It finally happened: Russia invaded Ukraine. War was declared and the first attack launched shortly after the former Soviet republic announced plans for a state of emergency, the conscription of more reserve forces, and – a novel idea – the arming of the citizenry. That last may be the right move for a number of reasons, but has it come too late to be effective? The United States may have more armed civilians than the rest of the world combined has active-duty soldiers – but that’s hardly the case in Ukraine. Even with the government handing out firearms to any willing to fight, can enough citizens be armed and trained to hold the line?
Changing the Law
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been the only country in Europe without any legislation restricting the use of firearms. Many laws have been proposed, but none ever survived the nation’s sole legislative body, the Verkhovna Rada. Instead, the right to keep and bear arms has been regulated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which also controls the country’s national police and national guard.
Officially, handguns have been banned, as have automatic weapons of any sort. Only rifles and shotguns for hunting or sporting purposes are allowed, and those require a permit granted by the police. But by the time nearly 200,000 Russian troops stood ready to invade, a law was being drafted to give Ukrainian civilians official permission to carry firearms for self-defense. Before even this, tens of thousands of citizens have been training to fight in preparation of what they fear is to come. Now that the invasion has begun, Ukraine has declared martial law, forbidden any men aged 18-60 from fleeing, and is handing out weapons to any citizens willing to use them.
Lock and Load
The Ministry of Internal Affairs estimates there are somewhere around a million registered firearms in the nation. There are also an unknown number of illegal arms. In any country, when a foreign army invades, law-abiding citizen, cop, soldier, and even criminal all have a new common enemy – and there’s nothing quite like living in a warzone to reshuffle one’s priorities away from the law and toward survival at any cost. Joshua Yaffa, the Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker, covered Ukraine’s tricky relationship with guns back in 2017. “Since 2014, when war broke out in the Donbass region, huge caches of firearms have poured into the conflict zone,” he wrote. Many of those weapons of war have made their way into the hands of civilians throughout the nation, with even normally law-abiding citizens looking to buy guns, both legally and on the black market. “Ukraine has turned into a supermarket for illegal weapons,” the head of a Ukrainian gun-owner association told Associated Press in 2016.
Then there’s the readiness of the people and some Soviet training for those old enough to have benefited from it. Ukrainian photographer Andrey Lomakin, who is just in his mid-forties, reminisced on learning to assemble a Kalashnikov rifle with his eyes closed, a requirement for students at the time. More recently, the New York Post spoke with some of the Ukrainian civilians currently training for combat and battlefield first aid. “My daughter, now 23, taught me how to shoot,” said Vlad Horbovetz, a surgeon who volunteered as a medic. “Russian boots on the ground would be catastrophic, and we believe in the peaceful way of the gun.”
Gennadiy Druzenko, a constitutional lawyer who has also volunteered as a medic, believes that the contribution of civilian resistance fighters could make or break the Ukrainian defense. “People recognize this, and they will take their hunting rifles and whatever they can find to the fight,” he explained. Gennadiy and his wife, Svetlana, told the Post they were inspired to arm themselves by the gun rights in the United States. “We always look at the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. It is not just about self-protection, but the protection of freedom and the protection of independence,” he said. “We Ukrainians really show this meaning of the Second Amendment.”
Too Little, Too Late?
Don’t think even relatively poorly armed and trained locals can be a thorn in the side of a far superior military force? The Taliban and a myriad other guerrilla groups might like a word. That said, Ukraine’s gun stats aren’t impressive, and the people now find themselves facing Russian soldiers inadequately armed and after only a few weeks of openly training for self-defense.
Russia declared the first day of the invasion a success – and with good reason. After bombing numerous cities across the nation and bringing in troops from three fronts, Russia claimed to have destroyed 74 military facilities. Ukraine’s National Police reported that fighting occurred all over the nation, with 203 incidents logged since it began. Russian forces captured Chernobyl, Zmiinyi Island, and parts of Kherson, and were pushing closer to Kyiv. Residents of the nation’s capital could hear gunfire and explosions, and an estimated 100,000 Ukrainians have fled, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring countries.
According to an unnamed “senior Western intelligence official” who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, Russia has eliminated Ukraine’s air defenses and controls the skies over the entire nation. Ukraine had its share of wins as well, reclaiming some villages and an airport, as well as allegedly shooting down several Russian planes – but overall, the day appears to go to the aggressor.
A Newfound Respect for Human Rights? Not Likely
President Volodymyr Zelensky said that every Ukrainian would fight, and he urged citizens to take up arms, announcing that any who ask would be given weapons. As Americans, it’s easy to take for granted our own gun culture. There are somewhere between 80 million and 113 million legally armed adults in the United States, the majority of whom carry a handgun for defensive purposes when away from home – and a good many of whom have been shooting those guns since childhood. That’s twice the entire population – adult and children, armed and unarmed – of Ukraine. There isn’t a nation – or even a set of ten combined – that can field as many soldiers as there are armed civilians already here in the U.S.
Ukraine is not America. As inspiring as it is to hear the people discuss taking up arms and quote America’s Second Amendment, one must wonder if it will be enough. Moreover, any claim that this arming of the people is some grand recognition of the basic human right to self-defense is ridiculous. The Ukrainian government can’t grant the right to bear arms any more than it can remove it; it can only acknowledge the right or oppress it. Deciding to end that oppression because a massively superior military force is invading has a lot less to do with freedom and more to do with putting armed bodies in place to make up the difference.
That Ukrainians will now be allowed to defend themselves lawfully from Russian invaders is certainly an improvement, even if it only lasts the duration of this crisis. It will be interesting to see what happens once the war is over – if, indeed, a Ukraine still exists at that point. Will the people go on to enjoy one of the rights that defines America to the rest of the world, or will the government try to put that genie back in the bottle?
~ Read more from James Fite.