Ukraine Doesn’t Have a Warlord Problem

Ukraine's volunteer battalions are not undermining the state -- they're saving it.

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One analyst claims that “Eastern Ukraine is awash with weapons and armed militia groups on both sides.” Another speaks darkly of “independently operating warlords and armed groups.” A third writes of “independent and semi-independent battalions, some of which descend from Ukrainian nationalist groups, extreme elements of the Maidan self-defense forces, and criminal groups.”

You’d think Ukraine was on the verge of chaos.

The subjects of these alarmist statements are Ukraine’s volunteer fighting units, which have fought alongside the regular army in the country’s war against pro-Russian separatists. Are they really a threat to Ukraine’s stability and democratic prospects? The answer is no. Although the first deputy speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, Andrii Parubiy, may have gone too far in saying, during a recent visit to New York, that the units are “disciplined Ukrainian warriors about whom films will be made and books will be written,” he was right to suggest that panic is unwarranted.

Some basic facts and numbers, gleaned from Ukrainian- and Russian-language sources inaccessible to many Western journalists, tell a less alarming story. The volunteer units emerged in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Ukraine’s armed struggle against pro-Russian separatists picked up in the spring and summer, and the regular army, neglected since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and starved of resources under the Viktor Yanukovych regime, proved inadequate for the job. Many police officers in Ukraine’s southeastern provinces had either defected to the separatists or refused to take sides. In March and April of 2014, the government adopted a variety of constitutionally grounded measures legalizing the formation of volunteer units under the aegis of both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Most were formed in April and May.

According to a September 2014 report of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine had 44 volunteer battalions subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, 32 subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, three affiliated with the National Guard, and several Ukrainian Volunteer Corps units that were not subordinate to any state agency. Several other sources list slightly different figures. Part of the problem in identifying the exact number of units is that they and their roles often overlap. In addition, being volunteer-based, the units grow and contract depending on circumstances beyond their control.

According to the Kyiv Post and other sources, about half of the volunteer units came from Ukraine’s eastern and southern provinces. That makes sense, as the southeast is where the Russian aggression has taken place. Compared to regular army conscripts, the volunteers (who number just over 10,000 altogether) are far more motivated, idealistic, and willing to place their lives on the line. Many are close to or above middle age, have families and professions, and served in the Soviet army. The commander of the Donbas battalion, for instance, is an ethnic-Russian ex-businessman from Donetsk. Although all the volunteers would characterize themselves as Ukrainian patriots, many are ethnic Russians or Russian speakers. Jews also form a noticeable contingent within some battalions. That said, the volunteer units generally have the same problems as Ukraine’s regular armed forces: a lack of supplies, a lack of training, and a lack of integration into an effective command and control structure.

The leaders of these volunteer battalions are anything but “incipient warlords,” and the units are hardly Ukrainian versions of the Taliban or Colombia’s FARC. Warlords are established local chieftains who attract followers by means of their charisma or resources. The leaders of the Ukrainian battalions are usually just volunteers; sometimes they’re affiliated with small and uninfluential political groupings; and their charisma and resources appear to be minimal. The units have no territorial bases and no independent sources of financing (such as, say, the drug trade that sustained FARC). They fight along various sections of the front, not just in their “home territory.” The volunteers themselves have families and jobs and are only part-time soldiers. And, with one exception, the units are all subordinated to the ministries of internal affairs or defense.

The only remotely justified concern over “incipient warlordism” involves Igor Kolomoisky, the Dnipropetrovsk-based oligarch, who established and funded the Dnipro-1 unit after becoming governor of the province last spring. One critic has suggested that Kolomoisky “commanded their loyalty,” implying that Dnipro-1 had become his private army. And, in fact, on March 23, during Kolomoisky’s tussle with the government over control of two energy companies, some armed men loyal to him did temporarily occupy company offices. As the New York Times reported, however, “the commander of Mr. Kolomoisky’s main paramilitary group, Dnepro-1, denied any involvement.” Next day, Kolomoisky resigned, while Dnipro-1 neither staged a coup nor disbanded out of loyalty to its putative “warlord.”

Of the 79-plus volunteer units identified by the Kyiv Post, only three have attracted significant negative media attention in both Ukraine and the West. They are Aidar, Azov, and Right Sector. The first two have some 500 members, while the third numbers around 250. (The Kyiv Post attributed 120 to one Right Sector unit and had no data for the second one, so I doubled the estimate). That is, only 4 percent of the units and 11 percent of the volunteers have been implicated in controversy. All three of these units draw heavily on Russian-speaking volunteers from eastern Ukraine. Their geographical origin is significant. Like the pro-Russian separatists fighting on the other side of the barricades, pro-Ukrainian volunteers are the products of Donbas political culture, which is illiberal, intolerant, and violent. It would be shocking if they were to have diametrically opposite attitudes from those of the pro-Russian separatists. Furthermore, given that the volunteers are quickly mobilized irregulars with too much motivation and too little training, the most striking thing about them is not the presence of a few bad apples, but the absence of many more.

Critics who say that the units have gone rogue often cite a recent Amnesty International report, “Summary Killings during the Conflict in Eastern Ukraine.” A Newsweek article on the report bore the title “Ukrainian Nationalist Volunteers Committing ‘ISIS-Style’ War Crimes.” In fact, the Amnesty report documents “strong evidence” that four people were executed by pro-Kiev forces, and demands a prompt and impartial investigation into the circumstances of their deaths — while noting that separatist sources and the Russian media have “significantly exaggerated” the scale of the killings. Though there is no excuse for any extrajudicial killing, one to four victims of summary justice are a far cry from “ISIS-style war crimes.”

