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Ukrainian civilians are inspired to train for a possible war with Russia


As Ukrainians prepare for a possible Russian invasion, citizens are volunteering for territorial defense battalions. In the capital, in Kyiv, people turned out every weekend for military training. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: On the edge of a forest outside Kyiv, a group of about 60 men and women line up to begin six hours of military tactical training on a frigid Saturday morning. Civilian clothes are left inside cars parked along the dirt road. Dressed in battle fatigues and cradling guns, some of them wooden replicas, this group is ready for action. Yegor Soboliev says he signed up after Russian President Vladimir Putin began to move troops to Ukraine's border.

YEGOR SOBOLIEV: This is a very good way of being trained for people who do have jobs, do have families, older people. And I think this will change the situation with our security dramatically. Ukraine, like Israel, should be prepared for war for our independence every minute.

BEARDSLEY: Eastern Ukraine is already embroiled in a separatist war fueled by Russia. Civilians here reckon there's a 50-50 chance Russian troops will now invade. The deputy chief of this battalion, 50-year-old Vlas Honcharuk says these citizens need to be able to defend their cities block by block.

VLAS HONCHARUK: How do I feel now? A little bit tired but pumped up. Why I'm here? Because I'm Ukrainian. There's a war going on. Because Putin actually is the Hitler of 21st century. History repeats.

BEARDSLEY: Today, the trainees learn how to shoot and crawl in the forest. A partially constructed cement factory provides the perfect setting to practice urban guerrilla tactics.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Some volunteers already have a little military experience. Many are in their 40s and 50s and remember when Russians and Ukrainians were Soviet brothers. They say Ukraine did not have such a strong separate identity after independence in 1991, but now, thanks to Putin's military aggression and propaganda, says Honcharuk, a true Ukrainian nation is being forged.

HONCHARUK: Why they started this war? Because they don't even consider Ukraine as a proper nation.

BEARDSLEY: Fifty-five-year-old digital marketer and part-time diving instructor Oleksiy Vasylchenko says in 2014, when Putin took Crimea from Ukraine and stirred up the fighting in the East, he poisoned relations between Ukrainians and Russians, many of whom were still close after the Soviet collapse.

OLEKSIY VASYLCHENKO: A lot of my friends, my relatives, call me and say that we are fascists here because the Russian propaganda all the time says that Ukrainian is nationalist, is fascist, and they kill only because people speak in Russian language.

BEARDSLEY: Utter fabrication, he says, because everyone in Kyiv spoke Russian. But now, because of Putin, people are switching to Ukrainian, he says. They also now feel their values are closer to European values. Marta Yuzkiv, a doctor, says people feel they're fighting for something bigger.

MARTA YUZKIV: I would like to say that we are in danger now. So - and this is danger not just for Ukraine but danger for the whole democratic world. So - and I hope altogether we could stop Putin. And I know that all Ukrainian partners are supporting us in this effort, so we are grateful for this.

BEARDSLEY: Grateful for military help from NATO, she says. If Putin invades, that support would increase not only for the Ukrainian army but likely for the tens of thousands of highly motivated volunteers in Ukraine's territorial defense forces.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.