A training grenade arcs toward a group of nine men practicing combat with trench shovels. This is the Ukrainian government’s volunteer civilian army, getting a crash combat course as the country braces for war.
“I’m sure they won’t lay down their guns during the first fight,” Colonel Volodymyr Gornik, who lobbed the projectile, said at the base outside Kiev, the capital. “They won’t be cannon fodder.”
Gornik, 35, is helping to create a battalion of 350 men to fight in what the government calls an “undeclared war with Russia” in the separatist eastern regions. While Russia says it isn’t involved in the fighting, NATO has said the country has 40,000 troops massed across the border.
That’s got Ukrainian officials rushing to shore up the military and recruit volunteers for the newly established National Guard. As Kiev prepares to stage a presidential election on May 25, violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is worsening, with dozens dying, including government forces, pro-Russian separatists and civilians.
The regions this month voted to split from the country in a plebiscite that the U.S., the European Union and Ukraine said wasn’t legitimate. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 14 said Ukraine is “as close to civil war as you can get.”
Russia’s worst standoff with the U.S. and its allies since the end of Cold War spurred Ukraine’s government to order a 16 percent jump in defense spending at the expense of social programs. The nation of more than 40 million people is also appealing to the public for help. Television ads asking for support prompted Ukrainians to send more than 120 million hryvnia ($10 million) in contributions, the Defense Ministry said in May.
Some of that is being spent at the training compound in Novi Petrivtsi, 30 kilometers (19 miles) outside of Kiev, which is littered with rusting replicas of planes and helicopters. Many of the volunteers in Gornik’s group, who took their oath on May 16, arrived from civilian jobs -- one of them worked at a movie theater, another as a telecommunication technician, a third was a lawyer.
Serhiy, a volunteer-turned-officer, commands the masked men who refused to give their names. While some have done their compulsory military service, almost half of them have never been involved with the armed forces.
“I’ve never had such a squadron,” said Serhiy, 40, who’s done tours as a peacekeeper in Africa and the Middle East. “But people here are patriotic and very eager to learn.”
How far that enthusiasm will carry the volunteers has yet to be seen. It’s unclear how the recruits will react to the prospect of conflict with fellow countrymen, including other civilians, says Oleksandr, one of the trainees.
“If they defend armed terrorists, they are terrorists too,” he said. “But it’s a hard question. It depends on the specific situation.”
Their friends and families also question the effectiveness of the crash course. “What can you be taught in such a short time?” asked Yaroslav Lavriv, 43, who came to visit a friend he fought alongside with in Kiev in February.
Further undermining morale are reports that the first battalion, which is already deployed in the Donetsk region, is struggling with equipment shortages. Dozens of people have died in the clashes, including civilians, rebels and government servicemen. “Do you know what they call us here?” Oleksandr said. “Death row.”
The volunteers, who spend the one-month course living in military tents, are taught to use AK-47 assault rifles, anti-tank grenade launchers and armored personnel carriers. Gornik sends his nine recruits through an obstacle course as the 17-year veteran detonates training grenades to recreate a combat atmosphere.
Ukraine’s government is looking for ways to bolster an army that has suffered from dwindling funds and recruits since the Soviet Union collapsed 1991. The military, which gave up nuclear weapons in 1994, is less than a sixth of its size during communism, when it was the Red Army’s western buffer.
At least 100 people are volunteering to join the National Guard each day, according to the army. Even at that pace, it would take 20 years for the armed forces of about 130,000 people to match Russia’s 845,000 active servicemen, according to the IISS Military Balance.
Despite the odds, for some the call to protect Ukraine from the worst violence since World War II is too strong.
“I thought I had seen a lot,” Serhiy said, recalling Kiev violence in late February that claimed more than 100 lives. “I cried like a child in my garage and that’s the reason why I’m here. I want to defend our country.”