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From babysitters to businessmen, Ukrainians are joining the Territorial Defence Forces to learn how to defend a city just an hour’s drive from the frontier

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In Kharkiv, Master Sergeant Mikhail Sokolov is the local commander for the Territorial Defence Forces, which many Ukrainians have joined during the recent military buildup on the border with Russia.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

In an abandoned factory, less than 50 kilometres from their country’s border with Russia, residents of Ukraine’s second-largest city are preparing for war.

They come every weekend, from all walks of life, to learn how to fire Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, as well as less violent skills such as combat medicine or how to run a military checkpoint.

The number of Kharkiv residents who have joined the reservist Territorial Defence Forces is considered a secret, as is the exact location of their training base, but the local commander, Master Sergeant Mikhail Sokolov, says “thousands – and not just 1,000″ – have signed up for basic military training over the past month, as the threat of a Russian assault on Ukraine has continued to intensify.

The threat feels particularly real in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people less than an hour’s drive from an increasingly militarized frontier. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rattled nerves here last week when he suggested in a media interview that Kharkiv “could be occupied” if Russia were to invade.

Across the border, Russia has amassed an army that Mr. Zelensky’s office said this week numbered 127,000, backed by large numbers of tanks, artillery and other weaponry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country could resort to “military-technical” measures unless it receives a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the U.S.-led NATO alliance. The White House this week delivered a written reply that the Kremlin said did not satisfy its key concern.

But rather than panicking about such grim possibilities, many in Kharkiv – a city transitioning from its past as the hub of Soviet aviation to the capital of Ukraine’s IT industry – are getting ready to resist any way they can.

“We have a scientist who studies nuclear physics. Teachers, babysitters, lawyers, people who sell things in the market, businessmen – everyone wants to serve,” Master Sgt. Sokolov said in an interview in the factory, which buzzed with the sounds of construction this week as the Territorial Defence Forces worked to make their new base livable after 15 years of disuse.

“How can you not be concerned about a war? People are concerned, but there’s no panic,” said the 56-year-old, who was a lawyer until he enlisted in the Ukrainian military eight years ago, after pro-Russian fighters seized the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk in the nearby Donbas region of Ukraine.

That conflict, which has killed more than 14,000 people, continues to this day and has helped steel residents of this part of Ukraine for what might come next.

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Posters in Kharkiv warn of the Russian threat. The middle one reads: 'Is Kharkiv next?'

There is, of course, more than one way to fight. Kharkiv resident Yaroslav Markevych also took up arms in 2014 to join the fight in Donbas. His military career was a brief one, though, as he left the National Guard when he was elected to parliament later that same year.

It was long enough to discover what he was and wasn’t good at. “To my personal sadness, I’m a bad soldier. I have bad aim. But I was a very good UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operator. I’m very good at finding out where the enemy is sitting and targeting artillery at where they are sitting.”

The 48-year-old, who lost his parliamentary seat in the 2019 election, is now the co-owner of a company that recalls the city’s aviation history – by manufacturing drones. “When it became clear that one of the scenarios was invasion, we gathered our team and I said: ‘There is this reality, and I am going to war. I will create aerial reconnaissance battalions. If anyone wants to join, just let me know.’ We have a staff of 18 people, and 18 people put their hands up.”

There’s a similar attitude at Midgard Dynamics, a mid-sized robotics firm in the city. Anton Varavin, the company’s chief technical officer, said there are plans to relocate the company’s headquarters to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv – or perhaps elsewhere in Europe – in the event of a conflict. That way, the firm can continue to develop software used to manufacture military equipment such as remote-controlled machine guns and mortar launchers.

“Information kills very effectively,” said Mr. Varavin as he played a video of a remote-controlled mini-tank that works in concert with a targeting drone to operate a .50-calibre Browning machine gun. “We have less people [than Russia] … but if we have smarter weapons, it increases the efficiency of our military forces many times.”

But the 42-year-old father of four said he plans to stay behind with several other Midgard employees to fight if the company and even his family are forced to relocate. The owner of three assault rifles, he said he would be ready for urban warfare if the Russian army were to try to enter Kharkiv. “Every strong man will be necessary in this situation. I know this city well. I think I can be effective.”

