‘I’m a Soldier Now.’ Even in Untouched Villages, Ukrainians Prepare to Fight

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Outside the large military hospital in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, people lined up on Sunday to donate warm clothes and water, while a priest moved among the crowd offering sips of holy wine from a silver chalice. He allowed those waiting to kiss the large silver cross he wore on a chain around his neck.

Since the war began three days ago, wounded soldiers have been pouring into the hospital, sometimes as many as 80 at a time, largely from the front lines in Ukraine’s east and south, said Serhii Bachynskyi, the hospital’s deputy director. The hospital has 400 beds, but the number of wounded has exceeded that at times in the past few days, he added.

Because of Russian aircraft patrolling the skies, it is too dangerous to evacuate the wounded on helicopters.

“We’re evacuating with whatever we can; on trains, buses. People are volunteering,” Mr. Bachynskyi said.

Across the street, a group of combat medics, who had just arrived in green military trucks with wounded, were smoking cigarettes and preparing to return to the front lines. They would provide few details about what they were seeing at the front, but said that they were not short of work.

“Either we fight them off or we will all die,” said one of the medics. “We’re hanging on and will do so to the end.”

Local residents prepare a bunker in Hushchyntsi, Ukraine, at the edge of their village on Sunday.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Before the war began, officials and military analysts warned that Russia could carry out simultaneous attacks on many different regions as a diversionary tactic to draw Ukrainian forces away from the main objective. The result is that nearly all of Ukraine has been put on a war footing.

So far, Russian forces have concentrated much of their firepower on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, in the north, but fighting has been raging in other parts of the country as well. It has been particularly fierce in the east where the Russian military has joined with separatist forces in two breakaway Ukrainian enclaves, and in the south, where Russian forces have broken out of the Crimean Peninsula, which President Vladimir V. Putin annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

There was growing evidence that despite its superiority over Ukrainian forces, the Russian military was having difficulties getting a foothold in many regions around the country.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers have managed to keep most Russian troops out of the city center. In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where Russian forces have been pounding outlying villages and neighborhoods with artillery, Russian troops briefly pushed into the city center on Sunday, but were driven back by Ukraine’s military, according to Ukrainian officials.

After a short respite, shelling again commenced on Saturday against Ukraine’s busiest port city, Odessa, but there was no sign the city was in danger of falling into Russian hands. And in Mariupol, another port city, the Russian navy’s first attempt to mount an amphibious assault was thwarted, though another effort was in the works, Ukrainian officials said.

Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, gave an upbeat assessment of the Ukrainian military’s efforts on Sunday, and, speaking in Russian, made a direct appeal to Russian troops to give up the fight.

“Like any military person, you know that there are a million ways not follow the order,” he said. “You get lost, you break down, the radio station does not work, etc. We believe in you and count on your courage, honor and prudence, which will allow you to make the right choice in this time of tension.”

Volunteers fill sand bags in Kropyvnytskyi on Sunday evening, in effort to fortify the city’s defenses.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Even in cities and towns that have not yet heard the boom of Russian artillery fire, residents were preparing for the possibility of an attack. In the tiniest villages, people were out in force on Sunday, setting up checkpoints and building fortifications out of sandbags, tires and sometimes entire trees.

At the entrance of a village called AgroCenter 2, locals were loading sandbags, and someone had erected a wooden cross inscribed with the words “Save and Protect” in Ukrainian. At another checkpoint, someone had scrawled a vulgarity directed at the Russian president that has become a rallying cry for Ukrainians.

Billboards with colorful messages aimed at unwanted Russian guests have gone up around the country.

On Ukraine’s east-west arteries, cars fleeing the fighting further east could be seen decorated with the country’s flag.

An armed man at a checkpoint in Hushchyntsi, Ukraine, on Sunday.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Irina Kolchak arrived Sunday evening in the small central Ukrainian town of Kropyvnytskyi after having fled Kharkiv with her family earlier in the day as Russian forces moved in. Though she was seeking refuge farther west, she said she was still trying to assist the war effort. During her journey, she worked her contacts to try to secure medicine for the troops, and before leaving she donated her two cars to the territorial defense units guarding Kharkiv.

Ms. Kolchak was buoyed by news of Ukrainian successes and said she hoped her country’s army would continue to push Russian forces back from where they came.

Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine

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What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.

Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.

How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.

What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.

How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”

How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.

How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.

“Golda Meir said that with killers you can never negotiate,” she said, referencing the fourth prime minister of Israel who was born in Ukraine. “And I agree with her.”

Dnipro on Sunday morning was a hive of activity. At all city entrances, groups of men were stacking sand bags and laying metal tank barricades. Soldiers with automatic rifles were questioning motorists and searching cars.

They have reason to be wary. Mr. Bachynskyi, from the military hospital, said that a group of Russian troops attempted to parachute into the outskirts of Dnipro on Saturday. One was killed and three were captured, he said, but four were able to escape and were now lurking somewhere in the region.

At Rocket Park in central Dnipro, an outdoor display of intercontinental ballistic missiles and other rockets produced by the local state-owned factory known as Yuzhmash was the backdrop for the city’s mobilization. Men dressed in black or in camouflage were signing up for territorial defense brigades that were being deployed to protect the city perimeter and patrol the center. Others were collecting donations of clothing and supplies for the troops at the front.

Civilians in Kharkiv sought safety from the fighting by sheltering underground in subway cars on Friday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

There, I met Timofei Khomyak, a musician I knew from a previous visit to Dnipro. Less than a month ago, we were drinking beer at a Bohemian bar on the banks of the Dnieper River. Now, he said, he had handed in his guitar for a rifle: “I’m no longer a musician. I’m a soldier now.”

Nearby, people in civilian clothes were sorting and boxing bottles to be made into firebombs. One man was organizing the others, looking for volunteers to take the bottles elsewhere in the city to be filled with flammable liquid.

They spoke Russian, the more commonly used language in this part of Ukraine. But they had no plans to greet any Russian troops with flowers should they turn up, as Russian officials and propaganda television insist that Ukrainians will do.

“We’re all Ukrainians, and everyone feels that they are Ukrainian,” said Yefrem Korotkov, 25, who had just signed up as a volunteer. “No one is going to let these ethnic Russians to come in here and do anything. They all will die.”

At 15, Bohdan Smolkov is about nine months too young to join the territorial defense forces, so he was trying to help in different ways and had joined the group of people preparing bottles for firebombs.

“It’s my duty to help my army,” he said. “Whatever they tell me to do I do. I sort bottles; they called me over to mix Molotov cocktails.”

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