Only Aidar seems to be a rogue unit or, more accurately, a unit with many rogues. Luhansk province Governor Hennadi Moskal recently said that deserters from the unit are now “involved on looting, thievery, racketeering, automobile thefts, and other crimes,” even though a “significant part” of its troops continue to serve faultlessly on the front lines. Minister of Internal Affairs Avakov has called these elements “pseudo-Aidar” and “Aidar-2.” An Aidar fighter, meanwhile, says that the battalion consists of a subunit — the “black ones,” alleged to be its commander’s private army and consisting of “criminals, fighters, and fighter-criminals.” There have been reports of tensions and fighting between the two Aidars, though whether it’s over power, booty, or principle isn’t clear.

The modifier invariably appended to Azov is “neo-Nazi.” Although the unit’s leader, Andrii Biletsky, belongs to an unabashedly extremist organization, Patriot of Ukraine, he comes across more like a hardline Republican in his interviews with the press: “Our central ideological platform is: fight for what’s yours and destroy everything that interferes in the life of your people and your state. Today our primary enemy is the Putin regime and the band of outcasts who call themselves his ‘family.’” To add to the confusion, Azov has received funds from Igor Kolomoisky, the now deposed governor — who also happens to be a leading Jewish Ukrainian philanthropist. Josef Zissels, the Kyiv-based chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, says that Azov may have 30-40 genuine Nazis.

The Right Sector, which emerged on the political scene during the Maidan Revolution in 2014, is the driving force behind the self-styled Ukrainian Volunteer Corps, which remains outside the defense or internal affairs ministries. In early 2015, the Right Sector turned down an official offer for its volunteer units to go “legal,” as presidential advisor Yuri Biryukov put it, though they did enter into a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Defense. (On March 25, the group was ordered to leave the front or subordinate itself, but as of this writing, it has made no known response.) Notwithstanding their go-it-alone approach, the Right Sector’s volunteer units coordinate their front-line activities with Ukraine’s military command, have fought together with regular army units in defense of Donetsk Airport, and have not been implicated in any major public scandals.

Putin’s propaganda has demonized the group, suggesting that it amounts to a Ukraine-wide movement that is preparing a final assault on Russia. In reality, the Right Sector amounts to no more than a few thousand members. Although its ideology is right-wing, the group rejects anti-Semitism and one of its leading activists is an Orthodox Jew, Borislav Bereza. Its 2014 electoral program was a collection of largely anodyne proposals for better governance and less corruption. Although few Ukrainians — and few Westerners — would disagree with those suggestions, the Right Sector received only 1.8 percent of the vote in the October 2014 parliamentary elections. Its candidate garnered 0.7 percent in the presidential elections in May.

Although the volunteer battalions are part of Ukraine’s military efforts, it may be more appropriate to think of them as part of Ukraine’s burgeoning self-help movement. The Maidan Revolution’s “regulars” — who numbered several thousand permanent activists — were all volunteers. Most of them continued the struggle after Russia invaded Ukraine. Some went into politics; others joined NGOs; and still others took up arms, in the manner of their predecessors in the American and French Revolutions.

Ukraine’s regular and volunteer soldiers are supported by an army of civilian volunteers, who in turn are supported by hundreds of thousands of diaspora Ukrainians, who contribute large sums of money. As of late 2014, the volunteer movement in Ukraine consisted of 750,000 individuals and about 100 groups with no fewer than 100 permanent members. They provide food supplies, medicine, and equipment to the military as well as a whole range of services for the 1.8 million refugees from the Donbas. That number (750,000) amounts to about 2 percent of Ukraine’s actual population of about 40 million. Run-of-the-mill Ukrainians, most of whom live on the verge of poverty, have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for their cause. One volunteer activist estimates that people willing to give large donations on a regular basis amount to 2-3 percent while those who give one-time small donations are 10-15 percent.

Although volunteerism is an intrinsically positive phenomenon reflecting the strength of civil society, it can also be a measure, as in today’s Ukraine, of the weakness of the state. Many tasks — such as economic entrepreneurship, religion, and culture — are best left outside the purview of the state. Others — such as defense and emergency response — are best performed by the state. “The good news is that Ukraine has developed an enormous potential for self-organization,” Denys Kobzyn, the director of the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research has said. “The bad news is that the state’s monopoly of the use of violence … could be destroyed” if the volunteer units get out of hand.

Yuri Butusov, a military analyst and merciless critic of its military establishment, disagrees, questioning the units’ ability to “engage in a revolt.” According to Butusov, “amidst chaos, organized and patriotic volunteer units are the most disciplined foundation of the government.” President Poroshenko’s unwillingness to embrace the volunteer units is “irrational.” “Yes, the battalions are politicized,” he argues, “but they’re no army. So why regard them as if they were a regular army? Let’s arm and train them, and then we’ll give them regular army tasks. Let’s replace their incompetent commanders with competent ones. And then let’s raise our standards toward them.”

Both Kobzyn and Butusov have a point. The emergence of a huge volunteer movement in Ukraine in 2014 was a testimony to both the strength of Ukrainian civil society and the abysmal weakness of the post-Maidan, post-Yanukovych Ukrainian state. That movement — and the armed units within it — played a critical role in sustaining the state in 2014 and continues to play such a role today. It will be a measure of the success of Ukrainian state-building that the volunteer movement — and the armed units — eventually wither away and assume “normal” proportions.

If current state-building, nation-building, and economic-reform efforts proceed apace, and if Ukraine withstands Russian military pressure, the volunteer units will fade into obscurity. If those efforts fail and Russia overruns large parts of Ukraine, the volunteer units will be the least of Ukraine’s problems — or the West’s. In the meantime, talk of warlordism, fascism, and imminent chaos is hyperventilation. The true source of chaos in Ukraine comes from Putin’s armies in the east.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.