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Ukrainian civilians train for war with cardboard guns: ‘We are scared but we are ready’ | Trudy Rubin

The volunteers know the Ukrainian army, although strong, can’t withstand Russian airplanes and missiles for long, and that NATO won’t come to their rescue in the event that Russia invades.

Near KYIV, Ukraine — In a snow-covered forest one hour outside Kyiv, I am watching 250 Ukrainian civilians train to defend their capital if the Russians invade.

It’s hard to comprehend that in 2022 — not 1942 — the Kremlin has 120,000 troops poised to attack a neighboring democracy if the Ukrainian government won’t agree to accept permanent domination by Moscow.

Amazingly, no officials here or in Washington are yet certain whether Vladimir Putin is pulling an elaborate blackmail scheme to press the West into foregoing future ties with Ukraine, is preparing for a ground war, or is planning something in between.

U.S. intelligence sources believe Russia has nearly completed preparations for a possible large-scale invasion that could depose the Ukrainian government within two days. But the government here downplays any talk of invasion, with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Twitter account stressing only “diplomatic efforts to restore peace.”

Yet, if one thing dissuades Putin from sending ground forces to Kyiv, it may be the prospect of the casualties Russian troops will take from impassioned local resistance forces like the men (and a handful of women) practicing here.

» READ MORE: Don't let Putin fool the West while he tries to dismember Ukraine | Trudy Rubin

Students, accountants, IT specialists, teachers, travel agents, retirees, military veterans: These urban volunteers are part of the national Territorial Defense Forces from around Ukraine that is being raised in big cities to protect local neighborhoods in case Putin actually orders Russian troops into Kyiv and other major cities.

The volunteers know the Ukrainian army, although strong, can’t withstand Russian airplanes and missiles for long, and that NATO won’t come to their rescue. So urban resistance will be essential.

The civilian trainees here have recently received uniforms. Most are practicing with cardboard guns or plastic paintball guns or hunting rifles from home until they are provided military weapons. They are clearly amateurs being coached by a handful of professional military to advance, swivel, crawl, and rescue the fallen.

Their practice ground is an abandoned, Soviet-era, Young Pioneers children’s camp, whose sagging buildings are being used to practice house-to-house urban combat.

As professional soldiers tutor novices in how to inch forward on their bellies over snow-packed ground, I have the feeling I’m watching a grim reality show. A fully geared soldier in helmet and body armor patiently instructs a woman in a tracksuit holding an ancient rifle held together with string. A barbecue pit smokes in the background, preparing lunch for the volunteers.

But the participants are deadly serious.

“We will fight any invaders like the resistance that fought the Russians in Afghanistan,” insists Vasyl Nikolayevich, a 53-year-old full-time platoon commander in the Territorial Defense Forces, as he rounds up a group of volunteers to practice a rifle attack, twisting to the right and the left, to cover both flanks.

Nikolayevich knows what he is talking about. Back in the 1980s, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, he fought with the Soviet army against the irregular Afghan resistance forces that finally drove the Soviets out of their land.

With his eight-year occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, Putin has only solidified Ukraine’s sense of national identity. These volunteers are well aware that Russian troops and their local proxies have killed 15,000 Ukrainians since 2014.

“For eight years we have had to suffer war on the territory of our country,” 55-year-old digital marketer (and diving instructor) Olyksiy Vasilchenko tells me about his reasons for joining up, as he finishes a round of shooting practice. “Now, my country is in trouble, and I want to find a way to help.” He’s had a longtime license for a hunting rifle at home and intends to buy a semiautomatic.

He says many younger people still don’t believe the Russians will invade, but he believes they will rush to join the resistance if troops surround their city. “If you switch on Russian TV, all the time they say Russia should kill Ukrainians and Ukraine should be under Russia. They will do everything to break Ukraine. But we will fight.”

As for their inexperience, volunteers tell me the Territorial Defense organization is getting better organized and their preparation more intense, with trainees now signing contracts to be called up in wartime.

Until this year, civilians practiced in a mix of old uniforms, some British or American, bought online or in junk shops, and units’ guns were stored in military centers far from their neighborhoods. Now, weapons have been ordered transported to reservists’ locations, and training with real ammunition begins this month.

“The training has become more serious,” I’m told by Yegor Sobolev, a former member of parliament who took part in mass pro-democracy protests in 2004 and 2014 against Russian-backed leaders in Kyiv. He is exhilarated at an “excellent” practice session on using and defusing mines, conducted in one of the camp buildings.

However, Sobolev believes that “Putin may send troops to Kyiv” because the Russian leader’s mindset is formed in an authoritarian bubble.

I have concluded — reluctantly — that Sobolev may be correct. Putin considers democracy a fraud and may believe his own propaganda: that Ukraine’s many Russian-language speakers fear Ukrainian “fascists” and will welcome a return to Moscow’s fold.

» READ MORE: Kyiv citizens say they are 'calm' and 'prepared' for Putin | Trudy Rubin

This propaganda is flat-out false. Russia should have learned the lessons of 2014, when Russian-speaking populations in southern cities such as Odessa sharply rebuffed Kremlin expectations they would welcome Russian troops. As a result, in 2014, Moscow seized only Crimea and chunks of the eastern Donbas region.

Should Russian troops enter Kyiv this time, they would likely be met by hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters on the streets. A similar reaction would erupt if Moscow tried to foment a violent coup attempt against the elected government in Kyiv in order to install a pro-Russian leader.

If the Russians used guns on demonstrators, they would spark a long-running urban resistance that would take its toll on occupation soldiers. Body bags would flow back to Moscow as they did during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Former parliament member Sobolev hopes it won’t come to that, but he is applying for a rifle permit while waiting for his government weapon. “We are scared but we are ready,” he says.