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A Special Operation Forces (SOF) instructor speaks to newly arrived recruits in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 29, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

They arrive one-by-one at the Chernihiv shooting club on a cold Saturday morning and greet each other with brisk handshakes. There’s no cheerful banter, or even complaints about the early hour.

Their solemn expressions make it clear they would rather be starting their weekend doing anything but receiving basic training for war. But the group of about 60 men and one woman plainly feels that – with the Russian military massing just 110 kilometres away from this northern Ukrainian city – they don’t have any other choice.

”War is coming, and I never served in the army. I figured I should at least understand how to hold a gun,” said Dmitry Kotenkov, a 46-year-old firefighter and father of three. A few minutes later, Mr. Kotenkov was awkwardly holding a Kalashnikov rifle for the first time in his life.

”Could all the newcomers please step forward?” calls out one of the Ukrainian special-forces troops assigned to teach basic combat skills to the volunteer reservists. About a third of the group takes a silent step forward.

“Don’t move your head,” the trainer says, crouching slightly and bringing a Kalashnikov to his shoulder as a demonstration before handing out rifles to the first group of six men. “Bring the gun to where your head is.”

Reservists of Chernihiv TDB (Territorial Defense Batallion) use AK74 to practise personal combat skills.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

The weapons aren’t loaded, so the trainer walks along the line of raised rifles and pushes hard against each barrel to give the reservists a sense of how the weapon will kick back after being fired.

The lessons in basic infantry skills are delivered with a heavy warning about what war would be like: “You need to keep both eyes open. If you shoot with only one eye open, you won’t notice if your comrades are falling around you.”

In another part of the shooting club, more experienced recruits practise urban warfare tactics, moving together in small groups and dropping to a knee ready to shoot when someone yells out “Contact!”

Similar training sessions, collectively involving thousands of reservists, were held in nearly every major Ukrainian city on the weekend. In addition to the Kalashnikov training, the volunteers also received crash courses in combat medicine and how to read military maps.

Ukrainian reservists’ ranks grow in Kharkiv as city fears fight on nearby Russian border

The aim is to build up local forces that can help the regular Ukrainian military defend their cities. That’s suddenly a pressing concern in Chernihiv, a city of 285,000 that is threatened by this month’s deployment of Russian troops, tanks and artillery to nearby Belarus. Satellite images, as well as videos posted on social media, suggest a major Russian force is amassing near the Belarusian city of Gomel, a straight highway drive north of Chernihiv.

“Before, we never believed Belarus could participate [in a war] against Ukraine. But after recent developments, a lot of people are changing their minds,” said Vitaly Khrustitsky, a member of Chernihiv’s city council responsible for co-ordinating between various security agencies. He said that if an attack was aimed at encircling or capturing the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, 150 kilometres to the south, “the Russians have no other way but to pass through us.”

Mr. Khrustitsky said that even if all-out war was avoided, the city was on the lookout for saboteurs who might be planning attacks against critical infrastructure such as its electricity grid or water supply.

The Ukrainian government has dismissed talk of a Russian invasion – much of it emanating from the White House – as alarmist. President Volodymyr Zelensky and his staff believe it’s more that the Kremlin will attempt to destabilize Ukraine from within. “We expect that some [Russian agents] are already on the territory of Ukraine. It’s important for us to be alert,” Mr. Khrustitsky said.

Reservists of the Chernihiv TDB learn how to work with paper maps.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Russia has consistently said that it has no plans to invade Ukraine. The Kremlin has said it could resort to “military-technical” measures unless it receives a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the U.S.-led NATO alliance, a demand that has now been formally rejected by the West.

Some of the skills the Ukrainian special forces members were imparting on Saturday were learned while training with Operation Unifier, the 200-soldier Canadian mission in the country. Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the mission would be expanded by an additional 60 military trainers “within days,” with plans to eventually double it to 400 troops.

“The Canadians gave us excellent training in firearms,” said one of the Ukrainian special-forces trainers. The Globe and Mail is identifying him only by his code name, Shved, because of the risks he faces as part of the special forces. He said the recruits in Chernihiv were learning Canadian shooting tips, as well as urban warfare tactics the Ukrainians had learned from British and U.S. trainers.

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While Shved and his colleagues arrived at the Saturday morning session clad in combat fatigues, the informal uniform of the volunteers was jeans, winter coats and hiking boots. Most of the reluctant warriors were men in their 30s and 40s, though a handful looked to be substantially older. Nearly all said they planned to send their families out of Chernihiv if hostilities began – while they remained behind in the city to fight.

“I have three kids, and I want to learn how to protect them,” said Larysa, the lone woman at the training session. The Globe is not identifying the 45-year-old vegetable farmer by her full name because of concerns for her family’s safety. She was attending for a second consecutive Saturday. “I thought maybe one day I could become an artist. I never thought about holding a weapon.”

But Chernihiv has a history of resistance. During the Second World War, the first Soviet partisan units that fought back against the Nazi occupation of Ukraine were formed in the dense forests of pine, oak and birch that surround the city.

Igor Biletsky, a 38-year-old high-school teacher who led Saturday’s combat medicine class, said long-term resistance would be difficult this time unless the reservist units received more weapons and other equipment. He said he had seen videos of sophisticated U.S. and British weapons being delivered to the central government in Kyiv but “the question is when they will arrive to us.”

The Kalashnikovs the reservists were training with on Saturday would be of little use against a column of Russian armour. Mr. Biletsky said he only had about 60 tactical medical kits at his disposal – enough to teach the weekend courses, but a very small supply if war really were to break out. He said he was considering buying a bulletproof vest for himself but wasn’t sure he had enough money.

Still, he said he preferred serving in the reserves to the better-equipped regular army. “If I join the regular military, I could get sent somewhere else. I want to stay in my city, with the people I know. This is important to me,” the father of two said. “It’s our land, and only we can protect it. But what will we protect it with? That is the question.”

Thousands of Ukrainian civilians and reservists have been learning basic combat skills to defend their country should Russia invade. The effort aims to build up local forces that can help the regular military but the Ukrainian government has downplayed talk of a Russian invasion.

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