As the situation in Ukraine remains tense, VICE News’ Henry Langston is on the ground in the capital of Kiev, where this week he joined volunteers for the newly formed national guard for their induction day at training grounds. We caught up with Henry on Sunday as residents of the Crimean peninsula headed to the polls to vote on a referendum on whether or not they will remain part of Ukraine, or join the Russian Federation outright.
VICE News: Henry, where are you right now?
Henry Langston: I’m out in Kiev right now, off the main square. Earlier we expected it to be pretty busy, but it was only half full. It doesn’t seem to be that much of a draw to people in the square right now. There’s a bit of either denial or they’re just ignoring that this referendum is taking place. They know it’s illegal, that’s clear, under international law. I guess there’s a sense that they shouldn’t have to acknowledge it, but obviously they’re still concerned. On the stage in the square, the conversations centered around refuting the Russian propaganda trying to smear the revolution as fascist - but people are obviously disputing the smears.
VICE News: Is there a sense of fear about what’s happening in Crimea?
Langston: It’s not really fear. Kiev is a very long way from Crimea. They haven’t felt this part personally, this wolf on the doorstep sort of thing. If you lived closer to the eastern border, you’d probably feel it a little more. They’ve gone through a lot in the past few months, so fear isn’t something that demotivates them.
VICE News: What have you been seeing in the past few days?
Langston: The past couple of days we’ve been focused on the national guard, which is a civilian militia that is put together by the government to help combat the massive weakness in the military that the new Ukrainian government has inherited. This national guard, which will be civilians signing up for this force. They’re jobs, once they go through the two weeks intensive training, will be to bolster the borders and help local police in the east, who are fairly demoralized and can’t contain the violence between the pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia groups.
VICE News: Is there a sense that things could escalate?
Langston: It’s been very obvious, and the Russians have made it fairly obvious that they’re gathering forces on the eastern border. I think that’s the sort of general, main fear, is what’s going to happen in the east, especially with the deadly clashes out in the east between pro-Russia and Pro-Ukraine groups. The Ukrainian government is struggling to keep these two groups apart, and keep the peace.
VICE News: What are your plans for the next few days?
Langston: We’ll be heading to more training tomorrow. They hope to have about 60,000 volunteers. In reality, only 6,000 Ukrainian troops are combat ready. The Russians have between 80,000 to 200,000 combat ready troops. The Ukrainian military needs to balance out that disparity, so they’ve gone that militia route, hoping that the intensive two week training will be enough. If the Russians decide to invade from the east, it would only take them six hours to get to Kiev.
VICE News: What are these new recruits like?
Langston: These kids are young, as well. Most of them are from the self-defense groups from the protests, the revolution. They’ve been hanging around for a month, helping the police out with the power vacuum in Kiev, and now they’ve joined up en mass to help the national guard protect their country. But it’s clearly desperate, because no matter how dodgy the Russian military training can be, two weeks training with an AK-47 isn’t the best way to combat a Russian invasion but it’s all that they have at this point.
VICE News: So it seems like they’re actively preparing for war.
Langston: Yeah, they understand it’s something that they have to do. The military over the past few years has been picked apart and underfinanced. They’re preparing for it. I don’t think they expect it, but they don’t want to be caught off guard. There needs to be a response. They know full well that Crimea is lost to them, the idea is just to defend what they’ve got left. That means strengthening the border between the peninsula and mainland Ukraine, and the east. The problem Ukraine has is that on every border now there are Russian forces, there are Russian forces on the north in Belarus, and in Transnistria. Ukraine feels encircled, and knows it needs to do something to prepare for a massive invasion. Its not being complacent, it knows it can’t afford to be.
VICE News: Do they feel abandoned by the international community?
Langston: They definitely feel that the response from the international community is a little weak. They’re still a little bit shocked by it. I think they expected more from it, at least. They definitely feel a bit sold out. One guy from the national guard, a recruit, said that he didn’t think anyone would intervene militarily on Ukraine’s behalf, but he was hoping at least we would at least supply them with modern weaponry.