August 23, 2017

First on the Front Lines – the Role of Volunteers in Countering Russia’s Military Aggression against Ukraine

Sergei Loiko

Russia’s military aggression gave rise to many spontaneous social and economic developments in Ukraine.

At this critical moment, and against the backdrop of a series of dramatic events – the Revolution of Dignity in 2013–2014, the subsequent annexation of Crimea, and the armed conflict in the east of the country that developed from artificially provoked separatist sentiments directed from outside the region – people showed a strong will to self-organise, albeit for a short period of time. Thus, one can say that the birth of the mass volunteer movement played a decisive role in preserving the integrity of the Ukrainian state, thereby meeting the demands of the period of crisis. The patriotically-minded population, aware of the significant dangers posed by ongoing events, sought to fill the gaps of leadership that existed not only in political and socio-economic realms, but also in defence and national security. The voluntary movement thus partly assumed several functions of a government that had shown itself unable to respond effectively to hybrid threats – making it a unique phenomenon in the history of modern Europe. But just who were these volunteers? What motivated them and brought them together? How could ordinary people spontaneously organise themselves to contain the military threat – and to be first on the front lines?

To explore such questions, ICDS established an interdisciplinary research team to study the involvement of volunteers in defending Ukraine against Russia’s aggression. Recognising that our study cannot cover every single aspect of this complex phenomenon, our objective instead has been a more modest one: to provide the public with an outside perspective that can foster deeper understanding of how a volunteer military movement can be formed during a chaotic period of active military operations. We hope that this analysis will be also useful to the Baltic states, where volunteers are already extensively involved in national defence.

As expected, when we started the project we found that the phenomenon of military volunteers in Ukraine had been rather thinly studied. It is thus welcome that some publications covering and highlighting this topic have been released during our research period. It should also be noted that the personal stories of those who were “first on the front lines” still carry enormous emotional weight. In a country that is de facto still at war, it is difficult to track, fully understand, or reliably analyse complex processes such as the volunteer movement. Accordingly, our work required the development of an effective and objective approach to analysing the processes of creating, developing and integrating volunteer units. We hope that this report will serve as a starting point for further research and expert discussion.

Download: First on the front lines—the role of volunteers in countering Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine (PDF)