Locals joined territorial defence forces when Russia invaded – and managed to hold the city despite being encircled
2 Jan 2023
On 24 February, when Russia invaded, there were only a few dozen Ukrainian professional soldiers in Ukraine’s north-eastern city of Sumy, and they had no command centre. That evening, those 50 or so paratroopers were ordered to leave the city – about 20 miles (30km) from the Russian border – for another area. Most of the police force had already fled, along with much of the city’s leadership.
Sumy’s residents were left, confused and in shock, to defend the city on their own as Russian forces rolled towards them. The Sumy self-defence forces, which formed for the most part on the first day of the invasion, managed to hold the city for almost six weeks, despite being encircled. After 6 April, the Russian forces were pushed out of Sumy region, and most of the self-defence forces members then joined the army where they are now serving.
Sumy region borders Russia on two sides, to the north and east. The efforts of Sumy self-defence forces and ordinary residents inside and outside the city contributed to the disruption of the Russian supply lines from the Russian border to Kyiv. Their efforts helped prevent Russian forces from successfully surrounding the capital and seizing control of the country’s command centre.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has commended Sumy’s territorial defence forces several times. In his New Year’s Eve address, the equivalent of the queen or king’s Christmas Day speech in Britain, Zelenskiy singled out Sumy’s resistance efforts, describing how ordinary residents became the “bone in the throat” of the Russians.
Though there were only a few thousand civilians with rifles, a few dozen anti-tank weapons and no armed vehicles or heavy weaponry, by mid-March the Russians were scared to enter the city. In an alleged recording of a phone call released by Ukrainian intelligence services on 16 March, a Russian soldier can be heard breaking down after telling his mother that they needed to take the road through Sumy city but “not a single column of [theirs] had survived”.
City council workers and close friends, 29-year-olds, Serhiy and Ihor, were among the 400 Sumy residents that took up arms on the first day of the invasion. Others joined in the days that followed as they overcame the shock, according to those involved. They said only about 20 out of 400 had previous military experience and coordination was carried out through messaging apps and phone calls, with groups riding around to locations in civilian cars and trucks to meet the incoming Russians. “Formally it was called territorial defence forces but in reality, it was just people who had received arms from an army warehouse and formed reactive groups,” said Ihor, who along with Serhiy has now joined the regular army. “It was so chaotic that it’s even difficult to describe,” said Ihor. “There was no coordination or instructions from Kyiv or anything like that. We made [everything] up ourselves.”
The self-defence forces had some handheld anti-tank weapons that they used but otherwise, they were just armed with guns and molotov cocktails, say the pair. Neither Serhiy nor Ihor had body armour. “An old man walking through the city saw me and said his grandchild had fought and he would bring me a helmet,” said Serhiy, who said the bulletproof vest that he found did not have protective plates.
One of the main factors which saved the city, said Ihor and Serhiy, was the first battle which took place outside the city’s art college. The 50 paratroopers destroyed a whole column of Russian tanks. Both sides did not at first
realise they were facing the army, said Ihor, and the Russians even got close enough to ask the Ukrainians for directions. But the Ukrainians twigged first and opened fire at a close distance successfully destroying the tank column, said Ihor.
But when Serhiy and Ihor reached the paratroopers that night, with the rest of their small group of armed civilians, to their dismay, they were leaving. “We saw their armoured vehicles and we thought ‘phew’ we are not alone with our rifles,” said Ihor. “But then they were told to leave, and we were left on our own.”
“People would call us from one district, like Kursk Street, and say: ‘Get down here, there’s a battle going on,’ and then someone else would ring you because they spotted Russians elsewhere,” said Ihor, describing how they would arrive ahead of columns and set up defensive positions and start shooting.
It was this initial battle and other attacks mounted in the first few days by the self-defence forces which convinced the Russians there were lots of weapons and regular troops in Sumy, said Serhiy. “We were lucky. In reality, it was just self-defence forces like us.”
“Everyone started working for the victory. My girlfriends from the university were bringing us boxes of molotov cocktails to the base. There were grandmothers texting us with the locations of the Russians. I think because of this, the city was able to withstand the invasion,” said Serhiy.
After the first three to four days, the Russians stopped attempting to enter and set up checkpoints, encircling the city. The self-defence forces did the same. Serhiy and Ihor, along with others, started to slip out of the city to ambush columns. Unlike the Russians, they said they knew all the small lanes. “Our task was to destroy their fuel trucks; after a while they had no fuel left,” said Ihor. “What kept happening was the tank would run out of fuel and then they would ditch it. Sometimes getting into other vehicles or sometimes taking cars from civilians.” “Four of our group died after running into the enemy because there was very little experience; there was no plan,” said Ihor of the ambushes.
After their failure to use Sumy city as a throughway, the Russians started to go around the city and use the southern Sumy region towns of Trostianets and Okhtyrka, where the regular Ukrainian army was present.
Oleh Anatolyvych, a 57-year-old man from the village of Krasnopoliya, metres from the Russian border in Sumy region, did not have a gun when the invasion started. He hid in the bushes along the highway which crossed the border and filmed the Russian columns and counted the number of vehicles. He then sent the videos to his son who was serving as an officer in Trostianets. “In the first few days, there was a new column every two hours,” said Oleh, who has now joined the official territorial defence forces. “They did not suspect me because I look like an old man.” When they set up checkpoints in the village, Oleh said he pretended to be older than he was and avoided questioning.
Oleksandr Nesterenko, a major-general from Sumy who fought in the battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv and is now overseeing his home area, said that the Russians “can try” to attempt the same but he has no doubt that it will fail. “What you have to understand is that all these people who were accountants and businessmen nine months ago, now have nine months of training. We’re here with more manpower, weaponry and we’re motivated,” said Nesterenko. “It won’t be like February again.”