In a Ukrainian city near Russia, a civilian army is preparing for war News

* In some cases, only proper names are used to protect identity.

Kharkiv, Ukraine – Ukrainian soldiers are moving through an extensive post-Soviet factory. They enter a dusty auditorium, laughing as they rummage in the dark.

“We still don’t know if there are lights here,” says one.

This factory was recently handed over to the Kharkiv Territorial Defense Forces, just one of many found across the country as Ukraine wants to increase its reserve forces in the face of intensified Russian aggression.

“The main idea behind these forces is to prepare Ukrainians for great national resistance,” said Mykhailo, a member of Ukraine’s special forces.

The Territorial Defense Team in Kharkiv, about 40 km (25 miles) from the Russian border, consists of a diverse group of soldiers with different skills and reservists who can prepare locals to defend their homes and the city in the event of an invasion.

Territorial forces in Izyum, Kharkiv region.Volunteers guard in front of an abandoned warehouse in Izyum, Kharkiv region [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

Although only a few days ago, the dilapidated walls of the building are full of advertisements.

The echo echoes through the building as raw-looking reservists in combat uniforms rush around the closing folders.

According to some experts, Kharkiv, a city of more than a million people, is at a potential entry point that Russian forces could use if they decide to invade Ukraine.Map showing Kharkiv in Ukraine

Last Thursday, Vladimir Zelensky, Ukraine’s 43-year-old president, further heightened fears in the city, suggesting that Kharkiv “could be occupied” by Russian forces.

Zelensky said that in this case, Russia would use the pretext of protecting the city’s Russian-speaking population.

As the fear of invasion lurked in the city, interest in the reserve forces grew.

“Fighting for the protection of your own house is a great motivation,” Mikhail said. Locals are also learning how to use anti-war weapons, organize resistance groups and carry out sabotage activities in the event of occupation by Russian forces.

The country’s new territorial armed forces are emerging as a result of a law introduced during an earlier round of tensions last year.

The latest escalation has sparked a similar response, with the Ukrainian government announcing a new law that allows the use of shotguns in territorial defense acts.

Kharkiv Territorial Defense ForcesKharkiv’s Territorial Defense Force is one of several paramilitary forces set up in Ukraine to repel a possible Russian invasion [Nils Adler/Al Jazeera]

According to Nikola Levchenko, a reserve officer, many of the people he trained with bought personal weapons and ammunition, often imported from the United States, Israel or Turkey.

Vasily, a major in the Izyum Territorial Forces, a city near Kharkov, believes Russia will face well-trained forces that can protect key cities.

“Many locals have experience on the front line,” he said. “They are psychologically prepared for battle in the event of an invasion.”

There will be nothing in the center of Kharkiv and far from these hidden preparations to show that the city is at the forefront of a potential invasion.

Instead, cafes and restaurants are full, a winter fair is in full swing, and international students are crowding the streets.

But the threat of an attack is something Kharkiv residents have had to deal with and learn to live with after Russian-backed separatists invaded eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.

On a temporary ice rink built in the city’s main square, a group of friends aged 16 and 17 chat while skating with families enjoying a day.

Like many young people in the city, they are aware of the current tensions.

“This is a great world war and we are stuck in the middle; something will happen sooner or later, “Alina said.

But it’s a feeling she’s learned to deal with over the years; now she wants to live a normal teenage life, listen to music, go out with friends and study.

Roman (center) in Izyum, Kharkiv regionRoman (center) said he would like to see a peaceful solution to the conflict [Nils Adler]

Many of the recent Territorial Defense recruits are talking about a sense of duty.

“I promised my family that I would protect them,” said Roman, a 27-year-old rookie from Izyum. He now believes there is a much higher risk of invasion – about 50 percent – than in previous years.

Despite ongoing training, reservists have no appetite for war with Russia.

“Nobody wants that, neither me nor my family,” Vasily said.

Instead, Roman says, they would like to see a peaceful solution.

“I don’t think the fight makes sense; we all need to talk and communicate. ”

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