Maksym Bilyk, a young man with a tendency to think carefully before speaking and who works well with computers. He has not fired a firearm in his entire life since he was unable to serve in the military because of a stomach ulcer.

The 26-year old, who lives in Kharkiv in Ukraine, immediately replies when I ask him how he would react if his country was invaded by large numbers of Russian troops and tanks positioned over its border, which is less than 30 miles distant.

He stated, “I would not hesitate to get on the battlefield and take up arms.” “No one likes to fight, but we have to respond if aggression is directed at us.”

Bilyk acknowledged being afraid of living close to the border. “The idea of owning a gun and entering a fight is terrifying. My goal is to live peacefully. We are the only ones who can live in peace. There is no other place for us. There is only one way to get it.

These conversations are strangely incongruous when there is a crowd of people sitting in cafes, having coffees and eating cakes. As we talked, skaters slid by on an ice rink in the snow-covered city centre square where a huge statue of Lenin – the biggest in Ukraine – stood until it was toppled eight years ago.

The statue was the focal point of protests following pro-democracy demonstrations that erupted in Ukraine. Kremlin stooges stormed official buildings and burned flags – but they were defeated, unlike in two eastern cities now under Russian control.

But now, Ukraine’s second city is living in fear of a fresh assault as diplomatic efforts try to prevent Vladimir Putin from invading – an illegal move that would unleash chilling new conflict with Kharkiv among possible targets.

Serafim Sabaronsky, 28, bar manager pictured with his most essential belongings packed for survival

Serafim, a 28-year-old bar manager is shown with all his essential survival items

Volodymyr Zelensky (the president of Ukraine) said yesterday that Russia might try to take over Kharkiv, and it would lead to a large-scale war.

The massive square used to be named for the Soviet secret police founder. It was then renamed Freedom Square after the Ukraine freed itself from Communism over three decades ago.

Bilyk explained to me that this democratic ideal was what inspired him, as a teenager, to take part in the 2014 demonstrations. He said that the first protests were anti-government but became more about freedom. “It was unacceptable for me to see foreign flags displayed on our land.

His birth shortly after the Soviet Union collapse was a sign that freedom is ‘the greatest value’ in his life. Putin, a former KGB agent and Russian oligarch, seeks to rebuild the Russian Empire and suppress democracy.

Numerous people have been wondering how to respond in an emergency. Some are stocking up on food or contemplating flight – but others are preparing to confront one of the world’s most powerful combat machines.

From idealists like Bilyk to combat-skilled veterans from the 8-year-old conflict that has continued in eastern Ukraine, they range. Putin stirred it up in response to protests near Russia. It led to two separate republics and approximately 14,000 deaths, as well as two million people being displaced. Kharkiv City Councillor said that he would move his wife and sons to Lithuania with a rifle and hunting permit if Russia invades.

It must be used for hunting if I want to buy a rifle sniper. Oleg Abramychev (35), an event organizer, said that hunting is another matter.

In a region like this, with deep cultural, historical, and family ties to Russia, it is difficult to forecast the outcome of war.

Abramychev best describes the complexity of this area: He was born in Siberia and moved with his parents to Ukraine when he was a child. Yet, he feels deeply Ukrainian.

Although he does admit to feeling afraid, he talks of freedom (svoboda) before referring to the rights of countries to decide their own path.

For his part, Putin egregiously describes Ukraine as an artificial country wrested from Moscow’s control by its enemies and feels it should be part of a ‘New Russia’ – a vision stretching from Kharkiv in the east to the Crimea in the south (which he illegally seized in 2014).

Putin denied any intention to invade, despite the aggressive buildup of troops. He said that he wanted the West to withdraw its support for Ukraine’s military forces and to end the pledge to NATO member Ukraine.

This is a Russian-speaking region – yet even one man who described himself as Russian and admires Putin told me that Kharkiv must remain Ukrainian.

An emigrant from Russia said that she disliked how citizens, such as hers, were used by Putin. He also claimed to be protecting them.

Analysts believe that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are not capable of defending against Putin’s firepower. However, Kiev has seen its military strength increase in recent years due to battlefield experience and better training.

Glen Grant (a British Army vet and defense expert who advises Ukraine’s government) stated that Putin will not be able to get the job done his way. “This army is now serious and full of people who are willing to risk their lives for the cause.

The American government is stating that it supports armed resistance. Grant stated that if Russia invades the country, it will lead to an all-out war because many people won’t give up. ‘The retaliation will be personal and unpredictable – and Putin will not be expecting it.’

