KIEV, UKRAINE — SEPTEMBER 04: Members of the Azov Battalion, a far-right group of militant activists, stand in Maidan Square, on September 4, 2014 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ukraine’s ‘Battalions’ Army, Explained.

Ukrainian volunteer battalions fight for Eastern Ukraine, as some critics worry about their actions and future loyalty.

by Chris Dunnett, Hromadske International

What you need to know:

✓ The fighters who make up the volunteer battalions are geographically and ideologically diverse, with volunteers from all over Ukraine, Europe, and even Russia;

✓The battalions are ostensibly under the control of Ukraine’s Ministry of the Interior, but the level of Ministry control over the battalions is limited, the exact number of military volunteers is unknown, estimated at around 15000 active members;

✓ The battalions were initially funded by their own members’ savings and donations from private citizens, while other battalions are allegedly funded by Ukrainian oligarchs and businessmen;

✓The battalions played important role in Ukrainian victories in the east, but have also been criticized by human rights organizations for lack of oversight and numerous human rights abuses;

✓Most of the battalions consist of regular internal troops, and are not nearly as active on the front lines as regular Ukrainian soldiers. Yet, since volunteers battalions provide considerably better access for the media comapared to the military and National Guard, they have received considerably more attention than forces doing the bulk of the fighting;

Pro-Russian separatist fighters from the so-called Battalion Vostok (East) wait behind sandbag walls at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 10, 2014.

The Ukrainian volunteer battalions are an important, if sometimes exaggerated, aspect of the Ukrainian war effort in eastern Ukraine and security elsewhere in the country. Approximately 50 battalions play a role in Ukraine’s territorial defense. At the beginning of the conflict, many Ukrainians credited the battalions for stemming the advance of separatist controlled territory, as well as for the Ukrainian military’s rapid victories against Russian-backed rebels in the months of June and July. At the time of Crimea’s annexation, despite a Ukrainian military that officially numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Kyiv could only count some 6,000 battle-ready soldiers. Hastily organized volunteer fighters, not to mention non-combat volunteers of all sorts, were a crucial aspect of Ukraine’s response to the crisis in the midst of state failure. Since then, the role of the volunteer battalions in the conflict, as well as in Ukrainian politics, has come under increased scrutiny for alleged human rights abuses and their sometimes extreme political views.

An infographic of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions as of September 2014. Several battalions have been formed since that time, bringing the total closer to 50.

Ukraine’s ‘Shadow’ Army, including their base of operations.

What do we know about the Ukrainian battalions?

The battalions play an active role on the front, and are also tasked with maintaining security behind the front lines of the war in the Donbas, preventing further incursions by Russian-backed forces. Volunteers come from all over Ukraine, and many are former participants of the Euromaidan movement in Kyiv. A large number of volunteers are natives of eastern Ukrainian regions, some are former members of the Ukrainian security services, and even a few foreign volunteers have joined the battalions’ ranks.

The Donbas Battalion is one of the most popular volunteer battalions in Ukraine. Based in the Donetsk Oblast of eastern Ukraine, the battalion has taken a particularly pro-active role in the campaign against separatism. The leader of the battalion is the outspoken Semen Semenchenko, a self-identified ethnic Russian from Crimea who later moved to the city of Donetsk.

Semen Semenchenko, the commander of a Ukrainian army volunteer battalion from the Donbass region, speaks in front of a placard at the entrance to the Ukrainian National Guard shooting range near Novo-Petrictsi village, not far from Kiev, prior to military training and exercises, on June 2, 2014. Some 360 volonteers, mainly from the Donbass region, are attending combat training for three weeks to take part in military operations against armed separatist militants in the east of the country. AFP PHOTO / SERGEI SUPINSKY (Photo credit should read SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The Donbas Battalion recruits fighters from all over Ukraine, and is heavily represented by natives of eastern Ukrainian regions. The increased political clout of the volunteer battalions is partly reflected by Semenchenko’s October election to parliament on the party list of Samopomich, a reformist faction and Ukraine’s third most represented party in the Rada.

Donbas Battalion was also the only battalion openly advertising the participation of a foreigner in its ranks. Mark Gregory Paslawsky, known by the codename “Franko,” was a 55-year old American of Ukrainian descent before his death during a battle in August.

