So with all this Right Sector business, it’s high time to tackle the question of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions – or, as they are better known to the West, ‘Ukrainian far right nationalistic warlord militias’©. This is, again, an exxageration, and one badly out of date.
Volunteer battalions, though, are militias in the original sense of word – i.e. fighting forces composed of non-professional fighters. This was not always the rule – volunteer battalions, at different times, had people with previous combat experience: one prominent example is the Myrotvorets battalion, composed of former Ukrainian peacekeepers; it is also among the most reasonable battalions, more on that later. Not all volunteer battalions subscribe to nationalistic or even neo-Nazi ideas, although such people exist and such formations exist; if anything, however, these people subscribe to the wartime Ukrainian nationalism I’ve mentioned earlier (not the ‘kill-all-Moskali’ kind).
The first thing to understand when talking about volunteer battalions is that they were an ad hoc decision; a VERY ad hoc decision, and one that ultimately paid off. Picture Ukraine in April 2014, with pro-Russian demonstrations in half the country and Mr. Girkin on the loose in the East. The Armed Forces have around 5000 combat-ready personnel, who then proceeded to surrender to unarmed protesters. The law enforcement is demoralized, so much that special police units had to be pulled from all over the country just to retake Kharkiv’s captured administration building. Special forces have to actually hold the line at Slovyansk; two newly-formed National Guard battalions are also sent there. It is clear this is not enough; more to the point, social pressure is excessively high. What to do then?
The answer was thus – authorize people to form into volunteer battalions. Give them weapons and let them fight. At that point we had no reason to think separatists would have tanks, artillery or Russian servicemen on vacation; it was thought what were ostensibly light infantry units would be enough. Thus volunteer battalions were born. Their successes are often overstated, but they were, without a doubt, important participants in the 2014 summer campaign. That summer would ultimately prove to be their end.
Again, we should turn to Ukrainian Crisis Media Center and their excellent info posters on the subject:
As you can see on the posters, there are two breeds of volunteer battalions: those under the MVS (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and those under the MoD; the first are either National Guard or ostensibly militsiya, while the other are either Armed Forces or territorial defense. Basically, every regional governor was obliged to authorize a territorial battalion, while every regional militsiya commander was obliged to do the same, only with ‘special task battalions’. This is the main difference; MVS battalions get used in a law enforcement role, while MoD battalions are not; from my point of view MVS does it better. On a plus side MVS battalions were integrated into the larger militsiya force to begin with, thus less integration problems. More on that later.
As of October 2014, all territorial defense battalions were integrated into the Armed Forces as ‘separate motor rifle battalions’, thus subordinating them to Army command. One battalion was disbanded for desertion in August; for the rest it was a win-win situation: they retain some degree of autonomy while getting heavier equipment in exchange. This is actually significant. Ukrainian government was initially reluctant to provide volunteers with even light arms; this has been swiftly rectified, and the battalions had been asking for heavier arms ever since. However, all heavy equipment is firmly under government control, and would be provided only if the battalions integrated. Which they did.
Azov, the notorious neo-Nazi unit, was actually integrated one of the soonest, and is now a full-blown regiment with armored units and artillery assets. However, not only is it a part of the National Guard (thus finally lending credibility to Russian propaganda’s ‘Nazi Guard’ moniker), it is also under very strict control. Azov’s leader, Biletsky, was convicted and imprisoned during the Ancient Regime; as far as I know, Interior Minister Avakov basically found him and offered him a commission in exchange for his loyalty. Thus Biletsky became a Lieutenant Colonel, and his neo-Nazi buddies are kept on a tight government leash. In exchange, they are allowed to use black suns (it’s an ancient Slavic symbol of good luck!) and wolfsangels (it’s not a Wolfsangel, it’s totally different!) in their imagery, but only if they play good. As I said, Azov is the cat that catches mice; so long as it does that, I’m not particularly concerned with its color.
Donbass battalion is another thing; its illustrious leader is the legendary battalion commander Semen Semenchenko, whose name sounds suspiciously like semen; a man with zero combat experience, who managed to get his unit into deep shit not once, but several times, each time turning it into a major PR stunt. That thing with Ilovaysk in August was partially Semen’s doing; volunteer battalions, led by Donbass, got into Ilovaysk, thus overextending, and got surrounded. Our man Semen bailed, apparently wounded, and started rousing public opinion to pressurize the Army into moving to relieve Ilovaysk; when they did, they were routed, too, this time not by separatists, but by vacationing Russians. Put it mildly, it was a mess, yet this mess catapulted Semen into a Rada seat and gave him carte blanche to rail on the ‘incompetent army commanders’, shit he continues to this day. Soon afterwards part of Donbass got fed up with Semen and left to form a Donbass-Ukraine battalion in the Armed Forces. Semen was later seen at Debaltsevo shortly before Ukrainian troops had to withdraw from there, leading to some unsavory rumors.
