Tymofii Brik and his girlfriend spent Friday evening walking around their neighborhood in Kyiv, looking at the ground, at walls, and up at roofs. They were searching for special markings left behind by Russian saboteurs, who Ukrainian officials warned had infiltrated cities and may have been marking buildings to target for strikes.
It is not clear Russian forces actually marked buildings, but Brik said the local government had asked civilians to go out and search, and they felt they had to do something, even a small thing like this. Brik’s girlfriend, a climber, wanted to scale the side of their nine-story apartment building to investigate. Brik talked her down from that idea, as did the climbing buddies she texted for advice. It wasn’t worth the risk, they said, and Brik and his girlfriend went inside without uncovering any signs of Russian saboteurs.
Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, beginning a war that, to some Ukrainians, felt improbable until the first explosions went off. When the attacks began, “the activation was immediate,” said Brik, a sociologist and researcher at the Kyiv School of Economics, who spoke Sunday evening from the shower in his apartment bathroom in Kyiv, where he and his girlfriend were sheltering.
That activation happened all across Ukraine, drawing on some of the lessons of 2014, during the country’s Euromaidan uprising and, later, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine. Eight years later, civilians have signed up to fight, joining the Territorial Defense Forces to defend cities. But the resistance extends far beyond that. Citizens are using their skills and their contacts to fill in the gaps for the government and the armed forces, and are finding ways, many of them informal and improvised, to contribute to the war effort.
“All the nation is involved, not only the army,” said Viktoriya (who is being referred to by a pseudonym for safety reasons), who helps supply medicines to Kyiv.
Brik is relying on overlapping networks of colleagues, students, and friends who connected on social media, particularly on WhatsApp and Telegram and Viber, trying to figure out how to wage a war they never wanted. It’s like a snowball, Brik said: “I’m kind of in the bottom of this snowball.”
Through these channels, Brik and his fellow Ukrainians debunk misinformation and share tips — how to make a Molotov cocktail, or where to donate your empty bottles so someone else can. Who has a car or an extra seat for a ride out of the city. Where to donate food and fuel and body armor.
It’s “very unorganized on the one side, but at the same time, quite organized in the sense that it delivers results very quickly,” said Nataliia Shapoval, head of the KSE Institute at the Kyiv School of Economics.
They are trying to protect Ukraine from cyberattacks. They are monitoring damages to infrastructure, to eventually quantify the costs of war and what needs to be rebuilt. They are finding empty apartments for internally displaced people — and for captured Russian soldiers.
Many of the people Vox spoke to, like Shapoval and Brik, are connected with the Kyiv School of Economics, and they are communicating with colleagues, students, and more contacts in academia or public policy and other fields — a reflection of how at least one of these networks is operating. Shapoval said because she and many of her colleagues have worked closely with government officials before, they sometimes consult with agencies. Other times, it’s a guessing game, trying to predict what the government might need. Many also have international connections, and they are upfront that they are using these to promote Ukraine and do public relations for the country’s war effort. Talking to foreign journalists, like me, is part of that process.
“All my life, I’ve been pushing the buttons on the laptop,” Shapoval said Sunday afternoon, speaking from outside Kyiv. She left the city earlier in the week, reaching her destination with one sweater, one pair of jeans, and one pair of shoes. “I feel like I have to go to the territorial defense or something — but then I rationally understand that I will just create trouble for other, more serious people to protect me there. So I’m trying to do what I can, and everyone else, I think, in my community looks at this the same.”
“We feel,” she added, “that we have to do something.”
Ukraine’s non-soldier volunteers
Last Friday, the first full day of Ukraine at war, Olena Starodubtseva, her 20-year-old daughter, and a friend went to one of the territorial defense units in Kyiv — not to enlist, but to see if they could help another way. Hundreds of people were trying to volunteer, and, it turns out, that means hundreds of applications to sort through.
Starodubtseva, an administrator at the Kyiv School of Economics, and a handful of other mostly women volunteers instructed people on how to fill out the paper forms and checked over the information. “The pile of applications was just unimaginable,” she said.
The applicants were mostly men, the youngest maybe 20, the oldest maybe 75. Some had military experience; some did not. Some asked about their patrolling schedules, how they would manage to fight and still go to their jobs.
A day later, Starodubtseva walked around the district in Kyiv where she lives. “We remembered the faces of those people, and we could see them patrolling,” she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, long telegraphed, still shocked. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, where Moscow backed a separatist rebellion, had forced Ukraine to live with the ever-present threat of Russian aggression. But that also made it easier for people to mobilize, quickly, after Russia’s attack last week.