The American Volunteer in the Donbas Battalion: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 66)

Widely referred to as the Dnipro Battalion, Dnipro-1 is reportedly organized and funded by Ukrainian businessman turned Dnipropetrovsk regional governor Ihor Kolomoisky. He is also the president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, and has been an important figure in Ukrainian political, particularly in his support for pro-European political factions.

When its high-profile conflict with Russia began, the fledgling government in Kiev was caught flat-footed, with an army with little fighting experience or funding. Enter Ihor Kolomoisky, a 51-year-old outspoken banking tycoon. Now recently appointed by the country’s president as governor of Dnipropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine, he has decided to dip into his fortune to bolster that army and defend the homeland.

The battalion has taken part in fighting against separatism in Donetsk Oblast, and is also charged with maintaining security in neighboring Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, the main eastern stronghold of the Ukrainian government and army.

Along with the Donbas and Dnipro, the Aidar Battalion was one of the most visible and notorious volunteer units fighting in eastern Ukraine. Aidar operated primarily in Luhansk Oblast, and is named after the most prominent river in the region.

The batalion is particularly diverse in its geographical makeup, with 60 percent of its members hailing from the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. Nadiya Savchenko, a former Ukrainian pilot who is now imprisoned in Russia on what has been described as politically-motivated charges, was a member of the battalion when she was captured by pro-Russian rebels in June.

This similarity is not strange considering that the paramilitary Aidar Battalion is made up mostly of Donbas residents who volunteered to fight against the Kremlin-backed gunmen. They hope to use their knowledge of the Donbas, including Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, to secure a homefield advantage victory for Ukrainian forces.

The remaining 40 percent of this unit comes from all over Ukraine, united by love of country and hatred of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The battalion has taken heavy losses in the conflict. While the soldiers are popular in Ukraine, some members of Aidar were criticized by an Amnesty International and other human rights organizations for abuses against civilians and enemy combatants.

Amnesty International has documented a growing spate of abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, robbery, extortion, and possible executions committed by the Aidar battalion. Some of these amount to war crimes. The organization is calling on the Ukrainian authorities to bring all volunteer battalions, including Aidar, under effective lines of command and control, to promptly investigate all allegations of abuses and to hold those responsible to account.

Amnesty International accuses pro-Ukraine military battalions of war crimes

The increased attention brought to the unsavory actions of volunteer battalions in the conflict zone, particularly those of the Aidar Battalion, has put pressure on Kyiv to expand its operational control over their actions and reign in the most reckless of these groups. Well-documented abuses by Aidar, in particular, have pressed the Ukrainian government to disband the battalion and merge some of its members into the regular military. In February, members of the Aidar Battalion picketed outside the Ministry of Defense and set fire to tires in reaction to the government crackdown on their activities. The former commander of Aidar, Serhiy Melnychuk, was expelled from a coalition party following the event, and Aidar was recently disbanded and partially merged into the Ukrainian armed forces.

On March 4, 2015, former Aidar commander Serhiy Melnychuk brawled with members of the political faction from which he was expelled. A prelude of what’s to come?

Even more so than Aidar, Azov Battalion is perhaps the most controversial among self-organized military battalions in Ukraine. Named after the Sea of Azov, which is located to the southeast of the country, the battalion is currently involved in supporting the defense of Mariupol from possible incursions from pro-Russian rebels and the regular Russian army. Following the Russian seizure of the strategic city of Debaltseve northeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, many observers expect Mariupol to be the next target of a possible offensive. The Azov Battalion is largely Russian-speaking and composed of volunteers from eastern and central Ukrainian regions. In addition, several foreigners have participated in the unit, most notably a Swedish national with far right political views.

The battalion has received specific attention from Western media for its apparently Nazi-inspired unit symbol, and the far-right ideology of its leaders. The battalion denies any fascist affiliation, but investigative reporting, including by The Guardian’s Shaun Walker, has indicated that many members of the battalion do harbor worrying political views, even if most deny support for neo-Nazism.

But there is an increasing worry that while the Azov and other volunteer battalions might be Ukraine’s most potent and reliable force on the battlefield against the separatists, they also pose the most serious threat to the Ukrainian government, and perhaps even the state, when the conflict in the east is over. The Azov causes particular concern due to the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members.

