The Russian Federation’s intervention in Crimea, which began on February 27, 2014 showed, that the Ukrainian police and army alone were unable to protect state sovereignty. The police had been discredited during the Maidan protests against Yanukovych, used for intimidating, harassing, and beating protesters and thus lost the trust of society. Moreover, some officers of “Berkut” riot police, who had used firearms against Euromaidan, joined the separatists. While the Ukrainian army was not involved in Euromaidan, it had been systematically destroyed by the Yanukovych team and its predecessors. The police and army were unreformed and suffered from chronic corruption.
At the same time, protesters on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv raised an alarm and demanded that they be armed in order to leave the capital and protect Ukraine. Former Euromaidan Self-defense head Andriy Parubiy, who had been appointed to the position of Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, gathered a group of newly appointed senior members from several ministries in order to search for a legal way of arming people who wanted to protect their homeland.
The first solution was found in the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA). The National Guard of Ukraine was created in the basis of existing MIA unit called “Interior Troops”. Those troops had been used as human shields to protect Kyiv’s government district from protesters and had not been involved in beating the protesters. The first National Guard training camp was established on the grounds of the former MIA center at Novi Petrivtsi near Kyiv. The volunteers were trained by the officers and soldiers against whom they had stood at the barricades.
The army did not have resources to react quickly or the skills to protect the country from small bands of mobile terrorists. By the time the Russians began fomenting unrest in Donbas, military detachments had begun to move eastward but a lot of equipment and vehicles were broken and old. The situation became critical. Some units of the police and local Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) in eastern Ukraine reneged on their service oaths and actively handed over their weapons and administration buildings.
On March 13, 2014, Ukraine's parliament voted to create a 60,000-strong National Guard. The bill which became Law #4393 “About the National Guard of Ukraine” was supported by 262 MP’s out of the 330 registered in the session hall. The National Guard of Ukraine itself does not have any volunteer battalions. There are newly formed battalions for operation purposes which have been brought up to strength with reservists. As the National Guard of Ukraine itself has no “volunteer battalions”, volunteers are attached to units in the National Guard. “Donbass” battalion has a special status – it is a battalion for operation purposes, and its servicemen sign contracts to join the military reserve of the National Guard of Ukraine.
Battalions of Territorial Defense (BTDs) were created in May 2014 all across the country in accordance with the Law of Ukraine issued on December 6, 1991 #1932-XII “About Defense of Ukraine”, the Law of Ukraine issued on March 17, 2014 # 1126-VII “About the Approval of the Decree of the President of Ukraine “About partial mobilization”” and according to the Decree of the President of Ukraine on September 2, 2013 #471/2013 “About the approval of the territorial defense of Ukraine”. BTDs are a part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and fall under the General Staff of the Armed Forces and the governors of the regions, upon which they were created. Recruitment and equipment provisioning is arranged at Oblast Military Enlistment Offices at the expense of oblast budgets and benefactors.
Today all volunteer battalions are commanded by Ukraine’s State authorities. In the ATO zone they all are under the command of the Anti-Terrorist Center. A number of laws have been adopted and decrees or orders issued to ensure the legal status of these volunteers.
There was a popular point of view that volunteer battalions lacked discipline and act on their own. In reality they coordinated their actions only with the Anti-Terrorist Center and obeyed ATC orders. There were some uncoordinated operations at the beginning of the operation, that led to casualties among the volunteers, and brought home to battalion leaders the need to act according to ATC plans.
Volunteer battalions are often called “private armies” which were organized to protect business interests of their sponsors. In fact, these battalions, like the Ukrainian army and police, are supported by the whole of society and sponsored by everybody from oligarchs to T-shirt producers to students to retirees. There were claims of “Private armies”, created by oligarchs long time ago to protect businesses. During Euromaidan Yanukovich team was even using criminal gangs (called “titushkas”) to attack protesters. But official investigations on that is just started.
Volunteer battalions received basic resources from Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Defense, but that was far from enough to create effective units. Modern equipment for the volunteers is provided with the help of the Ukrainian public: civil activists, businessmen, MP’s.
