November 4, 2015

On Ukraine’s Frontline: The Role of the Volunteer Spirit in Rebooting the Ukrainian Army

Strengthening Ukraine’s Defence is Still Highly Compelling

Quoting a fighter in the Ukrainian Azov regiment [now part of the National Guard of Ukraine, formerly a volunteer paramilitary unit] I met in Mariupol: “if two years ago when the actual war started we would have had all the equipment we are acquiring and training on now, the major part of lost guys and civilians would be alive”.

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has claimed around 6,800 lives. According to Ukraine’s government officials, more than 1,700 volunteer and regular paramilitary unit fighters have lost their lives and 6,226 (some sources indicate up to 10 K) have been injured during the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) fighting Russia-backed separatists and Russian servicemen. Among civilians, the death toll exceeds 6,000 from the moment active offensives started in Donbas, the region in eastern Ukraine. The numbers are approximate if we start counting the number missing in action, captive, disabled physically and traumatized psychologically on both military and civilian sides in Ukraine. The number of casualties reached a peak during key battles, such as the encirclement of Ilovays’k, Debaltseve, and the no less devastating clashes in Pisky, Vuglegirs’k, Novoazovs’k, Shyrokyne, Mariupil. The Ukrainian army was not ready to respond to the offensive due to two simple reasons: the absence of adequately trained forces and insufficient, well-maintained equipment. It lacked the basics.

Yet, in a year and a half, Ukraine’s defence sector has transformed in an unexpected manner for everyone: the enemy, European partners and Ukraine itself. Starting from the capabilities it has acquired to the composition – volunteer and regular  – of the forces it has today. Now, when the Minsk agreement is mostly holding, a space for taking a breath has opened but with strings attached. The case for strengthening Ukraine’s defence is still highly compelling. Developing its capabilities, training and transforming the image of the army is something Ukraine will have to focus on in the near future.

“It is important to seize the moment when the bullets are not showering in the east of Ukraine and not let all men and women with fighting experience vanish from sight,” shared one Donbas battalion fighter.

There are certainly a number of challenges and tough decisions ahead, but also new opportunities as we have learned and identified during the field trip to Ukraine in October 2015. Our team composed of ICDS, ERR Radio 4, Estonian Defence College and Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit) went to Ukraine to see the reality on the ground. For 8 days we took several trains, met both regular and volunteer military forces, held tens of interviews and countless discussions, received tough information on the key battles and direct access to those who spent the last year and a half in the ATO zone. One part of our team was lucky to get to Mariupol and was hosted by the Azov volunteer regiment and Donbas battalion ––now special units of the National Guard—and DUK (Ukrainian Volunteer Corps of the Right Sector party), which could partially become a part of the Security Service of Ukraine, SBU, and now remains an entirely volunteer formation. This information now serves as the basis for my own conclusions I will share here.

Mariupil: The Pressure Still in the Air
After a 20-hour train trip, crossing 784 kilometres we got off at Mariupil station located 27 kilometres from the demarcation line of the Russian-backed separatist controlled territories of Ukraine. Ukrainian flags and patriotic symbols became common across Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity (Maidan), but in this frontline city, which was occupied and ruled by the separatist groups a year ago, the yellow-blew patches on military uniforms serve as an emotional reminder for many locals of their belonging and their protection, but in some cases as an irritation and opposition.

The pressure is still in the air. The Society of Assistance for the Defence of Ukraine (SADU) in Mariupil––an organization focusing on patriotic education and military education for civilians––shared their experience working with the civilians in the ATO area. Mariupil is a particularly challenging environment; the old system and authorities are difficult to break. Renat Akhmetov––a regional oligarch––controls the media to push his agenda in the city, where his business is still alive unlike in his former business capital Donetsk, which is on the other side of the demarcation line, now controlled by the separatists. Due to closed access to media channels, patriotic organizations and activists promoting patriotic education in the defence sector mainly use direct, face-to-face outreach techniques in Mariupil educational institutions. Schoolteachers invite battalion fighters and regular forces to share their experiences (sometimes unofficially), local activists try to prevent the Opposition Block – successor of the Party of Regions – from taking over the city and recreating what has been referred to as Donetsk-2, which would be Akhmentov’s new industrial base and business capital.

