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Ukrainian women prepare to mobilize in case Russia invades

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The French and Ukrainian presidents are meeting in Kyiv today hoping to defuse tensions raised by Russia's troop build-up on Ukraine's border. But Ukrainians are not convinced that Russia will be deterred - for instance, a group of women in Ukraine who are in training to defend themselves in case a ground assault comes. My co-host A got to see what they're learning in Kyiv.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

I'm at a postgraduate education center just a few miles outside of the city center of Kyiv - about 200 women filling an auditorium, learning about combat training, learning about how to defend themselves and learning about what they might need to do in case something happens with Russia possibly coming over the border. We're going to find out what these women are here for and why they decided to take this course.

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

MARTINEZ: It's a packed house. Nearly all the chairs are full, and everyone is here to see an older man with white hair wearing fatigues demonstrate defensive moves. The mood is light - lots of laughter. The instructor seems to add his sense of humor to the training.

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

MARTINEZ: One example - how to hit an attacker from behind if you're sitting in a chair, aiming for your attacker's Adam's apple. Then the instructor demonstrates slapping, and all the women join in from their seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAPPING)

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

MARTINEZ: A young woman named Olessa was sitting in the front row, taking it all in.

OLESSA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She's 29 years old. She has a big family - two sisters and a daughter. And her husband is more kind of a pro-Russian because he watches Russian TV propaganda. And her motivation is to protect her family and that she has to know what to do in the event of invasion.

MARTINEZ: Olessa also told us she's currently divorcing her pro-Russian husband. Russian influence is everywhere here, especially in the media Ukrainians consume. And that is what compelled 64-year-old Tatiana to take the self-defense training.

TATIANA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When I was watching Russian TV during Maidan revolution in Ukraine, I saw how they were lying all the time. And I was screaming to the TV that you are lying. It's all nonsense. And that's how they do, like, since then. So she believes that anything can happen because of this propaganda. She doesn't trust Russia at all.

MARTINEZ: Another woman we spoke to, 50-year-old Olena, is a grandmother of two.

OLENA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She came here because she needs to learn what to do in case of emergency. She has a lot of active friends who are also very eager to participate, but they are working. So she came here to share knowledge with them.

MARTINEZ: So, Leila, women here are not afraid of having to physically protect themselves. In fact, NPR's Joanna Kakissis met a young Russian woman who fought with Ukrainians in 2014 and is now a reservist in the army.

YULIA TOLOPA: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Yulia Tolopa sits at her cozy kitchen table and lays out the many medals for bravery she has earned fighting in Eastern Ukraine.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) I got this one from the Ukrainian National Assembly. I received this because I was injured on the front lines, and this one was awarded to foreigners who came to defend the Ukrainian people.

KAKISSIS: That this baby-faced 26-year-old became one of those defenders is surprising when you consider her story. Tolopa was born and raised in Russia. Growing up in Russia's Southwest, she spent much of her childhood around hardcore Russian nationalists.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) They taught us how to fight, how to use weapons. It was militaristic. Our school used to always send groups of students to competitions in shooting and grenades throwing.

KAKISSIS: She excelled at these competitions and at mixed martial arts, or cage fighting. She had a difficult family life, and the Russian nationalists training her became her mentors. These guys used to talk about Ukrainians as their Slavic brothers until a pro-Europe revolution began in Ukraine in 2014.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) They started with all this propaganda about Russians being killed there, and you aren't allowed to speak Russian there at all. And if you come and say just one word in Russian, they'll kill you, hang you. And I was like, how come? We all been told that we were all brothers - Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians.

KAKISSIS: In the spring of 2014, when Tolopa was 18, she decided to go see for herself and took a train to Kyiv. There, she found a totally different story.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) It was important for me to see for myself, and I saw the lies that Russia was putting out. They wanted to grab a chunk of this country. That's not how you treat your brothers.

KAKISSIS: She befriended Ukrainians and soon joined volunteers fighting on the front line. She met a few dozen other Russians there also fighting for Ukraine. And she met Ukrainian soldiers, like Valery Vlasov (ph), who's now 40. He says he was shocked when he first saw her.

VALERY VLASOV: (Through interpreter) I thought, oh, my God, what is this child doing here? But soon I realized she was a fighter. She was brave. So what if she's Russian? She has done more for Ukraine than some Ukrainians.

KAKISSIS: Tolopa bonded with Vlasov and other Ukrainian soldiers. She calls them her brothers.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) When I came here and saw how Russia grabbed Crimea, for me, as a person who was born there, who is a citizen of the Russian Federation, I wanted to stay here and show people that not all Russians are like that.

KAKISSIS: On the other side of the front line, however, were the Russian nationalists she grew up with, including her ex-boyfriend.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) He used to tell me, I'll find you. I'll take you away. I promised your mother I'll bring you back. And I was like, are you nuts? How do you imagine doing this? I'm sorry, but you are on that side, killing people, killing Ukrainians.

KAKISSIS: She told him, if I see you in front of me, I will shoot you.

TOLOPA: (Through interpreter) My mother called me a traitor. My uncle told me he would force me to walk around Russia naked as punishment.

KAKISSIS: Tolopa is now a Ukrainian citizen and a hero in her adopted country...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STASIK: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: ...Even appearing in a patriotic video by the Ukrainian singer Stasik. She's also a single mother to a 6-year-old daughter.

MIRA TOLOPA: (Non-English language spoken) Mira Tolopa (ph). OK.

KAKISSIS: Mira greets us wearing a checkered shirt and a tutu. She's cooing at her very friendly pet rat.

MIRA: (Non-English language spoken). She, every time, say, I'm cute. I'm cute. See?

KAKISSIS: (Laughter).

Mira knows something is going on in Kyiv. She's heard kids at school saying the Russians are mad. I ask her if she's scared.

MIRA: No, I don't scared. I not even scared of spider.

KAKISSIS: Mira's heard the name Vladimir Putin and wonders, is he a spider? But she is sad when she looks at her mom's fatigues hanging on a coat rack.

You don't want her to go.

MIRA: No, I don't. No.

KAKISSIS: You don't. Yeah.

Tolopa winces as Mira talks. If war breaks out, she would be torn between staying with her daughter and serving her adopted country. But for now, like the rest of Ukraine, she's just waiting and watching to see what will happen.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNK FICTION'S "AQUATIC AMBIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.