Accessibility links

Breaking News

With Russian Guns Massed Near The Border, Ukrainians Ponder Private Firearm Ownership


Ukrainian servicemen train civilian defense volunteers in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. (file photo)
Ukrainian servicemen train civilian defense volunteers in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. (file photo)

KYIV -- A pizza place in Ukraine’s capital held an unusual promotion earlier this month: Buy a gun, get a free pie.

Get a free medium or large pizza pie, that is -- eat-in only -- if you can show you purchased a firearm or received a gun permit in January.

The three-day offer was available at a central Kyiv franchise of nationwide chain Pizza Veterano -- a name that reflects the fact that the chain's owner, Leonid Ostaltsev, is a veteran of the nearly eight-year war against Kremlin-backed separatists in the eastern region known as the Donbas.

The promotion, Ostaltsev said, was a gesture of gratitude to Ukrainians who have bought or registered guns at a tense time when Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near its border with their country, igniting fears that Moscow could launch a major new offensive.

It also played into a growing discussion of gun ownership -- stoked by civilian training programs, the creation of regional defense units that would seek to defend the country against a large-scale attack, and other preparations taking place in the shadow of Moscow’s military buildup.

"I want to thank those citizens who, sensing the danger of the unpredictable movements of [Russia], make the right decisions and become owners of firearms," Ostaltsev wrote on Facebook, using an expletive to describe Ukraine's much larger neighbor.

Ostaltsev's message ended with a caveat: "And don't forget the important thing! Without proper training, weapons are just a lot of metal and plastic -- so go and train."

War came abruptly to Ukraine in April 2014, after the massive Euromaidan protests pushed a Moscow-friendly president from power and Russia responded by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and fomenting separatism across the east and south. The conflict in the Donbas has killed more than 13,200 people, displaced more than 1 million others, and affected the country and its people in many ways.

Now, the prospect of a new and possibly much wider invasion has put the issue of gun ownership in the spotlight.

'We Can't Rely On The State'

On December 29, 2021, the government allowed enlistees of each of Ukraine’s 25 newly formed Territorial Defense Units -- one for each province, roughly -- to use their own hunting weapons when joining.

Yaroslav Yemelyanenko, head of the Chernobyl Tour Operators Association, possesses five firearms -- with varying ranges and purposes -- and the view that “we can’t rely on the state to protect us.”

For Yemelyanenko, that became clear during the Maidan movement, when large crowds of people took to the streets in the autumn of 2013 to protest official corruption and President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon plans for closer ties with the European Union.

Yaroslav Yemelyanenko with two of his rifles.
Yaroslav Yemelyanenko with two of his rifles.

"When the Maidan started, there were many cases when the police ceased to function as a police force and did not protect citizens. It was completely unclear whether they would go against us,” he said. “There were also cases when criminal elements intensified.”

Having “survived this stress without weapons,” Yemelyanenko obtained five gun permits shortly after the permitting authorities resumed operations, he said.

Yemelyanenko favors widespread gun ownership, saying that he wants “as many protected people as possible in our country,” but he emphasized that gun owners must have proper training and that their proficiency must be maintained at all times.

When it comes to a possible Russian offensive, the concern that the state may not provide adequate security is widely held, opinion polls indicate.

A nationwide survey conducted by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center in January found that 56 percent of Ukrainians believe that neither President Volodymyr Zelenskiy nor the authorities more broadly were "making sufficient efforts to prevent a full-scale invasion" or "organizing the country's defense" for that eventuality.

Self-defense instructor Oleksiy Martynenko is another advocate of gun ownership, in part because "law enforcement can only do so much to protect everyone," he said.

In his profession, he sees the growing number of "civilians considering gun ownership as a way of protecting their country," Martynenko added.

Compounding concerns over the possibility of a new Russian invasion, he said, is the fact that "the majority of people [do not know] how to handle a weapon."

Oleksiy Martynenko practices at a shooting range.
Oleksiy Martynenko practices at a shooting range.

Martynenko cited the late Jeff Cooper, a former U.S. Marine and small-arms expert, as saying that "owning a gun doesn't make you armed any more than owning a piano makes you a musician."

For some in Ukraine, the dangers of gun ownership outweigh the potential benefits, at least for those who are not properly trained.

Tetyana, an instructor in tactical medicine and first aid, sold her hunting rifle last year after being convinced it wouldn't be effective in combat.

Most hunting rifles "are for short distances...and if a person has no experience in close-range or far-range shooting and never shot at a person before, then the weapon is more likely to put [the shooter] in a coffin," she said.

'This Is Our Land'

Tetyana told RFE/RL's Donbas.Realities that she was not opposed to civilians owning guns but that they must be kept in safe hands.

There are nearly 1.5 million firearms in circulation in the nation of 44 million, according to the Interior Ministry. About 70,000 are sold each year, the Ukrainian Arms Owners Association told the online publication New Voice of Ukraine this month, and it takes an average of one month to obtain a gun permit.

Vyacheslav Zhuravlyov, a former lieutenant colonel in the state Security Service's anti-terrorist unit, is another advocate of responsible gun ownership, saying that "there should be professionals to train how to properly handle weapons and everything else will be OK."

In the event of a major Russian offensive, the prospects would be grim.

And Oleksiy Byk, who earlier fought in a volunteer battalion in the Donbas war and is now a member of the National Corps, a far-right political organization that a 2018 U.S. State Department report labeled a "nationalist hate group," said that the proliferation of illegal weapons is also a serious problem. But he believes that, compared to 2014, Ukraine is much better prepared for a potential escalation in Russia's aggression.

"We've learned our lessons. Veterans have legal firearms and are undergoing training," he said. "We won't flee. We have nowhere to run. This is our land, and we will protect it."

Written by Mark Raczkiewycz based on reporting by Darya Kurennaya
  • 16x9 Image

    Darya Kurennaya

    Darya Kurennaya is a correspondent for Donbas.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. She graduated from Vasyl Stus Donetsk National University and started her career in journalism in 2004. She worked for local media in Donetsk until 2014 and joined RFE/RL as a freelance contributor in 2016.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.