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With Russians on the doorstep, Ukrainians hear duty's call

Recruiters seek volunteers for Ukraine's new National Guard in the shadow of Kiev's Independence Square.

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Members of a 'Maidan' self-defense battalion take part in weapons training at a Ukrainian Interior Ministry base near Kiev on Monday. The first 500 volunteers arrived at the base for training to qualify for service in the newly created National Guard.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

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A group of men were already waiting for Lt. Col. Roman Nakonichye when he arrived at 9 a.m. to put out his small wooden table out on the cobbled sidewalk near Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan.

Some were engineers. Some taxi drivers. Two owned an eyeglass business. All wanted to sign up to fight for the motherland in Ukraine's newly formed National Guard. 

“You come to the Maidan and you feel it in your chest, patriotism is growing stronger, ever stronger. People feel like they never did,” says Vitaly Vasilyevich, a 30-year-old building drafter from Kiev. “If not for us [volunteers], nobody will. If I don’t do it, who will?”

In the eyes of many Ukrainians, the country is facing an existential crisis unprecedented in the 23 years since the Soviet collapse. Russian forces loom on the eastern border. Moscow has annexed the Black Sea peninsula and forced a humiliating withdrawal of Ukrainian troops. In the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, pro-Russian activists are suspected of fomenting violence to create a pretext for invasion.  The 3-week-old technocratic government in Kiev is struggling to stave off economic collapse.

Amid all this, Ukraine is experiencing a resurgence of pride and patriotism, a wellspring that emerged in the pitched street battles of the Maidan between young students and government security forces. Nearly three months of anti-government protests in Kiev culminated in three days of mayhem one month ago that sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing from the country.

National Guard

As Russia moved to seize Crimea, the new government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced the creation of a National Guard. The interim government also increased the military budget with an emergency allotment of about $680 million.

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Various estimates put the size of Ukraine’s current, standing armed forces – Army, Navy, and Air Force – at between 160,000 and 190,000, with another 1 million active reservists. Military service is mandatory for men between 18 and 25, though many use deferments and exemptions to avoid it.

The National Guard, while still a work in progress, is intended to recruit another 20,000 volunteers. Organized under the auspices of the interior ministry, the first group of 500 volunteers began two weeks of basic training this week. After getting instruction in things like hand-to-hand combat, weapons maintenance, firing training, and field engineering techniques like digging fox holes, volunteers will serve mainly in a reserve capacity, deploying as needed to certain areas. Interior ministry officials say the deployment could include policing or even combat alongside regular troops.

More than 4,000 people have signed up since the law authorizing the guard was passed on March 13, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said this week.

“You will have the opportunity to defend the country, with the forces of the National Guard and the security forces," Mr. Yatsenyuk told a cabinet meeting over the weekend.

Recruiting on the Maidan

Lt. Col. Nakonichye’s table is part of that recruiting effort. On Khreshchatyk Street, a wide, high-rent boulevard near the Maidan, the table is easy to miss amid the army-green tents, smoke drifting from barrel fires, and flags – Ukrainian, Polish, paramilitaries – flapping in the breeze. The coffee shop “Shokolatdnitsya” helps host Nakonichye’s simple setup; the table sits in the shadow of a 10-foot high advertisement for “Americano” coffee. 

Scattered around the Maidan are collection boxes for money: some for the victims killed, some “for the fight against Putin’s thieving regime.” Some handmade signs ask for cigarettes. Others ask for things like soap and canned goods. Meanwhile, souvenir sellers are hawking blue-and-yellow scarves of the Ukrainian flag, magnets of the Maidan, and Chinese-made battery-powered toy dogs that chirp and do backflips. 

Many of the passers-by are Ukrainian tourists, coming to see the remnants of the tent city that some consider hallowed ground. The 100 people who died on the Maidan – most in the shootings that happened Feb. 18- 20 – are called the “Heavenly Hundred.” Others are part of the paramilitary groups that continue to camp out on the Maidan; some are members of extremist right-wing groups like “Right Sector.”

Nakonichye says he’s gotten about 100 people a day signing up since he first put out the table four days earlier.  As often as not, people who approach the table greet him not with “hello” but instead “Glory to Ukraine.” One elderly woman carrying a bag of vegetables walked up saying “Thank you for all you are doing, for defending the motherland. God bless you.”

After signing his name to the National Guard volunteer list, Vladimir Pavlovich, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer who now scrapes by as a Kiev taxi driver, said he and many of his friends had utmost respect for the students and other younger protesters who camped out on the Maidan for three months and then, often with nothing more than plywood shields, cobblestone bricks, and Molotov cocktails, battled heavily armed security forces.

“These kids, there were born after the Soviet collapse. They were born in a free country and they want to stay in a free country. We just want to live normally like they do Europe, but Putin won’t give that to us.”

Grigory Kulakov, who also signed up, expresses similar thoughts. Before he became an electrical engineer, Mr. Kulakov was a flight technician for helicopters during the 7 years he served in the Soviet army. He says he has younger brother who still lives in Crimea.

“It’s like Russia is a house guest who comes into and just starts taking things without asking,” he says. “Or like if your brother gives you a coat and then comes back to take it back, and then starts taking your shoes, and your hat, and your pants.”

“I need to defend the motherland,” he says.

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