KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — The table tennis coach, chaplain’s wife, dentist and incendiary nationalist have little in common except a desire to defend their hometown and a sometimes hesitant effort to speak Ukrainian instead of Russian.
The situation in Kharkiv, just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from some of the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, looks particularly perilous. Ukraine’s second-largest city is one of its industrial centers and includes two factories that restore old Soviet-era tanks or build new ones.
It is also a city of fractures: between the speakers of Ukrainian and those who remain faithful to the Russian which dominated until recently; between those who enthusiastically volunteer to resist a Russian offensive and those who just want to live their lives. Which team wins in Kharkiv may well determine the fate of Ukraine.
If Russia invades, some of Kharkiv’s more than a million residents say they are ready to abandon their civilian lives and wage a guerrilla campaign against one of the world’s greatest military powers. They expect many Ukrainians to do the same.
“This town needs to be protected,” said Viktoria Balesina, who teaches table tennis to teenagers and dyes her cropped hair dark purple on the crown. “We have to do something, not panic and fall to our knees. We don’t want that.
Balesina recalls being pressured to attend pro-Russian rallies during the protest movement that swept across Ukraine after Russia attacked in 2014 – a year that completely changed her life. Russian born and raised in Kharkiv, she switched to Ukrainian. Then she joined a group of a dozen women who meet weekly in an office building for community defense instruction.
Now her Ukrainian is almost fluent, although she still periodically catches the words, and she can reload a submachine gun almost comfortably.
It wasn’t the life she expected at 55, but she accepted it as necessary. Many people in her social circle sympathize with Russia, but that’s not what motivates her today.
“I’m going to protect the city not for these people but for the women I train with,” she said.
Among his group is Svetlana Putilina, whose husband is a Muslim chaplain in the Ukrainian army. With fierce determination and not a hint of panic, the 50-year-old orchestrated contingency plans for her family and for her unit: Who will take the children to safety out of town? Who will accompany elderly parents and grandparents to one of the hundreds of mapped bomb shelters? How will resistant women unfold?
“If it is possible and our government distributes weapons, we will take them and defend our city,” said the mother of three and grandmother of three others. Otherwise, she has at least one of her husband’s service weapons at home, and she now knows how to use it.
Elsewhere in Kharkiv, Dr Oleksandr Dikalo dragged two squeaky examination chairs through a maze-like basement and filled yellow jerry cans with cool water. The public dental clinic he runs is on the ground floor of a 16-story building, and the maze of underground rooms is listed as an emergency shelter for the hundreds of residents.
Dikalo also knows how to handle weapons, from his time as a soldier in the Soviet army while stationed in East Germany. His wife works as a doctor at the emergency hospital in Kharkiv and regularly treats wounded Ukrainian soldiers at the front.
The conflict that began in Ukraine’s Donbass region escalated into low-level trench warfare after agreements brokered by France and Germany. Most of the estimated 14,000 dead were killed in 2014 and 2015, but each month brings new casualties.
“If God forbid something happens, we have to stand up and protect our city. We must stand hand in hand against the aggressor,” Dikalo said. At 60, he is too old to join the civil defense units forming across the country, but he is ready to act to prevent Kharkiv from falling.
A guerrilla war led by dentists, trainers and housewives defending a hometown of a thousand basement shelters would be a nightmare for Russian military planners, analysts and US intelligence officials say.
“The Russians want to destroy the Ukrainian combat forces. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to occupy ground, where they have to deal with civilians, where they have to deal with an insurgency,” said James Sherr, a Russian military strategy analyst who testified at the last week before a British parliamentary committee.
There are growing calls in Washington for the CIA and Pentagon to support a possible Ukrainian insurgency. While Russian forces are larger and more powerful than Ukraine’s, an insurgency backed by US-funded weapons and training could deter a full-scale invasion.
A poll of ordinary Ukrainians reviewed by intelligence agencies strongly indicated there would be active resistance should an invasion occur, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information . A spokesperson for the intelligence community declined to comment.
Russia denies planning an offensive, but demands NATO keep Ukraine out of the alliance, stop the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders and roll back NATO forces Eastern European NATO. NATO and the United States call these demands impossible.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said recently that any escalation could depend on Kharkiv. The city is also the base of Evheniy Murayev, identified by British intelligence as the person Russia was planning to install as president.
“Kharkiv has over a million citizens,” Zelenskyy told The Washington Post. “It won’t just be an occupation; it’s going to be the start of a full-scale war.
This is precisely what Anton Dotsenko fears. At 18, he was at the center of the wave of protests that brought down the pro-Russian government in 2014. Today, he is a 24-year-old technician, and he is tired of the upheaval.
“When people are calm and prosperous, and things are going well, they don’t dance very well. But when things go wrong, that’s where they party, like it’s the last time,” Dotsenko said during a cigarette break outside a busy Kharkiv nightclub. “It’s a stupid war, and I think this could all be resolved diplomatically. The last thing I want to do is give my life, give my precious life, for something useless.
The young people dancing inside would say the same, he said in Russian: “If the war starts, everyone will run away.”
This is what a group of young nationalists hope to prevent. They meet every week on an abandoned construction site, masked and dressed in black to practice maneuvers. Men who join this group or government-run units have already shown themselves ready for the challenge ahead, said one of the trainers, who identified himself by the nom de guerre Pulsar.
“Kharkiv is my home and, as a native, the most important city that I have to protect. Kharkiv is also a frontline city, which is economically and strategically important,” he said, adding that many of the city’s residents are “ready to protect their people until the end,” as are many Ukrainians.
The same sentiment resonates among Ukrainians in the capital, Kyiv, and in the far west, Lviv.
“Our generation and our children are ready to defend themselves. It won’t be an easy war,” said Maryna Tseluiko, a 40-year-old baker who signed up as a reservist with her 18-year-old daughter in Kyiv. “Ukrainians have a rich guerrilla tradition. We don’t want to fight the Russians. It is the Russians who are fighting us.
Lori Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv and Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.
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