Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

Olga Salo arrived for her first tactical military training exercise in an icy pine forest outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev wearing a pink ski jacket and dark blue jeans.

On an icy Saturday in December, when much of the world was celebrating Christmas, the 39-year-old museum guide, along with hundreds of other civilians who volunteered to defend Ukraine’s home front, acted in the event of a full-scale troop . Russian invasion.

Prospective and new recruits were issued with wooden replica weapons. More experienced recruits and reservists, many dressed in camouflage equipment, carried automatic rifles.

“It is necessary to be prepared and respond properly to the worst case scenario,” Salo said. “If we are ready, it may not happen. I think the enemy will not attack if he knows that he will not only be opposed by the ordinary army, but by the people here. “

The rush of volunteers comes as tensions escalate amid reports that Russia has amassed 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow is preparing to invade. As part of intense diplomatic efforts to alleviate the crisis, US President Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoken by telephone Thursday, ahead of further negotiations in January between Washington, Moscow and NATO powers.

Although Putin has previously denied any plans to invade, he said last week that he was prepared to use “appropriate military-technical measures” and “react harshly to hostile steps” would “Ukraine and its western supporters Moscow” red lines “ignore. These include a freeze on further Western military assistance to Ukraine, rejection of Kiev’s attempt to join NATO and a withdrawal of the military alliance’s forces from Eastern Europe.

Salo attended one of the regular weekly exercises organized across the country by Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, an offshoot of the country’s regular army set up a few years ago to train hundreds of thousands of part-time reservists for a supportive role in the event of war.

This year, the exercises were opened to new recruits, with an increasing number of ordinary citizens responding to advertisements across the country and social media for applicants to train and possibly join the TDF.

Olga Salo holds a wooden rifle while training with other civilians and Ukrainian army reservists
Olga Salo, in pink ski jacket, trains with other civilians and Ukrainian army reservists © Roman Olearchyk / FT

A December survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that in the country of 44 million, 58 percent of men and nearly 13 percent of women were willing to take up arms to defend the country against Russian troops. About 17 percent of men and 25.5 percent of women were willing to fight back by other means, including protest and subversive activities.

“No one will greet them here with flowers. . . They will be greeted by bullets, “Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, told the Financial Times. “There will be total resistance.”

Ukraine’s regular forces are largely in number and overwhelmed by Russia’s 1m-strong army. The country has about 250,000 designated soldiers, many of whom are fighting against Russia-backed separatists in the far-eastern Donbas region. Poorly equipped and reluctant to shoot, Ukraine’s army was caught off guard when the conflict broke out shortly after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Thousands of rallies volunteer fighters – including numerous celebrities soccer scoundrels – played a critical role early in the war. Nearly eight years later, Ukraine has militarily regrouped and modernized its military with precision weapons, including U.S. Javelin anti-tank busters and Turkish drones. Hundreds of thousands of combat-hardened regular soldiers who served in the conflict, who claimed more than 14,000 lives, were well prepared should they be re-enlisted.

Danilov urged Ukraine’s western supporters to quickly supply the country’s regular army with more defensive weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, as a deterrent to an invasion.

Russia will have to increase its potential invasion force to 500,000 to 600,000 troops to occupy about half of Ukraine, he said.

Biden told Putin on Thursday night that the US and its allies were prepared to respond “decisively” should Russia invade Ukraine.

TDF volunteers holding wooden practice rifles in the snow
TDF volunteers practice on December 25 outside Kiev. The military plans to create a 5,000-strong territorial defense force in the Ukrainian capital alone © Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images

Some 11,000 new TDF recruits are expected to join the Ukrainian army part-time in the new year. An unknown number have already signed contracts to form the core of an expanded force to protect critical infrastructure and factories, carry out special operations and function as partisans in any new territory taken by Russia.

Others, including Salo, practice in cities across Ukraine and could be added to a force that Danilov said could total “tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands” and even “millions of people who will have the desire to defend our country.”

In addition to the TDF, thousands of Ukrainians are training alongside dozens of non-governmental paramilitary formations. Some trace their roots to volunteer combat battalions that first took up arms in 2014.

Back in the pine forest outside Kiev, recruits were drilled for hours by instructors who learned military basics, including how to use a tourniquet to stop bleeding and the importance of keeping a distance between troops while patrolling casualties reduced if they are led into a trap. A bang resounded in the distance, where more advanced teams practiced throwing grenades.

“I feel the threat,” said Vladislav, a 53-year-old car mechanic who had reported a month earlier to refresh skills first learned while serving in the Soviet Army. “If we have to retreat, we will do everything possible to take most of the lives of our enemies.”

Military exercises near Kiev on Christmas day
Some 11,000 new TDF recruits are expected to join the Ukrainian army part-time in early 2022 © Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images

One of the instructors said new recruits might be ready to perform basic roles after a few weekend training sessions. He said plans included creating a 5,000-strong territorial defense force in Kiev alone.

“They live here, practice here, know the home environment and you do not have to transport them to and from areas they are less familiar with,” says Andriy, an IT industry employee and army reservist who spends his weekends recruiting new recruits. to lead. .

After hours in icy temperatures in which he practiced exercises that included rolling in the snow and learning how to aim a gun, Salo said, “It’s only cold when you stop moving.”

She was ready to join the TDF forces as she continued her work as a guide at Kyiv’s museum in honor of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, and hoped to become an example to friends, she said.

“The more they sign up,” she added, “the better defended we will be.”

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