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Analysis: Armed Volunteer Battalions: Informal Rulers in Ukraine

Huseyn Aliyev

Huseyn Aliyev is a research fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. He specializes in armed conflict, non-state armed actors and informal practices.

In the course of the Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, a new actor catapulted itself onto the political stage in Ukraine: armed volunteer battalions quickly gained power. But how far does the influence of this informal actor extend and by what means is it enforced?

Fighters from a volunteer battalion line up for a ceremony to be sent to eastern Ukraine. (& copy picture alliance / NurPhoto)

Summary

The political landscape of post-Soviet Ukraine is shaped by a large number of informal rulers, including oligarchs, high-ranking "problem solvers" and actors in organized crime. The Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbass have added another influential informal actor to the political landscape of Ukraine: armed volunteer battalions. The volunteer organizations - known as "Dobrobaty" or "Wolontery" in Ukraine - were mobilized to support the state security forces in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. With the end of the heavy fighting in Donbass, the volunteer organizations turned to politics and quickly became influential socio-economic and socio-political actors. Regardless of the high reputation they enjoyed during the Donbass conflict, volunteer battalions actively use their resources to challenge the state in its role as a guarantor of security and guardian of the common good. However, they are not only challengers to the political regime, but also use their status to profit from informal and illegal business.

Challenger to the Poroshenko regime from within

The Ukrainian volunteer battalions (formally "territorial defense battalions") were formed in the run-up to the so-called anti-terrorist operation (ATO) in Donbass in spring 2014. Only a few months after their formation, most of the volunteer battalions became special units either under the command of the National Guard or of the Ministry of the Interior. The fighters of the battalions are recognized as soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces and receive their salary from the state. In 2017 there were 22 active volunteer organizations in Ukraine.

Regardless of this official status, the battalions were largely able to maintain their independence from the state - through autonomous financing, logistics, administration and recruitment. They still rely primarily on volunteer fighters and not on recruitment through conscription. In addition to government funding, they are financed through independent donations and private crowdfunding.

The battalions obtain some of their weapons and equipment from state suppliers, but also from private suppliers. In the parliamentary elections in 2014, some leaders of the volunteer battalions were able to secure a seat in parliament. The founders of the Azov (Andrij Bilezkyj), Right Sector (Dmytro Jarosch), Aydar (Serhyj Melnitschuk), Donbass (Semen Sementschenko) and Dnipro-1 (Jurij Beresa) battalions were elected to parliament and thus gained influence on the political process in Ukraine and political immunity.

With their involvement in the fighting in Donbass, the volunteer battalions have built up the image of a "people's army". In a representative survey conducted by the Razumkov Center in July 2018, 50 percent of those questioned expressed their trust in the volunteer battalions.

Their popularity and their official status as part of the state security forces enabled the volunteers to repeatedly challenge the Poroshenko government and informally undermine the state's monopoly on the use of force. They discredit the regime through critical statements as well as through direct actions. The battalion leaders regularly accuse the government of corruption, embezzlement and betrayal of Ukrainian interests. For example, the leader of the Azov regiment, MP Bilezkyj, who accused Poroshenko's government of corruption during several television appearances. The founder of the Donbass battalion, Semchenko, made similar allegations and in a TV interview accused Poroshenko and his ministers of corruption and "terrorist financing". Right Sector Dmytro Jarosch went further and said on a popular live talk show that Poroshenko was even more corrupt than former President Yanukovych. Others, particularly members of the Ajdar Battalion, which was forcibly demobilized, threatened to overthrow the government and "take the war to Kiev".

The battalions not only accuse the government of corruption, pro-Russian stance and poor governance, but also actively exert pressure through demonstrations and rallies. Since the Maidan protests in 2013/14, members of the volunteer battalions have regularly taken part in protest events critical of the government. In 2016 alone, members of Azov and its political arm National Corps were on more than 30 demonstrations and protested, among other things, against wood exports from Ukraine to the EU, against the business activities of Russian banks in Ukraine and against allegedly pro-Russian propaganda on state television. Although most of these protests have remained peaceful, in some cases there have been outbreaks of violence. Supported z. In August 2015, for example, members of the Sitsch Battalion hundreds of right-wing extremists in violent clashes in front of parliament. During the protests against the controversial decentralization law, which is supposed to guarantee the areas in Donbass controlled by pro-Russian separatists greater autonomy, fighters from the volunteer battalions threw Molotov cocktails and hand grenades at the police and killed four security forces. In June 2015, fighting broke out between armed right-wing extremists and the police in the western Ukrainian city of Mukacheve, in which nine police officers were injured. While security forces involved in the incident were released from their duties, there were no serious consequences for those involved in the right-wing sector.

Vigilante groups are forming

In addition to taking part in street protests, volunteer battalions are increasingly trying to undermine state security policy by taking on police duties informally. The notorious "National Militia" was founded by Azov and his "National Corps" in the spring of 2017 to patrol Ukrainian cities and crack down on street crime, public alcohol consumption, drug trafficking and other "anti-Ukrainian" crimes. The "National Militia" consists of more than 1,000 members and is active in 13 regions of the country. It unites former fighters, newly recruited nationalists and, as evidenced by its own website, "responsible citizens". As the organizer of neo-Nazi-style torch-lit marches in Kiev and other large cities, the militia has a mixed reputation: On the one hand, they take action against illegal poachers and provide first aid for the elderly, while at the same time they are responsible for the destruction of Roma settlements and brutal attacks on Roma Population. Members of the Azov "National Militia" and the Sich youth organization C14 recently attacked four Roma settlements in the Kiev region and western Ukraine. Ironically, the Hromadske radio station reported that C14 received grants from the Ministry of Youth and Sports for patriotic education and the fight against homophobia. According to Human Rights Watch, members of the National Militia, the Right Sector and other volunteer battalions carried out more than 20 attacks on ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and human rights activists across the country in 2018 alone. The battalions' attempts to take justice into their own hands are a major challenge for the state security forces, who are accused of inefficiency and corruption. It is noteworthy that the National Militia emerged shortly after the establishment of a new patrol police, which is the result of a large-scale police reform, which is largely supported by the EU and the US. Members of the "National Militia" repeatedly state in interviews that "the police are not doing their job".

