To most of the world, the conflict in Ukraine is symmetrically viewed as a regional dispute between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. However, the conflict is much more asymmetrical, as a number of irregular volunteer battalions have spread throughout the battlespace of Eastern Ukraine in the name of her defense.
There are dozens of these volunteer battalions or Battalions of Territorial Defense (BTD) operating throughout Ukraine. A majority of these battalions have been reorganized under the appropriate command and control channels of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine (MIA), but the battalions still operate semi-autonomously in their own regional spheres of influence.
These plucky volunteers have repeatedly demonstrated great adaptability and bravery, which has been crucial to Kiev’s success in maintaining stability in the remainder of Ukraine, as well as providing the government with a pedestal to drum-up international support and bring attention to the conflict. These accomplishments, while an outstanding example of Ukrainian solidarity and patriotism, will eventually lead to an awkward internal security situation in Ukraine, post-conflict.
The effort to assimilate the volunteer groups has been slow but steady, with 37 recognized BTDs spread throughout Ukraine. Each battalion currently stands with Kiev, but with their own ideology and their own ambitions, there’s no telling if that will remain the case. They are well armed and already restless. According to Amnesty International’s (AI) “Report 2014/15: The State of the World’s Human Rights,” as well as the United Nations Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, there have been numerous documented reports on the mistreatment and torture of enemy prisoners of war and executions by “armed groups,” the armed forces of Ukraine, and Ukrainian law enforcement agencies—thus implying the Territorial Defense Battalions.
Meanwhile the conflict continues to simmer. The Minsk Agreements are collectively seen as a political facade and are largely ignored by Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces. There are daily exchanges of fire, a steady stream of casualty reports, and in the midst of it all are thousands of volunteers. The volunteer battalions themselves continue to develop as hostilities and the political situation in Ukraine allows them and their unit commanders enough space to execute to their own regionalized plans. Each battalion is unique, with distinctive histories. The Battalion Azov, for instance, is rooted in multiple pre-conflict organizations. Others, such as the Battalion Kryvbas, were stood-up in stride with the conflict.
Currently, the battalions are viewed as centralized allies, in-step with Kiev and resting comfortably under the structural umbrella of the MIA. That is unless one accounts for those battalions operating outside the scope of the MIA and the Ukrainian government, such as the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (UVC) Right Sector or (Pravy Sektor). Right Sector has made itself famous for a number of incidents including an uneasy stand-off with the 25th Airborne Brigade and 95th Airmobile Brigade following a breakdown in negotiations for Right Sector to join the Ukraine’s military structure.
Despite this incident, the UVC Right Sector did eventually cede command and control to the government following a deal giving Right Sector Leader Dmytro Yarosh an advisory post within the Ministry of Defense (MOD) on the staff of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Viktor Muzhenko. Currently, the UVC Right Sector is best known for its violent disruption of the June, 2015 Kiev LGBT March.
Another unfortunate case of resistance against Kiev’s orders came from the BTD Aidar, which was the first BTD to be established. Unfortunately, the battalion was forced to officially disband on the 2nd of March, 2015 following the arrest of several of its members on the suspicion of attempting to smuggle weapons into Kiev. But it does not end there for BTD Aidar; there have been multiple allegations of human rights violations, accusations of “terrorizing the [Luhansk] region,” war crimes, and on the 3rd of June, 2015, BTD Aidar Commander Serhiy Melnychuk had his parliamentary prosecutorial immunity revoked following allegations including abductions, forming a criminal gang, and making threats. This should be a cause for concern in Kiev because there is an ongoing pattern of defiance when it comes time for a BTD, UVC, or any other group of armed volunteers to disband or reorganize.
The long-term risk to Ukrainian internal security is that as long as volunteer battalions continue to operate even semi-autonomously, the commanders of these battalions will be at an extreme risk of venturing into more selfish enterprises for personal and/or political gain. Communication and discipline can easily break down as units disband or simply lose sight of Kiev while on the battlefield, which has been demonstrated by BTD Aidar and UVC Right Sector.
To prevent another or more severe incident with volunteer battalions, Kiev will need to step up its integration schedule and address the application of a more binding doctrine on how BTDs will operate throughout the country and the anti-terrorist operation region. The conflict is not going to stop anytime soon, and the BTDs will continue to grow in arms, volunteers, and resources by the day. They are the tip of the spear in the fight against pro-Russian separatists. The BTDs’ demonstrable strength has led many Ukrainians to find some comfort in their usefulness, but neglect their rising threat to future stability.
(Featured image courtesy of japantimes.co.jp)
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