Faced with an invasion by the world’s fifth-largest army, Ukraine is doing everything to fight back, and ordinary civilians are now part of the mission.
President Volodymyr Zelensky recently promised weapons to anyone who wants them, and so far more than 25,000 automatic rifles and nearly 10 million bullets have been handed out in Kyiv alone, according to a recent video post by Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky.
Many of those weapons have been picked up by members of new volunteer defense groups that have sprung up in local communities. Under a new law passed in January, these groups are now legal across the country, and their leaders loosely report to Ukrainian army commanders. As for weapons? Their members bring whatever they can.
“It’s BYOG,” says Daniel Bilak, the leader of one such group, active on the outskirts of Kyiv, “that is: Bring Your Own Gun.”
Bilak, 61, is a Canadian-born lawyer with Ukrainian heritage who moved to Ukraine some 30 years ago. His own gun, he says, is an AR-15 that he recently bought himself in Ukraine.
The defense group he leads is called the Wolverines, a nod to the heroes of the 1984 movie “Red Dawn” about a group of American high school students who beat back a Soviet invasion of the United States. The scrappy, diminutive, blue-and-yellow clad Wolverine of X-Men fame might work as well, of course, but Bilak says he's never seen the comics or films.
In the weeks just before Russia’s invasion began, the Wolverines held weekend training sessions in fields and forests outside Kyiv. Now, with the battle for Kyiv raging, Bilak says they conduct nightly patrols to keep order and capture presumed Russian saboteurs.
For men over the age of 60, the age limit for army service, groups like the Wolverines are a way to get involved directly in the defense of the country, and they’re an important part of Ukraine’s bootstrap strategy for holding off a much larger and better-equipped Russian army.
What’s more, in the event that Russia does prevail on the battlefield, they could be the building blocks for a popular insurgency thereafter.
“If Vladimir Putin is foolish enough to try and occupy Ukraine, he will face a highly motivated and well armed population,” says James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO. “Grannies go wild could end up being his worst nightmare.”
While groups like the Wolverines are showing Ukraine’s claws against the Russian war machine, human rights experts warn about the dangers of giving out weapons to civilians with limited military training.
“As soon as you pick up that weapon,” says Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, “you lose your civilian status, which means that you can be targeted. And it also means that you have to abide by the laws of war. And of course, nobody's had training on the laws of war.”
Still, Ukrainians like Daniel believe they are taking up arms not only for their country, but for something bigger.
“We are fighting for every democratic country,” he says, “certainly in Europe and for democratic and European values.”
And despite the long odds, he says, “this is not a suicide mission.”
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