There are numerous volunteer groups of civilians who help to equip these battalions. For example there is Self-defense of Maidan, which has its own warehouses in Melitopol, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv, as well as “Army SOS” a non-political and non-commercial initiative of former Maidan activists. They collect and send everything other than weapons for the army: hygienic items, food, sleeping bags, Night Vision goggles, multicopters (for improvised UAVs) and much more. There are hundreds of little vans from all over Ukraine that transport aid to the army and police forces. That’s way volunteer battalions often look like “international united forces”.
Weapons are provided by the ministries of Interior Affairs and Defense. After a detachment is formed, it officially receives weapons according to the staff list. For example, First Reserve Battalion of National Guard of Ukraine was formed to operate as a convoy battalion of former MIA troops, so they got only light weapons.
Volunteer battalions consist of people with a variety of backgrounds, and only part of them are former Euromaidan supporters. Some Russian-language eastern Ukrainians joined volunteer battalions to protect their own homes. Ukraine is a dynamic European country where its citizens have a wide spectrum of opinions, just as the volunteers’ ages and ethnicities vary. And while Azov battalion had a far-right commander in Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the Social-National Assembly and who gathered right-minded young people around him, there was also the Dnipro-1 battalion supported by Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who also headed the “United Jewish community of Ukraine”.
“Nazists” and “Fascists” are figures of hate speech that are widely used by Russian media to describe any Ukrainian army unit, in order to threaten Ukrainian and Russian public and justify terrorists. Right-wing civic movements are not perceived by Ukrainian society as a threat. Ukrainian far-right candidates failed in the last presidential elections, as the two such candidates’ total result was 1.86% of votes. In the same time, Eurosceptic nationalists scored stunning victories in European Parliament elections in France, Britain and other European countries.
The most prominent target of Russian-fueled propaganda are members of the Right Sector movement. This movement, that consists from Ukrianian legal right-wing organizations was one of the most active during Euromaidan time, especially during clashes at Hrushevskoho street. Right Sector supporters can be found among members of different battalions and units, their leader Dmytro Yarosh holds negotiations with the authorities to create separate unit within army or police. They usually are active in media, since Right Sector is turning to the political party and claims plans of taking part in the elections. In mid-august Yarosh issued emotional speech, claiming that Right Sector might get back to Kiev, demanding resignation of Ministry of Interior’s officials from Yanukovich period. This statement was disavowed next day, with the call to all Right Sector supporters to keep fighting with terrorism in Anti-terrorist operation zone.
Ukraine's radical nationalist Right Sector movement claimed 04 June 2014 that the government guaranteed it provisions, armament and collaboration with state agencies in the course of the special operation in the country's east, the UNN news agency reported, citing the movement's leader Borislav Bereza. "As of today, we are ready to accommodate and integrate entirely all territorial defense squadrons, all the force structures, taking into account that we have been guaranteed provisions, armament and proper collaboration with all state agencies. As of today, we have slightly more than 5,000 prepared personnel under mobilization. At this moment, I think they will be more," Bereza said.
The Right Sector demanded in mid-August 2014 that President Petro Poroshenko clean out the Interior Ministry staff members they considered disloyal and closed all criminal cases launched against the movement’s members, threatening to otherwise withdraw from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine and start moving toward the Ukrainian capital. In turn, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov responded to the ultimatum of the Right Sector, accusing Yarosh of lying to his own people. Avakov doubted that the Right Sector militants were present anywhere near the front line and claimed nobody had actually seen them "other than on photo and video." On August 17, Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh reversed his statement, saying the demands were met in part and that the militants will continue to fight against the independence supporters in the east of Ukraine and will not march on Kiev.
