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Ukraine has thousands of veterans who would be called to serve in the reserves

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin this hour in Ukraine, where concerns of a Russian invasion continue to escalate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced Tuesday that he would increase the country's armed forces by 100,000 soldiers. The country already has hundreds of thousands of veterans who would be called up to serve in the reserves should Russia attack the country. NPR's Rob Schmitz spent some time with veterans in the capital, Kyiv, and brings us this report.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: In the Ukrainian film "Atlantis," the year is 2025. Ukraine has successfully defended itself in a protracted war with Russia, but it's left the country scarred both physically and psychologically.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ATLANTIS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In 2019, "Atlantis" won Best Film in the Horizons section of the Venice Film Festival, thanks in part to the acting of Andriy Rymaruk, who plays a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder whose job is to exhume the bodies of his fellow soldiers. When Rymaruk meets me at a cafe in Kyiv, all the other customers stare at him. He's a celebrity here and a war veteran in real life, too. When he returned from the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, he started the Come Back Alive Fund, an organization that taps into crowdfunding to buy equipment for Ukrainian soldiers.

ANDRIY RYMARUK: (Through interpreter) The flow of funds have greatly decreased from 2019 to 2020. But now we've gotten a big boost due to the latest news.

SCHMITZ: In all, Rymaruk's organization has raised nearly $10 million and has bought nearly a thousand thermal vision sites, cameras and range finders for frontline soldiers. He says if Russia should attack, its military will encounter Ukrainian soldiers who are better equipped and better trained than when the war started in 2014.

RYMARUK: (Through interpreter) We are 10 times better. We constantly receive positive feedback after international military exercises with the U.S. and the U.K., and they evaluate our combat readiness at the highest level.

SCHMITZ: At the Office of Veterans Affairs in Kyiv, director Volodymyr Prymachenko agrees. He's in charge of calling up Kyiv's portion of the more than half a million reserve forces, should Russia attack. And he says it's this waiting for Russia to make a move that is strengthening Ukraine.

VOLODYMYR PRYMACHENKO: (Through interpreter) With each day, Russia becomes weaker and Ukraine becomes more powerful, thanks to our international partners, who are helping us by sending weapons. If Russia invades Ukraine, this will cause a great economic loss for Russia.

SCHMITZ: Prymachenko served with the Soviet military in Afghanistan in the 1980s, back when Ukraine was part of the USSR. And he says Russia's military is still bogged down by the same problems it had back then - low morale and a lack of faith in its mission, though Russia's military would dispute that. He says Ukrainian soldiers, on the other hand, are fighting for something real - their home. Just look at how everyday Ukrainians support their veterans, he says.

Just down the street from Prymachenko is Veterans' Pizza, a popular local restaurant owned and partially staffed by Ukrainian military veterans. Inside, the walls are lined with military medals and photos of veterans. Underneath the glass dining tables are hundreds of spent bullets from Ukraine's ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists. The bearded and tattooed Leonid Ostaltsev owns this pizza shop and the nearby Veterans' Brownies. Over pizza and beer, Ostaltsev tells me Ukrainian veterans are still young. They're trained, and they're ready to fight if Russia forces them to.

LEONID OSTALTSEV: I want to and then live my life like it's all OK, but I'm always must be prepared for worst. I always wear a gun. I always training.

SCHMITZ: Do you have a gun on you now?

OSTALTSEV: Yes, of course.

SCHMITZ: Ostaltsev does not show me his gun. He says he'd only bring it out if he felt threatened, something he says he and his country are prepared for but something he hopes won't happen. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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