Dispatch

‘We’ll Keep Watching for the Russians’

Truck drivers, welders, and other untrained civilians are taking up arms as week two of Russia’s invasion begins.

Olek, a civilian militia member in Ukraine, sits in a dark room holding a gun.
Olek, a civilian militia member in Ukraine, sits in a dark room holding a gun.
Olek, a member of the civilian militia, staffs an outpost in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on March 1. He says he’s ready to die for his country. Stefanie Glinski Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

ZHYTOMYR, Ukraine—As the front line inches ever closer, six freshly armed Ukrainians keep watch at a recently established checkpoint on one of the main highways in Zhytomyr oblast, west of the capital city of Kyiv.

Just over a week ago, the men were truck drivers and welders. They never intended to fight a war. Today they are trying to defend their country from the Russian invasion on a constantly shifting front line. They are among tens of thousands of people across the country who have mobilized to form a territorial defense unit to aid the Ukrainian army, a bid to tip the military balance even a little. Ukraine has just under 200,000 active military personnel, with another 900,000 in reserve, and has started conscripting men between 18 and 60. Russia amassed just under 200,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, and it has deployed most of them in the week-old invasion. Russia has another 700,000 troops on active duty, 2 million reservists, and a huge advantage in tanks, artillery, and air power.

Even so, as the Russians move south toward the capital, the Ukrainians are ready to meet them.

Olek, a civilian militia member in Ukraine, sits in a dark room holding a gun.
Olek, a civilian militia member in Ukraine, sits in a dark room holding a gun.

Olek, a member of the civilian militia, staffs an outpost in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, on March 1. He says he’s ready to die for his country. Stefanie Glinski Photos for Foreign Policy

ZHYTOMYR, Ukraine—As the front line inches ever closer, six freshly armed Ukrainians keep watch at a recently established checkpoint on one of the main highways in Zhytomyr oblast, west of the capital city of Kyiv.

Just over a week ago, the men were truck drivers and welders. They never intended to fight a war. Today they are trying to defend their country from the Russian invasion on a constantly shifting front line. They are among tens of thousands of people across the country who have mobilized to form a territorial defense unit to aid the Ukrainian army, a bid to tip the military balance even a little. Ukraine has just under 200,000 active military personnel, with another 900,000 in reserve, and has started conscripting men between 18 and 60. Russia amassed just under 200,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, and it has deployed most of them in the week-old invasion. Russia has another 700,000 troops on active duty, 2 million reservists, and a huge advantage in tanks, artillery, and air power.

Even so, as the Russians move south toward the capital, the Ukrainians are ready to meet them.

“They won’t be able to break our spirit,” said Olek, a man in his 50s, who declined to give his full name and age when “everything ends up on social media.” He said he’s ready to die for his country. It was his first shift on the outpost that had been established on a quiet forest-lined road under a starless sky. “We just built this post,” he said. “Every day, more checkpoints are set up.”

Rubble in the aftermath of missile attack in Zhytomyr.
Rubble in the aftermath of missile attack in Zhytomyr.

People walk by the rubble in Zhytomyr on March 2, after a Russian cruise missile destroyed a block of residential houses and damaged a maternity hospital, killing at least four people and injuring dozens.

It was almost 2 a.m. early Wednesday, well past the 10 p.m. curfew in Zhytomyr. The eerie silence was broken only by the frequent sound of jets overhead and the distant air-raid sirens, warning of another Russian strike. Temperatures dropped below freezing, and the ersatz soldiers warmed themselves around a small fire in an empty oil barrel. Adrenaline was high, and everybody was nervous and on edge: In addition to the threat of airstrikes, a miles-long Russian convoy is approaching the capital from the north. 

“We keep the lights off so we don’t attract attention,” Olek said. Last week, he was a truck driver delivering goods across Europe and the United Kingdom. He grew up and still lives in Zhytomyr with his wife and 13-year-old daughter. An avid hunter, Olek bought his rifle years ago, shooting mostly foxes and ducks; with the Russians approaching, he said, he has a new target. Between constant cups of sugary black tea, he flipped through his phone and showed off his biggest trophy to date, a 300-pound wild boar. “Maybe as heavy as a Russian,” he said.

More than 1 million Ukrainian refugees have fled westward into the European Union, but Olek’s family has stayed put. “It’s for them I’m taking up arms,” he explained. 

A growing number of Ukrainians, both men and women, are joining the territorial defense units. Those who aren’t already fighting are preparing by filling sandbags, building trenches, and making Molotov cocktails.

“[Putin] thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday in his State of the Union address. “Instead, he met a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined: He met the Ukrainian people.”

Like many of the volunteers, Yaroslav (who also declined to give his last name), is just now learning how to use a weapon. He’s a 26-year-old welder who recently married. It was his first night on the checkpoint as well. Whenever a car approached, the men would position themselves, ready to shoot. “Most of the cars going north bring military equipment; most cars going south are families leaving the area,” Yaroslav said.

So far, the Russian invasion has killed and injured approximately 2,000 Ukrainian civilians, according to the country’s emergency services. “Children, women, and defense forces are losing their lives every hour,” their statement said.

“They all have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address on Wednesday.

The impact of those orders came to Zhytomyr in the early hours of Wednesday, while Olek and Yaroslav and the rest were still keeping watch. A Russian cruise missile destroyed an entire residential block and damaged a maternity hospital, killing at least four people and injuring dozens.

People walk by rubble in Ukraine.
People walk by rubble in Ukraine.

People walk by the destruction in Zhytomyr on March 2.

Residents dig through a destroyed house in Ukraine.
Residents dig through a destroyed house in Ukraine.

Residents dig through what’s left of a house after a Russian attack on Zhytomyr on March 2.

Oleksandr Korniichuk, 42, one of the owners of a house on that block, survived, along with his wife. “I don’t know how,” he said, pointing to a deep crater right next to what’s left of his home. He pulled out a memory card he found under the rubble, explaining that his security camera had recorded the explosion. Several houses and cars lay completely destroyed as people searched for their belongings. Bombings are becoming increasingly frequent in Zhytomyr, where people fear the same kind of brutal aerial assault that is hammering Kyiv, an hour to the east. 

Back at the checkpoint outside the city, Olek explained that the territorial defense forces were planning to establish even more posts and checkpoints to keep the Russians from further moving south. Even with the sound of planes overhead and the war coming closer, he said he’s not afraid. His gun is loaded. 

“We’ll keep watching for the Russians,” he said, staring into the night.

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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