Right to Defend, Right to Resist
Middle-age Ukrainians are filling the reserves of Ukrainian Army to defend their cities
Ukraine has a troubled past on its way to statehood. Even though the nation can claim its fair share as a participant in shaping the history of Europe, it has had very little time to enjoy its independence. The country has been invaded and reinvaded for centuries, often passing between empires. Ukrainians endured a wide variety of tyrants and now holds its breath as it faces down another.
Eight years ago, before Russia had occupied and annexed Crimea and stirred conflict in Donbas, the most Eastern region of Ukraine, most of the Ukrainian population felt cautiously optimistic about its giant Northern neighbor. Not many Ukrainians believed that Russia would enter into an armed conflict with their country. After eight years of hybrid warfare and open aggression, the opinions of Ukrainians have drastically shifted.
The events of 2014 and 2015, and what followed, have shaped the mindset of many Ukrainians, making them resilient to geopolitical uncertainty. The looming threat of a possible Russian invasion has become unpleasant normality. And as strange as it might sound, following the recent news surrounding Ukraine and this new wave of Russian aggression, life for most people in Ukraine goes on as usual.
Amongst the new and possibly much more horrific stage of the ongoing tension, Ukrainians have flocked to territorial defense units–a reserve branch of the military that trains civilians to defend their cities in case of a full-scale invasion. Such units accept and train volunteers between the ages of 18 to 57, who, upon signing up, commit to weekend drills, target practices, and occasional week-long training camps. Army instructors train them, often veterans that often have already seen the front line in eastern Ukraine.
A recently passed law with an unambiguous title "Foundations of National Resistance" has given these civilian units a supporting role to the Ukrainian Army in case of war and envisions them to have partisan duties in case of occupation. It also benefits the volunteers allowing for the purchase of arms and legalizing their privately-owned weapons if mobilized. The Territorial Defense Units have seen a massive influx of recruits since the law was passed in January 2022. Ukrainians have also been arming themselves at an unprecedented rate.
Maryana Zhaglo, 52, a Kyiv native, marketing analyst, and a mother of 3, was one of the people who recently purchased a weapon, the Ukrainian made rifle Zbroyar Z-15. Ms. Zhaglo rationalizes her becoming a reservist as a desire to defend her own birthplace. “Territorial defense for me is defending my city, my home. My motivation is my family, my city, and my country.” Ms. Zhaglo enrolled in the territorial defense on a dare from her friend from Donetsk, who had to move to Kyiv after Russian-backed separatists took over his city in 2014. "If anything starts I'll show up and be ready to follow orders. My whole family is here, we have nowhere else to go and we shouldn't be going anywhere. This is my country, I was born here and I want to be ready to defend it.”
The process of joining a civilian unit like Maryana's is not as simple as just volunteering. One can first attend an intro training session. If they want to join, they have to undergo a rigorous health and psych evaluation, supply copies of numerous documents, and then sign a contract to become a reservist. The process might take two to three weeks before volunteers get sworn in.
Borys Cherkas, 45, went through this process long before the current crisis. In 2017 he volunteered as a reservist. Now he is preparing for an exam to become a junior lieutenant of his local Territorial Defense Unit. Mr. Cherkas has a history Ph.D., works as a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and is a part-time teacher at a school in the suburbs of Kyiv. As a historian, he draws a parallel with past conflicts - "I was very glad to find about the Territorial Defenses, because in any occupation civilian resistance, active or passive will make the life of the occupying force very difficult. I hope it won't come to this but if it does I want to be part of that resistance". Mr. Cherkas was pleasantly surprised by the amount of middle aged and older recruits in the last few months - "You know that cossacks would not send out their young to fight when they'd go on military campaigns. So I think the youth should not be left out as a last line defense - it should be older folks taking the punch."
Even though Mr. Cherkas doesn't consider himself as person shaping the history of Ukraine, but one who studies it, he admits that today's timing is critical - "We are present at the break of an era, where the empire tries to take over our land yet again, and not just take over the land but take away our national identity". Mr. Charkas has a point. Vladimir Putin's view of Ukraine is clear; he publicly stated that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, calling Ukraine a "sister nation" and claiming shared identity.
The Russian president also once said, "whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn't miss it has no heart," and that perspective is reflected in his behavior. Looking at Ukraine he sees a piece of Russia's collective past slowly drifting away. Each day Ukraine takes another step away from the values their parents and grandparents shared towards something that Putin sees as foreign and unholy.
But many folks from the older generations don't share Putin's opinion on their land any longer. Yuriy Boyko, 68, is a retired Army colonel. He started his military service in the Soviet Army in 1970, took part in Soviet military involvement as an advisor during the Iraq-Iran war in the 80s, and finished his career in the Ukrainian Army after the fall of the Soviet Union. After his retirement, he went into IT and started his own firm.
Quoting Sun Tzu, Yuriy says, "The Greatest victory is one which requires no battle," and then adds, "so I hope that by enrolling and showing the enemy that we are prepared for a mass resistance, we will deter them from invasion. But of course no-one knows." Mr. Boyko is not eligible to be a reservist because of his age. Still, he would volunteer to his local territorial defense unit and would mobilize as a part of his neighborhood volunteer formation–a group under Army command that would be called to defend their neighborhood in case of an invasion.
Of course, most people in Ukraine share Yurii's hope that Russia will not wage a full-scale war on their country. Many believe that this is another level of Russia's hybrid warfare and is a sophisticated scare tactic on an unprecedented level.
It's impossible to say what will happen tomorrow when the country's fate depends on the fluctuations of one person's mood, but for these ordinary Ukrainians, being prepared for the worst-case scenario turned out to be the best way to look forward to a new day.