Ukraine’s new military branch: Citizens protecting their neighborhood

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Serhiy Velichansky has worked with Ukrainian veterans, processing trauma they sustained fighting Russian-backed forces through improv comedy techniques.

Now, he plans to pick up a rifle himself and fight alongside them if the Russian forces encircling Ukraine push deeper into the country.

“I understood that if, God forbid, something began, I wouldn’t be able to sit with my arms folded,” said Velichansky, a Kyiv native.

At 50, however, Velichansky is not a prime candidate for frontline duty. Instead, he is one of many Ukrainian civilians flocking to join a new military branch: the Territorial Defense Force.

The idea is to harness well-trained civilian reservists around the country, led by professional soldiers, to help combat Russia’s 21st-century aggression — ranging from direct military attacks to clandestine missions to sow cultural discord, sabotage infrastructure and take over local governments.

So while Ukraine’s armed forces must face the possibility of a more traditional war — Moscow has 130,000 troops along the border that US officials on Friday warned may launch a ground invasion within days — an organized Territorial Defense can help them also respond to more clandestine and diffuse assaults, dubbed “hybrid warfare” in modern military parlance.

“We needed a new system with a new philosophy,” said Victor Kevlyuk, an expert with the Center for Defense Strategy think tank and a former colonel who participated in inspections of Territorial Defense units.

Yet creating a new, fully-staffed military branch is a tall order. Many recruitment offices are currently overwhelmed, buried under piles of paperwork.

The biggest shortage, said Anton Holoborodko, who commands a unit of reservists in Kyiv, is “hours in the day.”

The founding

On January 1, Ukraine passed a law making its Territorial Defense Force a separate military branch.

Previously, the force — conceived in the early 2000s and first put together in 2014 — answered to the ground forces command and consisted of retired military members divided into units resembling volunteer battalions. Their job was simply to defend the rear.

But now, with the expectation that Russia may be looking to infiltrate cities mentally and physically in parallel with its massive troop build-up, Ukraine wanted to codify its civilian force.

The goal is to form a core of 10,000 military professionals by March, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said at a recent briefing. Initially, that core was expected to lead 130,000 civilian reservists. But on Friday, as the threat of war appeared increasingly imminent, Ukraine’s commander in chief said the force was now seeking 1.5 to 2 million citizens willing to defend their homes, families and country.

The quickly amassed reservists will be spread out over 25 brigades — one for each of Ukraine’s regions, plus one for the capital city, Kyiv. Those brigades will be split into 150 battalions, buttressed by additional volunteer defenders.

The model, Kevlyuk argued, will position the force to help local authorities react to Russia’s hybrid tactics, such as protecting key civilian infrastructure or sending pro-Russian agitators packing before they can destabilize or take over an area.

A recent poll from the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a policy think tank, found 56 percent of Ukrainians want to join the new force — millions more than it actually needs.

Indeed, Kyiv commanders told POLITICO the force is growing rapidly. Numerous recruitment offices are swamped under the bureaucracy of new applications. The pressure to move quickly is enormous.

The recruits

The Ukrainians showing up at the recruitment offices come from disparate backgrounds. Some have relevant military skills. Others don’t. Each will receive basic combat training, but many are expected to simply apply whatever talents they might have from their daily life, said Holoborodko, the Kyiv commander.

Holoborodko, a journalist, was mobilized to Donbass in 2014 and 2015, the region where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-linked militants for the past eight years. In 2020, he decided to go back to training to stay sharp.

Now, he is with the Reservists’ Council, which advises the force’s Kyiv brigade commander. From that post, he is helping to organize training for reservists beyond the government-mandated two weeks each year.

“We get very different people, for example, drivers who can drive ambulances,” Holoborodko said. “We have doctors, rehabilitation specialists who work with athletes in civilian life. With us, they have different roles — one’s a paramedic.”

This breadth of civilian experience would be very expensive if the military sought to get it by hiring specialists, Holoborodko added.

“There are guys who are programmers in civilian life and even if they don’t serve as comms specialists, they bring ideas on how to improve communications,” he said.

People whose life experience doesn’t directly translate to the military nevertheless earn valuable combat skills.

That is the case with Marianna, a 52-year-old Kyiv resident and married mother of three. A data analyst in market research, Marianna has trained for Territorial Defense since 2020 as an infantry riflewoman.

“I found out about Territorial Defense and liked it. I liked his attitude towards older women who lack military skills,” said Marianna, a data analyst in market research who declined to provide her last name. But most importantly, she added, “I like that Territorial Defense enables you to defend your own home. That’s my main motivation.”

The challenges

The Reservists’ Council and other groups help train people every Saturday, going over basic combat techniques: defending an objective, setting an ambush, storming a building. Their training areas are eclectic, ranging from woods or dumps outside the city to an unfinished asphalt factory perfect for simulating combat in tight quarters.

Members of the Territorial Defense Force expect that once the branch gets on its feet, the state will run combat training drills, as intended.

Getting to that point will be a challenge. Because it’s such a young force, Territorial Defense staffers are stuck with heaps of administrative and logistical work. Each new core soldier and reservist means a new stack of paperwork, while the units must find places to accommodate personnel, store equipment and train people.

Velichansky, the Kyiv native who works with military veterans, knows these bureaucratic hurdles well. He had to go to three different recruitment offices and fruitlessly wait for responses before he found one organized enough to enroll him in a Territorial Defense unit.

There are “very serious [organizational] challenges,” he said. There may also be shortages of equipment at first.

Kevlyuk, the specialist who inspected Territorial Defense units, also sees a big problem with transportation, which the Defense Ministry cannot adequately provide. Local authorities need to step in to help make deals with private transportation providers, he said.

He added that he would like to see units in each battalion that ensure a smooth relationship with the population and specifically handle psychological operations and information warfare, staples of Russia’s hybrid warfare arsenal.

Recruits were stoic about Russia’s recent military threats, pointing to the eight years they have already spent experiencing ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. They have grown used to the idea that Moscow could strike at any moment.

“It’s only motivating Ukrainians,” said David Plaster, an American who teaches first aid in combat. “We’ve got people, successful business people, male and female, married and unmarried, single parents and multi-parent, and they’re looking at it in the same way, like, ‘This is our home.'”

Prominent Territorial Defense recruits include Yegor Sobolev, a former lawmaker, who decided it was time to prepare for the worst when Russia last gathered more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders in the spring of 2021.

Having been an activist in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, and later serving in government anti-corruption offices, Sobolev has prepared himself and his family for such difficult times.

“My son asked me: ‘Dad, you created a revolution, now you’ll win the war against Russia, what will remain to do for us?'” Sobolev said. “I told him: ‘You’ll always have a lot of work.'”

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