blurry image of a man running with a gun in combat gear

Ukraine’s Civilian Soldiers

For many Ukrainians, war with Russia is not a possibility, but an ever-present reality.

As the world anxiously watches Ukraine’s borders, where Russia has amassed as many as 130,000 troops, the question on the minds of many is what Vladimir Putin wants, and what he’s willing to do to get it. The answer has immediate implications for the United States, Europe, and the NATO military alliance, whose potential expansion in Ukraine and the broader post-Soviet space is regarded by Moscow as a threat.

But no one stands to be affected more by the current standoff than the Ukrainian people, for whom the prospect of war with Russia is not a possibility, but an ever-present reality. Ukraine has been at the edge of all-out war for eight years. In 2013, the Maidan revolution toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian government. The next year, Russia invaded and later annexed the Crimea region and gave crucial backing to armed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists along the two countries’ de facto border ever since. More than 14,000 people, many of them civilians, have died as a result of the conflict. Those who were called up to the Ukrainian front line were not just professional military officers, but also engineers, carpenters, waiters, firefighters, and students. These civilian soldiers, whose portraits were captured by the photographers Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni from 2014 to 2015, show the human cost of Ukraine’s never-ending crisis. “If war flares up again,” Oleksandr Poida, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan, told Caimi and Piccinni last week, “hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk.”

Many of the people pictured said that they are ready to return to their civilian lives. But with the threat of another Russian incursion looming, and with diplomatic talks between the Kremlin and the West still ongoing, it’s not clear that they will be able to leave the battlefield anytime soon. Maksym Kozub, an interpreter turned platoon commander who was wounded in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Donbas region in 2014, told Caimi and Piccinni that he would be prepared to return to war after he completes rehabilitation of his left arm, a bone from which was shattered after he was hit by a sniper’s bullet. The way soldiers like him see it, what’s at stake is not only Ukraine’s sovereignty, which Putin has demonstrated little regard for, but also the future of its democracy.

“We have to strengthen and develop our defense capacity using whatever support our partners provide, but also understanding that nobody will do our job,” Kozub said. “At the same time, we should continue to properly develop Ukraine as a modern democratic country … We should not be thinking only about war.”

If war does come to Ukraine, Kozub is confident that he and his fellow soldiers can win. “I am rather optimistic about our ability to defend Ukraine,” he said. “But I am not very optimistic about the nearest future in many other aspects.”

The Fighters of Maidan

3 People dressed in home found combat gear
From left: A former carpenter has patrolled the front line at Lobanovskyi Dynamo Stadium, in Kyiv, for months on little sleep; a female student from the Viking Union, who says that she will fight to the end for freedom; a former informatics engineer from Lviv, in Western Ukraine.
3 people tk
From left: A priest of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church; a former employee for the government in Lviv who came to fight in Kyiv in 2013, when the Euromaidan revolt broke out; one of the first fighters in Maidan on December 9, when the riot erupted.
3 people dressed for combat from home found gear
From left: A young supermarket employee from Sarny, in western Ukraine, who has come to fight to the death if necessary; a young railroad employee from Cherkasy who is surprised by his own courage; a former teacher at the International Center of Culture and Arts in Kyiv, where thousands of people sleep.

Training for Battle

a man in fatigues practices shooting targets in a field
Fenix, 26, from Lviv, during a training session in the camp of the fifth volunteer battalion of Right Sector, an ultranationalist group. The Right Sector’s Ukrainian volunteer corps is the only militia involved in the war that is independent from the Ukrainian government. The all-volunteer militia relies on donations and uses old Russian weapons.
a group of people dressed in fatigues sitting in rows listening to a man talk outside
The Azov training camp, in Kyiv. The Azov Battalion is an all-volunteer far-right paramilitary militia affiliated with the Ukrainian government and is a member of the National Guard of Ukraine. The battalion's extremist politics and English social-media pages have attracted foreign fighters.

a man in a staircase with a gun; a group of people with guns outside an empty building
Left: A trainee in a dorm. Many of the fighters are more frightened by the possibility of being kidnapped by separatists than the chances of being injured or dying on the front lines. Right: A group of Ukrainian soldiers from the Right Sector battalion conduct a training session in an abandoned building.
a young man lays down on a hill and aims his gun
Jaroslav, a young fifth-battalion volunteer who is headed to the front line in Donetsk, in the occupied Donbas region
two women aim their guns in the woods
Marusya and Anya, two Right Sector–battalion volunteers, are training with guns for self-defense. The women are part of the medics group and are prepared to go to the front line in Donetsk to rescue wounded soldiers.

Scars of War

triptych: a man seated with an injured leg, a woman seated, a man standing with crutches in a stair well
From left: Victor, a former carpenter from the northern Ukrainian city of Chernhiv, fought with the third battalion of tanks from the beginning of the Donbas conflict and lost his leg after a mine-launcher attack. Center: Alexandra, from the city of Horlivka, escaped to a refugee shelter in Kyiv. Right: Yury, a former landscape designer, did reconnaissance with the Dnipro first battalion and was shot by a sniper. He would like to return to fight.
Triptych: a man in a wheelchair, a woman holding a baby outside, a man with a shoulder injury
From left: Alexander, a former radio engineer who fought with the 128th brigade of the Ukrainian navy in Debaltseve, was seriously wounded by artillery and is seeking a pension from the government. Center: A refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk with her baby at a shelter in Kyiv. Right: Vitali, a former mechanic, was in the army to work on tanks. During one mission, his tank was shelled. He doesn’t know if he will get a war pension.
triptych: a man in fatigues on a couch, a woman outside in a plastic chair, a man with a cast on a bed
From left: Kyryl, a former lawyer who started as a volunteer in Maidan and went on to become a commander of a brigade, says he left the war because he was not paid, which he says is a widespread bureaucratic problem. He now uses his legal experience to run a help desk for veterans. Center: A woman escaping Luhansk at a shelter in Kyiv who left her husband behind to fight the war. Right: Victor, who fought in Luhansk, was shot and imprisoned by separatists for two months. He was sent back to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange. He wants to return to the war.
a woman in a coat stands in a graveyard full of flowers and the Ukrainian flag
A graveyard in the Donetsk region with flowers on veterans’ headstones