Today’s volunteers tend to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has revealed many shortcomings in Ukrainian power structures, both in the regular army and the militarised units of the Ministry of the Interior. Problems arose due to inefficient, multi-layered leadership, non-existent military logistics, low morale among troops, and outdated weaponry and equipment. The demoralised Ukrainian army could not fulfil the national defence duties attributed to it due to the many problems at the beginning of the conflict. At that time, in spring 2014, with the country in an extremely critical situation, the phenomenon of volunteering emerged. Civilians who had no previous connections with national defence started to form voluntary militarised units and build an efficient logistics chain to supply the Ukrainian army in the anti-terrorist operation zone (ATO). Volunteering as a civil initiative was connected to the unforeseen rise in national sentiment that occurred during the Maidan revolution. Was this extensive national movement of military volunteers surprising? Is it connected to the history of Ukraine as a nation? The most pressing related question seems to be the status and (thus far unclear) future of the Ukrainian volunteer units.
Atamanshchina—military gangs led by independent and self-proclaimed leaders acting within a certain region—are a persistent and unusual feature of Ukrainian military history. The term is derived from ataman, meaning the leader of free militants. Etymologically, the word may have appeared owing to the influence of Polish and Turkish, as borrowing words from those languages was natural for Ukrainian steppe-dwellers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Although atamanshchina is mostly used in the context of the Ukrainian revolution and civil war (1917–21), its roots extend deep into Ukrainian history—into the mystical and legendary era of Zaporozhye Cossacks.1
In the 15th century, armed groups of hunters and fishermen who mostly came from amongst farmers started to settle on the southern border of the steppe, and both the Polish kingdom and the empire of Muscovy started to engage them in border guard service. The free warriors, who were called Cossacks, were subordinate to an ataman and had extensive rights and authority that contributed to the development of a unique social group in Zaporozhye Sich. Ukrainian Cossacks proved to be highly efficient in combat and remained a separate group until the deportations organised by Catherine the Great. Thenceforward, the Zaporozhye Cossacks were considered national heroes in Ukraine; kobzars (bards) sang songs about them and the Cossacks became a national myth, albeit that the subject was later developed in literature.2
Today’s Ukrainian military volunteers emulate the Cossacks of Zaporozhye Sich not only in terms of symbols and appearance but also in behaviour. “Sich” was used in the names of several national Ukrainian volunteer units throughout 20th-century Ukrainian military history. This is no coincidence, since “Sich” symbolically embodies military efficiency (the Cossacks), national traditions (dress, appearance, bylinas), freedom (Cossacks’ special rights), democracy (collegial leadership of the Cossacks, the Rada) and, lastly, patriotism. National sports societies in Galicia and the self-defence force in Zakarpattia were called the Sichians. The Legion of Sich Riflemen (USS) was a Ukrainian national unit formed in the Austro-Hungarian army, and the partisans of the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army (UPA) also referred to themselves similarly during World War II.3
The negative side of the atamanshchina’s and Cossack Sich’s licence was their fragmentation, something that is also characteristic of today’s Ukrainian volunteer battalions. The atamanshchina was especially strong in the civil war years. A total of 200,000 people fought in voluntary and insurgent groups, and this forced the Red Army to employ significant military force to establish Soviet rule in the region. However, obstinately independent leadership, insubordination towards the central authority and the regional special characteristics of forming volunteer units caused the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR) to suffer defeat in 1920.4
The UPA can be considered the most efficient voluntary armed formation of World War II; it was also the largest. It was created by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in October 1942, and simultaneously fought against German and Soviet forces in Ukraine. It is thought that a total of 100,000 volunteer partisans fought in UPA units—and this does not include volunteer helpers such as signalmen and -women, suppliers, medics and other support personnel. Primarily using guerrilla tactics, UPA units successfully fought against Soviet troops until 1953.5 Nevertheless, the Ukrainians who fought against the Soviet Union were still divided over beliefs, and the OUN split into two factions over the question of whether to continue to cooperate with the Germans. The more moderate camp, which may have comprised more than 80,000 volunteers, continued their service in German armed formations.6
Immediately after Ukraine regained independence in 1991, people began to inquire about the fate of the UPA and its ideological leader, Stepan Bandera. The UPA’s activity was vilified during the Soviet era, which is why people developed a stereotypical view of the Banderists. Debating different attitudes towards the OUN, declaring the UPA a participant in World War II and rethinking the past in general created heated discussions that are still going strong today. These involve all citizens, even the president, and divide Ukrainian society.7 Ukrainians with patriotic sensibilities still see UPA fighters as heroes, which is why the Ukrainian volunteers participating in the 2014–15 conflict used UPA insignia.
It must be noted that Ukraine’s national traditions in military history played an important role in forming the volunteer units that participated in the latest war. They were evident not only in the names of units, but also in organisational structures, ranks, the terms people used to address one another, and elements of their uniforms. For example, the cap of the new Ukrainian army’s field uniform is a version of the USS’s and UPA’s cap. Many of the volunteer battalions use the symbols of Zaporozhye Cossacks, OUN and UPA on their embroidered shoulder-and-sleeve insignia. In terms of organisational structure, some of today’s volunteer units use the term “sotnia” instead of “rota” (the Russian equivalent of a company), following the example of the USS legion and the UNR army. Inspired by the UPA, volunteer units also use intimate forms of address like “friend” or “brother”. Several of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions use the red-and-black flag of Bandera’s OUN, which is meant to symbolise the “blood of nationalists on their own land”.
