In Ukraine, an Old War Enters a New Phase
KYIV—Oleksandr Biletskyi is standing in a lecture hall on the outskirts of Kyiv laying out the items he considers most necessary to have on hand for emergencies. On the table in front of him, he’s placed a bag containing a compass, a pocketknife, a carabiner and a roll of tape. Gently, he adds three more bags: one with a Kalashnikov, one with a shotgun and one with a pistol. “We have to prepare for anything,” he tells me.
Normally, this lecture hall, which belongs to Taras Shevchenko National University, offers continuing education courses in law, economics and psychology. Today, it’s set up for a class for Ukrainian women on self-defense and survival. “Women are more conscientious than men,” Oleksandr explains. “They will pass this knowledge on to those around them.”
Oleksandr’s wife and co-organizer, Olena Biletska, greets the first students as they arrive and directs them to silently line up in the stairwell. Soon enough, the queue stretches across the entire floor of the building, as a large crowd of 200 turns up to learn how to respond to a crisis, including the worst-case scenario: a Russian invasion. If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, Olena says, three times as many students would have attended.
At first glance, life in Kyiv has not changed in recent weeks, despite Russia’s deployment of more than 130,000 troops to Ukraine’s eastern border. As the United States, the European Union and NATO scramble to deter the Kremlin from escalating tensions, life continues as usual in Kyiv. Outside the lecture hall, buses and cars zoom along on streets covered with fresh snow, as pedestrians order instant coffee and pyrizhky, buns filled with poppy seeds, apple or cheese, at the nearby metro station. Even Oleksandr, a 47-year-old veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine, says his routines have remained the same: He still goes to the shooting range twice a month, works out regularly and eats a healthy diet.
Still, few in Kyiv are waiting to see where the U.S. and NATO efforts will lead. Volunteer groups have been meeting and preparing for the outbreak of new conflict since early January. Some have stuck to packing go-bags with essential documents, cash and clothing, but others have donned camouflage and readied themselves to fight. The Territorial Defense Battalions, an offshoot of the regular Ukrainian army created in 2014 to train part-time reservists, have been gathering again, carrying out tactical military exercises at an asphalt factory on the outskirts of Kyiv and elsewhere across the country.
By now, Ukrainians are used to the stress of war.
Outside of Ukraine, the threat of an invasion began to seem real and imminent in late January this year. The U.S. announced it would withdraw some of its embassy staff, and quickly set its diplomatic machinery into motion to try to avert a new conflict. Many heads of state, foreign ministers, parliamentarians and foreign experts have been visiting Ukraine, to show solidarity as well as to learn about the situation on the ground.
For their part, Ukrainians are taking a pragmatic approach to the supposedly new crisis. As Oleksandr points out, Ukraine has been at war for eight years already, fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donbas, a conflict that began weeks after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. By now, Ukrainians are used to the stress of war. That’s why there is no feeling of panic in the city, explains Oleksandr.
He says he is not afraid of Russian aggression, and he is not alone. According to a December survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, one-third of Ukrainians are prepared to take up arms in the event of an armed intervention by Russia in order to defend their sovereignty. That includes defending their right to determine Ukraine’s political future—regardless of Russia’s plans for the country.
‘Keep Calm and Visit Ukraine’
While the West is focused on the Russia-Ukraine border, political leaders within Ukraine, including first and foremost President Volodymyr Zelensky, have been focused on domestic affairs.
“We don’t need this panic,” Zelensky said at an international press conference in late January. “There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic—how much does it cost for our state?”
According to Anatoly Oktisyuk, head of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics in Kyiv, “cost” is the most significant concern for Zelensky, who worries that talk of a “crisis” will harm the country’s economy, which was already hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. For years, many had high expectations for Ukraine’s information technology industry, which had been considered its most promising area for growth. But now, some companies based in Kyiv are considering moving to western Ukraine or other Eastern European countries. Many Ukrainians are therefore more concerned about their personal finances and the collapse of the local currency, the hryvnia, than the troop buildup at the border. Even now, the Ukrainian state tourism website is trying to attract travelers with the slogan, “Keep Calm and Visit Ukraine.”
Another area of concern, said Oktisyuk, is the energy sector. “We are still buying Russian fuel and electricity from Belarus, and another critical problem, of course, is the gas system,” he explained. Russian gas currently enters Europe through Ukraine, but the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline project would link Russian supplies directly to Germany, circumventing the Ukrainian market. If it goes ahead, “the next heating season will be a disaster” for Ukraine, Oktisyuk said, since the country would miss out on more than $2 billion in transit fees.
Resolving these economic and energy issues, however, will require either easing tensions with Russia or finding new sources of energy, neither of which would be easy. But Oktisyuk says Zelensky may be prioritizing his own domestic political agenda over these broader concerns, particularly when it comes to informing and preparing Ukrainians about the current security situation.
“On one hand, Zelensky seems to be upset with the passive attitude from Western partners” who failed to take Russian aggression seriously for many years, Oktisyuk said, paving the way for today’s border crisis. “On the other hand, he finds himself in a very tough internal situation, for example, when we talk about the fight he has declared on some oligarchs in Ukraine.”
When Zelensky took office in 2019, he vowed to reduce the influence of these very wealthy businessmen on Ukrainian politics. Last November, he made good on that promise by signing an “anti-oligarch law,” which created a register of known oligarchs and required politicians to disclose any contact with them or their associates. Soon after, however, an open conflict broke out between the president and Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov.
“The problem,” Oktisyuk explained, “is that he doesn’t fight all of the oligarchs in the same way. He still cooperates with some of them.” Zelensky has ties, for instance, to Ihor Kolomoisky, a former public official who was sanctioned by the U.S. earlier this year over allegations of “significant corruption.”
