From businessmen to farmers, Ukrainian society has been militarizing for the past six months to defend its sovereignty. In the future it may find itself like Israel, permanently armed to protect its sovereignty.
KYIV — The war in Ukraine has reached a turning point. Vladimir Putin's army has suffered its worst setback since the beginning of the invasion. The Russian army has experienced a counter-offensive that many experts consider masterful, so it must retreat and cede vast territories to its opponent.
The lightning victory that the head of the Kremlin had dreamed of never took place. The losses are considerable — Ukrainian troops on the battlefield now outnumber the Russians.
On April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky predicted that at the end of the conflict, Ukraine would become a "big Israel". In an interview with Ukrainian media, he said then, "In all the institutions, supermarkets, cinemas, there will be people with weapons."
The problem of national security will be the country's most important one in the next decade. An "absolutely liberal, and European" society would therefore no longer be on the agenda, according to the Ukrainian president.
Having long since swapped his suit and tie for a jacket or a khaki T-shirt during his public appearances, Zelensky has undeniably become one of the symbols of this growing militarization of Ukrainian society. However, the president claimed that Ukraine would not become an "authoritarian" regime: "An authoritarian state would lose to Russia. Ukrainians know what they are fighting for."
Catherine Wanner, professor of history and cultural anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania shares this view: "The fact that Putin has turned Russia into a kind of gigantic North Korea has strengthened Ukrainians' determination to protect their democratic institutions."
References to war
While the comparison with Israel, a a geographically small country of only nine million people, may seem surprising, it is not without merit, according to the former U.S. ambassador to Israel. David Shapiro wrote last April that both countries face similar threats to their national security and sovereignty, and both have "highly mobilized" populations.
Even if it is far from Russia's nationalist and warmongering propaganda, Ukrainian culture is now influenced by references to war and the army.
Along with the traditional "Glory to Ukraine", the slogan "Slava ZSU" (or "Glory to the Ukrainian Armed Forces") is regularly seen on the walls of towns and villages across the besieged country and has become one of the rallying cries of the Ukrainian population in the face of the Russian invasion.
Both face similar threats to national security and sovereignty, and have "highly mobilized" populations.
In the capital, it is now common to come across soldiers in uniform in the streets or shops, or to pass in front of administrative buildings still protected by sandbags piled up. On the sidewalks of the famous St. Andrew's Descent, the Montmartre of Kiev, souvenir sellers have exchanged Soviet medals and posters for Ukrainian flags, patches in the colors of Ukrainian army divisions, or posters representing the brave garrison of Snake Island and its now-famous response to the Russian warship that told it to lay down its arms.
The phenomenon of militarization
Many citizens now wear clothes in the colors of the Ukrainian army or have patriotic tattoos. This is the case of Valery Neyman, an electronic music producer who joined a de-mining unit near Kharkiv, in the northeast of the country. Shortly after the beginning of the invasion, Valery got a tattoo of the tryzub, the national symbol of Ukraine, on his right cheekbone. "In the occupied territories, the Russians look to see if you have patriotic tattoos, and they kill you if you do. That's why I got it tattooed," he explains with a smile.
The war has even entered school textbooks: According to Andriy Vitrenko, the deputy minister of education and science, changes will be made to the curriculum for the new school year. For example, a new teaching module will be added to the "Defense of Ukraine" course, where children will learn to recognize and handle an anti-personnel mine.
This is a "logical" process, according to Catherine Wanner, who has been covering Ukraine since 1989: "This phenomenon of militarization is not surprising, given the Russian aggression and the considerable loss of human life and infrastructure that Ukraine has already suffered." For Valeri Zaloujny, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have reportedly been killed since the invasion began. Civilian casualties are said to be considerably higher, while entire cities, such as the port city of Mariupol, have been obliterated by Russian bombing.
According to the latest UN estimates, nearly 13,500 Ukrainian civilians have been killed or wounded since the war began. This figure is probably underestimated, while the Ukrainian authorities estimate that 21,000 inhabitants of Mariupol alone died during the siege.
President Volodymyr Zelensky's khaki T-shirt and jacket have become one of the symbols of this growing militarization of Ukrainian society.
Faced with the atrocities committed by the Russian occupation forces, it is hardly surprising that the Ukrainians rallied around their army.
According to a study conducted last February by the Ukrainian Rating Sociological Group, more than 75% of the inhabitants of western and central Ukraine said they trusted the Ukrainian armed forces.
With nearly 200,000 soldiers, the Ukrainian army was the second largest in Europe on the eve of the invasion, and many Ukrainians have at least one family member serving in the military. This figure is constantly increasing, as thousands of citizens joined the territorial defense forces in the early days of the war.
Thus, the territorial defense would currently have 115,000 people, making it the largest branch of the Ukrainian armed forces. Most of the members of the Territorial Defense Forces applied between Feb. 24 and 26, 2022, Volodymyr Dehtyarov, head of public relations at the Territorial Defense Forces Command, told French daily Les Echos. "The number of people who showed up at the recruitment centers is difficult to calculate, but we estimate that it is twice the total number of recruits."
The Ukrainian army was the second largest in Europe on the eve of the invasion.
Simon Franck, a French entrepreneur working in Ukraine, has experienced this: In the days following the start of the Russian invasion, he explains that he saw several of his employees leave for the front. "They are graphic designers, web developers or human resources managers. They have no military experience. But they wanted to fight."
From businessmen to soldiers
This trend is confirmed by Dehtyarov, for whom the composition of the Territorial Defense Forces is representative of Ukrainian society: "Units in large cities are made of businessmen, workers, teachers, executives, while units formed in rural areas are more composed of farmers, traders, and so on." Several thousand Ukrainian citizens have also attended defense training courses, such as those held in early March at the Odessa Polytechnic Institute.
With 1.3 million weapons in circulation in the country, and the continued expansion of the armed forces, an estimated one out of every four Ukrainians now has access to a firearm, making Ukraine one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. When asked about the potential risks associated with the release of additional weapons, Volodymyr Dehtyarov is categorical: "Let's be clear: Teroborona soldiers are military personnel of the Ukrainian army. Each weapon is accounted for and assigned to a specific soldier. When he is not on duty, the weapons are kept in the arsenal."
For Dehtyarov, the risk posed by 130,000 "responsible citizens who have learned to handle a firearm" is insignificant compared to that posed by Russia's "millions of mines and explosives."
A question of survival
This opinion is shared by David Shapiro, who believes that the militarization of the population, like in Israel, is far from being a threat to Ukrainian democracy, but an essential condition for its survival: "A common objective unites Israeli citizens, making them ready to endure a shared sacrifice," he wrote in a post published on the website of the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank. Civilians are aware of their responsibilities. The general mobilization of Ukrainian society for collective defense suggests that Ukraine has that same potential."
Catherine Wanner does not share that opinion. She considers that conflicts "could and should be resolved through dialogue" and regrets "in this sense" the militarization of the country. But she believes the process is reversible. For civil society and democratic institutions in Ukraine to continue to develop, it is imperative that the fighting stop: "Everything depends on the end of this war," she says.
For the anthropologist, there is little risk that Ukraine will fall into the hands of a military junta, but she admits that this is not the sole responsibility of Ukrainians. "Even if Ukraine demilitarizes its society, it will be up to neighboring countries like Belarus and Russia to do the same," she says. "It would be very difficult for Ukraine to establish a democratic rule of law and guarantee the civil liberties that govern it, if the country does not have the fundamental assurance that it will not be bombed again."
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