Arsen Avakov, Minister of Internal Affairs, reported 11 August 2014 "Since the beginning of the ATO to the morning of the 9th of August, we have lost 46 people (25 from the National Guard, 21 of the MOI Special Forces). Wounded—225 people (152 from the National Guard, 73 from the MOI)." Almost 10,000 Interior Ministry troops and National Guard personnel were taking part in the operation in Donbas, Ukraine's interior minister Arsen Avakov said 18 August 2014. "The National Guard and Interior Ministry's combined force in the zone of the counterterrorism operation has increased to almost 10,000. It consists of 25 Interior Ministry battalions, joined by volunteers, plus combined detachments, the National Guard's regular special units and volunteer battalions of the National Guard, including the "Donbas" battalion and the General Kulchytsky battalion (former 1st and 2nd reserve formations)," Avakov wrote.
In a meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk 08 September 2014, Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty urged the Ukrainian government to stop abuses and war crimes by volunteer battalions operating alongside regular Ukrainian armed forces. “The Ukrainian authorities must not replicate the lawlessness and abuses that have prevailed in areas previously held by separatists,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International Secretary General from Kyiv. Amnesty International documented a growing spate of abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, robbery, extortion, and possible executions committed by the Aidar battalion. Some of these amount to war crimes. Aidar is one of more than thirty so-called volunteer battalions to have emerged in the wake of the conflict which have been loosely integrated into Ukrainian security structures as they seek to retake separatist held areas.
Ukrainian volunteer battalions, operating in the southeast of the country, will be put under the command of the country's army, Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak has said 11 November 2014. "With regard to the regional defense battalions, a decision has been made for them to become part of the regular armed forces," Poltorak said as quoted by Ukraine's Ukrinform agency. According to the defense minister, the move will help better control and plan the battalions' actions.
The Ukrainian nationalist Aidar battalion was officially disbanded and reorganized as the 24th Separate Assault Battalion of the Ukrainian Ground Forces on 02 March 2015. The notorious battalion was formed in May 2014 following the Maidan revolution in Kiev and since then had been repeatedly accused of blatant human rights violations in eastern Ukraine. Particularly, in September 2014, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations publicly slammed Aidar for "widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, theft, extortion, possible executions."
The volunteer battalion Right Sector is ready to join the Ukrainian Army as a separate division under the command of Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh. "We can only agree on 'legalization' in one situation: if the volunteer Ukrainian corps remains a whole structure and if we continue reporting directly to our leader Dmytro Yarosh," Right Sector press officer Artem Skoropadsky told reporters on 27 March 2015.
"We want everything to stay as it is now: we are now cooperating with the Defense Ministry and the Ukrainian Security Service," Skoropadsky said. "There should be no direct command. We don't want any generals sent to Right sector to command it," Skoropadsky said.
Responding to a question as to whether negotiations are being conducted with Defense Ministry officials on the inclusion of Right Sector in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in this format, he answered in the affirmative: "Negotiations are still being conducted and I don't know what is being offered there as of this morning. Maybe during the way."
Skoropadsky said offers to join the Ukrainian Army have been made to Right Sector before, but those offers were "various," including those that were unacceptable to other organization, specifically, "the offer to disband the force and go to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces through district military commissariats" or to join the Ukrainian National Guard.
Skoropadsky said "the idea of disbanding the volunteer Ukrainian corps Right sector is also unacceptable." Because we have groups, including intelligence groups, subversive groups, attack groups, where people are selected. It seems to me it will be very bad for the country's defense capability to disband them now and make them ordinary privates, he said. The Right Sector spokesman also believed the proposal on Right sector's integration in the structure of the Ukrainian National Guard is unacceptable "because the National Guard is a police force, and we demand full-fledged lustration in the Interior Ministry."
In the eyes of many Ukrainians, the volunteer fighters were heroes for helping the weak regular army resist pro-Russian separatists. In the view of the government, however, some of the volunteers had become a problem, even a law unto themselves. President Petro Poroshenko now says that all "illegal groups" must disarm because they threaten to make the country even more unstable than it already is. "No political force should have, and will not have, any kind of armed cells. No political organization has the right to establish ... criminal groups," Poroshenko said on 13 July 2015.
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