By Nolan Peterson
April 25, 2022
Coffee or Die
KYIV, Ukraine — Two months into Russia’s full-scale war, Ukrainian forces have won the Battle of Kyiv, and some of the capital city’s territorial defense volunteers have repositioned to defend against a large-scale Russian offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine. According to personnel who spoke with Coffee or Die Magazine, Kyiv’s re-tasked territorial defense troops have formed a “second line” for regular army units in the south and east facing Russia’s offensive. Despite their lack of advanced training, Kyiv’s territorial defense units now provide Ukraine’s regular army units in the south and east a reserve of motivated, battle-tested personnel.
Territorial defense troops generally perform basic tasks — such as manning checkpoints — thereby freeing up regular army personnel for more skills-intensive operations, such as countertank raids. “When the regular troops move forward, we follow,” said Sergey, an entrepreneur and stand-up comedian in his 50s who joined a territorial defense unit in Kyiv a few weeks before Russia’s full-scale war. After a short break following Russia’s retreat from Kyiv, Sergey said his unit moved east and is now scattered among trenches, checkpoints, and other positions. “We are just a territorial defense formation called to back up the regular army, and we do our work day and night, rain or sunshine,” Sergey, who asked that his last name not be used because of security concerns, told Coffee or Die. “We’ve been shelled a lot,” he added. “A phosphorus bomb landed 10 meters away from me.”
Ukraine’s military rapidly mustered territorial defense troops to defend Kyiv during the opening days of the full-scale war. On Feb. 25, the second day of Russia’s nationwide invasion, Kyiv city officials distributed some 18,000 weapons to volunteer defenders.
Following its defeat in Kyiv, Moscow withdrew its forces from northern Ukraine at the end of March and subsequently announced a new operational focus in the country’s eastern and southern regions. Heavy Russian bombardments over the past week in those areas signal what Ukrainian officials say is a “new phase” in the war. “So far, we are waiting to move to a front-line position. Hopefully it happens soon,” said Marta, a physician who joined a territorial defense unit in Kyiv before the invasion. Marta’s unit, which spent two weeks in Irpin during the Battle of Kyiv, has already moved to the eastern front “after a short break.” “I feel busy but useless. Possible it’s always like this during the war — either too risky or too boring,” Marta, who also asked that her last name not be published, told Coffee or Die.
Territorial defense troops mainly comprise civilian volunteers with limited military backgrounds. Those who signed up prior to Russia’s invasion in February had the benefit of crash-course drills during the weekends to learn basic military skills. Many of those who signed up after the war began had to learn while on the job in a combat zone. By March 6, some 100,000 Ukrainians had
joined territorial defense units nationwide. “On Feb. 24, people of different ages, genders, and experiences organized themselves,” Brig. Gen. Yuriy Galushkin, commander of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, said in a Thursday, April 21, statement: “Farmers, businessmen, journalists, builders, programmers — people of different professions — put aside their work and courageously defended Ukraine. With weapons in hand, you liberated the north of Ukraine from the Russian occupiers, and now you are fighting for the south and east of Ukraine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and your communities value your courage and devotion.”
Sergey, who had no military experience prior to joining a territorial defense unit, said that, during the Battle of Kyiv, his unit held a position about 500 meters from the Russian lines in Irpin, a northwestern suburb of the city. “We volunteered to defend Irpin and had no hesitation about going eastbound. One-hundred percent of our company considers all of Ukraine as our territory. No doubt about that,” Sergey told Coffee or Die.
The threat of a Russian attack has passed, but Russian missiles still menace Ukraine’s capital city. Even so, life is incrementally returning to normal. Bars and restaurants and gyms are reopening. Schools are operating online, and Uber is operational. The city’s outskirts, however, offer stark evidence of the ferocity of the fighting that went on a few weeks ago. Destroyed Russian tanks litter the roads and fields, and the damage of combat is practically omnipresent. Forensics teams are still discovering the graves of civilians murdered by Russian occupiers in outlying settlements such as Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel.
As the war drags on, the eastern deployments do not signal a wholesale stand-down of Ukraine’s territorial defense units. Although city officials have taken down some fortifications and eased some security measures, Kyiv remains a wartime capital city. Territorial defense units man checkpoints and provide security — particularly at key areas that were devastated by fighting. Territorial defense troops have also participated in de-mining operations in some of Kyiv’s embattled, outlying areas.
Some foreign fighter units that took part in the Battle of Kyiv have also deployed to Ukraine’s east. Alpha 1, a Ukrainian Foreign Legion team of multinational special operations volunteer soldiers, including Americans, moved to Ukraine’s eastern front weeks ago. So has the Georgian National Legion. These foreign fighters are tasked with difficult and dangerous missions at the vanguard of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s so-called second-phase offensive.
Ukraine’s nationwide network of territorial defense units predates the Feb. 24, full-scale invasion. Many units formed in the immediate wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Although Ukraine’s territorial defense units fall under the regular military’s chain of command, each Ukrainian region, or “oblast,” is responsible for standing up its own territorial defense brigade. “You, the volunteers, have already provided real assistance to the armed forces by releasing combat units to perform combat missions,” Galushkin said Thursday. “The armed forces and your communities value your courage and devotion.”
Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.