Ukraine’s newest fighting force still a work in progress

Civilians who manned barricades in Maidan learn how to dig foxholes and clean rifles for new national guard

The first group of volunteers for a Ukrainian national guard did exercises this week, including this one on hand-to-hand combat.
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

NOVY PETROVTSY, Ukraine — The foxhole Vladimir Ibadolayev was digging in the sandy pine-forest soil was slightly more comfortable than the hard cobblestones he had slept on for weeks while helping to overthrow the Ukrainian government, but he wasn’t complaining. His neighbor in the foxhole next door, Ivan Yarchenko, threw a pack of cigarettes and kidded him for complaining, comparing it briefly to his time serving in the Soviet military.

The two, now wearing mismatched camouflage and ill-fitting helmets, forged their friendship on Maidan, the Kiev square that was the epicenter for the anti-government protests that descended into savage mayhem last month, ousting President Viktor Yanukovich — and bringing the specter of war with Russia. Now they’re trying to become Ukraine’s newest fighting force.

“I love my country. I don’t want to give up one bit of our territory,” Ibadolayev, 29, of Kiev, said.

“There will be war. That’s a fact,” Yarchenko, a 40-year-old construction engineer from Ivano-Frankivsk, said. “On Maidan, we didn’t think about what we were doing when we were fighting — we could be killed or not. We were just defending one another, our comrades. Same thing here. When we go to war, we’ll be ready.”

In the eyes of many Ukrainians, this nation of 45 million faces an existential crisis unprecedented in the 23 years since the Soviet collapse. Russian forces loom on the eastern border. Moscow has annexed Crimea and forced a humiliating withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the Black Sea peninsula. In the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, pro-Russian activists are suspected of fomenting violence, to create a pretext for invasion.  The three-week-old technocratic government in Kiev is struggling to stave off economic collapse.

Amid all this, Ukraine is experiencing a resurgence of pride and patriotism, a wellspring that began emerging for many in the Maidan protests.  With Russia moving to formally seize Crimea, the interim government of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk last week announced the creation of a new national guard, with the goal of recruiting 20,000 volunteers. The interim government also increased the military budget with an emergency allotment of about $680 million.

More than 4,000 people had signed up since the law authorizing the guard was passed March 13, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said this week.

“You will have the opportunity to defend the country, with the forces of the national guard and the security forces," Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting over the weekend.

Basic training

Ukraine’s military is no match for Russia’s. Various estimates put Ukraine’s standing armed forces — army, navy and air force — at between 160,000 and 190,000, with another 1 million active reservists. Military service is mandatory for men between 18 and 25, though many use deferments and exemptions to avoid service.

A Ukrainian interim forces officer, right, shows weapons to recruits for the country's new national guard.
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

The national guard concept is still a work in progress. Organized under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, the first group of 500 volunteers, including Ibadolayev and Yarchenko, began two weeks of basic training only this week. After getting instruction in things like hand-to-hand combat, weapon maintenance, firing training and field-engineering techniques like digging foxholes, volunteers will serve mainly in a reserve capacity, deploying as needed. Interior Ministry officials say the deployment could include policing or even combat alongside regular troops.

At the core of the effort to build a cohesive force are the makeshift brigades known as “sotnyas” that protest leaders used on Maidan. Nikolai Mikitenko, a 42-year-old from Ivano-Frankivsk, was the commander of the 19th Sotnya, and most of his comrades from Maidan are now training alongside him at an Interior Ministry training camp in Novy Petrovtsy outside Kiev, learning how to dig foxholes and clean sniper rifles. He said the group includes economists, lawyers and teachers, ranging from 20 to 40 years old.

“The first enemy was those who stood opposite us at barricades” on Maidan, he said during a break in training. “Now it’s those who’ve taken our land in Crimea.” 

“We’re ready to fight, but not the Russian people. We’re fighting the Russian criminals in the Kremlin. They want to make slaves out of us,” he said.

Whether the national guard can become an effective force is an open question. The new volunteers were winded after running through an obstacle course, and they smiled and laughed as they mimicked punching and kicking one another and throwing one another to the ground. Some wore black military-issue boots. One wore black high-top sneakers. The helmets seemed ill fitting on most.

The motherland

Even if the effort doesn’t congeal into an elite fighting unit, it serves to channel the rage and pride many Ukrainians are feeling these days.  Well before 9 a.m., when Lt. Col. Roman Nakonichye put his small wooden table out on the cobbled sidewalk near Maidan to gather volunteers’ names, there was a group of men waiting to sign up. Some were engineers. Some, taxi drivers. Two owned an eyeglass business. All wanted to fight for the motherland.

“You come to Maidan and you feel it in your chest — patriotism is growing stronger, ever stronger. People feel like they never did,” said Vitaly Vasilyevich, a 30-year-old building drafter from Kiev. “If not for us [volunteers], nobody will. If I don’t do it, who will?”

A young volunteer gives his ID documents to a soldier at a recruitment table in Kiev for Ukraine's national guard.
Robert Ghement/EPA

On Khreshchatyk Street, the wide, high-rent boulevard that sits on the approach to Maidan, the table was easy to miss amid the army-green tents, smoke drifting from barrel fires and flags — Ukrainian, Polish, paramilitary — flapping in the breeze. The coffee shop Shokoladnitsya helped host Nakonichye’s simple setup; the table sat in the shadow of a 10-foot-high advertisement for “americano” coffee.

Scattered around Maidan were collection boxes for money: some for the victims killed, some “for the fight against Putin’s thieving regime.” Some handmade signs asked for cigarettes. Others asked for things like soap and canned goods. Meanwhile, souvenir vendors were hawking blue-and-yellow scarves of the Ukrainian flag, magnets of Maidan along with Chinese-made, battery-powered toy dogs that chirped and did backflips.

Many of the passersby were Ukrainian tourists, coming to see the remnants of the tent city that is considered hallowed ground for many; the 100 people who died on Maidan — most in the shootings that happened Feb. 18 to 20 — are called the “Heavenly Hundred.” Others passing through were part of the paramilitary groups that continue to camp out on Maidan; some were members of extremist right-wing groups like “Right Sector.”

One of the 500 volunteers who took part in training exercises this week for new Ukrainian national guard.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Nakonichye said he’d gotten about 100 people a day signing up since he first put out the table four days earlier.  As often as not, people who approached the table greeted him not with “hello” but instead “glory to Ukraine.” One elderly woman carrying a bag of vegetables came up saying, “Thank you for all you are doing, for defending the motherland. God be with you.”

Before he became an electrical engineer, Grigory Kulakov, 64, was a flight technician for helicopters during the seven years he served in the Soviet army. He said he has a younger brother who still lives in Crimea.

“It’s like Russia is a houseguest who comes in and just starts taking things without asking,” he said. “Or like if your brother gives you a coat and then comes to take it back, and then starts taking your shoes and your hat and your pants.

A line of the new recruits who attended training exercises just outside Kiev this week.
Mike Eckel

“I need to defend the motherland,” Kulakov said.

After signing his name to the national guard volunteer list, Vladimir Pavlovich, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer who now scrapes by as a Kiev taxi driver, said he and many of his friends had utmost respect for the students and other younger protesters who camped out on Maidan for three months and then, often with nothing more than plywood shields, cobblestone bricks and Molotov cocktails, battled heavily armed security forces.

“These kids, they were born after the Soviet collapse,” Pavlovich said. “They were born in a free country and they want to stay in a free country. We just want to live normally like they do in Europe, but Putin won’t give that to us.”

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