The Defenders of Kyiv Dig In for Russia’s Siege

On the front lines with Ukrainians wielding Western weapons, hoping to repel an assault on their capital

The Defenders of Kyiv Dig In for Russia’s Siege
Ukrainian servicemen prepare a Swedish-British portable anti-tank guided missile NLAW before an attack in Lugansk region on Feb. 26, 2022 / Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images

Kyiv’s large empty streets, once bustling with life and laughter, look dramatically different four days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Barricades and improvised checkpoints have been erected across the entire city. You can no longer drive for more than a few hundred yards without being confronted by another barricade guarded by armed people’s militias, which have so far displayed remarkable discipline in the face of an overwhelming manpower disadvantage.

As a reporter embedded with a group of ordinary civilians turned frontline defense fighters, I was expected not to photograph any of the barricades to avoid exposing any tactical advantages to the enemy. But the lack of photographic evidence should not cause Russian commanders to rest easy. The maze of traps, munitions and choke points in Kyiv have turned a European capital city into a giant killbox for tank columns. Having walked some of these streets merely 48 hours before, it was staggering to see how quickly they have transformed them into a tank graveyard.

A mixture of volunteers, active police officers and regular troops guard these barricades, and no cars can move between them without permission. Arriving at each checkpoint is fraught with danger, but as soon as our identities are confirmed, the tension dissipates and the men exchange laughs and jokes with each other. Morale is high here on Kyiv’s streets.

“You see they’re checking everyone, checking passports to see if they are fake,” says Yurii, a civilian volunteer who is acting as my guide. “It’s tough but it’s actually right, exactly as it should be.”

Yurii tells me that the checkpoint we have just passed took out a group of Russian soldiers the night before, which explained why the man at the checkpoint had just thrust the tip of his AK-47 into the driver’s seat window.

My experience covering wars in the Middle East has taught me to be deeply cautious around militias, and speaking to Ukrainians in Kyiv, many were actively horrified by the thought of the government pouring guns and anti-tank munitions out onto the streets, but surprisingly very few ultimately disagreed with the necessity of it. We are less than a week into this war, and these militias could ultimately turn into the warlords of tomorrow, but for now at least, their only focus is on repelling the Russian invasion.

When we finally reached the outskirts of the city, I saw what lies in wait for the Russian military on the highways leading into Kyiv. Volunteer militias have dug into positions surrounding the main roads and are armed with British-supplied Main Battle Tank and Light Anti-tank Weapons (NLAWs).

One of the volunteers, a bearded and cheerful young man who called himself Bundes and mostly wanted to talk to me about third century medieval Ukrainian history, said he was happy to see British-supplied weapons delivered to his comrades.

“This is the best kind of support,” he says, “one you can feel with your hands.”

Amid the intermittent barrage of nearby Russian artillery fire, I got to tour the Ukrainian trenches. A hole dug into the side of the road with a plastic tarpaulin and an old sleeping bag stuffed in it was jovially referred to as “the bedroom” by the volunteers. They drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the latest developments on their phones. It may be a front line, but the internet works fine out here. Even in the bitter cold of a Ukrainian winter, on a front line against an enemy that has them outmanned and outgunned, the partisans on Kyiv’s barricades are more concerned with how to keep their phones charged, passing around dying power banks to maintain their access to social media networks and the videos of Ukrainian military victories against Russian targets taking place across the country.

While the morale is high, the men complain to me about what they are lacking. “We need sleeping bags and tents,” says Bundes. “We are uncomfortable and it’s cold. Ask [the British] to also send us sleeping bags!”

The men here are structural engineers, paramedics, historians and physical education teachers. They come from all walks of life and all class backgrounds. There are men here barely out of their teens; there are men here closing in on retirement. This front line isn’t even an affair exclusively for men, they are joined by Katarzyna, a young woman who works as a political consultant and has also volunteered on the front line. She carries a small Soviet-era Makarov semi-automatic pistol in her pocket, which she balances carefully on her knee as she talks to me. She is the only person here besides me wearing body armor.

“A lot of my friends ran away, but this is my country, my city, and I have a lot here I need to fight for,” she tells me, “for the past, for the future, because I am human, I guess it’s my duty to make the future safer for everyone.”

It is clear to me that the defiance and steadfastness of these brave men and women holding the last line of defense of their city is something Russian President Vladimir Putin has completely miscalculated. These are ordinary people thrown into the most extraordinary circumstances, and so far, they have put up fierce resistance. Many of them may have little training, but what they lack in experience, they make up for in determination and courage. Even after a revanchist, fascist dictatorship is bearing down on them with one of the most powerful military forces ever assembled on earth, their resilience remains unbent, their morale remains unbroken and their resolve to defend their homes remains unbowed.

As we leave the front line, one of the men expresses his disappointment to me at the day’s events, “You should have been here yesterday, we at least had some action.”

As commercial satellite imagery published this morning shows a Russian military convoy 40 miles long pushing at speed toward Kyiv, the men and women of Kyiv’s volunteer defense forces are going to hope that courage, determination, improvised barricades and anti-tank weapons will be enough to repel the largest military operation in Europe since the fall of the Third Reich. They carry the fate of all of Ukraine in their hands.

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