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Molotov cocktails and spy-catching: War transforms ordinary Ukrainians into civilian defenders

Volunteers make molotov cocktails in the basement of a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Chris Mcgrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Sixty-five-year-old Mykola Tkachenko was walking his dog in a residential area of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, part of his role as neighborhood watch in between long stretches in his building’s underground parking garage, which serves as a bomb shelter.

That’s when he caught what he believed was a Russian spy.

“My father yesterday found a saboteur not far from his house, in a basement,” Tkachenko’s daughter Natasha told CNBC. “He had no documents, saying he is Ukrainian, but speaking with a Russian accent.”

Natasha and her father questioned the man, whom they say couldn’t name a single street in Kyiv, nor a word of the Ukrainian national anthem. They immediately handed him over to the police.

Ukrainians from all walks of life – programmers, teachers, parents – have shifted into full wartime mode, making Molotov cocktails, camouflage tents, gathering supplies and money to send to their troops less than one week into Russia’s invasion of their country.

“Working like hell,” Natasha replied, when asked how she was doing, saying that she couldn’t have imagined this just a week ago. She was working as an art curator for a local gallery. “Now it’s hell around Kyiv.”

Volunteers from the Territorial Defense Units make Molotov cocktails to use against the invading Russian troops in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.
Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

“Everybody I know — fellows, friends, relatives, anyone — they do at least something,” she said. “We stand as one, each of us is making what they can now.”

Her building’s unheated parking garage, now a makeshift bunker, has its own “Molotov cocktail-making department,” as she called it, referring to the homemade explosives made from glass bottles. When she’s not assembling weapons or defensive equipment with her parents, she is giving her young godson reading lessons in the bathroom, one of few relatively safe spaces as it has no windows.

On Feb. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine, a country of 44 million people and the second-largest in Europe, after denying U.S. warnings of an invasion for months. The offensive came after repeated demands from Moscow that Ukraine abandon its aim to join NATO, which it saw as a direct security threat on its border, and after Putin’s full-throated denial of Ukraine’s legitimacy as a state.

As air raid sirens rang out across Kyiv, Russian forces – which had amassed more than 150,000 along Ukraine’s borders in the previous months – invaded the country on multiple flanks. Putin has said that only military facilities would be targeted, but missiles and bombs have hit civilian infrastructure across several cities.

Outmanned and outgunned

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government has refused to surrender, urging his population – which has been independent as a state for 30 years – to fight back. Vastly outmanned and outgunned, and left by NATO to fend for itself since it is not a member of the treaty alliance, Ukraine’s armed forces have managed to slow the Russian offensive, which aims to take Kyiv.

But military experts expect the war to shift into a far deadlier phase, and fear far higher civilian casualties to come.

The Ukrainian national flag is seen in front of a school which, according to local residents, was on fire after shelling, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine February 28, 2022.
Vitaliy Gnidyi | Reuters

“I have small children. First of all, I take care of them,” said Yuriy Veligorsky, a 38-year-old business coach in the northern city of Chernihiv. He shared footage of several buildings and streets in his neighborhood that had been bombed.

“We support each other with food and goods,” he said. “People organize themselves into groups to protect their houses, their yards.” Veligorsky says he and his neighbors send money to Ukraine’s army and the local civilian defense forces. “Tomorrow I will send power banks for our defenders,” he added, saying that people communicate and plan via social media networks as well, which are still functioning as long as the area’s internet is intact.

He says people are still trying to stay calm amid the bombardments. “Yes, we are afraid but they are afraid of us even more,” Veligorsky said, referring to the Russian forces.

“People support each other. But I fear for my children and loved ones.”

Already, hundreds of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, according to the Ukrainian government, which also says its forces have killed several thousand Russian troops. Those numbers are difficult to confirm and have not been independently verified by CNBC.

The U.N. estimates at least 800,000 Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees. Meanwhile, men between the ages of 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country for the period of martial law, required to stay and fight.

Zelenskyy has called on any citizen who wants to fight for their country to do so and is issuing firearms to willing civilians. Tens of thousands of people have signed up to join these “territorial defense forces.”

‘People support each other’

The account manager at Natasha’s art gallery has just joined the Ukrainian army – still training, but his squad is ready to fight, she said.

Sergiy Maidukov, a fellow artist, is volunteering, delivering medicine and protective gear to the territorial defense crews in Kyiv – all while still working his normal job as a cover illustrator for Western magazines like the Guardian and the New Yorker.

“During the day he is delivering helmets and vests, in the evening making cover illustrations for the Guardian,” Natasha said. “I am speechless.”

Employees at a local digital marketing agency are adapting their skills to carry out cyberattacks against Russian entities in collaboration with Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. Others have organized a logistics hub on the Polish border to help bring in supplies. Psychotherapists around Kyiv have spent hours each day volunteering to provide free therapy for local defense forces.

Another local company, Interpipe, is a manufacturer that previously supplied pipes for utility systems. Now it’s using them to build anti-tank barriers.

Photos show empty shelves across Ukraine’s supermarkets and pharmacies, with long lines stretching outside and along streets. But people are trying to remain calm, residents tell CNBC.

“Still people are polite, people support each other,” Natasha said, describing an overarching sense of solidarity among the residents under siege.

People line up in front of a pharmacy, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in central Kyiv, Ukraine March 2, 2022.
Gleb Garanich | Reuters

Ukraine’s army has raised hundreds of millions of dollars through bonds and cryptocurrencies alone, and multinational companies like Jefferies investment bank and consulting firm McKinsey have pledged donations to aid groups in the country. Meanwhile, EU governments say they are sending more weapons to Ukraine, while heavy Western sanctions have seen scores of companies sever ties with Russia.

With each passing day, however, the situation becomes more desperate as Russian attacks increase and more people are killed. As of Wednesday, a 40-mile convoy of Russian armored vehicles was headed toward Kyiv, and strikes on key Ukrainian cities had intensified during the seventh day of fighting in the country’s north, east and south.

For so many of the Ukrainians staying in the country, the only choice is to resist and fight. “I see the world helping us, sending some help in different ways,” Natasha said.

“But still it’s our land, and first of all, we need to defend it by ourselves. And we do it.”

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