The threat of a major new Russian attack on Ukraine is gradually seeping into the daily lives of its people, and women in the nation’s capital, Kyiv, are getting together to learn how best to prepare for the worst.
More than 4,000 people on Facebook expressed an interest in classes on “survival in urban conditions in case of military action” but only about 200 could attend the first session on Saturday due to Covid-19 rules and the size of the venue found by the organisers, a volunteer group called the Ukrainian Women’s Guard.
“I’ve come to learn how to defend my family and find out what could be a plan A, plan B and plan C in case of Russian invasion,” says Irina Kravchuk, clutching a takeaway coffee as she hurries through the snow to the lecture hall.
“I’m a mum of three kids and the youngest is just three years old, so I have to be aware of all the most important things, like where the bomb shelters are if Russia attacks Kyiv from the air,” she explains.
“I’ve found the bomb shelter near where we live, but I’m not sure if it’s well-equipped. I’ve bought some tinned goods and I’m thinking about getting our family documents organised – I think we’ll probably avoid the worst scenario, but I want to plan for everything.”
Life in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities is going on almost entirely as normal, despite a build-up of some 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry near Ukraine’s borders, and warnings from the US and British governments that the Kremlin appears poised to launch a major new assault on the country of 41 million people.
In the eight years since the Maidan revolution pivoted Ukraine towards the West, Russia annexed Crimea and then fomented a war in the eastern Donbas region that has killed 14,000 people, Ukrainians have got used to living with a degree of uncertainty, and many have discussed contingency plans with their families.
Those conversations are now becoming more frequent and more urgent, as some western states recall embassy staff from Kyiv and urge citizens to consider leaving Ukraine, despite the insistence of its leaders that all-out war is not imminent and that alarm will only cause chaos, weaken the nation and damage its economy.
There was no sense of panic among the scores of women – of diverse ages, backgrounds and professions – who streamed into the lecture hall, filling it with an air of good-humoured defiance and determination to leave better-prepared than they arrived.
“We want to know how to save our families and be safe in an aggressive environment,” says Kyiv resident Larisa Lebedenko.
“We’ve collected our documents, and though we haven’t put an emergency bag by the door, we have checked where everything is and my husband and I have agreed on who is responsible for what, if something happens,” she explains.
“We are planning to stay in Kyiv. My daughter is a designer in Poland and she is calling, very worried, and telling us to go there. But we say no, we will stay and fight. We are not panicking but we are getting ready.”
The Ukrainian Women’s Guard was founded by Olena Biletska, and her husband Oleksandr Biletskyi – a former special forces soldier – leads the class; he said more would follow on weekends to come in light of the huge interest in the course.
“It is training for urban survival in a big city, in a war and in crisis situations. It’s basically military training adapted for civilians,” he explains.
“It’s about practical things – what to do with kids, pets and older people, how to manage if there is no heating, water or electricity, and what to do with waste, what to do with dead people, what to do if somebody attacks your house or district,” he says.
“There will be some self defence for women too, but the key idea of the training is how to work together if there is a problem. It’s much easier to survive and escape if you unite with the people around you, with your neighbours,” Biletskyi adds.
“We want there to be lots of people all over the country who can do something in a critical situation – to say we need gasoline here, heating there, tea there; we want to teach people how to be organisers.”
Biletskyi fought in Donbas and is now an army reservist. “We’re all ready to come back [and fight] if necessary,” he says, describing the chances of a bigger war as “50/50”.
Moscow insists it has no plans to attack – but Ukrainians know well that Russian president Vladimir Putin also still denies illegally annexing Crimea and waging an eight-year proxy war in the east.
“Only one person in the world knows the answer to this,” another attendee, Victoria Smits van Oyen, says of the likelihood of a bigger conflict.
“We all know who he is, but he is definitely mad to start something like that. If he was not mad we would not be here today at this building,” she says, as she prepares to spend most of her Saturday learning how to survive urban warfare.
“This course is organised by women, and we would like to find out what more we can do. The main issue is self-protection, but it’s also about how we can interact and help each other. It’s very important to get together and learn what to do if there’s a major blackout and no electricity, for example,” she adds.
“In Ireland you are lucky – you’re a long way from this and don’t have to put up with this madness.”
It is unlikely that anyone at the class has a sharper sense of dread at what may be approaching than Irina (56), who declines to give her surn