September 30, 2022
The Globe and Mail
It’s safe to say that Vladimir Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” in Russia to bolster its invasion of Ukraine has backfired. The effort to call up 300,000 Russians was aimed at replenishing troop levels that have allegedly been decimated over the past seven months; in August, U.S. officials estimated that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded. But while Mr. Putin promised that only military reservists would be drafted, Russians with exemptions have reportedly been drafted anyway, with the burden falling most heavily on rural areas and ethnic minority groups. So it is little wonder that Russians have been fleeing the country in droves, leading to huge queues at checkpoints along its vast border. A spike in arson attacks, protests and even a shooting at an enlistment office reflect growing Russian resistance to the Kremlin’s latest announcement.
Ukrainians couldn’t help but respond to the news with derision, particularly in contrast with their own surge in national pride. In late February, the country’s army recruiting offices were swamped by thousands of men and women who wanted to defend their country. It is remarkable that in a defensive war in which they are outnumbered by a powerful foe, so many people have chosen to stay and fight, not run and hide. They’ve even launched a counteroffensive in the northern Kharkiv region. It’s why General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian army’s commander-in-chief, recently declared confidently: “We will destroy all those who come to our land under arms – either voluntarily or from mobilization.”
He has plenty of reasons for optimism. But it goes beyond enthusiasm on the battlefield, and instead reflects Ukraine’s broader and relatively newfound civic spirit.
Anne Applebaum calls this “the other Ukrainian army”: the many civilians supporting and assisting their soldiers and fellow citizens in war-affected areas. They are neither civil nor military servicemen; they call themselves volontery.
This volunteer movement is an authentic Ukrainian phenomenon that traces its roots back to the Soviet era, when Ukraine was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, though with some special privileges. Ukraine – then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – was one of the 51 co-founders of the United Nations, and Kyiv was allowed to have its own cabinet of ministers and parliament. However, all decision making ultimately happened in Moscow. The military, national security and law-enforcement apparatus in Ukraine went through the Kremlin, leaving Kyiv little space for governance.
In this model, Ukraine’s bureaucrats and officials had no obligation to their own citizens. Most of them were more loyal to Moscow than to their own country and people. As a result, many Ukrainians perceived their institutions as fake, repressive and colonial. Instead of relying on them to cope with various deprivations, they looked to others in their community.
The problem of Ukrainians’ lack of trust in state institutions remained unsolved for years. It was a primary reason behind two popular movements – the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the Maidan Revolution in 2014 – and it’s why Ukrainians demanded that their government move closer to the European Union.
A paradigm shift happened in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and occupying some parts of the Donbas region. Ukrainians grew to trust the army more than any other institution, but quickly discovered that their military was poorly equipped because of government corruption and mismanagement, as well as the alleged infiltration of Russian agents. That was the moment when agile, citizen-organized volontery truly stepped up, to do what state institutions could not.
Regular people who had previously not been engaged in any civic activity started to collect donations and equip their army with everything they could deliver, from uniforms to ammunition. They were fast, competent and
inclusive. The volunteer movement gave every Ukrainian a possibility to become a part of a vast force that was supporting its troops and boosting its morale. Soon, the volontery became one of the most trusted institutions in the country, just after the army they supported.
Since the start of the invasion, they have only ratcheted up their efforts. Eighty-one per cent of Ukrainians have donated money to their armed forces, and 60 per cent have donated money for humanitarian relief, according to a national poll done in August by the National Democratic Institute. Thirty-seven per cent have said that they started to volunteer, and 21 per cent joined the army. This level of civil engagement distinguishes Ukraine from Russia, where a 2019 Levada Center poll found that approximately 39 per cent of Russians feel they bear no responsibility at all for what happens in their country.
Since February, the Come Back Alive Foundation – one of Ukraine’s leading volunteer organizations – has raised more than US$120-million. Another volunteer organization, the Serhiy Prytula Foundation, successfully raised US$20-million in three days for three Bayraktar drones for the Ukrainian army (which were later donated by the defence company Baykar). But volontery not only supply the army with drones, UAVs, rifle scopes, night-vision devices, medical kits, vehicles and communications equipment: They also provide help for civilians in need.
The volontery, alongside Ukraine’s army and aid from the West, have proven to be pillars in the foundation of Ukraine’s war efforts. But they will also need to be a pillar after the war, to build a society that Ukrainians will trust. Their growth has been a driver of the country’s modernization, and when new faces emerge in the politics of a postwar Ukraine, many will come from their ranks. They are driving success in the present – and on the strength of Ukraine’s historical traditions, they will define the country’s future, too.
Anastasiya Ringis is a Ukrainian journalist temporarily based in Ottawa.