Ukrainians ready for resistance: ‘The whole country will fight back’ | Ukraine
If Russian forces try to seize new territory in Ukraine, they will face an army much smaller and less well equipped than theirs but hardened by eight years of fighting.
Nearly a decade of war has also left Ukraine with nearly half a million combat-experienced veterans, many of whom are now preparing to fight again, officially or unofficially.
This combination, and the sheer size of Ukrainian territory, means that even if Russia can outmatch Ukrainian forces on a conventional battlefield, any military confrontation could lead to protracted and bloody partisan conflict.
“The Russian army has better weapons and better technical equipment than us, so we risk losing battles or campaigns. But they can never win the country if the Ukrainian people are motivated,” said Serhiy Kryvonos, General retired from the Special Forces and former Deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.
Kryvonos travels the country talking to veterans and organizing weapons training to prepare for a popular uprising if Russia invades. “Look at the experience of Afghanistan. It could not be held by the Soviet Union, by the United States, by the United Kingdom,” he said. “They couldn’t beat the Taliban because they were well motivated. Their most powerful weapon was their supporters, civilians by day, then at night they took up arms to shoot or bury a bomb on the road.
In Kiev, politicians joke that Vladimir Putin did more to create modern Ukraine than their own parties, giving them a common enemy and forcing them to unite around a Ukrainian identity. Putin’s years of aggressive policies toward Ukraine have also helped perfect the military he can now order Russian soldiers to fight.
In 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and Russian-backed forces took control of the east, the Ukrainian military was in such degraded shape that the soldiers weren’t even receiving food. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, discipline had frayed, weapon systems had gone unmaintained for decades, and almost none of the Ukrainian soldiers had seen combat.
“The Ukrainian army in 2014 and the Ukrainian army today are two completely different things, although without [that army] we wouldn’t have a country at all,” said Taras Chmut, a veteran and military analyst with Come Back Alive, an NGO in Kyiv that supports frontline fighters with equipment and training.
“We had a big army, with a lot of equipment, but it was old and not in good condition. Food did not reach the front; people were fighting in jeans,” he said. “Even basic supplies were not reaching the soldiers, from body armor to first aid kits and communications equipment.”
Today, logistics and training have been improved, and the army has grown by around 100,000 soldiers, to about 260,000. Chmut believes that a full mobilization including veterans and security forces could put over a million Ukrainians under arms.
But when it comes to hardware, Ukraine is still extremely vulnerable. It has a long coastline but, after Russia seized Crimea and its ports, almost no naval capability. It has no missile defense system, and the air defense systems are mostly Russian-made, outdated and impossible for Ukraine to repair because it cannot get parts.
If Russia takes control of the skies above Ukraine, Chmut says he fears a massacre of civilians like the one seen in parts of Syria, where Russian weapons have been used in rebel-held areas .
“We are trying to emphasize that we have to work on strengthening our air force,” he said. “No matter how many people are ready to fight, if the enemy controls the airspace, it could be like in Syria, the bombardment of towns and cities with [a] large number of civilian deaths.
Kryvonos feared that civilians would be targeted with punitive measures, even if they were not targeted with weapons. “They don’t even need to open fire. You can cut Kiev’s electricity outside the city,” he said. “The bigger the city, the easier it is to sow panic and bring it to its knees. If you cut the power, it will become a nightmare in a few days, without water or heating. »
He said governments had not done enough to warn civilians to prepare food and water supplies, or even to put up signs for bomb shelters. This is particularly worrying because, in addition to Russia’s weapon superiority in conventional airspace, it could trigger devastating cyberattacks that would make it harder for Ukrainians to access information as any invasion unfolds.
While the government is not moving fast enough for him and many other Ukrainians, people are making their own plans and preparations for the resistance that Chmut says would follow a Russian attack.
“If it is an invasion, it will be total war like in 1939. The whole country will fight back, there will be massive resistance. The West should know that there will also be a large number of refugees, perhaps 5-10 million.
Those determined to fight include Oleg Sentsov, a film director from Crimea who became a national hero after being detained in his hometown in 2014 and convicted of terrorism by a Russian military court. Human rights groups denounced it as a show trial.
He spent five years in Russian prisons, including in Siberia where the cold severely damaged his health, before being released in a prisoner exchange in 2019. He says he is ready to fight, even as his latest film, Rhino, is celebrated at festivals. .
“I will be in uniform. I have a military background and I know how to act in times of war,” he said in an interview at a cafe in central Kiev, hours before Putin announced his intention to recognize the separatist regions of Ukraine. “The main thing I have learned in this life is not to be afraid. In such a difficult time, I will not be the person who flees my country.”
Additional reporting by Iryna Gorlach.