Weeks ago, as the border crisis was heating up, Zelensky accused Akhmetov of being involved in a Russian-backed coup plot, a charge that Akhmetov denies. At the same time, prosecutors went after another high-profile figure, former President Petro Poroshenko, on charges of treason. Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen and Zelensky’s predecessor, is accused of having arranged coal sales to finance the separatists in Donbas. The court rejected the request to detain him, but many observers see the entire legal procedure as a distraction, at a time when the country faces an existential security threat.
Military personnel and veterans like Oleksandr Biletskyi tend to assume the worst. “The most important thing is to prepare mentally for the worst-case scenario. Anything that goes better is kind of a bonus,” the veteran says to start his self-defense lecture.
With a PowerPoint presentation on a screen behind him and notecards in his hands, Oleksandr soberly lists what should matter most to his students as they prepare for potential conflict: a good mental attitude, tactics, skills and equipment. In the auditorium, mothers, fitness instructors, doctors and many others write down his tips in brightly colored notebooks. There’s even a 15-year-old girl who, according to her parents, opted to spend her Saturday morning here rather than in bed.
“We’ve learned from history that when a city is under siege, there can be a variety of problems: That there’s no electricity left, no food supply, no garbage collection,” Oleksandr continues.
He knows what he’s talking about. Oleksandr was sent to the front lines in eastern Ukraine in 2014. At home in Kyiv, his wife Olena used Facebook to organize one of the first training groups for women: the Ukrainian Women’s Guard, whose members provided emotional support to affected families and offered training in shooting and self-defense.
“A similar group for men already existed at that time. But no one knew what to do with women,” Olena tells me. After training more than 30,000 women, the Women’s Guard wound down in 2018, followed by a few relatively quiet years. But that does not mean the conflict ended, Olena notes. Instead, it was a sign that, for many, a new reality had set in, one characterized by unending war and insecurity.
This year, however, Russia’s military buildup prompted the couple to revive their unofficial trainings. “The women who come to us have one thing in common: They want to be informed,” Olena says. “They lack knowledge about what supplies to have at home, where to hide and how to build a neighborhood network. With us, they don’t have to be afraid to ask their questions. We’re here to learn.”
The Biletskyis’ course is just one example of the recent grassroots efforts that Olena Halushka, an activist and board member of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, credits with moving Ukraine forward in recent years. Halushka’s organization is another example, having fought corruption and advocated for transparency since it was founded in 2012. Its first years of work coincided with the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-leaning leader who was overthrown by the Maidan Revolution in 2014.
“Before the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine was a different country,” Halushka explained. Back then, Russia’s main method of influencing politics in Ukraine was to co-opt domestic politicians to represent the Kremlin’s interests. Since 2014, it has added the use of military force to its toolkit, and as a result, Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Russia have hardened considerably. “Ever since 2014, we are very clear about our geopolitical choice: the European Union, Europe, NATO,” Halushka added.
Over the past eight years, in the wake of Yanukovych’s ouster, Ukraine has achieved progress on a range of reforms to improve accountability and transparency in state institutions, as well as its democracy. The government has created new bodies to fight high-profile corruption, like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, and launched new transparency tools, like a public registry of beneficial ownership and the online procurements database ProZorro. The country also now requires public officials to declare their assets through an online form. Civil society has played a crucial role in driving these anti-corruption reforms forward, even as the government pursued other reforms to improve the banking and health care sectors, digitize public services and decentralize political power.
Unfortunately, many outside of Ukraine have not taken note of this transformation. For one thing, many news networks still tend to cover Ukraine from their Moscow bureaus, rather than hiring permanent correspondents in Kyiv. According to Halushka, this helps explain why Ukraine is still largely seen through a Russian lens, as a country with a culture purportedly similar to Russia’s and where Russia has a long history of influence.
“We need to see the current Russian aggression as a battle against democratization.”
Instead, she said, “We need to see the current Russian aggression as a battle against democratization. A prosperous Ukraine is a threat to Putin’s kleptocratic regime, because it may trigger demand for democratization in Russian society.”
Whatever Russia decides to do next, the fallout will likely endanger Ukraine’s recent achievements, including the infrastructure for fighting corruption. “For eight years, we’ve been doing a lot of institutional building, which might not be immediately felt by the Ukrainian society, but which nevertheless is the foundation for sustainable reforms,” Halushka said. “If all the manpower and energy go to constantly fight Russia, these projects and plans will suffer.”
No Choice But to Prepare
Finally, the most anticipated part of the Biletskyis’ training session for women begins. The next presenter, a soldier, asks one of the students to join him on stage so he can demonstrate how to fend off an attacker. Even a writing pad can become a weapon, he says. The soldier takes a notepad, rolls it up and shows the woman how to stand. He advises her to aim to strike at his throat or his temple, two vulnerable points. Briefly, he pretends that the woman, a head shorter, has overpowered him, triggering laughter in the auditorium.
When the class breaks for lunch, the lecture hall is quickly flooded with international TV crews, and while they set up their tripods, the students—most of whom came on their own—start talking to each other and exchanging ideas. Some of them inspect the fake knives that the organizers have spread out on the bleachers, hesitantly taking them in hand.
Inspired by Oleksandr’s lecture, Julia Sokolwjak, a 35-year-old English teacher, spontaneously creates a channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram so that the women can keep each other up to date. Later that evening, she will talk to her neighbors in her five-story apartment building to check that they, too, have prepared escape routes.
“I was present at two revolutions and know what is possible in this country. You always have the feeling that something bad can happen to you at any time,” she tells me on the sidelines of the lecture hall. “We try to go on living normally, but we have no choice but to prepare for an emergency.”
Daniela Prugger is a freelance journalist who covers Ukraine. She has previously been published in GEO Magazine, Marie Claire and Al Jazeera, among others.