Contract killings

Their access to weapons and their military experience make volunteers sought-after contract killers for competing businessmen, oligarchs or rival politicians. Depending on who pays them, the battalions have already taken different sides in the criminal feuds of various informal rulers. The attempted murder of the MP Ihor Mosijtschuk and the fatal attacks on the Chechen activist Amina Okujewa, the Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet, the Georgian-Chechen Kremlin critic Timur Makhauri, the former Russian MP Denis Voronenkow and the Ukrainian secret service officer are only the most prominent officials Cases in which volunteer battalions are known or suspected to be involved. The attack on the Russian journalist and Kremlin critic Arkady Babchenko, who lives in exile in Ukraine, in May 2018 was also supposed to be carried out by a former battalion member. Since some of the victims mentioned were on friendly terms with certain battalions, but not with others, conflicts between the individual battalions could also have played a role in the selection of the victims. In addition, financial considerations seem to have been more important than nationalist motives in choosing victims. Volunteer fighters have also been involved in contract killings of less prominent people. In November 2014, two fighters from the Donbass battalion near Mariupol received an order from their commanding officer to murder a businessman - on behalf of a rival businessman. For the murder, the two volunteer fighters received a total of 3,000 hryvnia (approx. 100 euros) from their superiors. The fact that the murder victim co-financed this volunteer battalion shows that not even supporters of the battalions are safe from assassinations.

Unscrupulous entrepreneurs

Contract killings are just one way battalion members can illegally raise money. Often they are also engaged in armed robbery and other "problem solving". Rostislaw Krawets, attorney at law firm "Krawets und Partner", says the prices for such "services" start at $ 1,000 and depend on how difficult the contract is and how big the company is. Since 2017, volunteer battalions have also been protecting private companies against raids and raids for a fee. The website vesti.ukr reports that the services of a battalion fighter cost around 1,000 hryvnia (about 32 euros) per day. While some battalions founded their own private security companies, affiliated to their units and operating in a legal gray area, others are informally active in the security sector and can be booked for both daily and long-term deployments. According to the Strana.ua website, there are about 30,000 current and former battalion members who regularly provide informal security services to businesses and individuals. Armed volunteers not only protect companies from robberies, but are also involved in robberies themselves. For example, right-wing MPs Dmytro Linko and Ihor Mosijchuk hired volunteers to attack a notary's office and forcibly remove the manager of the Kiev Darnytsia shopping center.

The informal security services of the battalions are in demand not only among small and medium-sized companies, but also among oligarchs and politicians. As the well-known Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butuzov reported, some battalions, above all the units of the Azov battalion, are closely connected to the informal financial network of the powerful oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Ihor Kolomoysky. Azov is known to have stakes in several companies, including its own security company that employs former combatants and, among other things, guards shops and factories owned by Akhmetov. It is also known that Akhmetov, Kolomoysky and the equally influential oligarch Dmytro Firtash finance the Right Sector, Azov and other large volunteer battalions.

Conclusion

Although volunteer battalions have established themselves as influential informal interest groups, Ukrainian politicians assure the international community that the battalions - regardless of their positive image among the population - are not a political power. Indeed, polls by the Razumkov Center show that only 0.5 percent of the population support the political arm of the National Corps and 0.3 percent support the Right Sector party. TSN.ua assumes, however, that the parties associated with volunteer battalions will get around 12 percent of the vote - even taking into account the five percent hurdle, they could then have 40 MPs and thus establish their own block in parliament. This shows how close the volunteer battalions are to becoming formal rulers. Despite the efforts of the leaders of the volunteer battalions to strengthen their position in the legislature, the majority of ordinary militants are poorly paid and receptive to informal and even illegal jobs. With battalion commanders cleverly lobbying, disarming or fully legalizing volunteer armed battalions does not seem a realistic option at this time. Due to the tacit support of powerful figures such as B. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the battalions remain unmolested. A number of Ukrainian analysts therefore consider the battalions to be a "third force" that act as a bridge between the government and the powerful informal networks of oligarchs and gang bosses. Despite their criticism of the government, the volunteer battalions have an interest in maintaining the existing political order. At the same time, however, they also want to maintain the current informal order, which enables them to obtain financial resources and secure public support.

Translation from English: Dr. Eduard Klein

Reading tips

  • Aliyev, Huseyn. "Strong militias, weak states and armed violence: Towards a theory of‘ state-parallel ’paramilitaries." Security dialogue 47.6 (2016): 498-516.
  • Käihkö, Ilmari. "A nation-in-the-making, in arms: control of force, strategy and the Ukrainian Volunteer Battalions." Defense Studies 18.2 (2018): 147–166.
  • Hunter, Montana. "Crowdsourced War: The Political and Military Implications of Ukraine’s Volunteer Battalions 2014-2015." Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 18.3 (2018).

The Ukraine analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.