Molotov Cocktails for Freedom: Ukrainians Behind the Front Lines Join the War Against Russia

With Kyiv's encouragement, citizens from across Ukraine are mobilizing to prepare ammunition and transport it to the front. Their goal? 'Destroy Russia's political system'

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Preparation of Molotov cocktails in Lviv, on Monday. Relative normalcy in the city allows for the preparation of improvised weapons on a large scale.
Preparation of Molotov cocktails in Lviv, on Monday. Relative normalcy in the city allows for the preparation of improvised weapons on a large scale.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yarden Michaeli
Tomer Appelbaum
Lviv, Ukraine
Yarden Michaeli
Tomer Appelbaum
Lviv, Ukraine

LVIV – Igor met us on the outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine, in an area we can't name. He is a motorcycle enthusiast and can usually be found wearing a leather jacket and riding his Honda CB500 bike. Today, though, he arrived in a car. Snow was falling and the roads were too slippery for a two-wheeler.

Before starting to talk, Igor puts visitors through a security check. He and his girlfriend Liza inspect and take pictures of the documents belonging to the arriving foreigners. We are asked to turn off automatic location-finding on our phones. As for photography and anything related to documentation, it's made immediately clear: Absolutely no way. It is forbidden to show the entry door, or in fact the building at all.

The building is an old industrial structure, made to support the civilian effort behind the front lines against Russian forces. This is also the reason for the secrecy – a workshop for making Molotov cocktails operates inside the building. “It’s very simple,” says Igor, 28, a Ukrainian with golden hair. “You need gas, glass bottles, a little bit of fabric that can be burned easily and engine oil.” All of these are relatively available components. “We also use a bit of chemicals and plastic to raise the temperature of the fire,” he adds. In practice, the plastic is polystyrene pellets, such as those used in packing, which also helps the incendiary material stick to the target.

This place is one of thousands of similar places throughout Ukraine: a small factory for manufacturing firebombs

Igor, a Ukrainian citizen

Preparation of Molotov cocktails in Lviv, on Monday. According to Igor, 2,500 bottles have been sent to the front so far.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A great deal of attention has been directed over the past few days to Ukrainian efforts on the battlefield. Its soldiers are trying to repulse the invading forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin on several fronts. In some places they are doing better, and in others worse, such as in Kharkiv in the northeast – which on Monday suffered from heavy bombing and many reports of loss of life there. But the war effort isn't just made up of those soldiers rushing to the front lines – behind them on the home front are civilians, who may not have military training but who possess a great deal of determination to fight for their country.

The authorities are encouraging this. Ukrainian television is broadcasting instructions on how to make firebombs, while the country's leaders call for residents to oppose the Russian invasion. On television, they are even showing graphic illustrations describing exactly how to close the Molotov cocktail bottles with the fabric, and the Ukrainian defense ministry is calling for civilians “to prepare firebombs and bring down the occupiers.” On TikTok there are only social media influencers, and Twitter is mostly arguments – but on Instagram, at least the accounts belonging to the Ukrainian police – there are recipes for preparing Molotov cocktails.

“This place is one of thousands of similar places throughout Ukraine: a small factory for manufacturing firebombs,” explained Igor. That it's still possible to continue with routine life, to an extent, allows for the widescale preparation of improvised weapons. This is not the case in the capital of Kyiv, where residents are terrified by the idea that Putin is about to intensify the bombing of the city.

Inside the building, Igor and his friends present the results of their efforts over the past few days. “So far we have sent 2,500 bottles to the front,” he said. “This number comes from the three workshops we have for preparing firebombs.” At the start of the fighting they ran into problems sending the bottles to the east, though these were soon solved. “We have good logistics and we help each other. Not just in Lviv. But I can’t talk about how it happens exactly.”

To make sure that the bottles do not start burning as they're transported, the team does not mix all the elements completely – instead sending every crate of bottles with a container of engine oil. The oil is added near to where they plan on using the firebombs, and the added oil is what makes them so dangerous to handle. At one point, the police appear suddenly and request ID documents – those of the press, of course – because the manufacturing of the firebombs is coordinated with the authorities.

That it's still possible to continue with routine life in Lviv allows for the widescale preparation of improvised weapons. This is not the case in the capital Kyiv, where residents are terrified by the idea that Putin is about to intensify the bombing of the city

In addition to making the firebombs, the Ukrainian home front is also busy making tank obstacles – iron beams welded together in the form of large X’s to stop Russian tanks. These can be seen around the city.

“The tank climbs up on the barrier and gets stuck, and then the firebombs become useful,” explains Oleg, a friend of Igor. The bottles are used to destroy the tank engines, many of which have special openings for the cooling system. “When the bottle penetrates the system and destroys it, the tank’s engine stops. And then the police, soldiers and snipers enter the action.”

'The West calls it "aggression," but it’s war'

Six days after the start of the invasion, the Russian forces on the ground are facing greater opposition than expected. At the same time, the first round of talks between the Russians and Ukrainians ended on Monday without any achievements, except that the two sides will continue to talk. “I think that there could be peace, but not an open border,” said Igor. “Not economic cooperation either, not working together on the national level, with Russia or with Belarus. It’s a matter of trust. We simply can’t trust them.”

Every once in a while, the group takes a short smoke break outside the building. During this moment of distraction, one of them almost lights up a cigarette inside – but then hears the warnings not to set all of us on fire.

“I was born after Ukraine became free, and it’s important that it stays this way. I want my children to live in a free country, where everyone lives in peace with each other,” said Igor. The last eight years were especially hard for Ukraine as for all concerning the Russian front. It included the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the fighting in the separatist regions in the east of the country. “It’s war. The West calls it ‘aggression,’ but it’s war, plain and simple.”

What do you think the solution is?

“To destroy their political system. Not to destroy them physically, but to ruin the political system.”

After a few moments, he provides some details: “If Ukraine cannot remain in a strong position, after us the next countries are Poland, Latvia, Slovenia. We are the largest country in Europe, but our territory is very small compared to Russia. We have power, we are strong and we are trying to fight. But if Europe will not be with us, it will be the next in line.”

I was born after Ukraine became free, and it’s important that it stays this way. I want my children to live in a free country, where everyone lives in peace with each other

Igor, a Ukrainian citizen

At one point, someone says she has relatives in Russia, who offered to evacuate her to Russia so she could escape the “Ukrainian aggression,” in their words, against the residents of Ukraine who are of Russian origin. Such things reflect Putin’s baseless claims that Ukraine is committing genocide in the eastern parts of the country. “We call them zombies,” Oleg said about those under the influence of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign.

Later, Oleg proudly shows pictures from other workshops the group is operating in Lviv. Participants can be seen preparing metal barricades against cars, ready to be spread out on the roads. Oleg also shows us the Telegram groups that serve Ukrainians to coordinate cyberattacks against selected Russian websites. It's difficult to tell how beneficial these activities are, but according to Oleg, he and his friends make sure to attack as much as they can.

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