Ukraine’s Volunteer Militias May Have Saved the Country, But Now They Threaten It
Earlier this year, armed protesters used violence and threats to force Ukraine’s government into a substantial policy reversal: a ban on anthracite coal imports from separatist-controlled territory, crucial to the country’s electricity supply. The protesters were representatives of “volunteer battalions” (or pro-state militias), broadly credited with helping Ukraine survive the early days of its continuing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the East. This incident, and others like it, illustrate how the continued cohesiveness, weapons access, and politicization of these groups threatens Ukraine’s democracy and stability.
When the volunteer battalions (although not all are technically battalions, we will use this terminology as shorthand) first appeared in 2014, their assistance was welcome and necessary, albeit controversial. Although seen as patriots by many, critics deemed these groups undisciplined, politically extremist, and insufficiently controlled by Ukrainian authorities. Some were credibly linked to human rights violations and neo-Nazi sympathies.
One recent account suggests that those problems have disappeared and today the heroic narrative appears triumphant in Ukraine and beyond. It holds that the volunteer battalions rose to their country’s defense in a time of need, and members have now either stepped back into their civilian lives or joined the state’s formal security sector as Ukraine’s military forces became more robust. Almost all of these units are now under state command, subordinate to the National Guard or other security forces.
The reality is more complicated. In fact, several of these formations continue to function as relatively autonomous and politicized units inside state security forces, with separate recruitment and command structures. Moreover, volunteer battalion veterans, even after official demobilization, retain easy access to weapons, and many remain loyal to their old commanders and financial patrons.
This raises serious concerns about Ukraine’s future, which both Kyiv and its supporters ignore at their peril. This is not to argue that Ukraine is in imminent danger of armed conflict among patriotic groups, or that the vast majority of volunteer or former volunteer units currently challenge the state. But if the Ukrainian government does not take steps now to cement its monopoly over armed violence, the risks will grow. Already, these groups are linked to several violent political actions. As we detail below, some prominent political actors in Ukraine, including members of parliament, are today leveraging what amounts to small private armies in order to further their agendas and withstand pressure from the state.
Left unchecked, at least some of these private militias have both the resources and the will to engage not merely in organized crime, but in warlord politics. As we have seen around the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans, such groups can steal or control elections and the distribution of state resources, engage in internecine street warfare, and dictate Ukraine’s foreign policy choices. Obviously, this would leave Ukraine unstable and plagued with organized private violence. But with Ukraine increasingly linked to the rest of Europe (it now enjoys visa-free travel to the European Union), instability there would also threaten the financial health and border and crime control efforts of the continent as a whole. Even European military security could be at risk, for instance if Kyiv’s weakness sparked further Russian intervention.
How Did This Happen?
Ukraine’s security forces proved inadequate in the early days of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists. The manpower, training, and equipment of the Ukrainian Army were undermined by years of failed reforms, corruption, and neglect. Meanwhile some local police forces failed to stand up to separatists and were not fully trusted. Even as the Defense Ministry revived Soviet-era mobilization rolls to call up and train those with prior military experience, volunteer battalions took up arms to assist the state. These units varied greatly in their origin and ideologies. Some were created with the cooperation of local authorities, but others were founded independently by large business oligarchs.
These groups were a success story of citizen mobilization and organization, and many Ukrainians credit them with saving their country. And Kyiv did recognize at least some of the dangers of relying on groups that were armed and highly independent, taking steps to ensure that the volunteer units were coordinating with the Defense and Internal Affairs Ministries (the latter is responsible for Ukrainian police forces). The volunteer forces were integrated within command and control chains, amidst questions about their true subordination. Some were legally incorporated under state ministries from the start, or soon thereafter. Yet Ukraine’s government was in such dire straits that it had difficulty financing and supplying even its regular forces. Thus, it welcomed the support the volunteers received from business leaders and the population as a whole. Kyiv gradually took responsibility for payment and other administrative functions for many of the units. The three dozen or so such groups that had originally existed began to disappear. Yet some remained.
Today the only groups of this sort that are not legally subordinated to government bodies are those linked to Right Sector (Pravy Sektor), known for ultra-rightwing symbolism and rhetoric. Right Sector and other battalions affiliated with founder Dmytro Yarosh (who officially withdrew from Right Sector itself in 2016) continue to fight on behalf of Ukraine in the East. But in July 2015 they also engaged in an armed battle in the West, in the town of Mukacheve near the Hungarian border, against Ukrainian military and police forces in a dispute over cigarette smuggling routes. Right Sector later continued the fight by setting up a roadblock outside Kyiv to demand the ouster of Ukraine’s Interior Minister — and its members have also regularly threatened Ukraine’s LGBTQ communities. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko demanded that Right Sector disarm after the 2015 confrontation. But as of mid-2017 they continue to coordinate with Ukrainian security forces, ostensibly while pursuing formal integration.
