Ukraine conflict spurs some Russians to seek Kalashnikov training


FILE PHOTO: A man walks past a banner with the portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the sports and patriotic club "Yaropolk" in Krasnogorsk outside Moscow, Russia December 3, 2022. The banner reads: "Sport is not a game, but the guarantee of a nation's health!" REUTERS/Yulia Morozova

KRASNOGORSK, Russia (Reuters) - In a sports club just outside Moscow run by a former Russian special forces captain, 70 women and men turned out to train with automatic rifles on Saturday, many of them seeking military skills because of the conflict in neighbouring Ukraine.

The United States and its Western allies have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine as a devastating post-imperial land grab, but inside Russia what the Kremlin calls "a special military operation" is seen differently by some Russians.

President Vladimir Putin casts the conflict as a watershed moment when Russia finally stood up to arrogant Western hegemony after decades of humiliation in the years since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia, Putin says, is defending Russians in Ukraine against a decadent West that ultimately wants to carve up Russia's vast resources and eradicate Russian civilisation. The West denies such a plot.

The upsurge in patriotism among some Russians is such that civilians like 31-year-old Vladimir are seeking out urban warfare training in free classes provided by Ilya Shadrikov, a former captain in the Federal Security Service's (FSB) elite special forces Directorate "A".

"We are doing urban military training which for us civilians who have not served in the army could be a very useful skill if we need to defend our homes or if we need to be sent to the front to defend our motherland," said Vladimir, after 45 minutes of training with Kalashnikov automatic weapons.

"We need to win," he added, sweating under the weight of camouflaged body armour and a bullet-proof helmet. He declined to give his surname.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine give up-to-date numbers on losses, but tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides are estimated by the U.S. military to have been killed or wounded. The civilian death toll is unknown.

Although there are questions about the accuracy of war-time polling, surveys show that a clear majority of Russians support the war in Ukraine and that Putin's ratings - currently at nearly 80% - remain higher than they were before the conflict.

Many younger Russians, especially those in major cities, are far less supportive and have little confidence in state television - the Kremlin's main avenue to project its interpretation of the conflict.

Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Russians, many of them military-age men, have fled the country to avoid being called up to serve in Ukraine, and some groups representing soldiers' mothers have been vocal in criticising the conflict and Putin.

RUSSIA AT WAR

In Krasnogorsk, a city just north of Moscow, Shadrikov's "Yaropolk" club is evidence of a revival of combative Russian and eastern Slavic patriotism after years of disillusionment with the post-Soviet West.

Named after the Slavic god of the spring sun "Yarilo", the club is painted outside with the white, blue and red of the Russian tricolour and adorned inside with posters, including an array of drawings by children in support of the war.

One child's drawing shows a fierce Russian bear in a tug of war with Uncle Sam and the European Union over Ukraine. A giant picture of Putin graces the entrance to the sports hall.

The club's videos show training to a popular song with the lyrics: "Be afraid - we, the Russians, are coming."

Shadrikov, dressed in FSB camouflage combats, taught the civilians how to hold Kalashnikov AK74s and AK103s, how to attack in groups of two and three, how to evacuate a wounded colleague under fire and how to detain an enemy combatant.

For Shadrikov, who was awarded medals for bravery during his service in special forces, the club he founded in 2011 is a way to help unite Russian society against enemies within and without.

"You know, we are not playing with toys here," he told Reuters. "When the dark storm clouds gather over Russia, the Russian people unites."

Directorate "A", known as Alpha Group, is one of Russia's most elite special forces units. Formerly part of the KGB, and founded in 1974, it was used in Afghanistan, Chechnya, the Middle East and against militants in various hostage crises.

The "Yaropolk" club collects New Year gifts for Russian troops at the front and female members write letters to the soldiers.

Pictures of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler are stuck to the hall walls as targets, although there were no live firing exercises on Saturday. Other lessons include navigation and first aid.

Russia presents the conflict in Ukraine as an attempt to root out neo-Nazis who Moscow says have persecuted Russian speakers. Ukraine denies any persecution while the West says such claims are false and no justification for an invasion.

"I came here today because it is very relevant given the special operation - and it is unclear what will happen next," said Ksenia, a 30-year-old who was out of breath after training.

"(Russian) society has become more consolidated and more solid - perhaps it always happens in tough periods."

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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