In the battle between Ukraine and Russian separatists, shady private armies take the field

May 5, 2015
Ukraine's voluntary militia called the Azov Battalion holds artillery training in east Ukraine's village of Urzuf that sits west of the port city of Mariupol

Ukraine’s voluntary militia called the Azov Battalion holds artillery training in east Ukraine, west of the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

While the ceasefire agreement between the Ukrainian government and separatist rebels in the eastern part of the country seems largely to be holding, a recent showdown in Kiev between a Ukrainian oligarch and the government revealed one of the country’s ongoing challenges: private military battalions that do not always operate under the central government’s control.

In March, members of the private army backed by tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky showed up at the headquarters of the state-owned oil company, UkrTransNafta. The standoff occurred after Kiev fired the company’s chief executive officer — an ally of Kolomoisky’s. Kolomoisky said that he was trying to protect the company from an illegal takeover.

More than 30 of these private battalions, comprised mostly of volunteer soldiers, exist throughout Ukraine. Although all have been brought under the authority of the military or the National Guard, the post-Maidan government is still struggling to control them.

Ukraine’s military is so weak that after the Russian Federation seized Crimea, Russian-sponsored separatists were able to take over large swathes of eastern Ukraine. Private battalions, funded partially by Ukrainian oligarchs, stepped into this vacuum and played a key role in stopping the separatists’ advance.

Ukraine's voluntary militia called the Azov Battalion holds artillery training in east Ukraine's village of Urzuf that sits west of the port city of Mariupol

Ukraine’s voluntary militia called the Azov Battalion holds artillery training March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

By supplying weapons to the battalions and in some cases paying recruits, Ukraine’s richest men are defending their country — and also protecting their own economic interests. Many of the oligarchs amassed great wealth by using their political connections to purchase government assets at knockdown prices, siphon off profits from state-owned companies and bribe Ukrainian officials to win state contracts.

When the Maidan protesters overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovich, they demanded that the new government clamp down on the oligarchs’ abuse of power. Instead, many became even more powerful: Kiev handed Kolomoisky and mining tycoon Serhiy Taruta governor posts in important eastern regions of Ukraine, for example.

Many of these paramilitary groups are accused of abusing the citizens they are charged with protecting. Amnesty International has reported that the Aidar battalion — also partially funded by Kolomoisky — committed war crimes, including illegal abductions, unlawful detention, robbery, extortion and even possible executions.

Other pro-Kiev private battalions have starved civilians as a form of warfare, preventing aid convoys from reaching separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, according to the Amnesty report.

Some of Ukraine’s private battalions have blackened the country’s international reputation with their extremist views. The Azov battalion, partially funded by Taruta and Kolomoisky, uses the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol as its logo, and many of its members openly espouse neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic views. The battalion members have spoken about “bringing the war to Kiev,” and said that Ukraine needs “a strong dictator to come to power who could shed plenty of blood but unite the nation in the process.”

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has made clear his intention to rein in Ukraine’s volunteer warriors. Days after Kolomoisky’s soldiers appeared at UkrTransNafta, he said that he would not tolerate oligarchs with “pocket armies” and then fired Kolomoisky from his perch as the governor of Dnipropetrovsk.

By bringing the private volunteers under Kiev’s full control, Ukraine will benefit in a number of ways. The volunteer battalions will receive the same training as the military, which should help them to better integrate their tactics. They’ll qualify for regular military benefits and pensions. Finally, they will be subject to military law, which allows the government to better deal with any criminal or human rights violations that they commit.

Poroshenko must contend with challenges like widespread corruption, economic collapse and the Russian-supported separatists. With rumors of a possible spring offensive planned by the separatists, he will not want to risk more confrontations like the one involving Kolomoisky. The Ukrainian government is not going to be able to govern their country if powerful private militias operate as freelancers outside of state control.

Poroshenko’s effort to rein in Ukraine’s volunteer warriors — like his fight against corruption — may be a case of two steps forward, and one step back.

19 comments

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Looks like US supports the wrong side again…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Personally, I do not think recruiting battalions with extremist views will bring a benefit to a country. I am also a bit confused regarding “military law and possibility for the government to better deal with any criminal or human rights violations that the army commits.” Human right violations and criminal should be punished.

Posted by Filipp | Report as abusive

No private armies there means Ukraine swallowed by neo-soviet People Republics (run by Russian military, temporarily called there vacationers, in fact Russian soldiers turned mercenaries), and forever established as impoverished huge slave labor camp working for the benefit of Russian grandeur. Regular Ukrainian Army still under bad management (on all accounts) by no means is ready to show strength needed to defend Ukraine.

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

I’m surprised that coverage of incorporation of the Azov and other militias into the Ukrainian military structure has missed the main point. One of the conditions which must be satisfied for progress towards a country joining NATO is that the country’s armed forces must be under democratic control. So the integration of the Azov battalion and other militias into the formal Ukrainian Military structure was essential if Ukraine was to progress its stated desire to join NATO.
Of course the real question remains: to what extent will the militias display loyalty to the government, and to what extent will their presence influence how Kiev pursues its policies towards Eastern Ukraine?

Posted by andrusha29 | Report as abusive

Many of the oligarchs amassed great wealth by using their political connections to purchase government assets at knockdown prices, siphon off profits from state-owned companies and bribe Ukrainian officials to win state contracts.

