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As Russians advance on Kyiv, ordinary civilians heed calls to fight for Ukraine however they can

Members of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine receive weapons to defend Kyiv, Feb. 25, 2022. (Mikhail Palinchak/Pool/REUTERS)
5 min

As Russian forces advance on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, people all over the country are being urged by officials — and sometimes compelled by necessity — to fight back in whatever ways they can.

The country’s former president is patrolling the city streets with a civilian defense force, armed with an AK-47. Civilians have been called to find their own weapons and make molotov cocktails — a type of crude, homemade explosive named, mockingly, after a former Soviet foreign minister.

Roughly 18,000 weapons have already been distributed in the Kyiv region, according to the government. At the country’s borders, Ukrainian guards have been stopping vehicles, looking for men between the ages of 18 and 60 who can help in the fight.

Ukrainians Google ‘how to make a molotov cocktail’ after defense minister’s call to arms

In fact, almost anyone who wants to fight for Ukraine is welcome. “If you have combat experience in Europe, come to our country and defend Europe together with us,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a desperate video statement Friday.

It marks civilian mobilization unseen in Europe in decades. But it isn’t yet clear if this is closer to a real grass-roots flood that could truly bolster war efforts, or something closer to a tragic last stand. Although Ukraine has surprised many observers in some early battles, the invading Russian forces have far more manpower and firepower. And so far, they have used only a fraction of it.

Dylan Lee Lehrke, a senior analyst at the open-source defense intelligence provider Janes, said there was evidence that Ukraine had been planning for this possibility but the implementation of the approach was probably a reflection of “how desperate the situation has become.”

“Any government that had other viable options would not use this strategy because it comes with too many risks,” Lehrke said.

Though Ukraine’s active military has fewer than 200,000 enlistees and is far smaller than Russia’s, it has sizable reserve forces, including a new civilian branch that has attracted recruits from all corners — and all ages. Ukraine’s defense minister said this week that anyone who can hold a weapon is urged to join the country’s Territorial Defense Forces.

“We have simplified all the procedures,” Oleksii Reznikov wrote Thursday on Twitter, telling Ukrainians they need only their passport to sign up.

One Ukrainian couple, CNN reported, moved a planned wedding forward in the face of the Russian invasion, and took up arms the next day.

Catching up on the Russia-Ukraine crisis? Here’s the background you need to know.

There are also a number of nationalist paramilitary groups, including the Azov movement and Right Sector — two groups that have trained volunteers to fight but also espouse neo-Nazi ideology.

For a second day, explosions were heard and felt in Ukraine as Russia continued its country-wide attack on Feb. 25. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Though these groups have limited power within Ukraine, Russian officials have emphasized their extreme views. In a speech to his Security Council on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for regime change in Ukraine, claiming that “neo-Nazis” were “acting like terrorists” and using women and children “as human shields.”

But many of the civilians fighting Russia have no link to paramilitary groups.

Putin says he will ‘denazify’ Ukraine. Here’s the history behind that claim.

Not all of the pushback is even violent. Ukrainians have been asked to donate blood and sign up to help carry out cyberattacks. On social media, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and national police force have called on civilians to obscure markers on roads they said were left by Russian troops for navigation purposes.

Accounts of exceptional bravery from Ukrainian soldiers have buoyed nationalistic pride for many in the country. Zelensky has said the defenders of Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, would be honored with the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest in the country, after battling to the last man. Audio files shared on social media appeared to show a small team of Ukrainian border guards being asked to lay down their weapons or die by a Russian warship.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine came after months of denials it would attack

Their response? “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.” All were then killed.

Government calls to make molotov cocktails tapped into a broader history of efforts to resist Moscow. The weapons, usually glass bottles filled with a flammable liquid and a rag that is set alight before they are thrown like a grenade, were used to notorious effect after the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. They were named after the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov.

“It is important that everyone be strong in spirit. This is our land. We won’t give up,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote in a Facebook post about the makeshift weapons.

On Ukraine’s Snake Island, a defiant last stand against Russian forces

Lehrke said the emphasis on civilian mobilization suggested that the fight was moving onto the next phase, in which armed civilians behind the Russian advance would increase the “fog and friction through which they must operate.”

But arming civilian populations could also be a double-edged sword, Lehrke warned, with Russians more likely to take out reprisals on the ordinary people, who could also lose protections offered by international law.

“It erodes the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, which increases the risks to the civilian population,” Lehrke said.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko proudly showed off his “short Kalashnikov,” used by his colleagues in the civilian defense force, but said that his group did not have enough weapons to take on more people.

Poroshenko, who served as Ukrainian president from 2014 to 2019, said the number of people trying to sign up was a “great demonstration of how Ukrainian people hate Putin and how we are against Russian aggression.”