On a warm August afternoon on a forest hill near Kyiv, programmers and financiers dripped with exertion as they maneuvered to shoot one another with replica AK-47 rifles firing plastic pellets. One stern-looking 24-year-old programmer wore a military uniform in the distinctive pattern used by the U.S. Marines, its jagged, dark black, green, and brown pattern blending into the woods. He had bought it to play military simulation games before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The event’s trainers were two serving members of the military on loan for the day. But its two organizers, standing and observing the goings-on in the forest, would have looked as much at ease on the dance floor as on a military training ground.
Mykhailo, sporting a trim beard and tattooed arms, is the lead singer in an indie rock band producing dark, droning music. Olga, his co-organizer and wife, favors heavy black glasses and oversize coats. Both asked to have their last names withheld for security concerns. “If you had told me half a year ago that I myself would learn to shoot from weapons, would learn to fight, and moreover would organize training, I would have said everyone had gone crazy,” Mykhailo said.
Under their feet lay the remains of Russia’s failed assault on Kyiv. Russian military ration packaging littered the forest floor. So did vodka and beer bottles, likely looted from Ukrainian stores by Russian soldiers. Deeper into the woods, explosive ordnance officers could be seen removing the remains of a Grad rocket as part of their search for land mines and unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the area.
These reminders of Russia’s brief occupation of Kyiv’s outskirts have propelled these office workers to seek out training from Mykhailo and Olga’s group, Taktyka.ua, whose name includes Ukraine’s .ua domain as a patriotic flourish. The school’s courses offer everything from infantry tactics to drone operation. The couple founded the course after first linking up with a Kyiv-based Ukrainian army battalion willing to give them and their friends lessons. Word of mouth and posts on Instagram then expanded their work, until they were training up to 50 students every weekend.
Over half a year into the war, as the ranks of Ukraine’s army thin amid grinding conflict, residents of Kyiv are doing everything from riding their bikes to build stamina to taking marksmanship courses to prepare for the future. At least one upmarket gym has launched multiday classes on combat training and physical fitness; one course clocks in at $160, a large sum in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $500.
Most students aren’t planning on joining the military anytime soon. Instead, these ordinary Kyivans are adapting to the permanent state of anxiety that pervades Ukraine following Russia’s February invasion. At one level, Kyivans are seeking psychological comfort. By learning how to use a gun or tie a tourniquet, they feel more confident that they’ll survive whatever Russia throws at them.
This anxiety is hardly theoretical. After months of relative calm, on October 10 Russia struck downtown Kyiv with a hail of cruise missiles that killed six and wounded 51 people. To live in Kyiv is to live with the fact that, at any moment, death or injury may be around the corner.
For many, military training is not just a panacea, but a preview of what they’d like to see for their country’s future. Ukrainians’ hunger for everything from tactical medicine training to brand-new American assault rifles reflects a growing sentiment that Ukrainians must militarize their society if they wish to survive bordering a neighbor like Russia. For these Ukrainians, there can be no peace with Russia—only truces.
Civilian-led military trainings date back in part to Russia’s 2014 instigation of a separatist war in Ukraine’s east, which created a community of Ukrainian combat veterans and civilian volunteers. While the battlefront lines eventually hardened, the war never truly ended; locals now refer to Russia’s February invasion as the “full-scale” invasion of Ukraine.
In the intervening years since Russia sought to tear away Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, veterans and civilian groups created clubs and training courses to share their experiences with others. Interested students could learn the art of sniping, pay for infantry training, and master tactical medicine.
At least some of the people who ran those trainings are now back on the battlefield. My attempts to interview one organizer about his work had to be repeatedly delayed and eventually canceled because he was called to the front line on military assignments. An intermediary conveyed that his skills as an experienced soldier were in high demand.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine brought the rest of the country into the harsh reality of these veterans’ lives, spiking interest in classes. “If before we gathered some small groups of 10 or 20, then now we have registered 100 or 200 people for a course,” said Anastasia Grabar, a founder of military training school Tactical Civil Defense.
The move reflects a broader shift in society toward a more militarized outlook on life. Multiple people I spoke to positioned Israel or Switzerland, both countries that maintain a high state of military readiness, as an ideal model for Ukraine’s future. As in Israel, where the state requires buildings to be equipped with shelters, Ukraine, as of August, now requires all new housing to be equipped with bomb shelters. One firm is even offering premade bunkers with wood paneling reminiscent of Ikea furniture.
“We have to build bomb shelters,” said Kyiv oblast regional military head Oleksiy Kuleba, when questioned, during an August interview with Ukrainian news outlet TSN, about potential Russian airstrikes on Kyiv. “This is a threat not for a year or two, it’s forever.”
Ukrainians aren’t interested in just sitting out a war in bunkers, however. A May survey from Ukrainian polling group Rating found that 72 percent of respondents were in favor of mandatory firearms training for citizens. “We understand that even if someone takes Putin’s place, nothing will change,” said Olga, the woman who helped organize the military training in the forest.
“We can cut the diplomacy courses from university and law schools,” Mykhailo added, “because it doesn’t work.”