One middle-aged Kharkiv IT worker is among the nearly 900,000. He keeps his combat gear and gun beside his desk. This allows him to be ready for action in just five minutes. The military of Ukraine is creating 150 battalions and 130,000 soldiers in an improved Territorial Defence System. This is because this society has a long tradition of civil servants helping their country when they are under attack by the bully.

After being corrupted, the Ukrainian armed force fought against pro-Russian insurgents. Volunteer groups then reinforced them.

Jenni, 47-year-old graphic designer, and mother to two was among them. Growing up in Soviet Union, she remembers those days of deprivation and supports pro-democracy protests for her future.

She stated, “I still remember poverty and hunger, as well as the food shortages, lies” She said, “For me, protests were all for getting away from our Communist past. It did such horrible things to Ukraine that I find it difficult to believe they ever existed.”

Due to her determination to help the Ukrainian rebels against Putin, Shpak was forced to divorce from her pro Russian husband. Shpak said, “He said that you have to choose between me and the war.”

She helped the fighters by taking food and clothing to the frontline, then assisting public relations efforts to combat the onslaught of Russian propaganda along the border areas – something seen again in recent weeks. Shpak, now a married woman to another volunteer, is ready to go back to the front lines. Shpak said that she wanted to fight for Ukraine and protect her land.

Non-government bodies such as the Ukrainian Legion provide basic training for those wanting to fight – and claim to have seen a sharp rise in the number of civilians wanting to learn military and first aid skills on one-month courses.

Alexander Gorbatenko (head of Kharkiv’s office) stated that training was sufficient for anyone who has never held a firearm or seen one. “People arrive knowing little, but they are able to move in groups, shoot first aid, and defend themselves against military escalation.

Marina Polyakova (a late-fifties housewife) is one of those who have completed a military training program. I have all of my essentials packed in my backpack. I have my flak jacket ready. She stated, “I will join the resistance and I will do everything necessary.”

After seeing her hometown almost overthrown by Putin’s troops and the beating of her son during protests, Polyakova runs a charity that helps families of soldiers who have died.

According to her, the Russians’ eight-year-long war in Ukraine’must not have been in vain’. She also stated that she wanted Ukraine to become a democratic, just country.

She looked online for how to use an anti-tank weapon after Britain sent them to Ukraine last week. According to her, ‘There is no reason to run.’ “If we run the war will follow. We must stop the enemy from running and end this war.”

Polyakova claims that many people in Kharkiv feel exactly the same. We don’t know if Polyakova is correct, or what Putin has in mind.

Local politician Abramychev believes that only 10% of the population might rebel against Russian invaders.

Artem Litovchenko, Karazin Kharkiv University sociologist, thinks any resistance will be small given the region’s tradition sympathies. According to him, if it occurs, most people will wait for the end.

Another man – a fan of nationalistic Russian hip-hop music – insisted talk of war is over-hyped. I was told by him that their troubles were caused by the hopeless politicians of Kiev, who are responsible for their economic woes as their living costs rise and Ukraine’s currency drops.

It seems that people have grown more hostile to Russia over the eight years. Last month’s poll suggested that nearly 25% of the population in the area, who were once sympathetic to Russia, might be open to arms against an invader.

Serafim Sabonsky, 28, is a Bar Manager from Kharkiv. Although he has Russian-Ukrainian ancestry, he does not doubt his Ukrainian heritage. “I consider myself Ukrainian. That is where I belong.”

Two of his neighbours were killed during the conflict. Their bodies have been buried at the local cemetery. He said that he wanted to lead a boring, European lifestyle, without people pointing guns at him and telling what to do. Sabaronsky showed the backpack that he had made to help him live off grid when he joined an insurgency. The backpack contains a knife, a sharp knife, sandbag, torch, wet-weather matches, and a sleeping bag.

Other people accept that they may soon have to leave their home.

“I don’t have good eyesight and no combat qualifications. Also, I’ve never owned a gun, so I worry I would make a perfect cannon fodder,” a musician said.

In the midst of intense conversations about the future, a Donbas refugee shared her strategies for survival, including how to store key documents online and pack medicines.

She wrote, “If you have a child small, place a note with your number in it.”

What sad advice for residents of this city famed for its culture and stunning architecture – living again under the disturbing shadow of war and wondering if they might soon be fighting, fleeing for their lives or forced into Putin’s cruel dictatorship.

  • Kate Baklitskaya provides additional reporting