Less than two months ago, Alexander planned his days “on my own terms,” as he puts it. “Until February, I had a successful business, an advertising agency,” the Kyiv resident told Grid. It was the kind of life you might expect in his line of work: brunch meetings with clients, long days in the office, drinks with friends at Kyiv’s bustling restaurants and bars. And, whenever he got some time off, trips around Europe to follow his favorite sport — soccer.
“Actually, on the day before the invasion, I flew back to Ukraine from a match in Seville, Spain,” he said.
Now Alexander spends his days in a military barracks, in a location in the capital that he will not disclose, for obvious reasons. His schedule is determined by the local commander of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), the civilian arm of the country’s resistance against Russia’s invasion. As with others who have enlisted with the TDF, Alexander asked that we not use his last name due to safety concerns.
At the start of the war, the TDF numbered just a few hundred people. By early April, more than 110,000 Ukrainians — engineers, doctors, bakers and others from different walks of life — had signed up to fight the Russians. Some came with military or firearms experience; others none at all. They range in age from their late teens to 60. The forces include women — no surprise, given that 15 percent of Ukrainian soldiers are women — often working with the medical corps, though they are fighting as well, according to accounts gathered by Grid. Whatever their background, all the members of this growing civilian army work alongside the country’s professional soldiers, learning how to handle firearms, administer medical aid and shield the millions of civilians under threat from Russian fire.
These newly minted fighters have already proved themselves a critical component of Ukraine’s defense — the “core,” according to the top soldier in charge of the TDF. “It took the Russians by surprise,” Brig. Gen. Yuriy Galushkin said earlier this month.
Alexander is surprised as well — by how rapidly his life has been transformed.
Life with his wife and toddler in their Kyiv apartment now seems part of a distant past, he said, replaced by life in a military barracks where he bunks with his fellow civilians-turned-soldiers. “My usual day in the barracks starts at around 7 a.m.,” he said. “Then the commander gives us tasks to do. Usually my unit has been starting with a course on tactical medicine.”
Alexander moved his family to western Ukraine the day after the invasion. “They don’t want to leave the country,” he told Grid. But they are staying as close as possible to the Polish border. If the situation worsens, he said, they might have no choice but to cross the frontier.
When a hobby comes in handy
Alexander’s story mirrors tens of thousands of others playing out under the dark shadow of the Russian onslaught. Stories like Dmitry’s — a car salesman-turned-soldier who remembers vividly the night of the invasion. “My wife Tanya woke me up at around 4:30 a.m.,” he told Grid. “It was dark and she was showing me something on her phone.”
It was the news from the east: The Russians had begun streaming across the border. Like Alexander, Dmitry moved his wife away from Kyiv. In her case, she traveled to Bulgaria, where she remains. He then returned to Kyiv to join the resistance, signing up with the TDF and bringing with him a rifle he had bought in 2017, when he joined a shooting club.
“It is a real sport,” he said. A sport in which, he said, interest spiked after 2014, following the Russian incursion in the Donbas and annexation of Crimea. “A lot of people began to train hard,” he told Grid. Now, that training is coming in handy.
As Russia turns its attention and its troops to eastern Ukraine, Dmitry is helping to guard military facilities in the Kyiv area. And now his entire shooting club has joined him.
Prewar target practice notwithstanding, Dmitry and his friends are still inexperienced. They have not been deployed to the front lines, but they have had to fight back — against Russian saboteurs who attacked a military post in the Kyiv area where Dmitry was stationed. “We had a firefight for five minutes,” he told Grid. “It was my first serious shooting episode. We managed to beat them off and forced them to retreat.”
It brought home in the most dramatic fashion, he said, the way circumstances had changed — for Dmitry and for his country. “The day after the start of the war, I went to the territorial defense office with the guys from my shooting club,” he said. “Before the war, people had their businesses, their careers, their own lives. Most of them were not willing to give that up. But since the 24th of February, many of my friends have made a personal decision to join.”
All told, the TDF now comprises some 450 units spread across the country and is involved in everything from fighting at the front lines to helping with evacuations, working as couriers to guarding critical infrastructure. Increasingly, as Russia moves to the east, these new Ukrainian forces are being deployed to those areas as well in anticipation of what will likely be another bloody Russian offensive. Maj. Andriy Shulga, the spokesman for the TDF in the area, told Grid that these civilians have been critical to the resistance, and he believes their skill and bravery have surprised the enemy. “[The Russians] did not expect us to fight back in the way that we have,” Shulga said. It’s a sentiment echoed by U.S. officials.
To be sure, the civilian effort hasn’t been without teething problems, as ordinary people get used to handling firearms in the middle of a brutal war.
“It was chaos and panic in the first days,” Dmitry said. “You had a bunch of people around who already had weapons, and they didn’t know how to handle them. How to put in an ammunition cartridge, how to handle the trigger.”
Others had never handled guns and rifles before. “What we saw was a shock. People with real military weapons in their hands, and all their knowledge about them was from movies and games,” he said. So Dmitry and his friends from the shooting club “ended up becoming voluntary instructors.”
Those who were better-trained led the way, starting with professional soldiers who guided the rookies, and others, like Dmitry and his club partners, who had experience of their own. “Since our group was good with weapons, we were asked to work with young people,” he told Grid. “We started with about 30. We had to give them advice and train them a little.”
Regular soldiers have also had to adjust. A soldier named Valeriy told Grid he fought alongside civilians in the early weeks of the war, taking aim at Russian forces that were threatening Kyiv.
“You have to behave differently next to the civilians: You need to be different, not so aggressive, to change behavior,” he told Grid from an undisclosed location, where he remains deployed in active operations.
Above all, there is a strong sense of unity among those who have been in the business of defending Ukraine for years and those who have just joined the effort. “Fighting with them, you already know who likes what tea, with whom you should not smoke in the car, so as not to cause discomfort, you know the reaction to certain actions,” Valeriy said. “You trust a person with your life and you know that a person trusts his life with you. There is an invisible connection between all of us.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dmitry, the car salesman-turned-soldier in Kyiv: “Everyone is trying to do something to win.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.