This is all due to the fact volunteer battalions have much better PR than the Army or the National Guard does; the Guard carries the stigma of being ‘cops’ (the actual word is ‘musora’, a degoratory word for policemen in Russia and Ukraine), and the Army has ‘incompetent commanders’, ‘traitor generals’, ‘loyal to Poroshenko-Valtsman’, etc, while volunteers are ‘stalwart defenders of Ukraine’ and their word is to be trusted over any official sources. This is why people like Semen Semenchenko can stir up shit and provoke hysteria and get off scot free while all the way criticizing the blundering government who tries to appease the public and fails. This is also why Right Sector are such drama whores now; they are basically playing the same ‘stalwart defenders of Ukraine’ vs ‘incompetent army’ card. People like Semen, however, are worse, if only because they’re now MPs and popular media persons.
This is probably one of the reasons volunteer battalions got integrated so smoothly in October; their commanders were too busy getting into comfy seats in the Rada, all on a patriotic ‘support-our-troops’ platform. What they’re really saying is that you should support their troops – stalwart defenders of Ukraine who’d be in Rostov by now if the traitorous and criminal government did not sell out to Putin and declare ceasefires. That volunteer battalions are basically light infantry units with little organic armor or artillery fire support is lost on the sadly gullible public, which remembers the 2014 summer campaign, when the volunteers’ exploits were intensively reported by the media. The fact that things are different from the 2014 summer campaign is beyond them.
Of course, the situation is slightly less dire right now; by nature, the Armed Forces get more publicity now, and most 2014 battalion commanders are now politicians through and through; Ukrainian law forbids elected officials from holding government or military office, so people like Semenchenko have to do with being ‘honorary commanders’ with progressively less say in how their battalions are run. One glaring example is Aidar’s Serhey Melnichuk, who tried opposing his battalion’s integration into the Army to the point there were, for a time, two different Aidars – one fighting and one protesting in Kyiv. Melnichuk got an investigation for his troubles, and is soon to be relieved of his MP immunity, so there’s that.
To wrap it off, let’s speak about the notorious ‘nationalistic warlords’; besides Azov, who will continue being Ukraine’s PR nightmare, there are Right Sector’s Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, now partially integrated into Armed Forces, and OUN, now almost completely integrated into Armed Forces. Last summer, everyone and their dog had a battalion; naturally, Svoboda jumped on the bandwagon in the effort to save their fleeting votes. This did not turn out as predicted and Sich battalion quietly integrated into the Army in October. Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party (whose ideology is not so much ‘nationalist’ as ‘batshit insane populist’) tried to repeat Liashko’s presidential campaign stunt with a Shakhtarsk battalion, which proceeded to cut ties with Liashko pretty fast and renamed itself Tornado. Liashko then offered Aidar’s Melnichuk a place on his party list. Seeing as how all those are firmly under Armed Forces command now, I have trouble calling them ‘nationalistic warlord militias’. To Ukraine’s credit, it managed to largely avoid that problem; even Right Sector is pretty close to giving up and integrating, seeing how their escapades aren’t earning them much popular support.
One another thing to remember while talking about ‘warlord militias’ is that ‘battalion’ is, most of the time, just a fancy word; most volunteer battalions never went above 500 people, and many of them are more like overblown companies than battalions. Moreover, membership fluctuated wildly because there was actually nothing binding for battalion members: they could leave at any time and then come back later. It is no wonder some of them ran when shit hit the fan. While motivated, they most of the time lacked unit coherence inherent in army units, also not doing them wonders. More than a few times volunteer battalions flat out refused to go into combat, even despite being supposedly ‘assault units’; this task had to be carried out by the army. This is, again, where MVS had it better; its volunteer battalions were intended as patrol police from the start, automatically relegating them to a support role in relation to the regular army or National Guard (which is itself intended to be a reserve force).
So there you have it. Probably you’ll have a better idea about Ukrainian volunteer battalions and their overblown image now.
You can also set your watch to people like Semen Semenchenko harping about how all is lost, army command is incompetent and our troops are surrounded right about now, as shit gets real in Mar’inka.