This story originally appeared on VICE UK.
How does a country that has, by its own admission, only 6,000 combat-ready troops face down the might of a Russian military that has stationed some 200,000 soldiers along its borders? This was a question Ukraine's new interim government had to start answering pretty quickly when Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula at the beginning of March.
Putin, whose government is friendly to the toppled regime, continues to insist that no invasion has taken place. According to Moscow, any troop movements are merely to protect their Black Sea naval forces from the "Ukrainian nationalists" whose "fascist coup" forced former President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev.
However, on the ground, things look different. It's currently estimated that around 20,000 Russian troops are occupying Crimea, surrounding and besieging the 15,000 Ukrainian troops in their bases on the peninsula. So far, the Ukrainians have kept their cool in what is either a heroic display of restraint, or a logical appraisal of their position, while Russian troops and pro-Russian groups intermittently try to goad them into a fight. Now that the people of Crimea have apparently voted to join Russia — in a referendum that is not recognized by either Kiev or the West — Ukrainian troops have been given until Friday to leave the peninsula.
It was in such circumstances that, last Wednesday, Andriy Parubiy announced the formation of a Ukrainian volunteer force dubbed the National Guard. Parubiy, who led Kiev's self-defense groups during the Maidan protests, is now also the leader of the country's newly formed National Security and Defense Council.
The government hopes to draft around 60,000 volunteers into the National Guard to help protect Ukraine’s borders, which are looking pretty vulnerable in the face of Russia's hulking army.
Two days later, the mobilization of the National Guard began. I went along to the rallying point outside Ukrainian House, just off the Maidan. A former museum and exhibition space, it is now one of the main bases for Self Defense — one of the militia groups spawned from the EuroMaidan movement. Roughly 500 Self Defense members had turned up from around six different sotnias (the Ukrainian word for a "hundred", into which protesters had organized themselves) and were waiting to board the buses to a police special forces training base just outside the city.
The Self Defense groups are a motley collection of men, plus a few women, who defended the barricades of the Maidan from the police. Many of their members made up the "heavenly hundred" who died during the bloodiest days of the revolution. They’re of varying ages and backgrounds, and hail from all over the country, from both the largely Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east. These people can't match the Russian soldiers for expertise — previously, they were cooks and jewelers, students, and club promoters — but without them, Yanukovych may have never been exiled from Kiev.
'Most people there were fit and young, but others wouldn’t make it; one was on crutches, some were carrying limps or beer guts, others just looked too old.'
On the night of February 18, when the government tried to clear the Maidan, a few hundred of them armed only with petrol bombs, stones, and shields held their own against thousands of police with water cannons, APCs, and guns. They managed to prevent the evacuation while thousands of Ukrainians turned up to lend support. It was a real turning point in their campaign to oust Yanukovych.
Since the revolution many have returned home, while others have stayed on to help police maintain security in the center of Kiev and to hold their positions in the square, not wanting to place too much trust in the new government quite yet. When Parubiy put out the call, a lot of them answered.
About 500 new Ukrainian National Guard recruits conduct training exercises near Kiev on March 17. Video via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
When we turned up at Ukrainian House, we were told that we wouldn’t be able to go to the training base that day. We hung around anyway and just before they left we managed to sneak aboard a bus with a few spare seats with the Lvivska Sotnia, a group from Lviv in the west of Ukraine.
Upon arrival, the Self Defense members piled out of the buses and lined up on the parade ground, as a brass band played the national anthem. The base commander then took to a podium to welcome the volunteers, before meeting with the sotnia commanders. Despite their ragtag nature, they were about as disciplined as you could hope a mismatched civilian protest militia could be. Some even managed to march in step.
After leaving the parade ground, the recruits were directed to where they’d be staying for their two weeks of training. On the way they filed past the live fire range, where the interior ministry troops were putting on a show. BTR armored personnel carriers fired heavy machine guns, RPG crews launched rockets at targets in the distance, and teams of trainees annihilated cardboard cut-outs with AK-47s. The recruits were certainly impressed but I’m not sure the Russian military would be.
Once the show was over, and the troops had put out a fire that had started on the range, the recruits were led to a long table on which a variety of different firearms were arranged. The recruits eagerly picked them up, taking out the magazines, looking down the sights, and fingering the triggers. (Luckily, the guns weren't loaded.) There were handguns, AK-47s, RPGs, modern Israeli-made assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns, and even anti-tank missile launchers. It was total gun-porn. Recruits were having their photos taken posing with machine guns that were clearly too big for them or lying down in the grass playing at being a sniper.
At the time, the vibe was a bit like that of a stag-weekend paintball party, but over the next two days the recruits would go through a series of mental and physical examinations to weed out those unfit for service. Most people there were fit and young, but it was clear others wouldn’t make it; one sotnia commander was on crutches, some were carrying limps or beer guts, others just looked too old.
Looking down the sights of a shotgun with a grip handle was Taras, the youngest leader of a sotnia at only 23. He had been through a lot back in Kiev. I asked him how he felt about potentially lining up against the Russian military. “I don’t want more heroic and tragic events in our country, we understand that we must stay alive and build a new country but if it will be war, we will of course protect our country to the death,” he said.
If recruits passed the medical exams they would then start two weeks of intensive basic training that would include briefings on military tactics — how to fight in small and large units, and presumably guerrilla warfare. Taras explained what options they had after the training, “We have two choices, we can either stay with the military full-time or go back to civilian life and when our country needs us we will be called to arms. Like most people, I will do the training and go back to civilian life to work to change the government system.”
They may look young but these recruits have been through a lot. The chaos and brutality of what happened in the Maidan has instilled in them a fearless and stoic attitude. However, chucking a molotov or facing off against a watercannon is a far cry from waging a 21st century battle against the Russian military. Bravery won't get you that far against an artillery strike.
It’s a desperate time for the Ukrainian government and there’s a good chance that giving large swathes of the population military training might come back to haunt them in the future. However, they seem to have very few options, as the international community flounders in response to Russian aggression.
With Crimea basically annexed and tensions between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia protesters heating up, it remains to be seen if the National Guard will ever have to come into a direct confrontation with the Russian military. To be honest, I’m really hoping they won’t.
Photos via Nonuk Walter/Henry Langston
Follow Henry Langston on Twitter: @Henry_Langston