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‘A blitzkrieg’: Ukraine’s volunteer fighters brace for more

A Ukrainian fighter walked past damages at city hall after the shelling by Russian forces of Constitution Square in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-biggest city, on March 2, 2022.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

Andrey Gonchruk served alongside Russian soldiers when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and called them brothers. But on Wednesday, the 68-year-old wiped his face with one hand and grasped a rifle with another, ready to resist their invasion of his country.

“This is a blitzkrieg,” Gonchruk said. He stood in the rubble of a home newly shattered by what residents called a Russian airstrike in Gorenka, a village on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital that has found itself in the crossfire as Moscow attempts to take Kyiv.

The white-bearded retiree is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have volunteered to defend their homeland from Russia. He and his son Kostya armed themselves after last week's invasion. Together, they patrol the village.

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The volunteer defenders also share the pain of loss. Residents said at least two people from Gorenka have been killed in Russia’s week-old offensive and a dozen wounded. Several homes were destroyed Wednesday. Women stood in the ruins and wept.

“There has been a lot of destruction,” Gonchruk said. “But the people here are holding on well.” Many men in the village have military experience, like him.

Ukraine’s army has distributed weapons to anyone who wishes to defend the country and has deployed thousands of reservists. Throughout Kyiv, civilians in jeans and winter coats, wearing yellow armbands, crouch behind stacks of tires at checkpoints or keep watch on street corners.

They are outnumbered, but “we will try to get (more) weapons” even if none are supplied, Gonchruk said. “We’ll do it ourselves. We’ll kill the enemy and take their weapons,” he added.

In his Soviet army days, Gonchruk saw the Russians as brothers in arms. Now, that has changed.

“Everyone who comes to our territory is an enemy. No one invited them here,” he said. “Perhaps there are good people among them, but it doesn’t matter for me. They have come to kill my people.”

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Gonchruk is shocked by Moscow’s invasion. He had assumed that Russia would eventually take over the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, but he never expected the full-scale offensive that has struck at the heart of cities like Kharkiv and sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing over borders.

Others head to bomb shelters, with growing anger at Russia. “We don’t need to be freed. Leave us alone!" said another Gorenka resident, Larissa Lipatova, who fled to a cellar amid Wednesday's attack and huddled under a blanket amid containers of pickled tomatoes and jams.

With a veteran’s eye and despite the rubble at his feet, Gonchruk took grim pride in the apparent setbacks the Russians have faced in the week since their invasion as Ukrainians resist.

“They thought they could come here and, in a day or two, they would take Kyiv, but look how they’re doing so far!” he said.

Elsewhere on the outskirts of the capital, another volunteer defender helped people cross the remains of a destroyed bridge on their way into the city. With a gun slung across his chest, the man held the gloved hand of a small boy, who gave him a shy and glancing smile.

Others, one by one, inched across the river on an exposed pipe in falling snow. Locals said the bridge was destroyed to impede the Russian advance.

Some exhausted Kyiv residents celebrated even the smallest of victories. One, who gave only her first name, Roza, showed off her just-bought groceries. “There’s everything: bananas, butter, even a fresh croissant,” she said.

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Like Gonchruk, she had decided to stay instead of flee, armed only with determination as the war that few could have imagined entered a second week.

“We’re running to the basement, trembling, and worrying, but we believe in victory,” she said.