Meanwhile other groups’ legal subordination masks their substantial autonomy and political activism. Our incomplete inventory includes the Azov Battalion, also associated with rightwing ideology. It has been state-affiliated since 2014, and is currently a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard. It also retains an active political arm and its commander and founder, Andriy Biletsky, is a member of parliament. The Azov website advises new candidates to join the Guard and then request a transfer to Azov. The Azov battalion was recently featured in a laudatory article in the Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper widely read by expat and diaspora communities.
The founder and commander-in-chief of another battalion, Yuri Bereza of the locally based Dnipro-1 (now a police unit), is also a member of parliament. The Dnipro-1 website actively recruits new members via a telephone number. The Aidar Battalion, accused of war crimes by Amnesty International, is now the 24th Assault Battalion of Ukraine’s Armed Forces — even as its former leader (and member of parliament) Sergei Melnichuk faces criminal charges. And the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which takes its name from a 20th-century organization accused of anti-Semitism, has partially integrated as a subunit of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Armed Forces, under the leadership of Andriy Pastusheno, the OUN’s deputy commander. The OUN, too, maintains a web and social media presence for fundraising and political activism. The Donbas Battalion, now formally under the National Guard, maintains a similar online and social media fundraising presence. Its founder, Semen Semenchenko, is also a member of parliament, although in June some members of the Donbas battalion broke with him amid accusations of criminality.
Aidar was at its inception openly funded by billionaire oligarch and former Dnipro region governor Ihor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky is also rumored to have funded the Donbas and Dnipro-1 battalions. He currently heads the Ukrainian Association of Patriots, a nationalist party that holds two parliamentary seats, even as he holds triple citizenship with Cyprus and Israel and faces constant accusations of tax evasion and corruption.
The Pros and Cons
The Ukrainian government has an understandable desire to maintain good relations with the volunteer battalions’ powerful patrons and leaders, especially since several are now popular legislators. Ukraine also has reason to be grateful to volunteer fighters, causing those who might otherwise have doubts to excuse their unsavory politicization. Ironically, volunteer veterans have had to undertake legal battles to receive medical treatment and other support from the state, while continuing to rely on battalion organizations for help.
Yet the dangers these units present are real. While far right parties as a whole have not gleaned broad electoral support, the election of prominent rightwing militia commanders has raised the influence of such ideologies in Ukraine’s parliament. Moreover, some former commanders have made violent threats against the current leadership. Their capacity to command armed militias lends ominous weight to what might otherwise be seen as parliamentary bluster.
Let’s return to the example from the start of this essay: Veterans of the Donbas and Aidar Battalions disrupted Ukraine’s political process in January 2017. Under Semenchenko’s leadership, they launched an unauthorized train blockade of anthracite coal coming in from the breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk (known as the Donbas region). Ukraine depends on anthracite coal (geographically much rarer, and also cleaner-burning and more efficient than bituminous coal) for 50 percent of its electricity generation, and the state had been making deals with pro-Russian separatists to continue to buy it from Donbas mines. The blockade was initially condemned by President Poroshenko and his advisers. They feared it would threaten Ukraine’s already shaky financial situation by raising unemployment and requiring expensive imports from distant lands like South Africa or the United States. Moreover, cutting these ties would make the eventual reintegration of the Donbas region back into Ukraine that much harder. In February, the government was forced to declare an energy emergency due to a coal supply gap that the blockade aggravated. Meanwhile, pro-Russian militants reacted to the blockade by seizing steel and other factories owned by pro-Kyiv oligarchs in the Donbas.
On March 13 the Ukrainian authorities decided they had had enough and stormed blockade checkpoints, arresting 43 activists who refused to disarm. Yet those activists were released the next day after their supporters occupied administrative buildings in four Ukrainian regions overnight, and blocked the logistics terminal of one of Poroshenko’s own Roshen candy factories in the town of Yagotyn. Poroshenko then turned on a dime and on March 15 made the blockade official, issuing a “temporary freeze” on all rail and road cargo from the Donbas until pro-Russian militants returned seized factories to their rightful owners. While Poroshenko did this at least in part because the blockade had become popular among Ukrainian citizens who practiced peaceful civil disobedience in response to the arrests, this chronology makes clear that it was illegal armed force that directed policy: The original blockade was carried out by militia affiliates using unauthorized force — not by peaceful protesters. In June, Semenchenko called for Ukraine to end coal imports from Russia as well, threatening more blockades if the government did not act. Meanwhile Ukraine has begun importing anthracite coal from the faraway U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Donbas and Aidar patron Kolomoisky is widely believed to be the biggest funder of the coal blockades, although this is impossible to prove. Kolomoisky has a long history of employing private forces to resolve business disputes, and in 2015 a group of armed men under his command (linked to Dnipro-1) occupied the Kyiv headquarters of the UkrTransNaft oil company in a fight for control with Poroshenko’s government. That 2015 dispute appeared to be resolved with a deal, ensuring that Kolomoisky’s finances would not be subject to investigation, while removing him from both his governorship and leadership in UkrTransNaft. The coal blockade seems to be an escalation of using armed resistance to make deals with the government in Kyiv, now extending beyond commercial disputes to include foreign policy decisions,
An even more direct example of violent political action occurred in the Kyiv municipal government on June 1. Veterans associated with Azov and other volunteer battalions burst into City Hall in camouflage, demanding the same pensions and other benefits that regular state veterans receive. They scuffled with City Hall security forces and forced a vote that awarded them benefits.
