Semyon loaded several tires on his back and piled them at the doors of an administrative building in Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, Dnipro, which sits on the banks of the Dnieper River. The building was surrounded by sandbags and the entrance was practically blocked by a tank trap. A few feet away, at Heroes of Independence Square, dozens of people were filling glass bottles and cutting wicks to prepare the incendiary weapons known popularly as Molotov cocktails. Near the river, a restaurant was fixing macaroni and cheese for the Ukrainian soldiers and citizen militias.
On Monday, Dnipro was getting ready for the arrival of troops sent by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday of last week. Its population of one million and central geographical location make Dnipro a strategic communications hub that Russia is attempting to surround in order to prevent the transit of supplies from Poland and to cut off Ukrainian soldiers’ access to the south and to Kyiv.
The city was drawing on all its resources to face the enemy: there was an accountant who had joined the territorial defense forces and was now carrying a weapon, an engineer who was volunteering as a driver to ferry supplies around the city, people building barricades, a newly organized network to prepare food, and another group to handle blood donations.
It was a scene that is playing out all over Europe’s largest country, where many of its 44 million residents are organizing active resistance networks that have already proven essential in confronting the Russian offensive. Images of civilians facing up to Russian tanks or trying to prevent troops from entering their cities have become increasingly common in the last five days.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose popularity has soared since the start of the invasion, has asked his fellow citizens to help contain the troops’ advance with any means at their disposal, and Dnipro has taken him at his word. Outside the doors of the city’s military hospital, Elena and her husband Alexander were lining up to donate clothes, diapers and food for the sick. Next to them, a 50-year-old woman was carrying a large bag filled with white plastic spoons. “I have a coffee stand and I thought this would be the most useful item,” she said.
The military hospital, located in the city center, is designed to treat patients who were injured on the southern and eastern fronts, especially those with serious injuries. There are 400 available beds, but in recent days they’ve had to resort to additional equipment from the recovery rooms, said Sergei Bachinski, the hospital’s deputy director. Health workers from the entire region have been showing up to volunteer as the center deals with an influx of patients. The latter cannot be flown in by helicopter because of the Russian air raids – the wailing sirens have become a permanent sound in recent days – so they are being brought in by road and rail, said Bachinski.
Anna Fedicheva, a 37-year-old civil engineer, has offered her spacious car to carry “whatever is necessary.” In Dnipro, just like in many other cities, spontaneous networks have sprung up on social media to help with the logistics of war. Wearing a black cloth facemask featuring a shiny little Christmas tree, Fedicheva explained that she first considered joining the territorial defense forces – civilian militias organized by the Defense Ministry to protect critical infrastructure – but concluded that she was not in the right condition for it. But she didn’t consider leaving Ukraine, either. “I’m trying to think that [the Russians] will not occupy us, I believe in our homeland and in our freedom,” she said.
Before this nightmare scenario, Fedicheva was happy with her life. “I liked my job, I went out dancing with friends, to the movies. I led a simple life,” she said. “Sometimes you think it’s all a dream and you’re going to suddenly wake up, but no, it’s real.”
The table where Myroslav Malynovski was preparing Molotov cocktails has a counterpart in Lviv, in western Ukraine, where a 28-year-old painter named Kira Shivenko was recently filling bottles, and in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a group of youths was preparing the homemade explosive device using a “recipe” that’s been widely shared in recent days on the radio and by many local news outlets.
“Did Putin think we would welcome him with flowers? Well, we’ve got a few welcome drinks ready for him,” said Malynovski, a 65-year-old retiree, as he placed one of the Molotov cocktails inside a cardboard box. “We are not going to flee. This is our country and they are the occupiers. Ukraine is a democratic European country. We will resist to the end.”
In the Kyiv region alone, around 18,000 weapons have been handed out to civilians, according to the government. President Zelenskiy has also proposed releasing prisoners with military experience if they are willing to join the Ukrainian armed forces. The highly controversial suggestion is a good measure of how desperate the government is: the Ukrainian army is vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia. A few days ago, Zelenskiy also invited foreigners to come to fight alongside Ukrainians. “If you have combat experience in Europe, come to our country and defend Europe with us,” he said in a video message. And the day before the invasion, Zelenskiy mobilized 36,000 reservists, 5,000 retired members of the National Guard, and 5,000 more retired members of the Border Police.
Arming civilians in such a tense atmosphere could create other types of problems. The Ukrainian government said that Russian saboteurs and paramilitary groups have infiltrated the country, and vehicle checks and arrests have become routine.
On the second day of the military offensive, when the scope of the aggression had become evident, 60-year-old Oleg Trubnikov showed up at the reservist quarters in Kramatorsk, in the southeastern Donetsk region where pro-Russian separatists have controlled part of the territory for years. Dozens of other men were already standing in line to receive instructions. Trubnikov had not been marshaled because he has a disability, but he said that he had experience in the Soviet army that might prove useful for Ukraine at this time. “Or I could help in any other way,” he said. “I am here to defend Ukraine from the Russians. It’s the least I can do.”
In Dnipro, the restaurant that Maxim Shanin runs in the city center is part of a newly created network of 11 local establishments that are fixing meals for soldiers and members of the militias. The network was preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for 4,000 people a day, said Shanin. His trendy venue, decorated in a typical hipster-slash-industrial style, was now filled with potato sacks, oil bottles and pasta packages. Inside the kitchen, a team of cooks was preparing the food that other volunteers were placing inside plastic bags with a smiley face and a message that said: “Thank you for your work.”
Around 250 people have volunteered for the project, said Shanin. “Each one of us is contributing our grain of sand. This situation has united us more than ever against the aggressor. Citizens want to work together to help the army, the government, the president. Some can go fight with their own hands, and others cannot. What we do here is cook, and we will do so until victory.”