Ukraine is a corrupt, failed state that has no right to exist, according to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Millions of patriotic Ukrainians beg to differ and have long been preparing to defend themselves and their nation.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and orchestrated a rebellion in the Donbas region in the east of the country. More than 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed.

Many struggled to believe that Moscow would ever launch a full-blown invasion, including an assault on the capital, Kyiv, and other big cities. But with Ukraine’s western allies ruling out direct military intervention, they knew they would have to rely on themselves.

Many Ukrainians have vowed to take up weapons and fight the invaders. Some have joined newly formed territorial defence battalions, units of selected volunteers overseen by military officers based in every region of the country. Others have organised local civil defence units. Many households already possess a hunting rifle or shotgun.

The Ukrainian government recently adopted the concept of total defence: the creation of a national resistance movement to help the military defend the country and to maintain some kind of order over Ukrainian society even if its government is incapacitated or deposed. Facing a much larger, more powerful adversary, other countries, such as Finland, have implemented a total defence strategy for decades. The idea is that resistance is deterrence. Russia may try to seize swaths of Ukrainian territory but may only be able to keep them at great cost.

A practice target at Liski district tactical ‘polygon’, a military training area. Targets with pictures of Vladimir Putin are particularly popular © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
A training exercise to escape through a tunnel of tractor tyres after a simulated explosion in Plesets’ke on the outskirts of Kyiv © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
Weekend warfare training camps for civilians in remote woods in the Desnyans’kyi district are run by the Kyiv Territorial Defence Corps. © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni

Across the country, Ukrainians have been receiving basic training from army personnel, reservists and volunteers. Ukrainians of all ages come to learn how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle, move around when under fire or staunch a bullet wound. Some want to know how to fight, others are simply seeking advice on how to survive in a combat zone.

A free, paramilitary-run weekend workshop in Plesets’ke, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Tasks such as carrying tractor tyres over slippery ground to build a barricade foster teamwork © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
Civilians of all ages are signing up for training in weapons handling . . .  © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
 . . . including tutorials on the AK-47 assault rifle in Kyiv’s Hydropark © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni

Photographers Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni have been chronicling these preparations for the worst case, shooting the para­military schools and weekend workshops, the courses in tactical medicine and guerrilla drills. These images capture ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances at an exceptional moment.

The banks of the river Dnepr in Kyiv are a favoured spot for courses in resistance and resilience. Some participants have reserved places in advance but passers-by also join in. These are not training camps for nationalist militia — which played a role in the 2014 Maidan revolution that removed a pro-Russian president from office and fought back in some places against Russian-backed separatists — although some ­members are instructors.

One of Putin’s false narratives is that the Maidan revolution was a fascist coup and that Ukrainian governments elected since then have been illegitimate. But the upswell of interest in civil defence, recorded by Caimi and Piccinni, tells another story. It is everyday Ukrainians, men and women, old and young, who want to play a role in defending their country. It is an expression of the strength of Ukrainian civil society, a concept that Putin apparently cannot comprehend.

A tactical medicine course in the Plesets’ke woods on the outskirts of Kyiv on basic combat first aid © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
Instructors, who are veterans or reservists, put participants through timed drills to hone their skills © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni
Veterans, paramilitary reservists and a priest greet a large crowd attending military training at the Hydropark. Demonstrations range from weapon handling to survival strategies © Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni

Russian aggression has helped foster a stronger sense of Ukrainian national identity since 2014 and has strengthened support for the country’s western orientation. Many Ukrainians feel they are the ­victims of a bigger clash between Putin and the west, in which they have little say. Joining together in a spirit of resilience and resistance is, at the very least, a way to channel their worries in anxious times.

Ben Hall is the FT’s Europe editor

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article