What role do civil society groups in the politics of security when it enters an emergency mode? Both theoretical and empirical studies of emergency politics typically focus on the security discourses and actions of political elites, neglecting the perspective of more ‘everyday’ actors. In contrast, this paper explores how emergency politics has operated at the level of Ukrainian civil society against the backdrop of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. I draw on 22 semi-structured interviews with members of civil society groups and a vernacular contextualist approach to investigate how the meanings of ‘emergency’ and ‘security’ are reinterpreted by structurally disempowered actors in local contexts. I find that, on the one hand, the discourses of these groups have reinforced the traditional understanding of emergency as a state of exception characterised by the breaking of rules, the excesses of state power and the suspension of ‘normal’ politics in the name of security. On the other, Ukrainian civil society has embodied an alternative conception of emergency as an extraordinary moment of spontaneous beginnings that activates the collective agency of previously disempowered actors. The paper widens the scholarly understanding of emergency politics in Ukraine and beyond through actor-centred, grounded empirical research that accounts for the participation of non-state actors and the presence of multiple security logics.