Ukraine Needs to Address Its Paramilitary Problem

Kiev. Ukraine on January 27, 2014. Conquest of the Ministry of Justice. Flickr / Sasha Maksymenko

Volunteer battalions represent a legitimacy dilemma for the Ukrainian government.

Since the conclusion of Maidan, politically motivated private security actors operating in parallel with the Ukrainian government have played an integral part in the country’s security landscape. While some have been cooperating with Ukrainian authorities, others experience great friction with the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and Ministry of Interior Affairs (MIA), undermining the formal security structures of the Ukrainian government. It seems that political and military power have become inseparable at the unit level, with many battalion commanders also being career politicians or parliamentary members.

The term “volunteer battalion” is common vernacular in the context of post-Maidan Ukraine. While the term may seem straightforward to anyone with a basic familiarity of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it encompasses a wide range of units active and inactive in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone today. Effectively, these units can be viewed along an axis of patronage, with those relying on the government as the primary patron representing the formal units, and those that rely on civil society representing the independent units.

Frictions with the government and lasting connections to political entities—a result of a haphazard, and in some instances nonexistent, reorganization effort—raise questions about the allegiances of these units. If unchecked, some of these units will erode the legitimacy of the Ukrainian security institutions.

A persistent issue facing Kyiv originates in its own complacency, and to some degree the ambivalence of the Ukrainian people towards security institutions. Since the beginning of the conflict in the Donbas, far-right nationalist militias operating completely independently from the government have been a recurring theme, and while many have demobilized, integrated into the formal security structure or entirely disbanded, some still persist. The two largest groups that represent this phenomenon are the Pravy Sektor Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (DUK) and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA) militias. While both share a common history, they have come to diverge in how they interact with the government.

In late March 2015, well after illegal groups were issued a general stand-down-and-disarm order, Pravy Sektor was ordered to leave the coastal frontline city of Mariupol and the ATO area. Pravy Sektor, which believed themselves to have an agreement with the Ministry of Defense regarding their presence in the ATO zone, considered the order treacherous. Months later, Pravy Sektor ended up in a shootout with Ukrainian authorities after an extensive standoff. After the standoff between DUK and police in late 2015, People’s Deputy and former leader of Pravy Sektor Dmitro Yarosh resigned from Pravy Sektor. He took the fifth and eighth DUK battalions with him to form the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA) under his own new political party. Shortly after, DUK disbanded virtually its entire structure in order to carry out an extensive reform. It aimed to organize itself on a small amount of active combat units, with a large reserve force built around the sotni structure.

Units of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army under Dmitro Yarosh and his political party Diya (Action) enjoy an improved relationship with the Ukrainian government compared to DUK. The UDA’s two combat battalions and single medical battalion are funded through citizen initiatives, supplying them with everything a light infantry battalion could need. These initiatives are funded by private donations of material support or financial deposits. The UDA has an exceptionally good relationship with official Ukrainian units compared to other independent volunteer units, and will in some cases even invite UAF units onto their bases to conduct joint drills.

Equally interesting is the case of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and their volunteer battalions. After a prolonged standoff with the UAF’s 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade in the frontline town of Pisky in 2015, the OUN agreed to relinquish its command of part of its battalion and let it integrate with the formal Ukrainian security structure under the Ministry of Defense. This specific brigade has come to be the destination for a number of other formerly independent volunteer units, such as the Carpathian Sich, a unit with deep connections to the political party Svoboda (freedom). Still, the unit maintains its relationship with the OUN, which is one of the oldest Ukrainian nationalist organizations, and has been ripe with controversy throughout the past century.

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