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Ukrainians sign up for military training as Russia tensions ratchet up

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By Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
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Sergei, 41, told Euronews that it is his duty to be able to protect his country and city if a new Russian invasion ever happens.
Sergei, 41, told Euronews that it is his duty to be able to protect his country and city if a new Russian invasion ever happens.   -   Copyright  Credit: Emil Filtenborg

Armed with fake wooden assault rifles and rubber knives, a small group of about 30 Ukrainians gather in the woods on the outskirts of Kyiv.

They yell “glory to Ukraine” with a fist to their chest before the training begins, which focuses on handling rifles and attacking enemies.

The organisation, Total Resistance, organises this training for those who want to learn to defend themselves in case of a Russian invasion.

Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have been growing in recent weeks, amid claims Russia has put 92,000 troops near Ukraine's border.

Moscow annexed Crimea from Kyiv in 2014 and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, sparking a war that has killed more than 13,000.

Russia says it has no intention of attacking Ukraine.

Nevertheless, some in Ukraine fear the claims about the Russian troop build-up will spark the conflict in eastern Ukraine to flare up again, or worse.

It means training sessions like the one run by Total Resistance have become more frequent and more accessible.

They began earlier this year when there was a similar build-up of Russian troops near the Russia-Ukraine border.

“We want to help Ukrainians to be prepared to protect themselves," Andrei Rekun, the leader of Total Resistance, tells Euronews. "It is their right to do that.”

Rekun observes the training from a distance, watching as an army veteran shows participants how to cover each other in case of an attack or a retreat.

He says the training is mainly for defence purposes and underlines that everyone is welcome.

One of the participants is 35-year-old Sasha, who normally practises martial arts. He brought with him his friend Sergei and Sergei’s nine-year-old son. After practising with the fake wooden assault rifles, they move on to try holding a real assault rifle and reload it while walking.

“Most people think that war is somewhere far away and not here,” says Sasha. “I think that is wrong. This can escalate. It is a dangerous situation. I think the main defence of Ukraine is that we are all ready to defend ourselves, and we are ready anywhere at any time.”

Credit: Emil Filtenborg
One of the instructors helps one of the participants.Credit: Emil Filtenborg

'We have to be ready if the war gets really bad'

Total Resistance is not the only organisation in Ukraine to hold such training, says Hanna Hrytsenko, an independent researcher of far-right movements, gender issues and the military in Ukraine.

She says they are often run by veterans -- sometimes far-right groups -- but that it is hard to say whether and to what extent the current crisis has increased the numbers.

“I am pretty sure that such training, providing military skills, are available everywhere,” says Hrytsenko.

Euronews has also been in contact with the far-right organisation Tradition and Order, which is describing itself as a conservative movement and is accused of trying to disrupt Odesa Pride in 2020. Its leader Bohdan Khodakovsky says that they also have training and that Ukraine need groups like his to protect itself if Russia invades.

“We are preparing for fights in the forest and out of the cities,” he told Euronews, “We have to be ready if the war gets really bad. We train people in handling guns, how to shoot and to understand what is going on.”

Pavlo Fedorchenko-Kutuev is the chairman of the sociology department at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

While some civilians might prepare to fight, he says most Ukrainians remain calm and “rely on the Ukrainian armed forces” for protection.

He says the war in eastern Ukraine has hit the reputation of Russians in the country. He refers to a study from Kyiv International Institute of Sociology that reveals the proportion of Ukrainians with a favourable view of Russia dropped from over 80 per cent in 2008 to 30 per cent in 2015. Today it stands at around 40 per cent.

“Relying on other polls, one might say that the answer depends on the region,” says Fedorchenko-Kutuev. “I’d think that in western regions of Ukraine, people blame both Russian elites and society at large (for the war), while in the eastern regions people would rather blame Russian leaders, not the population.”

Credit: Emil Filtenborg
The participants trained with rubber knives in the forest in Kyiv.Credit: Emil Filtenborg

'I know how to use a sniper'

Around Kyiv, it isn’t hard to find people who blame Putin for everything. Sergii Kuzmenko, 27, a local craftsman, tells Euronews that he has family and friends in Russia and that the Russian people aren't the problem.

“This is just politics. It is a game. I really don’t have anything against Russian people, but I don’t like Putin. He is the problem,” says Kuzmenko "If something happens, I will be ready to fight, but for now, we just have to wait and see.”

Mykola, 68 who speaks to Euronews while waiting at a Kyiv bus stop, agrees. He says that Putin imagines himself as a “czar” and is using instability in Ukraine for personal gain.

“But what is happening right now, I think that is just teasing from both sides,” says Mykola. “Putin already took Crimea and parts of Donbas, he doesn’t need more and everything is broken there anyway. The American warnings are also just funny dreams. Nothing will happen.”

“But if something happens, I will tell you this. I will be ready of course. It is my duty. I know how to use a sniper. But what is going on right now is just teasing,” he says.

“Propaganda is really affecting people in Russia. But if you show people lies all the time such as that we (Ukraine) are shooting and bombing public transport, it will influence them.”

Back in the forest, the participants are now moving on to learn how to fight with knives. The instructor, who covers most of his face behind a mask, shows everyone how to attack with wide swings, how to defend the chest and neck against another knife and ultimately, how to kill the opponent. Sasha says that he feels that it is his duty to be ready to defend the city in case of a Russian invasion and that everyone should take it seriously.

Credit: Emil Filtenborg
From the left: 54-year-old Taras, 35-year-old Sasha, 41-year-old Sergei and his 9-year-old son during weapons training.Credit: Emil Filtenborg

His friend Sergei adds that it is his first time at such training.

“We seem to be a mix of people with some military training and some without,” he says. “I don’t know if I will be ready after this one training, but it is a start.”

The 54-year-old participant Taras, who doesn’t want to give his last name, agrees. He served in the Soviet Army back in the 1980s and brought his own assault rifle today.

“I think that any adult needs to be ready to defend Ukraine,” Taras told Euronews, “Some children are also here as you can see, and I think that they also need to participate to prepare them. At least so they are not too afraid if Russia comes. They at least need to know where to go, where to run, where to fight. What you need to do to survive.”

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