Volunteer Battalions Face Reduced Role as Ukraine Looks for Control
Born out of the turmoil that plagued eastern Ukraine in 2014, more than three dozen volunteer battalions assembled to resist pro-Russian separatists in the region. United only by their collective fight for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, these groups cover a broad spectrum of political ideologies.
Officially designated by the Ukrainian military as territorial defense battalions, groups of volunteers with varying levels of military experience played a crucial role early in the conflict. They provided relief assistance to an overmatched Ukrainian army by tying down Russian-backed separatists on the frontlines.
Now that direct confrontation with Russia has died down, volunteers are now proving to be problematic for the Ukrainian government. As the dust has settled, certain battalions were exposed for their radical political views while others proved to be undertrained. Reigning in these groups has become a priority for the government as they attempt to fortify control of eastern Ukraine and achieve stability. Once acting independently on the frontlines, volunteer battalions are now being removed from sensitive positions and integrated central command and control.
“They are military units that are often quite antithetical to trying to build some kind of coherent unitary, unified, Ukrainian state,” said Dr. Mark Galeotti, professor of Global Affairs at New York University, while explaining why these groups no longer line up with Ukrainian interests.
Azov, one of the largest battalions and a key player early in the conflict, is now problematic for the Ukrainian government. Its extreme right wing tendencies have garnered international attention. The group, whose logo closely resembles the Nazi Wolfsangel, is the associated with Ukraine’s far-right nationalist political party, the Right Sector. Additionally, several of its 1000 members publically identify as Nazis.
Early in the conflict, Azov was heavily involved in combat around Mariupol — the second largest city in the contested Donetsk Oblast region that has been the scene much of the violence in eastern Ukraine. The military assigned Azov to defend Mariupol after government forces recaptured the city in the summer of 2014. But news of neo-Nazis in Azov’s ranks eventually forced the Ukrainian government to reduce the battalion’s role.
In August, as violence in the area subsided, Azov was removed from the frontlines in Mariupol and replaced with a professional marine infantry. The decision came soon after the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved an amendment to the U.S. military budget banning support and training for Azov.
Experts say this move is in accordance with Ukraine’s de-escalation strategy. Azov isn’t capable of the peacekeeping role that the government hopes a more professional and stable group can achieve. Instead, the government hopes to assert control over the unstable group.
“They’re step by step integrating these volunteer battalions to bring them under central command and control,” Dr. Alexander Clarkson, a professor of German, European and International Studies at King’s College London. “It was actually a test for Azov for how much they would listen. If they were prepared to pull back and follow orders from high command. In a sense, they passed this test.”
This integration strategy does not appear to be limited to radical groups like Azov. Other less controversial groups like the Donbas Battalion faced similar changes and have also been forced to submit to central command and control.
Donbas Battalion was one of the first pro-Ukrainian forces to take up arms in Donetsk. With over 900 members it is another one of the largest volunteer forces. Their leaders were also part of a diplomatic mission sent to the United States to appeal for lethal aid and support for Ukraine. Major Semen Semenchenko a former movie producer and the founder of the Donbas Battalion spoke before Congress in 2014 and successfully lobbied for U.S. backed training for Donbas soldiers and officers.
Hindered by inconsistency and lack of training, Donbas struggled to match this contribution. Because Major Semenchenko insisted that he and his men stay on the front lines, the Ukrainian government divided the battalion into platoon-sized units and integrated them across regular army brigades. As a result, the once cohesive unit critical to Ukraine’s defense has largely lost its collective identity.
Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, a Washington, DC based think-tank, has done several stints in Ukraine with Donbas and several other volunteer battalions. He believes that despite their reduced role, their contributions cannot be disregarded.
“Those who value a free Ukraine should give them a lot of credit for doing what they did when they did it,” he said. “The volunteer battalions wrote a chapter in Ukrainian’s struggle for independence and did it with their own blood. That chapter is now closed but their contribution lives on.”