Ukrainian civilians practice throwing Molotov cocktails to defend the city of Zhytomyr as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continued on March 1, 2022.
Viacheslav Ratynskyi—Reuters
Updated: March 3, 2022 8:09 PM EST | Originally published: March 3, 2022 4:57 AM EST

When Russia launched an attack on Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy immediately vowed to arm any of the 43 million citizens who volunteered to defend the country.

While one million Ukranians have already fled to neighboring states for safety, others have enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), which organizes Ukraine’s militias. Some received combat training, with bank employees and teachers learning how to use AK-style assault rifles. Those who aren’t prepared for combat have taken on other tasks, like weaving camouflage nets to hide Ukrainian artillery from Russian reconnaissance. Some transformed their homes into makeshift sites for manufacturing molotov cocktails. Volunteers dug trenches and barricades to guard against attacks.

These concerted efforts have helped support the Ukrainian military, which has managed to defy the expectations of even Western military observers and slow the Russian advance. That is despite Moscow’s overwhelming advantage in the number of troops and military firepower. Olena Prokopenko, the co-chair of the Transatlantic Task Force of Ukraine and a German Marshall Fund visiting fellow, says the TDF is an “integral part” of the resistance and “significantly increases” Ukrainians’ chances of holding back Russia’s invasion.

Citizen resistance in Ukraine isn’t new. In 2014, an unprepared Ukraine had to rely on volunteer armed groups as Russian-backed separatists began breakaway campaigns in the eastern Donbas region, and Russian forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As Russia built up its forces near the Ukrainian border in 2021, the Ukrainian government passed a law legitimizing these ad hoc armed groups, making them an official part of national defense.

Read More: How Open Source Intelligence Became the World’s Window Into the Ukraine Invasion

The government in Kyiv launched the TDF earlier this year, comprising 25 locally organized brigades (one per region) split into 150 battalions (one per administrative district). Around 10,000 full-time soldiers will make up the core of the force, but Ukraine hopes to recruit 1.5 million to 2 million people. Thousands of Ukrainians are already signing up to help defend their country from Russian invaders.

“Our people are very much motivated, very much so,” Zelenskyy told the European Union in an impassioned speech. “We are fighting for our rights, for our freedom, for life. And now, we are fighting for survival.”

Ukrainian volunteers receive rifles at a weapons storage facility in Fastiv on Feb. 25.
Brendan Hoffman—The New York Times/Redux
Men line up to join Kyiv’s Territorial Defense Forces on Feb. 26.
Alex Lourie—Redux
Volunteers for the Territorial Defense Forces gather in an outpost to collect weapons, train, and get their assignments in Kyiv on Feb. 26.
Marcus Yam—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Volunteers for the Territorial Defense Forces make Molotov cocktails to use against the invading Russian troops in Kyiv on Feb. 26.
Marcus Yam—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Volunteers for the Territorial Defense Forces stand in formation, check their weapons, put on yellow armbands, get marching orders, and ship out to their posts to defend Kyiv on Feb. 28.
Marcus Yam—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Volunteers tear cloth into strips to make camouflage nets in Lviv on Feb. 28.
Bernat Armangue—AP
Territorial​ Defense Forces members prepare to patrol in Kyiv on Feb. 28.
Mikhail Palinchak—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Volunteers solder anti-tank obstacles known as Czech hedgehogs in a workshop in Lviv on March 3.
Daniel Leal—AFP/Getty Images
Volunteers tie pieces of fabric while making camouflage nets outside the Ivanychuk Library in Lviv on March 1.
Ethan Swope—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Volunteer fighters transport rifles across a river under a destroyed bridge to reinforce Ukrainian troops in Irpin on March 1.
Marcus Yam—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Members of Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces barricade an entrance to their base, in Kyiv on March 2.
Roman Pilipey—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Members of the Territorial​ Defense Forces sleep in a basement near a frontline position on March 2.
Alex Lourie—Redux
A member of the Territorial Defense Forces stands inside the damaged Kharkiv regional administration building in the aftermath of a shelling in downtown Kharkiv on March 1.
Sergey Kozlov—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Correction, March 4
The original version of this story misspelled Olena Prokopenko’s first name. It is Olena, not Olenka.

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