By Gabriela Baczynska
KYIV – From Monday to Friday, Mykhaylo is a lawyer, Alexander is an IT programmer and Konstantin freelances in online advertising.
On Saturday, the three came together in an abandoned construction site on the outskirts of Kyiv to train as Ukrainian army reservists, ready to be called up in the event of any war breaking out with neighbouring Russia.
Nervous over the threat of some 120,000 Russian troops massed near the border with Ukraine, Kyiv has launched a new Territorial Defence force this year, which it wants to build up into a corps of up to 130,000 people.
While they may stand little chance against the much bigger and better-equipped professional Russian army, reservists like them could be tasked with protecting civilian sites in Kyiv amid any conflict.
Saturday’s training brought together about 70 locals, some in full infantry gear with hunting rifles and with combat experience from back when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine.
Others in sneakers and casual sportswear were handed mock wooden rifles.
“I am worried,” said Konstantin Sevchuk, the 43-year-old freelancer who said he had so far avoided any contact with the military after serving a year in the eastern Donbass region in 2014/15 during Ukraine’s general mobilisation.
“It doesn’t really fit into my life, I didn’t really want it. But now the situation is such that it’s needed.”
While IT programmer Alexander took part in the 2013/14 “Maidan” mass pro-democracy protests in Kyiv, he said he did not feel ready to fight when Moscow reacted to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president by annexing Crimea.
“Now I’m in my mid-30s and it’s time for me to join,” he said, his face covered with a blue scarf. “It’s better to join now than when it’s too late. I want to be prepared.”
Breathing heavily after getting up and dropping to the snow-covered ground numerous times with his heavy equipment, Mykhaylo, 39, was enthusiastic about going to fight.
“My inclination towards war craft has been there long before the war. Now it makes perfect sense to do it,” he said during the showcase exercises.
While the United States has warned that a military intervention is likely and imminent, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that too much “panic” is hurting the economy of 41 million people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the West has not addressed Moscow’s main security demands in the crisis over Ukraine but that he is ready to keep on talking.
The West meanwhile has threatened Russia with heavy economic sanctions should it invade Ukraine again.
While Moscow insists it does not want a war, it has also dismissed calls to withdraw its troops, saying it can deploy them as it sees fit on its own territory. It has cited the Western response as evidence that it is the target, not the instigator, of aggression.
The motley crew of reservists – arriving in everything from a small Suzuki to 4×4 vehicles and even an electric Tesla – were sometimes critical of Zelenskiy and had differing views on NATO.
But they shared a feeling that Ukraine, formerly a Soviet republic, wanted to decide its own fate independently of its old overlord Moscow.
“I want a peacefully developing Ukraine,” said Konstantin. “I want it to be a flourishing peaceful country, like Poland, like the Czech Republic, like Germany, like all European countries.”
Mykhaylo said he wanted his children “to be born and live their lives in a law-abiding and democratic country. That they know what freedom is and are ready to fight for it.”
Alexander noted how years of tensions with Russia – over Crimea, the eastern region of Donbass and Ukraine’s aspirations for closer integration with the West, but also over gas supplies and the difficult history the two nations share – had changed his country.
“We’ve grown up as a nation. We understand what we want and how to get there. We’ve only made small steps, but we know that we are Ukrainians. We’re not the Soviet Union anymore.”