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Ukraine's recruits swap spreadsheets for sniper rifles to defend Kyiv

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Image source, Goktay Koraltan / BBC

Alex lowers himself into position on a camping mat – face down – with the careful moves of a man who knows backache. “It gets painful staying like this for long,” he says, with a smoker’s husky laugh.

But lying in wait is the task of the sniper.

That’s the wartime role for Alex, who used to have an office job in financial control. The 45-year-old settles in behind the rifle sights, with most of his face covered by a camouflage balaclava. He has been a hunter since boyhood, he says – “always with a licence” he quickly adds.


When Russian invaded Ukraine, Alex joined the territorial defence force, along with some 100,000 others according to the authorities here. “I wanted to do something for my motherland,” he says.

Now, in a forest on the outskirts of Kyiv, he’s doing target practice.

He radios ahead before firing one careful shot at a time. A member of his unit radios back with results: “You missed the target. It’s 15cm (6in) wide,” he says, to swears from Alex. Tomorrow, he will practise again.

He knows his role could be crucial.

“In history, in any war, when snipers appear on the battlefield, their work is very important,” he says. “They can protect other troops. This is very hard and very useful.”

Recruits rest on the ground during their combat training

Image source, Orla Guerin / BBC

Does he expect Russian forces to try to enter the city, or just keep bombarding it from the outside?

“I don’t know,” he says, “but we must be prepared. We must practise, and we must defend the streets, the fields, and the forests”.

He is unflinching and unapologetic about his switch from hunting game to hunting the enemy. “I think there is no difference between the animals which I try to shoot and the animals which come here to kill our people, kill our children, destroy our buildings and destroy our life.”

Nearby, other recruits to the 128th Battalion of the Kyiv territorial defence force are being trained in urban combat by an instructor from Georgia.

Levan – now married with a family in Ukraine – fought the Russians in the war in his homeland in 2008. He’s constantly in motion, crouching, shooting, shouting commands to the recruits. The grip of his handgun is decorated with an image of a white skull – from a vigilante character in Marvel comics called The Punisher.

Levan holds a hand grenade up, lecturing some recruits

Image source, Goktay Koraltan / BBC

He insists this is a war for freedom, not just a war for Ukraine. “Nobody knows what the future holds,” he says, “but we are here, and we will fight.

“We have brave hearts. That’s the most important thing.”

Will that be enough to save Kyiv – the city President Putin covets? So far, Ukrainians troops have fought hard and fought well across the country. Russia has failed to take any major city – apart from Kherson in the South – but it is pulverising the strategic port of Mariupol and may soon control the ruins.

When it comes to the capital, the defenders have many advantages. Kyiv is a city full of high-rise blocks and bomb shelters. Ukrainian forces can control the heights and take cover below ground.

For an invading army, a ground assault would be a nightmare scenario. And Russia’s slow progress has given the city time to kit up.

Since I arrived in Kyiv – almost a month ago – this ancient city has developed a new architecture. There are sandbagged lookout posts, spiky metal tank traps, barricades, and roadblocks – all aimed at stopping or slowing a Russian ground attack. It’s an ugly addition to a city famed for its onion-domed cathedrals and elegant facades.

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Bridges have been blocked. Checkpoints have mushroomed across the city, manned by troops who are often on edge. Passports and press cards are checked and checked again. Driving here these days is a stop-start business.

Russia troops remain about 15km (9 miles) north-west of Kyiv and about 30km to the east – just as they were last week, according to the latest assessment from the Pentagon.

A full-on ground attack looks unlikely, but British defence officials expect Russia to prioritise encircling the capital in the coming weeks. And in the meantime, Russia may keep terrorising the city with missile attacks and shelling. The thud of explosions and the wail of air raid sirens is now the soundtrack of a city that has otherwise fallen largely silent.

Back in the forest, recruits like 32-year-old Arthur prepare for whatever may come, including death. In the midst of war, he’s trying to safeguard the future of his four-year-old daughter Leia (he’s a Star Wars fan).

“I am trying to prepare my will, while notaries are still working, so that my money will be transferred to my family,” he says. “This is a lottery, like Russian roulette. You may live, and you may not. I am making arrangements with my friends in Ukraine and outside to support my family for some time if I die.”

Arthur sits on the bare, scrub-laden ground with Orla Guerin, talking

Image source, Goktay Koraltan / BBC

Leia is in the relative safety of the Western city of Lviv, but the separation is hard.

“Yesterday, I couldn’t call her because we were on alert, and now she thinks I didn’t want to speak to her. I cannot even explain it to her,” he says. “We are in an absolutely parallel universe, an absolutely different world, like a nightmare.”

Arthur is an articulate softly-spoken member of the Maidan generation – the young Ukrainians who spearheaded the pro-European revolution of 2014. He’s spent the years since then trying to reform and develop his country. Now he’s staying to fight, so that Leia can grow up in her homeland, not in exile.

His mood is sombre. So too his forecast.

“What everyone is afraid of,” he says, “is that it’s going to be a long war. It would be a battle of resources and resilience. How long will we live like this as a society, and how long will they?”

And he has another fear – that “because of hate” Russia will raze to the ground what it cannot have.

“I am not sure that they will be able to besiege Kyiv,” he tells me. “It’s a very long city with a lot of defences, and it will be really hard to encircle it. But what I am really afraid of is that out of weakness, out of despair, because they are losing this war, they will destroy it as much as possible.”


War in Ukraine: More coverage


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