Once Sleepy and Picturesque, Ukrainian Villages Mobilize for War

KHOMUTYNTSI, Ukraine — The villagers appeared as silhouettes in the headlights of cars and trucks, a few carried guns and others clubs, as if they were gangsters roaming the streets.

They are local men and women formed into self-defense units in the villages of the Vinnytsya region in central Ukraine, which went silent and dark as the streetlights switched off. They stood by the roadsides, under a very low sky with bright stars.

“I am so proud of our people,” said Oksana Mudryk, the mayor of Khomutyntsi village, about 140 miles southwest of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “Our village is so tiny that I was thinking, ‘Do we even have anybody to patrol the streets?’ I thought maybe three guys at most would come to patrol with me. But in one day after the war started in Kyiv, I have signed up more than 30 people.”

Most of the attention in the first days of the war has focused on Ukraine’s large cities, which are the main targets of Russian troop movements and the scene of pitched street battles and deafening artillery attacks. But out in the countryside, a massive grass-roots movement is underway in villages like Khomutyntsi as ordinary Ukrainians — farmers, shop owners, day laborers, taxi drivers — take up arms to join a battle that has abruptly upended their lives.

The mobilization of civilians to fight against seemingly impossible odds has been one of the distinguishing features of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance. And though it may end tragically, Ukrainian officials have been pointed to the effort with pride.

“The Russian leadership does not understand that it is at war not only with the armed forces of Ukraine, but with the entire Ukrainian people,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said in a news briefing on Sunday. “And these people have already risen to the liberation struggle, liberation war against occupiers.”

Molotov cocktails stored at a checkpoint at the edge of the village of Hushchyntsi.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Displays of defiance have been recorded across the country. In eastern Ukraine, where Russian armored columns entered towns and villages, some local residents confronted soldiers with angry words. A man knelt briefly in front of a tank. One Ukrainian woman filmed herself on a cellphone taunting a Russian soldier by telling him to put sunflower seeds in his pocket, so that when he died in Ukraine, flowers would grow.

In Khomutyntsi, the big meadow that stretches along thePostolova River is normally a place of leisure. Villagers fish in the river year-round and swim there in thesummer. But this weekend the whole village gathered in the meadow to build trenches, a checkpoint and underground shelters.

Ms. Mudryk drove her car Saturday night to check on her volunteers. She does this several times each night, as patrols keep guard on the roadsides from dusk to dawn.

Why would the Russian army come to Khomutyntsi, a cluster of one-story, white-plastered homes, garden plots and dirt roads, with about 400 residents, surrounded by forests and fields? It might seem unlikely. But if Russian troops did arrive, they would not go unnoticed by local people on the watch.

“I am crying so much as it is very difficult to get used to our new reality,” Ms. Mudryk said. “But I bow my head in honor to our people. Today, we were asked to bring some help with food to soldiers. In two hours, we loaded a full van of food, just from our village.”

Local men digging a bunker and building a checkpoint at the edge of their village in Hushchyntsi.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

There is bravery, but there is also great fear. Standing on the road in the dark, the mayor pointed at a star in the sky that seemed to be behaving strangely, worried it might be a Russian drone over the village.

Serhiy Osavoliuk, who signed up for patrol duty, said his wife soon followed suit. “My wife, probably thinking of controlling me, signed up as well,” he said. “Now we patrol together.” The pair walk about with flashlights, stopping cars and checking who is inside. Usually, it is just local people.

Scenes like these are repeated in village after village through the countryside. Hundreds of local people helped build fortifications, bringing big sacks from their houses and filling them with sand.

Many of the civilians doing support work, like Mr. Osavoliuk and his wife, are unarmed, though a few have guns or have asked for them. But it seems as if everybody is doing what they can, hoping that even little actions might help.

The national road agency of Ukraine, for example, issued an order to take down all the road signs — to make it harder for Russian troops to navigate.

On the road between the towns of Vinnytsia and Kalynivka, the process had already started, bringing one more, strange new scene on the side of familiar roads. The sign for the village Pysarivka disappeared in just five minutes. Volodymyr, a road service worker, who is 55 and did not want to provide his last name for safety reasons, said he had been driving around tearing down signs. “It is important for them to get lost,” he said of the Russians.

An employee of the Kalynivka road service removed a road sign on Saturday to make it harder for Russian troops to navigate.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

In Kalynivka, which is close to a large weapons depot that Russian troops had already targeted several times, local volunteers wove small strips of cloth together to from a makeshift camouflage net over their checkpoint. Too many people have been clustering around the spot, they said, making it a potential target. The location they chose is next to a bomb shelter, to hide in if bombs start to fall.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

“We came to help our soldiers,’’ said Valentyna Rudenko. “It is hard to believe it is happening to us.”

In some places, as in Hushchyntsi, the volunteer effort encompassed the whole villages. About 50 people were piling up logs into makeshift bunkers, as children ran about and women carried out homemade meals.

“Step away, you might get hurt, that’s the job for grown-ups,” one man told the children hoping to participate.

The town square near a military recruitment center in Kalynivka was filled with men with duffel bags, and also their wives and children who came to say goodbye.

They sat on tree stumps and on their bags or stood in groups joking. Their children grew bored during their fathers’ long waits tobe issued a gun and receive instructions.

Volunteers tying camouflage netting for use by the Ukrainian military in Kalynivka.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Those who were waiting had already registered and came ready to deploy. But there were also newcomers arriving every minute at the entry gate to the square, asking guards where they should go to register.

Among them was Volodymyr Varchuk, 67, who rode up on a very rundown bicycle “Hey guys, how do I sign up?” he asked. Soldiers looked at each other and asked his age. When Mr. Varchuk answered, a soldier told him to go away and wait until he is called up.

Mr. Varchuk left disappointed. “The young ones will be sent to fight, but us old ones are those who should guard the town!” he said. “I knew it would happen since 2014, we already had war with Russia, it’s obvious they would want to proceed.”

People were running in and out of the recruitment center, with bags of food, water, clothes. One woman with two sons who looked about 20 took them to a bench and had them sit down. Then she helped them try on the new shoes she had bought for them.

An older man named Viktor came to say goodbye to his son. “My soul is restless,” he said. “How would you feel sending your son to the war?”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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