Ukrainian military people’s part-time army prepares to resist Russian threat

Ukrainian military people’s part-time army prepares to resist Russian threat

Three groups of men and women in khaki uniforms with automatic rifles in their hands comb a pine-tree grove near an abandoned building on the outskirts of Kiev.

 

oliticians across Europe may be jittery about what many believe is an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, but for civilians taking part in weekly defence training the idea is less remote.

“I have to be prepared to take up arms at any moment and go where my commander tells me to,” said Andriy Kudinov, a mild-mannered 45-year-old bank employee who trains every Saturday morning. He is not too worried about the constant stream of news about a Russian military build-up at the border.

“If there’s an incursion into our territory, we will take something better than training weapons and we will drive the uninvited guests out from our land,” he said as the sun rose over a disused power station, frost glistening on the ground.

He is one of thousands of Ukrainians who have signed short-term contracts with the army to join Territorial Defence units. They keep going about their lives but they need to be there to defend their city in case a war is declared.

Civilians and the military in Ukraine, — which in 2014 lost Crimea to Russia and large swathes of industrial heartland in the east to Russia-backed separatists — are mentally prepared for a large-scale invasion, though residents of Kiev and the rest of the country are mostly unfazed.

“You don’t feel it in Kiev that a war is about to break out, unless you take part in military training,” said Mr Kudinov, who joined a Territorial Defence unit earlier this year now that his children are grown up — something that kept him from signing up to fight separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Ukrainian military forces have made a stunning turnaround since the country first faced a Russian invasion in Crimea. The disintegration of Ukraine’s military was clear to all when Russia annexed Crimea without a shot fired, and a month later Kremlin-backed separatists started seizing town after town in the east.

 

maryana zhaglo

In the early stages of the war, the Ukrainian military left the fight to volunteer brigades who took up arms with almost no training, relying on donations or their own funds to buy everything from gear to weapons and ammunition.

Ukrainian military budget has since grown threefold and it is expected to hit an all-time post-Soviet high of 133bn hryvnias (€4.4bn) next year. Thanks to better funding, arms purchases and Western military aid of several billion pounds, including donations of non-lethal equipment, Ukrainian troops feel secure on the front line against Russia-backed rebels.

But Russia’s massive military build-up in recent months raised the spectre of a large-scale invasion that Ukraine will struggle to counter.

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Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces
 

Reservists of the Ukrainian military Territorial Defence Forces

 

Reservists of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces

Ukraine set up Territorial Defence battalions shortly after the separatists went on their offensive in the east in 2014, but it is only in recent years that they started to attract a large number of volunteers.

Ukraine adopted a law this summer that will incorporate Territorial Defence into the armed forces in the event of a war, putting as many as 10,000 people like Mr Kudinov on temporary contracts.

For many in Ukraine who wanted to serve their country but thought they were too old — or too female — for the army, Territorial Defence is a welcome outlet.

Mr Kudinov’s unit commander is Maryana Zhaglo, a 52-year-old who looks the part when she gives orders to her team moving in to “seize” an abandoned building, but still admits she is nervous about the war.

“I go to bed every night thinking I might be called up,” says Mrs Zhaglo, a mother of three. “I feel anxious every morning. My husband is in the military. What if we’re both called up? What’s going to happen to the kids?”

But Mrs Zhaglo, who works in marketing research and first tried training with Territorial Defence to follow her fitness instructor, finds satisfaction in her new pastime. She even splashed out on British-made fatigues and other gear.

“It’s like a day off. I’m outdoors every Saturday. It’d be hard to get yourself out that much otherwise.”

To Colonel Mikhailo Shcherbyna, who resigned from the army to join the Kiev City Hall, the fall of eastern Ukraine is a cautionary tale. “Putin is unpredictable. Our goal is to be ready at any moment,” he said.

Colonel Shcherbyna, who oversees Territorial Defence in Kiev, said he expected the forces in the city to reach 4,000.

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A reservist of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces during military exercises.
 

A reservist of the Ukrainian military Territorial Defence Forces during military exercises.

 

A reservist of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces during military exercises.

Ukraine’s army has 251,000 troops and 900,000 people on reserve duty, which is more than in China or the US.

Yet Vladimir Putin’s Russian army can outdo Ukraine almost on every front. Ukraine, for one, does not have much missile defence or Navy to speak of. Ukraine’s defence minister listed missile defence, the navy and the air force as areas that Kiev needs to invest in.

“Even if war ends tomorrow and Russia leaves the occupied Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, things will never be the way they were,” he said. “All citizens have to be ready to defend the country so that the Kremlin doesn’t get any thoughts about doing it again.”

Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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