Armed with ‘happiness cocktails’, the villagers all set for battle

Published by The Daily Mail (28th February, 2022)

Chortkiv should be finishing off preparations for its 500th anniversary celebrations this summer — but instead the small medieval town in western Ukraine is preparing for war.

Road signs are being removed, street lights switched off, checkpoints built on entry points, battle plans drawn up and hundreds of men drafted into military units.

Today, the police plan to give lessons to volunteers on how to make and throw Molotov cocktails — although they call them kokteli shchastya (‘happiness cocktails’) since they do not want to sully their mouths by using the name of a Russian Soviet-era politician.

Such preparations in a historic town 300 miles from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, far from the Russian border and the fighting that erupted after President Vladimir Putin ordered in his forces last week, highlight the terrifying speed with which war has changed this country.

‘We are getting ready to defend ourselves because we think there is a strong possibility that we will be attacked,’ said the mayor Volodymyr Shmatko.

Chortkiv has already seen missiles fly overhead on their way to destroying an airport and fuel depot in Ivano-Frankivsk on the first day of Putin’s invasion — which Shmatko revealed to me were fired from the Russian enclave of Transnistria in Moldova.

Now this town of 30,000 people in western Ukraine, a region with close cultural and historic links to Poland, has been warned to anticipate assault by military forces from Minsk. ‘If we face troops, I think they will be from Belarus,’ said Shmatko.

Although Belarus has been carrying out joint military exercises with Russia, it would mark significant widening of the war if its troops crossed the Ukrainian border. Yesterday the country’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko confirmed they had launched missiles at Ukraine.

‘We expect an attack from Belarus along the entire length of the border. They have everything ready for it — equipment is in combat formations, filled with fuel,’ said Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to Ukraine’s ministry of interior.

Entering Chortkiv on Saturday afternoon, I saw people removing the town’s name after a government order that day to take down all road signs to confuse Russian troops.

They were also building a huge checkpoint with concrete, sandbags and piles of tyres on the main entry point to the road. It was completed in one day by 80 local residents, along with some sleeping quarters and kitchens in an abandoned sausage factory.

Shmatko, 36, a former army officer who fought against Russia in the eastern Donbas region eight years ago, said they were building similar checkpoints at all the town’s entry points to prevent saboteurs from entering and guard against arrival of invading forces.

‘If they see the tanks coming down the road, they have orders to report their arrival and then withdraw since this [the checkpoints] would be destroyed in one blast and kill everyone,’ he said.

We met after the mayor, wearing his old army uniform, concluded a meeting of the ten-person military council that was set up in the town after Ukraine’s imposition of martial law four days ago.

He said they were focusing on protection of key infrastructure, strengthening defences, collecting medical supplies for frontline forces and assisting the thousands of refugees flooding through the area towards the border.

Chortkiv, with its striking gothic Catholic church and 17th-century synagogue, has a strong military heritage since it was the site of a former Soviet air base and home to four military units. Many Russian officers remained there after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

I arrived to the now familiar howl of air raid sirens, so immediately joined local families and some foreign students studying in the town in a basement shelter. Sirens have sounded another four times over the past 24 hours.

The town seemed to be filled with army and police in uniform, with dozens clustered around a recruitment office. During a short walk before curfew fell on Saturday night, I was twice asked to show my documents by police, who told me not to stay on the streets.

‘We have called up all men to join the Territorial Defence Force (TDF) and given them weapons and ammunition,’ said Shmatko. ‘These are the trained men who have served in the military and know what to do with their weapons. There are about 500 of them.

‘There are also volunteers who might be hunters who know how to handle a rifle but don’t know how to throw a grenade or fire a Kalashnikov. We are training them. There are 100 so far but will be many more to come.

‘Now we are preparing a plan for all our units so they know what to do if there is an attack by tanks. This will be a masterplan for both military and civilian units.’

Among those joining the defence force is Kostyantyn, 29, a domestic science teacher who fought in Donbas against the pro-Russian separatists in 2014 and signed up yesterday.

His wife and four-year-old son are trapped after going to visit her parents in Kherson, a town near Crimea where the battle is raging after Russia’s capture of the airport. ‘I’m worried for them so can’t stay indifferent,’ he said. ‘I’ll fight because I have the right experience.’

Inside the town hall, I found 22 people helping to sort donations of food for refugees and medical supplies for Kyiv and the military. A stream of local residents came with everything from camp beds and pickled vegetables through to drugs bought from the pharmacy.

Among the volunteers was Inna Dzyndra, 25, who fled Kyiv on Friday with her boyfriend and immediately set up an online system to find medicines needed by people in the capital. ‘They have food and clothes but the pharmacies are all closed,’ she said.

The couple were hoping to send supplies by train but, if this proved impossible, will take them back to the strife-torn city themselves by car. ‘We must all do everything we can because the Russians want to besiege Kyiv and it is vital that it survives for us all.’

Like many people I have met here, the mayor Shmatko — a member of a local liberal party — went out of his way to thank Britain for its ‘important and inspirational’ support for Ukraine. ‘Putin is in a corner and his plan is not working out so he might do anything,’ he said.

So Chortkiv, in common with so many other towns across this nation, is preparing for the worst. ‘Ukraine will pay a high price for democracy and we might not all survive. We did not want to fight but we must keep the enemy off our land and make them leave us alone.’

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