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
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