Following the Maidan revolution and the subsequent conflict that erupted in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many patriotic Ukrainians spontaneously began to form groups and headed to the conflict zone. The first groups of this kind were formed by members of Maidan’s self-defence units, after which supporters from several political parties formed armed groups, and various formations emerged among the supporters of social activists or were created where people lived. On the basis of subordination, the Ukrainian volunteer units that participated in the 2014–15 war can be divided into four categories: regional defence battalions (also territorial defence battalions, subordinate to the Ministry of Defence), special operations battalions of the Ministry of the Interior, reserve battalions of the National Guard (National Guard, former Internal Troops), and the volunteer corps of the Right Sector (DUK PS).8
If we classify the units of today’s Ukrainian volunteer movement on the basis of their formation, they can be divided into three types: 1) those created by political parties (the Azov Regiment; Sich, Carpathian Sich and OUN battalions; the volunteer corps of the Right Sector and others); 2) armed formations created on citizens’ initiative or which emerged around social activists (Donbass and Aidar battalion, etc.); and 3) regional defence battalions (territorial defence battalions) created by the state or local government units.
Despite the fact that the volunteer battalions were only equipped with hand-held firearms at the beginning of the conflict, and lacked other equipment, they were successful in countering the separatists’ armed formations in eastern Ukraine. This provided the state the opportunity to organise an internal mobilisation and shift the focus of regular army units to the conflict zone. However, historical experience (the atamanshchina phenomenon) and the actual situation (insubordination, cases of marauding, and war crimes) served to highlight that the state and army leadership mistrusted the volunteers. As a result, and due to the requirements of the Minsk Protocol, the volunteer units were basically required to subordinate themselves to state power structures and were taken away from the conflict zone in spring 2015.
Today, the future of the Ukrainian volunteer units is ambiguous and it remains unclear whether the potential of the volunteers is to be used in the state’s interests. The former volunteer units that were formally integrated into state power structures remain combat-ready, acquire new weapons, replenish supplies and train troops. However, the volunteers’ continuing lack of loyalty to the state and the fact that they are influenced by political and societal groups is worrying.
In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that the events and errors of the past are being repeated by today’s volunteers. Patriotic units led by various leaders (atamans) were highly efficient in battle but, after the lost war in the east, the now-free armed volunteers are being dragged into political fights elsewhere in Ukraine upon the initiative of the atamans and due to their unclear future. In this way, the fragmentation and discord between the volunteers and disagreements with the central authorities will doom not only the volunteers but the entire state of Ukraine.
1 Ю Митрофаненко, Отаманщина як історичне явище: погляди В. Винниченка та С. Петлюри. Наукові записки. Вип. 92. Серія: філологічні науки. Кіровоград: РВВ КДПУ імені В. Винниченка, 2010. С. 175 – 181.
2 В.А. Смолій та ін. (Ред). Історія українського козацтва. T. 2. Київ: Києво-Могилянська академія, 2007. Т. 1., 799, С. 723; Сергей Екельчик, История Украины. Становление современной нации. Киев: КИС, 2012, С. 45-49.
3 М. Р. Литвин, Легіон Україньских січовіх стрільців: військове навчання, виховання, бойовий шлях –Велика війна (1914−1918 рр.) і Україна: історичні нариси. Київ: ТОВ «Видавництво «КЛІО»», 2013, С. С. 159−177; Iван Монолатiй. УкраÏньскi легiонери. Формування та бойовий шлях украÏнских сiчових стрiльцiв 1914-1918 рр. Київ: Tempora, 2008, С. 36–39, 60. M. Вегеш, Карпатська Січ: сторінки історії (1938−1939). Ужгород: М. Вегеш, 1996, С. 23–25.
4 Дмитрий Венедеев, Украинский фронт в войнах спецслужб. Украинский институт военной истории: Киев, 2008, С. 35–41. Ярослав Тинченко, Новітні Запорожці. Війска Центральной Ради, березень 1917 р. – квітень 1918 р. Київ, Темпора, 2010, С. 96–102.
5 І. Патриляк, Військова діяльність ОУН(Б) у 1940−1942 роках. НАН України; Інститут історії України, КНУ ім. Т. Шевченка, 2004, С. 598.
6 Сергей Дробязко, Восточные добровольцы в Вермахте, полиции и СС. АСТ: Москва, 2000, С. 44-45.
7 І.О. Кресіна, Проблеми консолідаціі україньского суспільства. Політична система для України: історичний досвид і виклики сучасності (Ніка-Центр: Киїе, 2008), C. 920–922; B. Сергійчук , Тавруючи визвольний прапор. Діяльність спецбоївок НКВС-НКДБ під виглядом УПА. Київ, 2006, С. 160–163.
8 Юрий Бутусов, Добровольческие батальоны: структура, страхи, проблемы боевого применения, – Зеркало Недели – Украина, № 30, 29.08.2014, gazeta.zn.ua/internal/dobrovolcheskie-batalony-str… vaadatud 26.11.2015
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.