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In case Russia invades, Ukrainians practise guerrilla tactics

The scenario in Kharkiv, which is only 40 kilometres (25 miles) from some of the tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed on Ukraine's border, is extremely dangerous

In case Russia invades, Ukrainians practise guerrilla tactics
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The table tennis instructor, the chaplain's wife, the dentist, and the zealous nationalist have little in common other than a desire to defend their hometown and a fumbling attempt to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian.

The scenario in Kharkiv, which is only 40 kilometres (25 miles) from some of the tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed on Ukraine's border, is extremely dangerous. Ukraine's second-largest city is one of the country's industrial hubs, with two companies that refurbish or manufacture Soviet-era tanks.

It's also a city riven by divisions: between Ukrainian speakers and those who prefer the Russian that predominated until recently; between those who eagerly volunteer to fight a Russian offensive and those who simply want to live their lives. Which party emerges victorious in Kharkiv may likely determine Ukraine's fate.

Some of Kharkiv's 1 million or more residents claim they are prepared to quit their civilian life and launch a guerilla campaign against one of the world's most powerful military nations if Russia invades. They predict a large number of Ukrainians to follow suit.

"This city has to be protected," said Viktoria Balesina, who teaches table tennis to teenagers and dyes her cropped hair deep purple at the crown. "We need to do something, not to panic and fall on our knees. We do not want this."

During the protest wave that rocked Ukraine after Russia attacked in 2014 — a year that radically changed her life — Balesina recalls being urged to attend pro-Russia demonstrations. She switched to Ukrainian after a lifetime of speaking Russian. She was born and raised in Kharkiv. She then joined a group of about a dozen women who meet once a week in an office building for community defence training.

Her Ukrainian is now near-fluent, though she still stumbles over words now and then, and she can reload a submachine gun with ease.

At 55, she wasn't expecting this life, but she accepts it as essential. Her social circle is full of Russian sympathisers, but they aren't what motivates her now.

"I am going to protect the city not for those people but for the women I'm training with," she said.

Svetlana Putilina, whose husband is a Muslim chaplain in the Ukrainian military, is one of the women in her group. The 50-year-old has devised emergency measures for her family and unit with grim determination and no sign of panic: Who will get the children to a safe location outside of town? Who will take elderly parents and grandparents to one of the hundreds of bomb shelters marked on a map? What tactics will the women of resistance use?

"If it is possible and our government gives out weapons, we will take them and defend our city," said the mother of three and grandmother of three more. If not, she has at least one of her husband's service weapons at home, which she has learned to use.

Dr. Oleksandr Dikalo moved two creaky exam chairs into a dark basement and replaced yellow jerrycans with fresh water elsewhere in Kharkiv. His public dental office is on the ground floor of a 16-story apartment building, and the maze of underground rooms is labelled as an emergency refuge for the hundreds of people who live there.

Dikalo was a soldier in the Soviet Army and was stationed in East Germany, so he knows how to handle firearms. His wife is a doctor at Kharkiv's emergency hospital, where she treats Ukrainian soldiers who have been injured in the front lines on a regular basis.

"If God forbid something happens, we must stand and protect our city. We must stand hand to hand against the aggressor," Dikalo said. After accords negotiated by France and Germany, the combat in Ukraine's Donbas region was reduced to low-level trench warfare. The majority of the estimated 14,000 deaths occurred in 2014 and 2015, however fresh victims are reported every month.


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