Train civilians, Ukraine feeds resistance on hold
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KYIV, Ukraine – In a pine forest not far from the Ukrainian capital, a mock battle rages on. The commanders barked orders. Figures in camouflage have huddled behind trees. A soldier fell to the ground, crying for help.
Her screams signaled 25-year-old Anastasia Biloshitska to run into the crosshairs, kneel in the mud and open her medical kit.
“People who are prepared will not panic,” Ms. Biloshitska said.
Ms Biloshitska is one of thousands of Ukrainian civilians who have registered to learn combat skills through training programs created and managed by the government and private paramilitary groups. The programs are part of the country’s strategic defense plan in the event of a potential Russian invasion – to foster civilian resistance that can continue fighting if the Ukrainian military is overwhelmed.
There is no indication that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has decided whether or not to launch an attack. But if one of them were to come, even Ukraine’s own generals say their regular army is unlikely to participate in a full-fledged invasion.
Ukraine has therefore learned a lesson from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two decades, when the guerrillas have provided lasting resistance in the face of vastly superior US firepower.
“We have a strong army, but not strong enough to defend against Russia,” said Marta Yuzkiv, a doctor working in clinical research, who signed up for training this month. “If we are busy, and I hope it does not happen, we will become the national resistance.
Government-sponsored training for civilians has supported Nordic and Swiss military strategies for decades and is gaining ground as military doctrine in Eastern Europe.
Spurred on by Russian threats, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have programs encouraging the possession of guns for some civilians and formal training to fight as partisan after an occupation.
Almost every weekend in Estonia, for example, the Defense League, a self-defense organization, organizes exercises in the forests for volunteers, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the weapon that tormented the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. .
Civil defense is not unknown in Ukraine; the volunteer brigades formed the backbone of the country’s strength in the east in 2014, the first year of the war against Russian separatists, when the Ukrainian army was in shambles.
This effort is now formalized into units of the newly formed Territorial Defense Forces, part of the military. Last year, the Ukrainian army started weekend training for civilian volunteers of these units.
The government manages and pays for some of the training sessions through the Territorial Defense Forces. Private paramilitary groups like the Ukrainian Legion organize other sessions, all of which are paid by their members. The Legion conducted the program in the forest outside of Kiev this month.
The goal is not to achieve victory against the weight of the Russian army, which would be practically impossible for Ukraine anyway. Rather, it is about creating a threat of disruption and resistance to an occupying force that would act as a deterrent to an invasion.
General Anatoliy Barylvych, deputy commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, said the country aims to send around 100,000 volunteers in the event of conflict. But a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Defense Forces said he could not reveal how many people had formally enlisted in the training programs.
Opinion polls suggest some support for the effort. A poll this fall, for example, showed that 24% of Ukrainians said they would resist “gun in hand” if Russia invaded. Of the men, 39% said they would resist with guns. Ukrainians took post selfies on social networks with guns.
Ukrainian commanders say that half a million Ukrainians have military experience and that they hope many will join a fight, including those belonging to private groups like the Ukrainian Legion.
But skeptics say part of it is bluster and the Ukrainian command could hardly count on a flood of ex-combatants turning into insurgents.
In the forest, shrouded in an icy, bitter morning haze, teachers, accountants, waitresses and programmers overflowed Toyota and Ford and headed for practice sessions.
On a picnic area, today’s lesson was topical, albeit scary: how to screw a drill bit into the high explosive plate of an anti-tank mine.
“We don’t have a lot of Javelins and the Russians have a lot of tanks,” said instructor Mykhailo Hiraldo-Ramires. The Javelin is a type of American anti-tank missile that the United States supplied to the Ukrainian military in limited numbers. “We’ll have them with these so-called pancakes instead.” “
Mr. Hiraldo-Ramires demonstrated how to set up and arm the detonator using a model mine. This requires removing a metal security tape and pressing a button which, when pressed, makes a surprising clicking sound, indicating the mine is cocked. After doing that, he said, you should “come back to a safe distance.”
Ihor Gribenoshko, 56, advertising manager at a pharmaceutical company, took notes. “The more coffins we send, the more the Russian people will start to think twice,” he said.
Understanding the escalating tensions over Ukraine
The Ukrainian Legion does not distribute weapons and instead encourages its members to train with their own rifles. It also does not explain how the explosives would end up in civilian hands. But members said they kept backpacks full of walkie-talkies, medical kits, sleeping bags and warm clothes at home – ready at all times.
Critics point to the dangers of the civil defense plan. One concern is that national political divisions could trigger violence from armed militias. Some scenarios envision Moscow seizing this vulnerability, turning nationalist militias into a destabilizing threat to the government.
During an invasion, these groups could “quickly turn into a decentralized insurgency in many parts of the country,” a study of war scenarios between Ukraine and Russia by the Institute for the Study of War noted in Washington.
Others fear that this effort may encourage private gun ownership, which carries the risk of crime, suicide and domestic violence. Ukrainian law requires a psychological examination to obtain a firearms license. In a country of around 40 million people, 1.3 million Ukrainians have licensed civilian firearms, according to the Interior Ministry.
Civilian training includes lectures as well as practical sessions. This month, the day before the program in the forest, around 100 people gathered in a concert hall in an outskirts of Kiev, complaining about the limited number of parking spaces on the street and queuing outside a coffee vending machine.
They came for an almost two-hour conference sponsored by the Territorial Defense Forces on the likely plans for attack on Kiev – including armored columns rolling on highways or paratroopers taking over the airport – by the Lieutenant Yuri Matviyenko, a former Ukrainian military attaché to Israel.
“Expect a quick storm,” he said. “We won’t have a lot of time.
He described how the volunteers could resist based on the tactics of the Islamist militias in Aleppo, Syria. Volunteers should use their knowledge of their own neighborhoods to get close to Russian soldiers, leaving too little separation to call for air strikes or artillery, he said.
The next day, in the pine forest, Ms Biloshitska – who studied to be a teacher but now works as a waitress – examined the man playing the role of a victim as she trained to provide first aid. It didn’t look good. Small strips of red tape indicated multiple injuries. Pressure was applied. Gauze came out. A fake radio call has taken place.
“Artillery! One! Two! Three!” shouted an instructor. Ms. Biloshitska fell to the ground, taking cover, then stood up to stop the bleeding.
On a typical weekend, Ms Biloshitska said, she might read a book, do laundry, or meet a friend at a cafe. Learning to heal combat wounds was a new experience.
Ms. Biloshitska treated an area marked as an exit wound on the man’s back. Finally, panting, sweaty and surrounded by bandages and discarded medical gloves, she was done. “How do you feel?” she asked the man.
“Terrible,” he said. “I was shot in the chest.”
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