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Anton Varavin of Midgard Dynamics says the robotics firm has a plan to relocate staff in the event of a conflict, but he wants to stay in Kharkiv.

Despite such bravado, few in Kharkiv believe the city will be able to fend off a Russian attack. There are lingering worries that at least part of the city’s population – 90 per cent of whom are Russian speakers, while 40 per cent are ethnically Russian – would quietly accept, rather than resist, occupation.

Tensions have hung over the city since 2014, when a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv was followed by the declaration of “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk, which like Kharkiv are Russian-speaking cities with close family and business connections to nearby Russia. Pro-Russian forces stormed Kharkiv’s regional administration building in April that year and declared a “Kharkiv People’s Republic,” as well. But they were outnumbered by pro-Ukrainian activists who gathered outside on the city’s Freedom Square. The self-described “separatists” – some of whom were Russian citizens – were ousted from the government building after a two-day standoff.

“Everybody remembers the attempt to capture Kharkiv in 2014. That’s why everyone here takes the threat of war seriously,” said Tatyana Bednyak, a 45-year-old businesswoman. For the past eight years, Ms. Bednyak has run a charity that connects Ukraine’s overstretched army with the business community in Kharkiv, assessing the military’s needs and then raising funds to fill them. “People have been radicalized. They’re ready to take a gun and go kill Putin.”

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Businesswoman Tatyana Bednyak.

The city has also changed culturally since 2014. Gamlet Zinkovsky, a prominent local artist, said that while Kharkiv was once culturally Russian – and where many looked admiringly across the border at the slightly higher standard of living – it’s now much more common to hear Ukrainian spoken on the city’s streets.

And with Donetsk and Lugansk mired in a grey zone of corruption and criminality – as “independent states” even the Kremlin has yet to recognize – the appeal of joining Russia has faded dramatically.

“Thanks to Putin, a lot of people here have become aware that they’re living in Ukraine and that the Ukrainian language exists,” Mr. Zinkovsky said, speaking at an exhibit of his sketches at the city’s Yermilov Centre modern art museum. “We’ve moved in a very different direction since 2014.”

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Artist Gamlet Zinkovsky.

Still, divisions persist. For the past eight years, pro-Ukrainian activists have maintained a large blue-and-yellow tent on Freedom Square under the banner “Everything for victory.” Volodymyr, a 62-year-old retiree who was one of two activists guarding the tent Thursday, said the vigil is necessary to remind people that there is a pro-Ukrainian force ready to defend the city. He was pessimistic about what might happen next.

“All these plants and factories [in Kharkiv] were built by Russia, and there are lots of Russian people here with a Russian mindset. There are still a lot of Russian loyalists here,” said Volodymyr, who refused to give his last name because “we are at war.” He said he was worried that local political and business elites would take money to go along with whatever the Kremlin had planned for Kharkiv.

Anton Grushetsky, deputy director of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, said polling shows Kharkiv still has a pro-Russian majority that is passive about politics. The city’s pro-Ukrainian minority, meanwhile, are much more politically active. A Ukrainian security source, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the situation, said there were questions about the loyalty of local elites – some of whom have long-standing ties to Russia.

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Tech CEO Daria Mikhailuta.

There are, of course, many in Kharkiv – as in the rest of Ukraine – who don’t believe war will come. Daria Mikhailuta, the 25-year-old chief executive officer of t-Spark Engineering, said she believes Russia is trying to pressure Ukraine and the West by amassing its military forces around the country, but that Mr. Putin wouldn’t go so far as to invade.

“War has never started, and never will start, when everybody is talking about it,” Ms. Mikhailuta said. But even if military force is not used, she said, Russia’s tactics are damaging Ukraine economically.

The country’s currency has lost 8 per cent of its value since the military buildup began late last year. Meanwhile, inflation recently pushed past 10 per cent. Ms. Mikhailuta said two of her company’s international clients recently expressed concerns about doing business with a company that could soon be in a war zone. “The more people are talking about this, the more impact it causes.”

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