Rather sounds like our USA DOD Contractors and others with “Armies of lobbyists”

Posted by fwrfwr | Report as abusive

When the state allows unlimited concentration of wealth by a few, stripping both the state and the masses of the funds necessary for services to provide for society’s needs, then feudalism will take over, where might rules with boot licking obedience for the rest.
Hence private armies loyal to their paymaster in the Ukraine,
The West will catch up to Russia, China and other dictatorships unabashed white washing of whatever makes the ruling cadre richer and more powerful,at the expense of all others, but the efforts of our fore-fathers to provide a free and just society for all to profit from and enjoy life is taking some effort to dismantle. We are trying though, in the US police forces are selling auxillary police badges to bolster budgets, etc., one step from a billionaire buying a hundred of ’em and giving them out to his paid people, loyal to him.

Posted by DellStator | Report as abusive

Another lefty journalist that cannot bear to see the success of a people defending their freedom with their natural right to bear arms in self-defense.

Posted by guntrust | Report as abusive

To Macedonian: US supports right side! The author’s article is based on Russian propaganda instead of truth.

Posted by ukrainia | Report as abusive

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aeschylus
That’s the aim of Putin’s propaganda machine and authors like Josh Cohen…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

First, where’s the proof these volunteer’s are hurting civilians? Was Amensty International on site?? I don’t think the seperatists would let them in. Additionally, Putin propaganda has found a way to accuse these armies for all kinds of things they did not do. Maybe they gave the seperatists what the seperatists gave them? This author like so many others are turning against Ukraine. Putin must be paying them more?

Posted by puttypants | Report as abusive

The best way to keep Ukraine in one piece and Russia at bay is to gradually incorporate these battalions into government forces.

Since the Ukrainian army is still demoralised and studded with Russian agents, moles and spies, assigning them as territorial defence units to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, that is virtually free from any Russian influence, seems to be the best choice.

It’s not by chance that the US 173 Airborne trainers train these volunteers, because they’re the best and the most reliable Ukrainian soldiers who can be entrusted modern US precision weapons and advanced electronic combat equipment. The oligarchs will eventually comply, as under Russian occupation they may lose everything.

The terrorists, on the other hand, are totally unable to even introduce basic military discipline into their ranks, let alone govern the occupied territories.

Posted by observer48 | Report as abusive

“The Azov battalion, partially funded by Taruta and Kolomoisky, uses the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol as its logo, and many of its members openly espouse neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic views.”
How much did Kremlin paid you for this? Google Wolfsangel and ідея нації and see the difference.
Moronic journalism…this ‘article’ is so full of bias and garbage

Posted by tal-elmar | Report as abusive

The Battalions consists of very motivated troops , and they are not burdened by a command structure full of Russian agents and traitors. But they are organized as police forces. This meant that they did not get any heavy weapons when they could have made the huge difference. Also , To have more than 1 command structure is not good. Organization will be improved and they get better weapons – but too late and too little. Now they fight regular Russian professional troops and they are still behind. The Battalions are fighting for Ukraine , and they do this much better than the regular army. The task is to make a command that these battalions can accept and trust. It is also a good idea to let the battalions send some of their troops to special training with the foreign instructors from USA , Canada , GB – ect This is probably happening now.

Posted by jacobsch | Report as abusive

There is no alternative for Poroshenko other than to have neutral policy of his country to take care of the business interests of both EU and Russia and there by to solve the problem of Russian backed rebels.If that happens this new problem of private army will automatically go.He has also to find out who is supporting this private army and how they get arms and from where.Rich oligarchs can not create such force only on the strength of money.No.This new private army seems to be a conspiracy.may be of Ukraine’s own or of some super powers.In any case troubles of Ukraine are multiplying for no fault of people of Ukraine at large.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The major points of the article are wrong:
1. NATO, USA, OSCE confirmed many times on a daily bases that the ceasefire agreement violated many times by Russian forces (they are not separatists)
2. We don’t have “private armies” on the front line, recruiting battalions report to the government.
So, the bigest problem is shelling of Ukrainian troops by Russian heavy artillery and MRL

Posted by miamiseal | Report as abusive

How can we support fighters wearing the signs deployed by Nazis? I thought that usage of Nazi symbols is outlawed in the Ukraine… Here is what I found on wikipedia on the wolfsangel.

Wolfsangel was an initial symbol of the Nazi Party.[4] In World War II the sign and its elements were used by various Nazi German storm divisions such as the Waffen-SS Division Das Reich and the Waffen-SS Division Landstorm Nederland.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Ukrainian NAZI’s.

The number of administrators and guards at Treblinka was very small in relation to the number of people they murdered. The camp commandant, his deputy and approximately 30 SS officers (from the German T4 Euthanasia programme) were supported by up to 120 Ukrainian soldiers, who worked as camp guards.
Asbildungslager Trawniki and carried service almost in all KL in East. Sometimes they called trawnik-manner or Wachmannschaft. Always they wore old Allgemeine SS black uniform with light blue facings.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

How can one forget!
In Germany, in November 1941 the Ukrainian personnel of the Legion was reorganized into the 201st Schutzmannschaft Battalion. It numbered 650 persons which served for one year at Belarus before disbanding.

Many of its members, especially the commanding officers, went on to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and 14 of its members joined SS-Freiwilligen-Schützen-Division «Galizien» in spring 1943.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Observer48 you would support oligarchs (basically using Nazi tactics)? An label Russian speaking Ukrainians some that have been there for centuries as terrorists? Yet condone the shelling of Eastern cities? Amazing!
As far as untrained, undisciplined, and unable to organize, could you explain how NATO, coalition forces have set Iraq on a stable path? Or how much, much better Afghanistan is? Trillions, and thousands of lives lost? Those in ISIL won’t stand a chance and should have folded up with your type of logic. Even our shining success in Yemen must be dazzling too!

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive