims that he did it because he wants his children to have a dignified life and not be slaves in a country occupied by Russia.
“Until recently, we had one group of recruits, now there are three,” says Semyroh-Orłyk. “We tell everyone at once that we are not interested in people who came to have a good time on Saturday, because we don’t want to waste time on them.”
This is due to the growing number of Russian troops on the border over the past several months (as many as 190,000) and the threat of an attack on other parts of Ukraine, including the capital. According to a February poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, 22.5 percent of Ukrainians are ready to put up armed resistance, and 25.2 percent support resistance by other means.
In 2014, a war did break out between separatist militants and Russia on one side and Ukrainian troops on the other. At least 13,000 people have been killed as a result. Over time, however, tensions eased and the threat of the conflict spreading to other parts of Ukraine subsided.
A hundred participants are in training today. Some are in uniform while others are in civilian clothes. Some have guns, others have wooden mockups. Some are in the process of signing contracts and others are already officially enlisted in the unit. Among them you can meet workers, lawyers, scientists and retirees. Women, though a significant minority, are also part of the force. Semyroh-Orłyk is training a group of 17 people.
Among them is 36-year-old Jarosław, a lecturer at the department of computer science at the prestigious Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
“Two years after the war broke out, I felt safe. A year later, we had a child,” says Jarosław.
It is his second time at a training session. He is wearing military clothes, knee pads and a bulletproof vest. He brought along a dummy weapon, but has recently acquired a gun. When the war broke out in 2014, he had applied to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine but was rejected due to a hearing impairment. This year, as many Kyiv residents began feeling insecure, he decided to join the ranks of the territorial defense.
Although the territorial defense was established in 2018, its ranks have grown only recently. In early February, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said that the first stage of the formation of the territorial defense was to be completed by the end of the month. At this stage it should comprise of 10,000 soldiers who will form the command and staff backbone of this unit. The second step will be the appointment of 130,000 reservists—like Jaroslaw—who will have signed contracts. One of the brigades is located in Kyiv, the target number of soldiers there is up to 5,500. Their current number is unknown.
As Semyroh-Orlyk explains, territorial defense will keep order in the event of the imposition of martial law—protect strategic facilities, escort military columns, and counteract subversions.
“I don’t want my house to fall into enemy hands. I want to know how to protect my family. That is why I learn tactics, how to act properly, how to handle weapons,” says Jarosław.
He does not want Ukraine to experience what Georgia went through in 2008; Georgia was also warned that Russia would attack but was not prepared to repel the invasion. Jarosław believes that in the face of a threat, the defense of the country becomes a priority and all other functions must be relegated to the background.
“When the enemy arrives at your place, no one is going to need my lectures,” he says.