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When the conflict in Ukraine began in early 2014, a disturbing number of armed groups—from looting gangs to militias with ties to European white supremacy movements—sprang up from the chaos. Although the role and origin of those pro-Ukrainian militias has been hotly debated, one thing is clear: several years after the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian government has managed to stifle the independent armed groups fighting on its side. Its success offers lessons for other countries attempting to demobilize populations after a war.
At the start of the war in 2014, there were as many as 30 small armed groups made up of 50 to 100 people. This assortment quickly consolidated into five main militias: Right Sector, Azov, Aidar, Donbas, and Dnepr 1. These semi-independent groups absorbed most of Ukraine’s freelance fighters and small ethnic militias. Although each group had its own leadership, logistics, and funding, they had to negotiate access to the frontline with the Ukrainian government, and they depended on the regular army for artillery cover. Many of the volunteer fighters were internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, although some Russian far-right activists came to participate in the fight.
At the start of the war, when Ukraine’s standing army was weak and slow to mobilize, such groups were crucial to the defense of the territory. However, even from the start, there were major problems with their operations. They rarely coordinated with each other or the Ukrainian army on the battlefield or off. Furthermore, there was no legal supervision of their activities, as Amnesty International has repeatedly pointed out.
The lack of coordination led to inefficiency and, sometimes, catastrophe. In August 2014, Aidar, which consisted of freelance fighters from the Lugansk region who joined after the Maidan protests and who had little military skill, failed to coordinate operations with the Ukrainian army in Lugansk in the infamous Battle of Illovaisk. The army and several other volunteer battalions, including forces from Donbas, another autonomous pro-Ukrainian armed group, were overrun; more than 1,000 fighters were killed, about 100 were injured, and 128 were taken prisoner. The lack of coordination is often cited as a main cause of the disaster.
These problems on the ground, pressure from the international community, and concerns that these independent armed groups might themselves grow into destabilizing opponents alarmed the central government in Kiev and spurred it to act. The government drew a line: all independent pro-Ukrainian paramilitary groups would either join the official armed forces or face demobilization by any means necessary. The Ukrainian government acted at the right time—that is, when its army was strong and public opinion was on its side. Many governments facing similar problems either miss the right moment or provoke infighting during incorporation.
The first group to be incorporated was the 500-person Azov battalion. The group’s leader, Arsen Avakov, had been the Ukrainian minister of internal affairs since 2014. The Azov fighters acquiesced peacefully, having always anticipated a merger with the army. After the union, the government’s first act was to root out two groups within Azov, foreign fighters and neo-Nazis, by vetting group members with background checks, observations during training, and a law requiring all fighters to accept Ukrainian citizenship. Fighters who did not pass this screening were offered the chance to join civilian volunteer corps to help the war effort; these corps assisted police, cleared snow (a crucial task in Ukraine), and even worked on a public radio.
The Donbas paramilitary was also peacefully incorporated into the official army. The group had been in flux since the autumn of 2014, when a disagreement among the group’s leadership broke out; the Ukrainian government exploited the rift, and Donbas disintegrated. Some of its fighters simply demobilized, whereas others found their way to official Ukrainian recruitment centers and enlisted.
The remaining three groups resisted giving up their independence, so the government took a carrot-and-stick approach. In spring 2015, it issued an ultimatum. Independent groups were ordered to withdraw from the front line; any that did so could enlist with the armed forces with full benefits, such as salaries, insurance, subsidized utilities, and medical care—none of which had been provided by most independent armed groups. The government lived up to this promise. Any independent fighters who did not withdraw from the front lines would be treated as illegal fighters and find themselves in jail.
Kiev nearly had to make good on its threats in March 2016. Several fighters from the armed group Tornado, a group with known connections to criminal circles, refused to join official Ukrainian armed forces; in fact, they barricaded themselves in a school in Severodonetsk and promised to open fire if the army approached. With the help of negotiators, however, the stand-off was resolved. Some group members demobilized, some were arrested, and some joined the National Guard.
The most challenging case was Aidar, the last pro-Ukrainian paramilitary to be incorporated. According to their leader, Serhiy Melnichuk, the government responded to Aidar’s intransigence with varying tactics: the Ukrainian army opened fire on the group at the front line, as it had threatened to do. However, the government also filed a lawsuit against the group’s leadership. These tactics were successful, and Aidar’s fighters are now part of the organized Ukrainian army.
After Aidar’s incorporation into the regular forces, most of Ukraine’s pro-Ukrainian paramilitary fighters were under government control. However, holdouts remain: some fighters refused to sign enlistment contracts, and they simply kept switching from one independent armed group to another. Many of these fighters wound up in the last sizable paramilitary, Right Sector. Right Sector is active in the field. In the summer of 2016, four fighters were killed and 13 were wounded fighting for Ukraine during the battle in Avdeevka. None of these casualties were soldiers from the standing Ukrainian army.
Although Right Sector is a small group, it will be the hardest of all to bring in line. Despite threats from the government and standing offers to join official armed forces, the group is still semi-independent. At this point, it is composed of fighters who have made their devotion to staying independent very clear. They are not tempted by the benefits offered by the government. Their reasons for rejecting incorporation are varied; one group member who refused to enlist in the official army said that “Right Sector is more professional and cohesive than an official army.”
Ukraine’s campaign to integrate independent armed groups has been successful so far. Almost all the groups integrated, and the groups’ members have become functional parts of the Ukrainian armed forces, preventing the potential for separate, chaotic chains of command. Perhaps other countries facing the proliferation of independent armed groups, such as Iraq, might consider similar solutions—reversing public opinion, pressuring groups’ leaders, and offering enlistment benefits to lower-level group members—when dealing with allies they cannot control.