Driving further from Mariupil to visit regimental facilities, the impression of the front line city is clear. A number of checkpoints exist around the city––now controlled by the forces of the National Guard––and highway signs indicate that Volnovakha and Donetsk are located too close to realize how unreachable those territories are now.

For the volunteer units we met, Mariupil is a fort post resisting the aggressor. “At one point Mariupil seemed to be lost, the government leadership were afraid to take the risk necessary to retake the city, unlike us [the volunteer units],” explained one volunteer regiment fighter. Now, all volunteer units had to hand over their positions to regular units according to the Minsk agreement. The logic is clear and correct, yet it brought up many questions about the future direction every volunteer paramilitary unit is planning to follow now, when they believe their level of combat training is high and they have seen its effectiveness.

Integration of Volunteer Units into the Regular Army: From Volunteer Spirit to a Disciplined System?
The fighters from the volunteer military units expressed dissatisfaction not only with the government decision to pull them out of the ATO area and away from the demarcation line, but to minimize their activities and visibility in the Mariupil area. Rebranding the volunteers within regular military units might be a painful process for the fighters, but it comes with the promise of building a well-trained and experienced army.

Both regular and volunteer units do cooperate. Yet there are different attitudes among the volunteers in regard to the on-going integration of the volunteer paramilitary units into the regular forces. Some fear the loss of the collegiality and the minimal hierarchy in the system they have managed to create. Some believe that the process has one clear goal: to eliminate all volunteer based activities and formations. The latter is a common sentiment not only among the military, but also other volunteer organizations.

For many Ukrainians, the volunteer movement became the driving force during the Revolution of Dignity (Maidan) and quickly transformed into a source of crowdfunding for food supplies, ammunition and equipment for both the volunteer fighters and mobilized conscripts. Some believe that through rapid self-organization the volunteer battalions and territorial defence units became the first force to deter the aggressor from moving further into Ukrainian territory.

Despite this division of opinion, a solution and cooperation between the government institutions and a vast network of volunteer organizations is possible. During meetings we had with volunteer organizations and paramilitary units, the word ‘Kaitseliit’ [as a model for a potential Ukrainian defence league] seemed to become a buzzword. The idea of an umbrella organization for all volunteer formations, which duplicated their efforts to promote issues of defence, security and military training among all clusters of the population, would be the best solution for two strategic reasons. First, it would unify the efforts of all defence-oriented organizations, and therefore, multiply the impact. Second, it would facilitate coordination between all volunteer organizations and government institutions. The latter can be achieved on the precondition that both sides are open to learn from each other. The chain of command in the National Guard of the Armed Forces could learn from the tactics the volunteer units succeeded in developing, being at some point more mobile. On the other side, the volunteer formations would have to accept that a level of regulation and control is needed to filter the units of criminal elements and untrustworthy members.

Every fighter with combat experience has several options. The types of volunteers that came not only with the motivation to fight the war, but who also see their input in the future reboot of the Ukrainian army, can become the basis of a future professional military. We saw that Azov, Donbas and Dnepr-1 (visited in Dnipropetrivs’k by the second part of our team) are alike in their vision – to remain in the National Guard and Ministry of Interior as special force units and influence, by their example, the defence and security reform.

When I asked what preconditions they consider necessary before investing their professional life in the military, one fighter stressed that “a future military professional in the Ukrainian forces should feel that the government is investing in him” by providing high quality ammunition, equipment and salary. “A soldier should not be forced first to survive in the field due to lack of supplies and only then think how to accomplish the task set by the chain of command,” he added.

During the time of the war, more than fifty battalions were formed, with up to 7,000 soldiers, the Azov and Donbas battalions are by far the largest with 1,000 and 900 soldiers respectively plus an extensive civilian support network. The ceasefire makes it possible to pay more attention to rebuilding the Ukrainian army, particularly seizing the moment when the transformation has actually started. It is of great importance for Ukrainians and the international partners, who have a clear understanding of the threat that the on-going Ukraine-Russia crisis poses to the European security architecture, to remember that 1) defence procurement matters, 2) money spent on defence is worth spending, 3) soldiers need investment in their training and ammunition to build resilience to the coercion of the external enemy now and in the future. The cease-fire can and will continue to create smoke.

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