The oligarchs and their special interest in volunteer battalions add more risk to Ukrainian stability. An excellent example of this occurred when Ihor Kolomoisky caused unprecedented political backlash resulting in his resignation after a stand-off with security forces when he mismanaged the operational funds of Battalions of Territorial Defense (BTD) Dnipro-1 in March, 2015.
Ihor Kolomoisky blundered by sending armed men to maintain control over Ukrnafta—a state-owned energy company of which Kolomoisky was a minority shareholder and in control of the management and Ukrtransnafta, Ukraine’s state-owned oil pipeline operator. Men like Kolomoisky are detrimental to the democratic government and professional military, reducing their ability to maintain the rule of law and order and to defend the sovereignty of the nation.
Kolokoisky has dramatically shifted power and destabilized the system, impacting the government’s ability to transition effectively with the will of the people. If Ukraine is to successfully take control of this situation, the government will have to finance volunteer battalions alone. The building of a professional army is required to fight and win wars, as well as maintain peace and security. The BTDs and Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (UVC) already lack developed professional military training, discipline, doctrine, and an effective chain of command. It is up to Ukraine to develop its volunteers into professional warfighters or else allow them to continue to be little more than armed mobs.
Forming the volunteer battalions was the strategic causality of government intent to forge a standing army following Euromaidan comprised of citizen-soldiers the people would trust in the aftermath. This gave Kiev the capability to swiftly deploy manpower to counter the pro-Russian separatist forces. The initial organizational and operational table of allowances of the volunteer battalions have, of course, since increased.
Meanwhile, the number of battalions have decreased as the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine (MIA)—through the structural assembly of the national guard—has absorbed or disbanded some battalions. In the case of the Azov battalion, the MIA has placed them indirectly under their command. This is not unusual in Ukraine: Political parties have historically aligned themselves with armed citizens.
The boldest symbol of this kind of alliance is the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The battle flag of the UPA can regularly be seen throughout the country, flying from homes and apartments, across the field in the countryside, or displayed on the front lines. The UPA has roots as a partisan army in World War II and was active until 1956 against the Soviet Union, communist Czechoslovakia, and Poland following the German occupation. They are similar to the volunteer battalions of today where citizens volunteer to fight for their nation.
Ukraine has continued to have varying militias sanctioned, emboldened, and politically organized by this conflict because the standing military was simply incapable of fighting the pro-Russian separatists alone. The biggest push to all Ukrainians came with the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia. Only 6,000 of Ukraine’s 140,000 military personnel were ready for combat when Russia came for Crimea.
The militias became volunteers and filled in some of the missing ranks. As the conflict has evolved, so have many of the militias, which have become the BTDs and UVCs deployed throughout the country. This evolution has proven fruitful to their commanders, some of whom have been elected or appointed to political positions, allowing them to continue to grow and to fight. Widespread press visibility of the political and ideological beliefs of the volunteer battalions continue to damage Ukraine’s global image and packages a media campaign to Moscow’s benefit.
After Euromaidan, Ukraine and Russia have been at odds on the battlefield and in the court of public opinion, with Moscow attempting to leverage international distrust against the national socialist organizations enmeshed in the Ukrainian government and some of Kiev’s BTDs such as Azov. The pro-Russian separatists have their own extremists, part of an organization that calls itself Oplot—buoyed by former president Victor Yanukovych.
The Oplot group, founded in Kharkiv, styles itself as “the first fight club in Ukraine.” The group’s leader is Yevhen Zhilin, a retired police captain who promotes the military heritage of the Soviet Union. They consider themselves a pro-government (old-government) group of fighters. The BBC noted that Oplot is:
“…opposed to the anti-government protests and say they have visited Kiev to ‘help police restore order’. The group’s exploits include the blocking of activists from Auto-Maidan, an anti-government movement which involves motorists who use their cars to pick up demonstrators, picket properties belonging to government officials and block streets, preventing police deployment to protest sites.”
The organization is suspected of kidnapping and torturing Auto-Maidan leader Dmytro Bulatov. Oplot is linked to the SNA, which acts as an ideological umbrella group to an assortment of ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Ukraine.
Alliances under this umbrella extend throughout Euromaidan, often providing aid and assistance to associated far-right activists against anti-Yanukovych protesters in Kiev. It was not until conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine that these organizations armed and emplaced themselves to take more substantial military and political roles on both sides.
The conflict has provided organizations such as this a theater of war where they have becoming increasingly dangerous. Warfare has forced them to improve their organization, allowed them to obtain arms, and placed them in a position where they can take what they want.