In 2014, during the pro-Western Euromaidan protests, volunteers also built networks and connections to support the demonstrators, bringing them food and supplies and trying to get media coverage abroad. Russia’s moves into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which happened soon after, also meant volunteers enlisted to fight. “It was like a template, like a framework used again,” Brik said. “It was so natural when everyone kind of knew what they’re doing.”
“The experienced people went to the army,” he said. “The people who spoke English started to write texts in English.”
Volodymyr Kadygrob, an art projects manager, helped start Artists Supporting Ukraine in 2014, to bring attention to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He spoke from outside Lviv on Sunday, where he is trying to bring together artists to showcase work about Ukraine once again. “In organizing,” he said of Ukraine, “we’re, like, number one.” In his view, this activism has helped to galvanize society, something he and others said Putin hadn’t expected. “It seems that they are shocked with what is happening,” Kadygrob said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged civilians to fight; the government has said it will give weapons to those who want them. But, as Shapoval said, it isn’t as simple as just picking up a weapon and going. Brik has never held a gun in his life; he recently signed up for someone to teach him to shoot. But it was too late. “It didn’t happen,” he said, “because the war actually happened.”
But pulling together an armed force overnight requires logistics and communication, record-keeping and application-taking — and all the tasks in between.
Oksana Syroyid, a former deputy speaker of Ukraine’s parliament from 2014 to 2019, said she had been saying for years that Russia would invade, so she was not surprised; she knew this would happen. She worked with the Territorial Defense Forces previously to help set up a hotline, and to develop the protocols and train the staff working the lines.
When the invasion started, Syroyid started answering the phones herself. People wanted to know where they could find the territorial defense units, what kind of documents they should take, what it all might look like. The average length of each call was about one minute and 40 seconds. “It was nonstop,” Syroyid said Monday afternoon from Kyiv. “Just answering, answering, answering.”
Starodubtseva said that once, during a shift, they had to stop and take shelter because of an air raid threat. After, they came back to work after. The more they worked, the better and faster they became at the process. But the people, she said, kept coming and coming and coming.
When she collected the forms, she looked at the addresses and they were all around her home. “We are all neighbors, actually,” she said.
The front lines are now everywhere
After nearly a week of war, the shape of the crisis in Ukraine is beginning to fill out. The United Nations has estimated that more than 200 civilians have been killed since the start of the invasion, on February 24, though that is likely an undercount. About 1 million have fled so far, estimates the United Nations. Major Ukrainian cities are under siege. The Russians are bombarding Kharkiv in the east, and are threatening Kyiv, the capital.
By the day, everything becomes more urgent.
Requests for assistance or supplies often come across Telegram and WhatsApp chats or channels, and through social media posts that get shared and reshared. Shapoval said she saw a post that some Ukrainian fighters were cold, needed some clothing and food in a certain part of Kyiv. A colleague of hers saw it, drove her car out there, and delivered to the fighters what they needed. There are some NGOs answering those requests, but much of this is word of mouth.
As Brik said, there is no shortage of volunteers, no shortage of people who are motivated. He is donating money. “But still, there is a shortage of resources here. That’s why [the] army always say[s], ‘We need more medicine, we need more warm stuff, we need more, even, notebooks, we need markers for hospitals — you know, sometimes they use markers to mark wounded people,” he said. “They need markers, they need insulin, they need whatever.”
And explaining this not just to neighbors but to the rest of the world is all part of this process. Ukraine, so far, has largely won the narrative over this war. With Russia launching a war of choice on Ukraine, it wasn’t hard, but Ukraine’s ability to capture the sympathies of large parts of the Western world has helped shape the global response — the continued military support; a standing ovation for Zelenskyy in the European Parliament. The West imposed punishing sanctions, which came faster and looked far tougher than anyone expected. Syroyid said communication can be a weapon, one that is even stronger if there’s fight behind it.
Kadygrob knows this international pressure is important. He is promoting artists who are supporting Ukraine and trying to work with networks of artists and influencers, including within Russian communities, to get them to speak out.
These are minor acts of resistance, but, as Starodubtseva said, it is better to do something. Otherwise, she said, “you can just go crazy with trawling the news and listening to the shelling everywhere around you.”
Brik is not a military expert. Russia, he thinks, has higher numbers of troops and better equipment than Ukraine. “So, you know, our babushkas provide food. Our volunteers provide medicine. Our workers provide money.”
“We are united,” he said. “But this is just the best we can do.”