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Serhiy Velichansky has worked with Ukrainian veterans, processing the trauma they endured fighting Russian-backed forces through improvisational comedy techniques.
Now he plans to grab a gun himself and fight alongside them if the Russian forces encircling Ukraine push deeper into the country.
“I understood that if, God forbid, something started, I couldn’t sit idly by,” said Kyiv native Velichansky.
At 50, however, Velichansky is not a prime candidate for frontline duty. Instead, he is one of many Ukrainian civilians flocking to join a new military branch: the Territorial Defense Force.
The idea is to harness well-trained civilian reservists across the country, led by professional soldiers, to help combat Russian aggression in the 21st century – ranging from direct military attacks to clandestine missions to sow cultural discord, sabotage infrastructure and take control of local governments.
So while Ukraine’s armed forces face the possibility of a more traditional war – Moscow has 130,000 troops along the border that US officials warned on Friday they could launch a ground invasion within days – organized territorial defense can also help them respond to more clandestine and diffuse attacks. assaults, dubbed “hybrid warfare” in modern military parlance.
“We needed a new system with a new philosophy,” said Victor Kevlyuk, an expert with the Center for Defense Strategy think tank and a former colonel who has participated in inspections of home defense units.
Yet creating a new, fully-staffed military branch is a difficult task. Many recruiting offices are currently overwhelmed, buried under piles of paperwork.
The biggest shortage, said Anton Holoborodko, who commands a reservist unit in Kyiv, is “hours in the day”.
On January 1, Ukraine passed a law making its Territorial Defense Force a separate military branch.
Previously, the force – conceived in the early 2000s and first formed in 2014 – had come under the Land Forces Command and was made up of retired military personnel divided into volunteer battalion-like units. Their job was simply to defend the back.
But now, with the hope that Russia might seek to infiltrate cities mentally and physically alongside its massive troop buildup, Ukraine wanted to codify its civilian strength.
The goal is to train a core of 10,000 professional military personnel by March, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a recent briefing. Initially, this nucleus was to lead 130,000 civilian reservists. But on Friday, as the threat of war looked increasingly imminent, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief said the force was now looking for 1.5-2 million citizens ready to defend their homes, families and country. .
The quickly assembled reservists will be divided into 25 brigades – one for each of Ukraine’s regions, plus one for the capital, Kiev. These brigades will be divided into 150 battalions, reinforced by additional volunteer defenders.
The model, Kevlyuk explained, will position the force to help local authorities react to Russia’s hybrid tactics, such as protecting key civilian infrastructure or dispatching pro-Russian agitators before they can destabilize or take control of an area.
A recent poll by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a policy think tank, found 56% of Ukrainians want to join the new force – millions more than it actually needs.
Indeed, Kyiv commanders told POLITICO that the force is growing rapidly. Many recruiting offices are overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of new applications. The pressure to act quickly is enormous.
The Ukrainians who present themselves to the recruitment offices come from disparate backgrounds. Some have relevant military skills. Others don’t. Everyone will receive basic combat training, but many would simply have to apply whatever skills they might have in their daily lives, said Holoborodko, the commander of Kiev.
Holoborodko, a journalist, was mobilized in Donbass in 2014 and 2015, the region where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-linked militants for eight years. In 2020, he decides to resume training to stay sharp.
Now he is part of the Council of Reservists, which advises the brigade commander of the force in Kyiv. From this position, he helps organize training for reservists beyond the government-mandated two weeks each year.
“We have very different people, for example, drivers who can drive ambulances,” Holoborodko said. “We have doctors, rehabilitation specialists who work with athletes in civilian life. With us, they have different roles – one is a paramedic.
This extensive civilian experience would be very costly if the military sought to acquire it by hiring specialists, Holoborodko added.
“There are guys who are programmers in civilian life and even if they are not communications specialists, they bring ideas on how to improve communications,” he said.
People whose life experience doesn’t translate directly into the military nonetheless gain valuable combat skills.
This is the case of Marianna, a 52-year-old resident of Kiev who is married and has three children. A data analyst in market research, Marianna has been trained in the Territorial Defense since 2020 as an infantry rifleman.
“I discovered Territorial Defense and I loved it. I liked his attitude towards older women who lack military skills,” said Marianna, a market research data analyst who declined to provide her last name. Most importantly, she added, “I love that Territorial Defense lets you defend your own home. This is my main motivation. »
The Board of Reservists and other groups help train people every Saturday, going over basic combat techniques: defending an objective, setting an ambush, storming a building. Their training areas are eclectic, ranging from woods or junkyards outside of town to an unfinished asphalt factory perfect for simulating fights in tight spaces.
Members of the Territorial Defense Force expect that once the branch rises, the state will hold combat training exercises as planned.
Getting to this point will be a challenge. Because it’s such a young force, Territorial Defense personnel are stuck with heaps of administrative and logistical work. Each new nucleus of soldiers and reservists means a new pile of paperwork, while units must find places to accommodate personnel, store equipment and train people.
Velichansky, the Kyiv native who works with veterans, knows these bureaucratic hurdles well. He had to go to three different recruitment offices and wait in vain for answers before finding one sufficiently organized to enlist him in a Territorial Defense unit.
There is “very serious [organizational] challenges,” he said. There may also be equipment shortages early on.
Kevlyuk, the specialist who inspected the Territorial Defense units, also sees a big problem with transportation, which the Ministry of Defense cannot adequately provide. Local authorities must step in to help strike deals with private transport providers, he said.
He added that he would like to see units in each battalion that ensure a harmonious relationship with the population and deal specifically with psychological operations and information warfare, basic elements of the hybrid warfare arsenal of Russia.
The recruits were stoic about Russia’s recent military threats, pointing to the eight years they have already spent living through the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. They got used to the idea that Moscow could strike at any time.
“It just motivates Ukrainians,” said David Plaster, an American who teaches combat first aid. “We have people, successful businessmen, men and women, married and unmarried, single parents and multi-parents, and they see things the same way, like ‘This is our home’.”
Prominent Territorial Defense recruits include Yegor Sobolev, a former lawmaker, who decided it was time to prepare for the worst at Russia’s latest meeting more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders in spring 2021.
Having been an activist in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, then having served in the government anti-corruption offices, Sobolev prepared himself and his family for these difficult times.
“My son asked me: ‘Dad, you created a revolution, now you will win the war against Russia, what do we have to do?'” Sobolev said. “I told him, ‘You’ll always have a lot of work.'”