KYIV, Ukraine – While the mood on the streets is calm and collected, behind the veil of composure, Ukrainians are in training for the fight of their lives.
Tens of thousands of ordinary people across the Eastern European nation are learning to handle weapons, render first aid and perform other combat-related skills, as the threat of Russian invasion grows each day.
Citizens are turning to experts in firearms, and even just family members, in hopes of surviving an attack and facing down their belligerent neighbor.
“My daughter, now 23, taught me how to shoot,” Vlad Horbovetz, a surgeon and volunteer physician, told The Post.
“Russian boots on the ground would be catastrophic, and we believe in the peaceful way of the gun,” he added.
Ukrainians have been urged by the federal government to keep a suitcase of necessities, including “water, clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food” at the ready.
In the capital of Kyiv, people are trying to reinvigorate underground hospitals that were used in the country’s 2014 revolution, as ancient, World War II-era emergency shelters scattered around the city have crumbled into disrepair over the decades.
“We can immediately transform the space into whatever it needs to be,” Horbovetz said. “Unlike officials, there is no red tape. We just call each other. ”
In a small village on the edges of Kyiv, Gennadiy Druzenko and his wife, Svetlana, are among those practicing with their personal weapons so they will be ready to become guerrilla fighters should the worst happen.
The couple, in their late 40s, told The Post they are inspired to arm themselves by the gun rights in the United States.
“We always look at the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. It is not just about self-protection, but the protection of freedom and the protection of independence. We Ukrainians really show this meaning of the Second Amendment, ”says Gennadiy, a constitutional lawyer-turned-volunteer front-line medic.
In his view, it will be the contribution of civilian resistance fighters that could make or break the Ukrainian defense.
“People recognize this, and they will take their hunting rifles and whatever they can find to the fight. Scientists, lawyers, teachers, professors, everyone. Our volunteer women are also very brave, not just as doctors and in supporting units, but they fight with firearms in their hands. ”
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ukraine is the only European nation where firearms are not regulated by the state.
Instead, citizens are allowed to own semi-automatic rifles and shotguns once a permit has been obtained from the police.
Officials estimate there are around 1 million registered firearms in the country, with an unknown number of illegal weapons circulating.
“In the East, people are used to war and understand you should fight back. In central Ukraine, people are (beginning to understand this), and we have become a lot more American in this way, ”said Volodymyr Omelyan, 43, the former minister of infrastructure of Ukraine and a high-ranking figure in the opposition party. “We have a lot of discussions about having weapons in the house.”
He says Ukrainians are allowed semi-automatic rifles, but not handguns.
“We can buy anything, even sniper rifles in our stores, but they can’t be automatic,” Omelyan continues. “Magazines are normally 10 rounds, but it is not prosecuted by law. So you can buy an ordinary magazine and make it 30 rounds. ”
He explains that self-defense is “in the blood of Ukrainians.”
“If you look back to our history, medieval Ukrainians, while harvesting, would always have a defense weapon on hand. They were always ready for someone to come and invade, ”Omelyn emphasizes. “We understand you should be protected and protect yourself.”
While the threat from the 100,000 Russian troops at its borders is unprecedented in recent memory, most of Ukraine’s 44 million people will point out that they have been in a state of unrest since after their 2014 revolution.
The revolution began when protesters gathered in February 2014 at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, popularly known as Independence Square, in Kyiv to oppose the rule of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Government forces opened fire on the unarmed population, and the situation turned deadly.
“I posted on Facebook if any medics were interested in volunteering to help the wounded after our youth who peacefully protested were being beaten by the riot police.
“We developed an underground hospital because if a demonstrator was injured and taken to the public hospital, they could still be arrested,” Gennadiy explains. “The conflict with our own government escalated until finally, some people took firearms into their own hands.”
While the Yanukovych government was toppled, more than 100 people lost their lives.
In response to his removal, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula the following month and immediately invaded the eastern Donbas region with “little green men” militias, igniting a horrific battle that is still raging.
Yet it was during the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014 – when the armed forces of Ukraine launched an offensive mission to retake the strategic city of Ilovaisk from pro-Russian insurgents – that Gennadiy realized the need to formalize and revive their civilian defiance efforts.
The Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned, and the agreement for them to be allowed to retreat safely through a corridor was not followed, resulting in a bloodbath.
“Many were wounded and died,” he lamented. “And there weren’t enough medical professionals to help.”
Gennadiy’s effort has since become the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, now the country’s largest nongovernmental project, providing medical assistance in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Moreover, the pro-Russian incursions of 2014 not only led to a bolstering and overhaul of Ukraine’s then-depleted armed forces, but it energized a wave of civilian resistance fighters ready to fill the void.
Gennadiy smiles proudly when he speaks of his Ukrainian brethren.
“At this point, we Ukrainians are more American than European,” he continues. “We are always suspicious of any government, and we always believe in defending ourselves. People believe in themselves more than government. ”
And as a result of Western support over the past seven years, Ukraine boasts over 255,000 active-duty personnel and almost a million reservists. But this still pales in comparison to Vladimir Putin’s multinational army of more than 1 million active-duty fighters.
Nonetheless, the many volunteer resistance wings backed by crowdfunding campaigns and wealthy oligarchs could prove decisive if Russia makes a bold and much-feared move in the twilight weeks of winter.
“There has been a macro shift in mentality. The second Putin chooses to cross the line, Ukrainians will fight to the death, ”adds Ivan, a 40-year-old Kyiv businessman. “Putin doesn’t get our mentality. He thinks we are all one people. But despite our differences, we will unite. ”