The Azov Battalion enjoys direct support from Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, and has long been seen as perhaps the most effective volunteer fighting force in the east. It is for this reason that some observers have worried about the battalion’s future political influence.

Petro Poroshenko praises the Azov battalion during his trip to Mariupol, Eastern Ukraine, 9/8/14

Right Sector is a nationalist Ukrainian political party that also commands a small number of volunteers in the conflict zone of eastern Ukraine. While Right Sector played a highly visible role at the final stage of the Euromaidan protest movement, its forces in eastern Ukraine have been minimal. The battalion suffered a setback in mid-August, when 12 of its volunteers were killed in an ambush by Russian-backed forces. The battalion had a handful of volunteers who participated in the defense of the Donetsk airport until its fall into rebel hands in late January.

The battalion is probably the most feared among the local eastern Ukrainian population, largely the result of extensive Russian propaganda which portrays the group as violent anti-Russian fascists. However, Kyiv largely denounces the battalion, which has refused to submit itself under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. In the May presidential elections, the leader of Right Sector Dmytro Yarosh received 0.7% of the vote, while the political party received under 2% of the vote in the October parliamentary elections, far below the 5% threshold necessary to gain seats in parliament. Only Yarosh, elected to parliament by a single-member district in eastern Ukraine, represents the party in the Rada.

New Battalions

Following the original Minsk cease fire agreement and road map for peace that was implemented in September, several additional volunteer battalions were formed. Perhaps the most significant of these battalions include the Dudayev Battalion, St. Mary’s Battalion, and the Kyivan Rus Battalion.

The Dudayev Battalion, which is named after Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first Chechen leader against Moscow’s control of the region in the 1990s. While the battalion has Chechen volunteers for the Ukrainian cause, most of the volunteer force is made up of ethnic Ukrainians and other national groups. The participation of Chechens on the Ukrainian side of the conflict is a relative novelty, considering that Chechen mercenaries under the control of the pro-Putin Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, have strongly backed pro-Russian rebels.

Vice News’ profile of the Dudayev Battalion, which includes a contingent of Chechen pro-Ukrainian volunteers.

The St. Mary’s and Kyivan Rus Battalions have also contributed to the broader war effort in eastern Ukraine. St. Mary’s Battalion, a conservative Christian outfit, is based in Mariupol, while Kyivan Rus participated in the defense of the city of Debaltseve.

Korchynsky last made news when he fled Ukraine a year ago after being accused of provoking violence against the police during the Maidan protests. Now he drives around Mariupol in a double-cab Toyota Tundra with a camouflage paint job, armed with a Steyr assault rifle and Jericho pistol.

“Christianity should be practiced as it was in the 13th century,” says Korchynsky. “War for faith is the best thing that can happen in a person’s life. It should happen all over the world, and first of all in Ukraine.” He speaks softly and doesn’t smile.

A Ukrainian activist from battalion ‘Donbass’ gets his haircut by a comrade in their camp, which is based in a school, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Popasnaya, in Ukraine. Roman Pilipey/EPA

The future of the Ukrainian battalions

Several of the volunteer battalions are wildly popular among the Ukrainian population, raising the possibility that the units and their leaders will play a critical role in politics after the conflict. The volunteer battalions carry public support for their instrumental role in preventing the advance of pro-Russian forces deeper into Ukraine. However, their stature and role in the conflict is often overstated, largely as a result of public relations campaigns and willingness to speak with reporters compared to regular units of the Ukrainian military. It’s also notable of the roughly 50 volunteer battalions operating in Ukraine, only a handful play an active combat role or have been accused of abuses. Most battalions are understaffed, underfunded, and relegated to protecting key infrastructure deep inside Ukraine or manning checkpoints.

The most important and powerful battalions, however, regularly express their disapproval with Ukrainian authorities, threatening to take a more active political stance if their demands for anti-corruption measures and the lustration of former officials remain unfulfilled. While a handful of leaders, including the leader of the Donbas Battalion, earned seats in parliament as part of larger electoral blocs, the future influence of the volunteers remains to be seen. Given the protests and political pressure that surrounded Aidar Battalion’s de-mobilization, many observers consider that the battalions could very well play a destructive role in the politics of Ukraine even after the end of the conflict.

Eastern Europe, explained.

Eastern Europe, explained.