April 13, 2022

Ukraine’s Territorial Defence on a War Footing

AFP / Scanpix
AFP / Scanpix
Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces attend tactical, combat and first aid training course during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine.
Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces attend tactical, combat and first aid training course during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine.

Ukraine has fought heroically against Russian aggression since 2014, with the Ukrainian territorial defence forces playing a key role. The current conflagration in 2022 shows the effectiveness of the territorial defence forces, and a few lessons have been learned.

In 1999, President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree establishing the Territorial Defence Forces. Although the system was designed in 2000, it was merely a rudimentary reconstruction of the Soviet internal defence framework. Later, the Territorial Defence Forces underwent reforms several times, but the base principle remained: to maintain order on the home front.

However, when war originally broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, with the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics formed there, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces decided to establish a territorial defence battalion in each region to act as a “civilian police force’. These battalions were soon sent to the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone, as there was a lack of trained active-duty troops to deploy. However, some territorial defence battalions were unprepared to engage in hostilities; the 5th Territorial Defence Battalion (Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast) abandoned its combat positions. Nonetheless, other battalions earned such an excellent reputation that some were later reorganised into motorised infantry units.

In 2015, Viktor Muzhenko, the Chief of the General Staff, reformed the Territorial Defence Forces and reorganised them into self-defence formations, which resulted in some regions having two formations while others had five. Moreover, the newly formed forces lacked any coherent doctrine, which in turn prompted another change: Ukraine discontinued the self-defence formations and started to set up territorial defence brigades. The goal was to have one brigade per region, and each brigade would have five battalions. The concept of one brigade with five battalions for each region was later abandoned, as Ukraine is not evenly populated.

More legislative initiatives followed, none of them winning enough support among the military experts or among members of parliament (MPs). For instance, one bill outlined a civilian-military command component to be in charge of the Territorial Defence Forces. However, defence policy remained the responsibility of the Armed Forces. Furthermore, a civilian authority in charge of elements of defence would be a severe violation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards. A civilian administration may request assistance from the military under martial law, but it must never be in command of the military.

Many more draft bills were tabled, but it was not until 1 January 2022 that the law on territorial defence – the Law on the Foundations of National Resistance – entered into force.

Legal and defence experts generally consider the Law on the Foundations of National Resistance to be fairly balanced, especially when compared to some prior defence-related legislative initiatives. The Territorial Defence Forces became a standalone branch of Ukraine’s Armed Forces and is the actor and the vehicle for the territorial defence process. The Territorial Defence Forces comprises part-time reservists. But within the framework of territorial defence are the volunteers, who form a national resistance movement and are part of the territorial defence forces.

Chain of Command

The Territorial Defence Forces fall under the command and management of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The position of the Territorial Defence Forces’ commander has been elevated to the level of the commanders of the branches of the armed forces. The commander of the Territorial Defence Forces has the same status as the commander of the Air Assault Forces or the Special Operations Forces, for example, including having headquarters.

Given that Ukraine has 26 administrative division units, with each supposed to form its own territorial defence brigade, it would be difficult and perhaps ineffective to manage such a network from one headquarters. Therefore, each military administrative zone’s operational command established a regional headquarters for its territorial defence forces. The Territorial Defence Forces now have four regional headquarters: Northern, Eastern, Southern, and Western commands.

The regional commands oversee the territorial defence brigade commanders in each region. The Law stipulates that territorial defence forces have 10,000 active-duty service members under contract. They are reinforced by the passive reserve – that is, civilians who are not part of the active operational reserve and have no combat experience or even no military service experience. The passive reserve are asked to participate in weekend shooting practices at training ranges so that they learn how to use combat weapons and maintain their skills at a satisfactory level.

A territorial defence brigade (3,500 people) incorporates battalions, each up to 600 troops. It took around 2.5 months since 1 January 2022 to bring 25 brigades up to strength. By 24 February 2022, it was estimated that the territorial defence brigades comprised approximately 70,000 partially armed and equipped service members, with volunteers making up the rest of the numbers.

It should be noted that the Kyiv territorial defence forces received weapons only three days before the war broke out. Some cities, such as Bila Tserkva (Kyiv Oblast), had to reject applications to enlist in territorial defence forces even after war broke out, because there were insufficient weapons.

Territorial Defence Forces in Wartime

Territorial defence was originally intended as an asymmetrical response to hybrid threats, which is in contrast to the old Soviet approach that integrated the territorial defence forces into the state defence structure. Hybrid threats are to be countered by the security services – the National Guard, the police force, the State Security Service, the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection – but not by the Defence Ministry.

