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SLAVUTYCH, Ukraine — The city of Slavutych was built almost 30 years ago to house evacuated workers and specialists trying to contain the fallout from the nuclear power disaster in neighboring Chernobyl. Today some of Chernobyl’s veterans have another mission: building improvised armored vehicles for Kiev’s offensive against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The idea came in August, when several of the veterans and their colleagues at EnergoAtom, Ukraine’s state agency for nuclear energy, heard about Ukrainian soldiers going to the front line in battered school buses. They came up with a plan to build safer vehicles themselves.
“We figured if we can fix problems in nuclear power stations, we probably can fix just about anything,” said Vitaliy Shykun, the director of EnergoAtom’s department of repair and service.
Teams of 12 to 15 volunteers spent their weekends off in EnergoAtom’s workshop, where they worked around the clock to outfit minivans into boxy-looking, steel-reinforced military personnel vehicles. Another team of volunteers then drove the vans to the eastern front line, where volunteer battalions and national guard units use them in the fight against the rebels of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
“This is just the minimum we could do to help defend our country,” said Andriy Listsya, an engineer who worked for five years at the Chernobyl plant before transferring to EnergoAtom’s repair and service division here.
That fear was compounded last week when the rebels held their own elections in Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev, the United States and the European Union rejected the voting, calling it illegal, while the Kremlin recognized the outcome. Two days after the rebel elections, Poroshenko ordered more Ukrainian troops to reinforce key eastern cities against a possible rebel advance.
“Putin isn’t going to stop. That’s obvious to us,” said Oleg Polyschuk, a lawyer in Kiev who helps raise funds to purchase the vans and then delivers them to fighters in the east. He agrees with NATO and Kiev accusations that Putin is sending Russian troops to support the eastern rebels — claims that Putin has vehemently denied. “He wants all of Ukraine or at least to have all of his influence over Ukraine. I don’t believe in another other solution to this conflict other than a military solution,” Polyschuk said.
As a result, many Ukrainians like Polyschuk and the Slavutych volunteers have sprung into action as part of a widespread movement in support of Ukrainian troops, which started shortly after Kiev began its military operation against the pro-Russian rebels in April.
In restaurants and shops across the country, donation boxes are prominent on counters, asking for contributions for troops. Billboards and subway ads promote a number to send a text and contribute as little as 5 hryvnia, or about 40 cents, to soldiers in the field. A popular sushi chain restaurant, Sushiya, introduced the “victory roll,” a mix of shrimp, cucumbers, cream cheese and green peppers rolled with rice and seaweed. The restaurant says it will donate 30 percent of each roll’s $4 price tag to support Ukrainian troops.
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, there are more than 50 volunteer organizations raising money for food, medicine and gear.
The grass-roots movement came in response to what many Ukrainians said was shock over the ragtag state of their country’s defenses.
The Ukrainian military inherited about 750,000 troops when the Soviet Union broke up. Independent Ukraine gradually decreased its defense budget and troop numbers. Little attention was paid to the possibility of a Russian invasion.
Today the country’s military has just 130,000 fighters. Of those, the Defense Ministry said, only 6,000 were ready for battle when the eastern operation started.
When the Ukrainian government declared the start of the operation in April, it sent to battle troops ill equipped for the front line. Soldiers were often outfitted in aging uniforms. Many lacked proper boots and turned up on the front line in sneakers. Body armor and helmets were in short supply, and many of the automatic weapons assigned were older than the young soldiers’ parents.
With very little government resources to support them, Ukrainian troops have found themselves relying on volunteer groups like the one in Slavutych to outfit them for battle.
Polyschuk said he and other Maidan activists started out supplying food, sleeping bags, boots and basics for troops. Volunteers groups nicknamed “mosquitoes” went to Poland to buy body armor and helmets. To avoid customs duties when re-entering Ukraine with tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, the volunteers wore the vests as they drove across the border.
Raising funds for basic food and equipment was the first step, but as the fighting intensified in the east, it became apparent that the troops needed safer vehicles. The EnergoAtom vets saw their chance to help.
Polyschuk reached out to Ukrainians living in Lithuania to help raise funds for four used Volkswagen minivans for 2,000 to 3,000 euros each. When the first two minivans arrived in Slavutych, 125 miles north of Kiev, in early September, the volunteer teams of mechanics and engineers dedicated their weekends to the project, telling their wives and families not to expect them home for the next two days.
The sides and back door of the vans were reinforced with welded sheets of 1-inch-thick steel. They got boxy hoods and grilles installed in front, making the vans look better suited for space travel than battle. Two weekends later, the teams outfitted the other two vans, this time adding a hatch on the roof for a gunner.
There was no need for a license plate on the front line, so the volunteers slapped on a fake one containing a six-letter abbreviation for a common vulgar insult directed at Putin.
Last week Ivan Poleshko, a volunteer who helped with the design plans, said they received gratification for their work: One of their vans successfully took supplies to Ukrainian fighters defending the Donetsk airport. The nearly destroyed airport remains under constant attack as rebels and Ukrainian forces battle for control over the strategic airfield. Ukrainian soldiers based in the airport have been labeled cyborgs for their seemingly bionic defense of the territory.
The van came under heavy artillery fire as it was delivering supplies to the cyborgs. The passengers sustained injuries, but no one was killed.
“If we managed to save even one life because of our efforts here, then it’s worth it,” Poleshko said.