Kiev — “I made Molotov cocktails,” says Sophiia Brovchenko, a sweet 19-year-old girl who describes mixing jellied petrol, chemicals, stones and red pepper in bottles during the worst days of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution.
“The guy who explained to me [how to make the Molotov cocktails] said, ‘Look at those buildings, see those snipers? They usually aim for us because they know we’re making cocktails, but the bullets usually ricochet.’ I was like, ‘That’s comforting.’ . . . If you divide the job correctly, there were like 20 people, even more, [on the assembly line]. There were some reckless guys smoking next to the cocktails, and we were like, ‘Are you insane?!’” Brovchenko recalls, adding that for weeks, she was afraid to venture near the bonfires at Maidan Nealezhnosti; the smell of petrol clung to her long red hair and clothing, she says, and she was afraid she’d accidentally immolate.
The scene Brovchenko paints is incongruous with the bubbly teenager sitting across from me. She’s just begun her collegiate studies, she says, and she adores F. Scott Fitzgerald, though it puzzles her that such a beautiful writer could support the communists. She has an easy smile, favors red lipstick, and she looks like a Brooklyn hipster in her short skirt and knee-high stockings. Only her Carhartt-style boots hint at her more rugged days at Maidan Nezalezhnosti.
As Ukraine prepares for possible war, it is vastly outnumbered and under-armed. Though Russia wouldn’t be able to mobilize its entire military against Ukraine, it has four times the soldiers, six times the combat aircrafts, and more than 48 times the military budget. Meanwhile, there’s ample reason to suspect that some in the Ukrainian military, from the foot soldiers to the top brass, actually sympathize with Russia.
But winning a military victory and claiming Ukrainian territory is one thing; occupying and maintaining it is another, and Russia may face a formidable challenge in Ukrainians like Brovchenko, who learned combat skills during the revolution at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, says Paul Floyd, a military analyst with the global intelligence firm Stratfor.
“What you’re talking about there is insurgent-like activities — guerilla warfare,” Floyd says. “Our analysis in general would be that while in a conventional sense, Russia can roll over Ukraine, it may have a harder time holding it. . . . That’s where civilians can really kind of add to the fight.”
Armed opposition to Russia would have strong ideological backing. The same teenagers and twenty-somethings who have combat skills have had to reckon with some heavy concepts, including the right to overthrow a despot, and whether violence can be justified as a means of self-defense during revolution.
Brovchenko says the use of Molotov cocktails became justified when the berkut, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s riot police, began using deadly violence against the protestors, including guns. She says she is ready to resurrect her Molotov-cocktail-making skills if the Russians invade and the Ukrainian military needs help.
“Russia is an empire,” Brovchenko says. “It wants to have colonies. It wants to invade more and more territories. . . . I hope we will avoid war — it’s Europe, it’s the 21st Century — but when 100 people died in [Maidan Nezalezhnosti], I couldn’t believe it either. We should hope that everything is alright, but we have to prepare.”
Nevertheless, of the Molotov cocktails that went unused after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Brovchenko says: “I’m glad that I made weapons that were not used, because I would feel bad for those deaths. I always thought that I didn’t want to be used in someone else’s game. Even the riot police, those people are humans, they have families, and they are not even close to the authorities. . . . But you know that a bottle you make may save someone’s life [when used defensively].”
Halyna Tanay, a 23-year-old Kiev woman, says she’s also ready to use the emergency-medical skills she learned at Maidan Nezalezhnosti if her country needs her. During the revolution, Yanukovych’s police were seizing the wounded from their hospital beds. Some were imprisoned, but others simply disappeared, so the demonstrators arranged secret hospitals in churches and homes.
These secret hospitals quickly raised enough money to buy state-of-the-art equipment, and doctors and nurses volunteered. Sometimes, they were able to provide more sophisticated care in the secret hospitals than in the official city ones, Tanay says.
“Things the government couldn’t do in years, we did in weeks,” she says. “It just shows that if you want to do something, you can do it.”
Those who participated in the Maidan revolution have kept the medical equipment, and they also now have a better sense of how to organize and administer emergency hospitals.
“Now, we have a real war in East Ukraine, and we also don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” Tanay says. “There, it’s still dangerous. That’s why we can’t relax. We are waiting for [the Russians] ever day, and if [our troops] need some treatment, we can help. . . . I hope it won’t be needed. Still, we have to be ready for that. . . . Of course, war is worse than revolution, but now we understand what to do, and we are ready. ”
During the Maidan revolution, Ukrainians united to prevail against a domestic threat to their freedom. Now, Putin’s aggression is interrupting their nation-building process. But Tanay says the way people were able to work together at Maidan Nezalezhnosti gives her hope that she will someday live in a stable democracy.
“In Ukraine, we [now] know that if the government cannot do it, we should do it,” she says. “Thank God we understand. Maybe that’s the first step to changing the system.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.