Ukraine's civilian militia trains to protect Kiev from Russia

Thousands of volunteers inspired to join Ukrainian military amid Putin's threat of invasion

A female civilian participates in a training session as Ukraine prepares for a possible invasion by Russia. Getty
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Before war began in Ukraine in 2014, Denys Semyroh-Orlyk had not been interested in politics and had no experience of military manoeuvres.

Now he is a sergeant in a growing army of reservists who are being trained to secure key infrastructure, protect the rule of law away from the front line and counter sabotage operations in the event of a Russian invasion.

“I was only an architect – I wasn’t even close to being a soldier. Now I am a nationalist. I have to do everything I can to help my country,” he said.

“I actually have to thank Mr Putin for waking me up. We are civilians who want to stand up for our country," he said.

“We work closely with the military and teach our volunteers how to fight and how to operate in difficult conditions; how to lead, to ambush; how to attack and how to protect from an attack.”

Every Saturday, the 130th battalion citizen militia train in various group sizes in a forest on the edge of Kiev, facing thick snow and temperatures well below zero at this time of year.

Crawling through ice and dodging a hail of plastic pellet-fire and smoke grenades, these weekend warriors spend hours practising tactical drills, handling arms and undertaking medical training.

The training focuses on a model of resistance learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq, and passed on by visiting trainers from the UK, US and Canada. If Russian troops make it all the way to Kiev, Mr Semyroh-Orlyk and his fellow weekend warriors would be there to protect it.

Ukraine is bracing itself for the possibility of an all-out war with Russia, as a panicked West watches Moscow amass tens of thousands of troops and military hardware on the border and in annexed Crimea.

The hastily established Territorial Defence Forces were set up under the National Resistance Act last year to help the 250,000-strong military, which is mostly posted to border areas. The militia only came to fruition at New Year.

It is a new stand-alone branch of military service and it is expected to enlist up to 120,000 personnel over a number of cities and 25 brigades, with men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 and with no criminal record entitled to sign up. They will take in former volunteer groups and be overseen by 10,000 regular military service members.

A recent survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that more than a third of Ukrainians are prepared to take up arms to defend the country against Russian troops. Commander of the new force Yuri Galushkin has said that the existence of a mass volunteer militia could even be a decisive factor in discouraging Russia from invasion.

However, with resources tight and even soldiers frequently relying on equipment donated by volunteers, the reservists must provide their own guns or train with toys or wooden replicas.

Mr Semyroh-Orlyk was unable to join the military due to health problems, so he joined the Territorial Defence three years ago. He is now the commander of a rifle company, often training with real guns but no bullets.

Some volunteers come once a week, others once a month, but Mr Semyroh-Orlyk said it takes two or three months of weekly training to even come close to being “battle ready”. However, few volunteers have seen real armed combat.

The UK and US have stepped up rhetoric about the Russian threat to Ukraine in recent weeks, while Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has played down the risk, arguing that the country has faced constant military threat from Moscow since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine is already involved in an eight-year, low-level conflict with pro-Moscow militants who control two separatist enclaves along the border with Russia.

Mr Semyroh-Orlyk believes that a new attack is likely to happen but, like many Ukrainians, he says that he does not expect it before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 20. China is a key ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

For volunteer Roman, 22, (who did not want to use his real name), a student who has been in training for the past four years, whether Russia comes or not does not matter – he will still train either way.

“If they come, we will know what to do and if they don’t, we are getting satisfaction from training – these are my closest friends and we spend a lot of time together every weekend,” he said.

“But history shows that Russia does not know its borders. The rest of the world should be aware that if they’re not stopped at some point, they will come to your home, to infinity… and beyond,” he said, laughing.

Last week, the UK said that as many as 60 Russian battle groups were now on the Ukrainian border. Videos showing the transport of shipments of military hardware emerge on social media almost daily, and the US has claimed that there are indications that Russia has positioned stocks of blood and other medical supplies for its troops.

Are the volunteers scared?

“I think Putin should be scared of us,” said Mr Semyroh-Orlyk.

Updated: January 31, 2022, 9:42 AM