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Volunteer troops can be a curse, not a blessing. But Ukraine may be figuring it out.

Kyiv also called on volunteers in 2014 to defend the country

Ukrainian friends embrace as they stand in line to join the Territorial Defense Forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged citizens to step forward and help defend the country against the massive Russian attack. Kyiv had earlier called on volunteers to join territorial defense battalions training for the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion.

After Russia attacked Ukraine, Zelensky announced mass mobilization. About 37,000 volunteers joined the territorial defense forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF).

Volunteer fighters were seen as national heroes in 2014, when the Russian-backed separatist war began in Donbas and the military was unprepared for the challenges it faced in eastern Ukraine. However, some analysts worried that those volunteer forces posed a threat to domestic governance and security.

In the expanded war with Russia now unfolding, will the government’s call for volunteers pose similar risks? My research finds that extensive changes have helped boost the military’s expertise, improved the government’s ability to control its forces, and limit opportunities for volunteer formations to defy Kyiv’s political authority — all of which suggest Ukraine’s volunteers in 2022 pose less of a risk.

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Volunteer battalions didn’t always fall in line

In March 2014, the Ukrainian government called on volunteers to defend the country. Legally, volunteer formations were supposed to operate under the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA). In reality, many independently funded formations had extensive operational and political autonomy, and their own political goals. High levels of motivation and relative independence made these volunteers capable defenders of Ukraine — but also enabled them to challenge the government.

Here are some examples. In February 2015, representatives of 17 battalions initiated the creation of an alternative General Staff, separate from the UAF, to coordinate the actions of the volunteers. In December 2016, the leaders of the “Donbas” and “Aidar” battalions announced an economic blockade of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” something Kyiv had not ordered. Ukraine’s government then had no choice but to adopt the blockade as its official policy.

And in the fall of 2019, the former commander of the “Azov” battalion brought about 100 veteran fighters to Zolote, in Luhansk oblast, to block the president’s decision to begin disengaging troops, in compliance with the Minsk Protocol.

Moves like this raised concerns about the power and intention of Ukraine’s volunteer forces. However, my research indicates that the factors that enabled the battalions to intervene in politics after 2014 are not present today, making the emergence of new challengers unlikely. Here’s what has changed.

Ukraine’s military is ready to tackle the threat

In April 2014, Kyiv identified the threat in eastern Ukraine as “separatism and the use of weapons against your own […] state.” Since dealing with internal threats was beyond the UAF’s expertise, the military was unprepared for the challenge. On April 17, 2014, in Kramatorsk, Donetsk oblast, the 25th Airborne Brigade surrendered to a crowd of local people. The officers and soldiers explained that no one trained them to deal with civilians or fight within the cities. A series of similar events set the stage for volunteer battalions eager to fight the nonuniformed separatists, rather than the military taking the lead.

By contrast, in 2022, a more professionalized UAF has been trained to address a broad range of contingencies related to Russian aggression. The first few days of fighting in Ukraine showed the UAF’s ability to reverse the advancement of Russia’s superior forces, take down aircraft and resist diversionary groups in Ukrainian cities. This closer alignment between the nature of the threat and the redefined UAF’s expertise means that in 2022, the volunteers will assist the military and not replace it.

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Kyiv now controls the use of force

Kyiv’s attempts to mobilize troops in the spring of 2014 exposed the government’s inability to control a military that was both highly bureaucratized and not combat-ready. Before 2014, the UAF resembled an extensive bureaucracy more than a capable military. Experts I interviewed in Kyiv noted that the UAF’s expertise was not fighting but managing paperwork, which earned it a pejorative nickname — the Ukrainian Paper Army.

At the time, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that about 30 percent of the UAF conscripts abandoned their positions as the war in Donbas broke out. Many who remained tried to avoid fighting by reporting their equipment lost in combat — and secretly providing it to the volunteer battalions, against the government’s direct orders. At the outset of the fighting, the lack of civilian control over the military allowed some volunteer battalions to maintain significant autonomy and build a heroic image, in contrast to what many Ukrainians saw as incompetent political elites and an impotent military.

Professionalization of the UAF since 2014 has made it subordinate to Kyiv’s policies. In fall 2019, when battalion veterans tried to prevent the planned disengagement, the UAF worked with law enforcement to overcome volunteers’ opposition. Military experts I interviewed in Kyiv in December 2019 noted that since the start of the Donbas conflict, conscripts and politically motivated volunteers alike had largely been replaced by professional contract soldiers. Having a reliable military allowed President Volodymyr Zelensky to confront the renegade battalions and proceed with his preferred policy option.

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Kyiv has also managed to bring most volunteers under civilian control within the MoD and MoIA structures. Most recently, a new law in January declared the president of Ukraine the supreme commander in chief over the volunteers through the MoD and UAF structures in a top-down manner.

So far, the early days of war suggest that this mechanism is working. This improved civilian control over the use of force decreases the chances that volunteers will challenge Ukraine’s democracy and security in the future.

Under the current conditions, Kyiv’s control over a professional and capable military is essential for defending Ukraine from the Russian aggression. It is also essential for mitigating any risks that armed volunteers would become a challenge to Ukraine’s security and democracy in the future.

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Polina Beliakova (@Beliakova_P) is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University focusing on civil-military relations, international security and post-Soviet politics.

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