LVIV, UKRAINE – Young men and women in the nationalist heartland of western Ukraine are signing up to defend their country from what they call “Russian aggressors” who have taken over Crimea.
“I’m a high-ranking judoka and can shoot well,” said Tetiana Turtshina as she waited outside her local police station in the pro-European city of Lviv.
The owner of an advertising agency, Turtshina supports the call-up of volunteers that came ahead of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on joining the Russian Federation, two weeks after pro-Kremlin forces seized the Black Sea peninsula.
“There are many volunteers like me. It’s a duty for everyone,” said the burly 30-year-old.
“I cannot look on as my country is torn apart,” she said, amid growing concern that Ukraine could split after a new West-leaning government in Kiev ousted a pro-Moscow regime that had support in the country’s Russian-speaking regions.
In Lviv Russian President Vladimir Putin is often compared to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, and Turtshina fears that the Russians will not stop in Crimea.
“Knowing the appetite of Russia and its methods, they will swallow up Crimea and press on, even beyond Ukraine,” she said.
About 2,000 people have registered as volunteers with the police in Lviv.
Among them was Rev. Makariy, a Christian Orthodox priest who did his military service in the Ukrainian Army.
“I would prefer to be a chaplain, of course, as priests do not take up arms. I think that the word can also fight evil,” he explained.
In the neighboring region of Khmelnitsky, Metropolitan Antoniy has said that he himself is ready to take up arms to protect the homeland.
There has been a call-up of men between the ages of 30 and 35 who have completed their military service and have done combat training.
“They have been listed for the reason of mobilization if necessary,” military spokesman Olexandr Poronyuk said as recruits conducted drills in the distance.
Poronyuk, 38, said he was ready to “defend the state until the last drop of blood,” just as his grandfather did for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which battled Poles, Soviet and Nazi forces in western Ukraine during and after World War II, and is still viewed with derision by Moscow.
However, his wife, Natalia, said: “I will not let him go to war.”
In Lviv, opposition to what is seen as “military aggression” in Crimea can be found everywhere — in the city’s offices, shopping centers and on public transport — along with scorn for Putin.
In the central square, Putin is pilloried and presented as Hitler or a ballerina armed with a Kalashnikov and red star with the slogan, “Playing war with you.”
The Russian flag is adorned with a swastika made of orange-and-black ribbons representing the order of St. George, a symbol of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Local residents take photos of themselves in front of the display, often making obscene gestures.
“Putin is a crazy aggressor,” said Andriy, a 20-year-old student. “He wants to rally the Russians around a common enemy — Ukrainians — to divert attention from the problems in Russia.”
Another resident, Andriy Kvas, 42, said: “I did not care about Putin until he barged into Ukraine. It is serious. He can do whatever he wants in Russia, but not transform our Crimea into Chechnya.”
A campaign urging a boycott of Russian goods is in full swing.
Outside Lviv’s supermarkets leaflets are distributed explaining how to identify a Russian product by looking at the bar code.
“Forty-six, forty-six,” is the number people are repeatedly being asked to remember.
A cashier at one supermarket said an elderly shopper even asked him to check the contents of his cart to make sure he was not buying any Russian products.
“I realized the coffee I usually bought came from Russia. Now I buy another brand,” said a 35-year-old shopper who only gave her first name, Olena.