Residents of Kyiv: We want to know how to defend our families

Paweł Pieniąźek from Kyiv – 02/22/2022. Originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

The growing threat of Russian aggression means that more and more Ukrainians are deciding to prepare themselves to defend the country.

A new use has been found for an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Kyiv. Territorial defense reservists are trained there every Saturday. A more experienced group is practicing securing the facility, setting up 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, orders, 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 helped the military at the front by sending all kinds of needed supplies. In 2014, this included basically everything—from water and potatoes to uniforms and camouflage nets.

Eight years later, the territorial defense forces are better equipped than the army was at the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. Semyroh-Orłyk 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 to 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 in by other means. In 2014, a war broke 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 ceased to loom on the horizon.

About a hundred participants are trained today. Some are in uniform while others are in civilian clothes. Some have guns, others have wooden mock-ups. Some are in the process of signing contracts and others already officially belong to the territorial defense forces. Among them you can meet workers, lawyers, scientists and retirees. There are also women, although in a significant minority. Semyroh-Orłyk is training a group of 17 people. Among them is 36-year-old Jarosław (he does not give his surname), 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 recently acquired a gun. After the war broke out, he wanted to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine but was rejected due to a hearing impairment. This year, when many Kyiv residents began to feel under threat, he decided to join the ranks of the territorial defense.

Although the territorial defense was established in 2018, its ranks have only been growing 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 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 Jarosław—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-Orłyk explains, territorial defense will keep order in the event of the imposition of martial law—protect strategic facilities, escort military columns, and counteract sabotage.

“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 a situation like Georgia in 2008, when it was also warned that Russia would attack yet the country was not prepared to repel it. 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.