As of April 2022, the Territorial Defence Forces are tasked with preventing hybrid seizure of Ukrainian cities, which the pro-Russian forces managed to accomplish in 2014. Currently, the principal task is to guarantee that government agencies can continue to function and to assist the National Guard and the National Police Force, which have the same task. This mission has been successful to date. There is factual evidence of territorial defence units single-handedly countering invasion. For instance, the Sumy territorial defence forces destroyed 18 pieces of Russian military equipment and captured other equipment in early March when the Russians attempted to enter one of the towns in the region.

The new Law is devoid of a relevant mechanism to allow members of territorial defence forces to use personal weapons, such as hunting rifles, a fact that contributed to a general confusion in the early days of the war.

Another task of the territorial defence forces is to guard the checkpoints quickly set up on all the main motorways and all the access routes to the cities for the purpose of inspecting vehicles and documents. The checkpoints regulate traffic and prevent suspicious persons from entering cities and towns.

Initially, the checkpoint network was random, especially in the territories affected by the ongoing hostilities. This was a real shortcoming, not least of all because it complicated logistics and humanitarian aid delivery. However, the number of checkpoints has since been adjusted, and a unified system for checkpoint locations in different regions would be beneficial.

Some border areas have benefited from reinforcement of the state border patrol service by the Territorial Defence Forces to assist in securing the borders.

The territorial defence forces have also engaged in combat actions. As of now in mid-April, we know of several areas where the territorial defence forces participated in the hostilities: in the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kyiv, as well as in many small towns.

On 24 February, when Russia attempted an assault landing at the Antonov Airport, also known as Hostomel Airport, the local territorial defence forces were the first to engage in combat action, as they were the ones guarding the facility. This allowed enough time for reinforcements from the Ukrainian National Guard and the Armed Forces to arrive and successfully block the Russian troops from entering Kyiv and reaching the area where the government offices are located.

In late March, the operation to liberate the town of Irpin engaged territorial defence forces members. Of the 28 service members who volunteered to join the front line, 24 belonged to the territorial defence. This happened, in part, because the local territorial defence battalion had already undertaken training, and their commander had some combat experience, which is rare for the territorial defence (most people with combat experience usually enlist in the Armed Forces).

Hostilities in the Irpin area were severe. For example, the Kyiv territorial defence units entered Irpin with the Pskov airborne paratroopers to their left, motorised infantry to their front and a large industrial area to their right. The territorial defence units incurred casualties but accomplished their mission. However, it must be emphasised that engaging territorial defence in front line action is an exceptional and extraordinary occurrence. There was a report of 30 to 60 casualties in the Kherson territorial defence forces, whom their leaders had abandoned in the early days of the war; they managed to self-organise but were all killed in action.

Generally, engaging territorial defence forces in military action is ill-advised. Their functions are auxiliary – to assist the military. Territorial defence forces are actively engaged in searching for and detecting the retreating enemy, who are usually scattering in the chaos of a retreat. This is a so-called mopping-up operation. In addition, territorial defence units participate in searching for pilots from downed planes and helicopters – a function they perform quite efficiently.

Operations in urban areas and patrols, in Kyiv and other cities, benefited enormously from territorial defence units’ contribution to maintaining public order. A separate schedule for territorial defence patrols has been drawn up: an assigned unit keeps watch at the checkpoint for two hours, then patrols city blocks on foot with the police for two hours, then rests for two hours, and then returns to checkpoint duty for another hour.

Two thirds of the 120 arrests of sabotage and reconnaissance groups in Kyiv were carried out by about 10 000 fighters with the assistance of territorial defence forces, who have a deep knowledge of the area and strong ties to the local community. Another essential task of the territorial defence forces is enforcing public order. Even a large metropolitan city such as Kyiv reported only a few instances of crime. When it comes to keeping a city functional during wartime, the territorial defence forces so far have an exceptional record.

The chaotic distribution of weapons in the early days of the war was a mistake. As the enemy was rapidly advancing towards the capital, not everybody who received weapons was thoroughly checked. There were cases when the territorial defence commands lost contact with some suspicious persons who had received weapons. The distributions issue was, nonetheless, sorted out in a week.

Another mistake was poor coordination between law enforcement and the territorial defence forces. For example, in Kyiv, a Russian gunner disguised as a homeless man was apprehended by the territorial defence forces and brought to the police station. When the territorial defence unit returned to where they had found him, they discovered two mobile phones with photos and other reconnaissance data on them. On their arrival back at the police station, the unit was surprised to learn that the “homeless guy” had been let go, and their evidence simply dismissed. They later learned that the man was a member of the Russian sabotage and reconnaissance group wanted by the police for some time. The obvious conclusion is that better coordination between the police and territorial defence is required.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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