Next Steps: Learning from History
Ukraine is not the first country to have developed pro-state militias, intentionally or otherwise. Great powers from imperial Great Britain to Russia and the United States have often found themselves bargaining with warlords to manage difficult security situations, exchanging favors for loyalty. But the problems this has engendered are legion.
What history shows is that militias not under strong state control are dangerous. They may serve an important purpose in the near term, but they can undermine unity, impede democratic development, violate human rights, and even become so strong that they are untouchable if they are allowed to endure. Examples can be found in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Liberia, and even the United States. Ukraine should not make the mistake of thinking it will be the exception.
What lessons can Ukraine and its U.S. and other Western partners take from history to further stability and peace in the face of militia actions?
First, Kyiv should cease negotiations with Right Sector and declare its armed forces illegal, prosecuting those who continue to fight under its banner while allowing qualified former members to enroll in the National Guard and other state security organs as individuals. The U.S. and other Western governments who provide security assistance to Ukraine try to weed out human rights violators from their training programs (even if that vetting is not always successful); the Ukrainian government should follow their example. Vetting of former militia personnel who seek to join state security forces must eliminate both those who have practiced and those who continue to espouse violence against civilians.
Second, other battalions that are already formally integrated into the security services should be held to strict standards of depoliticization. Formal ties to political parties should be prohibited, and the government should show some spine and truly prosecute groups of armed veterans who take political action. Members of Parliament and government officials should meanwhile be precluded both from command roles and from serving in the armed forces as anything other than reservists, throwing off their political mantles for the duration of their service.
Third, international experience in cases ranging from Sierra Leone to Colombia shows that the thick neighborhood network connections that bind locally recruited militias together lead them to flourish (for example, as organized crime groups) long after war has ended. One useful way to overcome this is to provide state assistance and training to former fighters, so they are less economically dependent on their former comrades. Ukraine should ensure that all police and military units and their veterans depend solely on an adequate state budget for weapons, training, income, and benefits—not on voluntary contributions. The United States and Canada could help through tax and other laws that encourage pro-Kyiv groups located abroad to make their donations to a fund controlled by the Ukrainian state — not militia veterans’ groups. Article 22 of the 2014 law establishing the National Guard of Ukraine allows unspecified “other sources” of financing outside the state budget. But while it may make sense to continue to rely on such funds in some cases, Ukraine’s government should regulate how donations from Ukrainian businesspeople, the foreign diaspora, and ordinary citizens can be used, in order to break chains of external dependency and loyalty.
This means, too, that the Ukrainian state should provide civilian training and geographically dispersed housing and job opportunities to battalion veterans (including those from Right Sector), to further sever the financial dependence and bonds of obligation they might otherwise feel to former commanders, donors, and battlefield comrades. Otherwise, the natural tendency, especially for locally recruited armed groups, will be to demobilize in name only while remaining ready to follow the lead of neighborhood commanders if called. In other words, the Kyiv City Council decision to give voluntary battalion veterans state-mandated benefits was the right one to take, even if the method of getting there was less than desirable.
Fourth, it is crucial that the state gain high quality intelligence about the business interests and other incentive structures that tie militias together, because this can help drive their members into the arms of the government. For example, in Georgia in the mid-2000s, Georgian officials used deep personal connections to gain local trust and hence information that enabled the state to reestablish control over two areas of the country that had been dominated by warlords, Ajara and Upper Kodori. In this way, Tbilisi turned the militias and followers of the warlords over to the government’s side. When one-off battles fail to destroy militia loyalty, as has been the case in Ukraine in recent years, long-term monitoring and wooing might be a next-best alternative. Paradoxically, Ukrainian authorities should not be too quick to prosecute powerful oligarchs in its anti-corruption drive if a slower approach would allow Kyiv to gain additional intelligence and convert more volunteer veterans to the side of the state.
Fifth, both Ukraine and its Western supporters must ensure that justified respect for the contributions of the volunteer battalions does not translate into tolerance of extremist violence. Neither Kyiv nor Washington should turn a blind eye to far right extremist activity, even when it involves Ukrainian government officials.
Finally, Kyiv’s Western partners must take this problem seriously. This means providing assistance to Kyiv, as relevant, in implementing the recommendations above, and holding it accountable for progress. Continued security assistance, especially, should be at least partly conditional on ensuring that the volunteers who did so much to save Ukraine do not emerge as threats to its security.
Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and directs the Program on US-Russia Relations at Columbia’s Harriman Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @KimberlyMarten. Olga Oliker is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program and a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @OlyaOliker.
The authors are grateful to several colleagues who helped direct them to useful sources of information. Specifically, we want to thank Glen Grant, Phil Jones, Leonid Polyakov, Jill Rough, Lessia Vassylenko, and Mykola Vorobiov. None are to be blamed for any errors in this essay, and they may or may not agree with our conclusions.