Olga Salo arrived for her first tactical military training exercise in a frosty pine forest outside Ukraine’s capital Kyiv wearing a pink ski jacket and dark blue jeans.
On a frigid Saturday in December, when much of the world was celebrating Christmas, the 39-year-old museum guide lined up in troop formation alongside hundreds of other civilians who had volunteered to defend Ukraine’s home front in the event of a full-blown Russian invasion.
Prospective and new recruits were issued with wooden replica weapons. More experienced recruits and reservists, many clad in camouflage gear, carried automatic rifles.
“It’s necessary to be prepared and react properly to the worst-case scenario,” Salo said. “If we will be ready, maybe it won’t happen. I think the enemy will not attack if he knows that he will be resisted here not only by the regular army but by the population.”
The rush of volunteers comes as tensions escalate amid reports that Russia has amassed 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, sparking fears that Moscow is preparing to invade. As part of intense diplomatic efforts to ease the crisis, US president Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by phone on Thursday, ahead of further negotiations in January between Washington, Moscow and Nato powers.
Although Putin has previously denied any plan to invade, he said last week he was prepared to use “appropriate military-technical measures” and “react harshly to hostile steps” should Ukraine and its western backers ignore Moscow’s “red lines”. These include a freeze on further western military assistance to Ukraine, rejection of Kyiv’s bid to join Nato and a pullback of the military alliance’s forces from eastern Europe.
Salo was attending one of the regular weekly exercises organised across the country by Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, an offshoot of the country’s regular army set up some years ago to train hundreds of thousands of part-time reservists for a supportive role in the event of war.
This year the drills were opened to new recruits, with an increasing number of ordinary citizens answering appeals on adverts across the country and social media for applicants to train and potentially join the TDF.
A survey in December by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that in the country of 44m, 58 per cent of men and almost 13 per cent of women were prepared to take up arms to defend the country against Russian troops. About 17 per cent of men and 25.5 per cent of women were prepared to fight back with other means, including protests and subversive activities.
“Nobody 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 vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s 1m-strong army. The country has about 250,000 enlisted soldiers, many of whom are battling Russia-backed separatists in the far-eastern Donbas region. Poorly equipped and hesitant to shoot, Ukraine’s army was caught off-guard when the conflict broke out soon after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Thousands of rag-tag volunteer fighters — including scores of known football hooligans — played a critical role early in the war. Almost eight years on, Ukraine has regrouped militarily, modernising its army with precision weapons including Javelin anti-tank busters from the US and drones from Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened regular soldiers who have served in the conflict, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives, are well-prepared should they be called back into service.
Danilov urged Ukraine’s western backers to swiftly provide the country’s regular army with more defensive weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, as a deterrent to an invasion.
Russia would need to boost its potential invasion force to 500,000 to 600,000 troops to occupy about half of Ukraine, he said.
On Thursday night, Biden told Putin that the US and its allies were prepared to respond “decisively” should Russia invade Ukraine.
About 11,000 new TDF recruits are expected to join Ukraine’s army on a part-time basis in the new year. An undisclosed number have already signed contracts to form the core of an expanded force to protect critical infrastructure and factories, conduct special operations and operate as partisans in any fresh territory taken by Russia.
Others, including Salo, are training in cities across Ukraine and could be added to a force 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 with dozens of non-government paramilitary formations. Some trace their roots to volunteer fighting battalions that first took up arms in 2014.
Back in the pine forest outside Kyiv, recruits were drilled for hours by instructors teaching military basics, including how to use a tourniquet to stop bleeding and the importance of keeping a distance between troops while patrolling to minimise casualties if ambushed. A bang echoed in the distance, where more advanced squads practised throwing grenades.
“I feel the threat,” said Vladislav, a 53-year-old auto mechanic who signed up a month earlier to refresh skills first learned while serving in the Soviet army. “If we have to retreat, we will do all possible to take the most lives of our enemies.”
One of the instructors said new recruits could be ready to perform basic roles after a few weekend training sessions. He said plans included creating a territorial defence force of 5,000 in Kyiv alone.
“They live here, train here, know the home environment and you don’t have to transport them to and from areas which they are less familiar with,” said Andriy, an IT industry employee and army reservist who spends his weekends training new recruits.
After hours in freezing temperatures practising drills that included rolling in the snow and learning how to aim a rifle, Salo said: “It’s only cold if you stop moving.”
She was ready to join the TDF forces while continuing her work as a guide at Kyiv’s museum honouring Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which ousted pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich, and hoped to become an example for friends, she said.
“The more that sign up,” she added, “the better defended we will be.”