Grabar, of Tactical Civil Defense, is in many ways similar to Mykhailo and Olga. Before the 2014 start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, she was working in broadcast journalism and never thought she’d be involved in military matters. Through friends, she became involved in volunteer efforts and eventually co-founded Tactical Civil Defense. Grabar is slight but powerful, thanks to the exercise regime she uses to cope with the stress of her husband’s current military deployment. Her group offers a variety of courses, with a strong emphasis on tactical medicine. “Our assignment is to minimize losses on the front,” Grabar told me.
On one rainy Kyiv morning, Grabar joined around 15 male and female students crammed into a small wooden gazebo in a military training area. A DO NOT FEED THE DUCKS sign bore witness to the training site’s recent past as a campground. As the noise of thunder mixed with gunfire at a nearby military shooting range, students handled compasses and reviewed a chart for giving coordinates to artillery, all under the tutelage of an active-duty Ukrainian military officer. “The time will come, and I’ll go to the army,” said Vitaliy Shpylchyn, a 36-year-old professor of biology, clad in a white cycling jersey. “I have to be prepared.”
Shpylchyn’s feeling that he may have to serve comes against a backdrop of national mobilization, in which theoretically most Ukrainian men under 60 could be called up. Ukrainian officials have so far stressed that the country does not have an urgent need for any more soldiers, but with Western predictions that the war may last years, conscription may eventually touch a greater portion of the country’s citizens. Since the start of the conflict, Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 have not been allowed to leave the country.
A few hours with a compass, of course, is hardly a replacement for comprehensive military training. The U.S. military’s forward observer course, which trains service members to coordinate with artillery, takes a total of 11 weeks. Still, some training is better than nothing, especially given the pressures on Ukraine’s military to adequately train troops in wartime conditions.
Even before the war, Ukraine’s economic constraints and need to dedicate resources to guarding against Russian invasion left many of its units under-trained compared to their Western counterparts, according to Nick Reynolds, a research analyst at England’s Royal United Services Institute. Ukraine must now also deal with the “need to replace casualties quickly, and the loss of experienced personnel,” he said.
For many, perhaps most participants, private military training is not a preparatory step on their way into the army. Instead, they see it as a means to gain the mental comfort of knowing they’d be able to handle whatever fresh catastrophe comes their way.
At upscale gym EBSh, eight gym-buff friends gather every weekend to hone combat relevant skills—including weapons handling, tactical medicine, and physical functional training—in a space that is otherwise typically used for trendy TRX and CrossFit workouts. Oleksandr Poloviy, the tattooed founder of the course and co-owner of the gym, radiated confidence when I met him in August, with a strong handshake, lean physique, and a rifle dangling off a cord on his body.
But on the day Russia invaded, his confidence was shaken. “It was the worst five minutes of my life,” Poloviy said. “When you’re a man, a strong man, who doesn’t know what to do, it’s the very worst thing that could be.”
His feelings are widely shared. According to a poll conducted by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, 69 percent of women and 46 percent of men have reported a worsening in their psychological health since the start of war.
For Poloviy, with time came the recognition that the war would be a matter of months or years, not days. He began to feel that every citizen should have the basic skills not just to deal with a Russian invasion, but to handle any unexpected, catastrophic events. His friends in the course feel the same. “It’s really important to be ready for anything,” said Oleksandr Frolov, a lawyer who’s training in the EBSh group.
Poloviy brought in an ex-soldier to serve as the instructor for the group at the gym. The instructor often set the group on tasks whose attempts at realism only underlined the strange new world Kyivans live in. In one exercise, students practiced bailing out of a car mocked up with exercise mats and chairs, a weight plate serving as their steering wheel.
But the students are deadly serious. Everyone in the group has invested in buying their own weapons. Most favor sleek, black American AR-15 rifles. Igor Chadaev, a strong, dirty-blond–haired man with an intense gaze, wielded a model from a Florida-based manufacturer. Kyrylo Kurinniy, another participant, has gone so far as to stockpile weapons, owning two Kalashnikov rifles, an AR-15, and a shotgun, and the ammo to go with it all.
It’s hard to say whether they’ll ever have to use these sleek guns, which can cost several times the average Kyivan’s monthly salary. Russian forces withdrew from the areas around Kyiv in April, and have since focused on Ukraine’s east and south. They’ve since been partially pushed back in Ukraine’s east by a lightning Ukrainian offensive launched in September, but analysts still warn the war is far from over. Russia’s missile attack on Kyiv on October 10 and Putin’s increasingly bellicose language suggest that Russia is hardly ready to back down.
Yet the cost of these guns is ultimately a small price to pay for peace of mind. Such behavior in the United States is often ridiculed as part of prepper culture, in which anxious Americans throw cash at everything from rifles to luxury bunkers to prepare for laughably unlikely scenarios. In Ukraine, buying an expensive gun and stockpiling ammo are, if anything, now rational responses to a world where invasion and occupation are a real possibility.
In 2014, those in Ukraine who went to fight in the east against Russian-backed separatists were propelled by their political convictions, according to Grabar. The death and destruction Russia has visited on Ukraine changed the calculation. The demand for her group’s program across Ukraine “is colossal,” Grabar said. “The war is personal now.”