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Kiev’s Volunteer Battalions in the Donbass Conflict

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Kiev's Volunteer Battalions in the Donbass Conflict

Written by Igor Pejic exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Astroguy

MA Igor Pejic graduated from the Political Science Foreign Affairs Department of the Faculty of Political Science and now he is doing an MA in Terrorism, Security and Organized Crime at the University of Belgrade, Serbia.

The Ukraine uprising which began in 2013 didn’t turn out to be a great revolution for democracy and civil liberties as portrayed by the West but rather an evolving crisis which gradually transmutes Ukraine into a failed state. Clumsy assistance provided by the “partners” turned Ukraine’s revolution into a chaotic power grab among various radical groups and influential individuals across the country; security forces which should have prevented this coup displayed a lack of competence and consistency in their work. Separatists’ efforts in the East of Ukraine come only as a natural reaction, the situation (economic, security, political) in Ukraine deteriorates at a steady pace day by day and it’s no wonder some regions want to distance themselves from that kind of government and especially from radical groups which have no sympathies towards Russian nationals. These developments in Ukraine heavily favor the paramilitary groups which have risen to power after the Maidan coup in 2013; furthermore a weak military structure, inconsistent government and politics and also rampant corruption on all levels of society prevent the uniting of all these armed groups who usually have criminal activities. According to some estimates there are between 7,000 and 10,000 “volunteers” in more than forty battalions; in fact after the coup in 2013 the military structure of Ukraine can be divided into two sectors: the Ukrainian army and various territorial defense battalions.

In 2014 Ukraine’s armed forces rapidly grew from 130,000 to more than 230,000. This rapid expansion was considered necessary because of the Russian “transgression” against Crimea and the problems in the East of the country. Although the armed forces grew, their quality became very questionable; throughout four mobilization waves in 2014 and 2015 the military managed to recruit a large number of “alcoholics and dodgers, drug addicts and morons” as stated by the advisor to the Ukrainian President. The influx of new recruits without any security checks and with a questionable past pushed Ukraine’s Parliament to pass a law in 2015 which authorizes commanding officers to use physical force against defectors; the new law allows commanders to use not only physical force but special means and weapons when fighting those who commit criminal acts. This law clearly shows what condition the Ukrainian armed forces are in; furthermore after the outbreak of the conflicts in the Donbass region there were more than 10,000 cases of desertion. These factors pushed the Parliament to go even further and pass a law that extends the upper limit of compulsory military draft age from 25 to 27 years. Despite these new laws the conditions for military mobilization quickly deteriorated and the effectiveness of the state in mobilizing men for military service decreased significantly. The main problem lies in the disorganized administration of the state as well as the local levels of governance. These are not the only problems that the Ukrainian army needs to deal with; a high level of corruption among officers usually ends up with negligence of the elementary needs of a regular soldier. Supplies such as boots and regular uniforms can be hard to come by if you don’t have any connections or if you simply can’t afford it. Lack of combat training is also evident especially if you compare older more experienced soldiers to the new recruits. Insufficient funds and lack of military instructors makes training courses for new recruits rather difficult and there are also reports of other soldiers feeling unsafe when practicing or conducting military drills with less experienced recruits. There are of course remarks about the size of the army and why it’s getting bigger and not more professional. One of the main challenges in the future for the Ukrainian armed forces will be the professionalization of their military and creating a solid core of trained and tested soldiers who are capable of delivering good results. All these factors heavily contribute to the rise of the so called volunteer battalions across Ukraine. With the weak and unorganized military the paramilitary groups seem like a better solution for many young men.

Volunteer battalions started emerging in 2014 mostly out of Maidan self-defense groups and Maidan activists. Although there was a parliamentary decree according to which all armed groups that have emerged as a result of the Maidan unrest should be disbanded and demobilized, many of these groups have just transformed into territorial defense battalions, special police battalions and reserve battalions of the National Guard. Jurisdiction of these battalions was divided between the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense at the state as well as at the local level of governance, since these battalions were nominally funded by the regional budget but the supplies and equipment came either from the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense. Of course it should be noted that large amounts of arms and some military equipment came from civil society organizations and local oligarchs. A good example of this “private” funding is the Dnipro 1 and Dnipro 2 special police battalions who were helped financially by the Dnipropetrovsk governor and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Though the funding of these battalions comes from different sources the training of the personnel is done mostly in Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defense training bases. The exact number of battalions varies between forty and fifty where some battalions numbers dozens and some hundreds of volunteers. The membership in these formations varies at the social, linguistic, national and political levels. Most of the members of these armed groups have been active during the Maidan coup; they include police and army veterans, students but also individuals with a criminal record. Members often come from different parts of the country; usually it can be seen that some battalions have Ukrainian-speakers from the West as well as Russian-speakers from the East of the country. Though the majority of volunteers are Ukrainians there is an unspecified number of Russians, Georgians and some other European volunteers who have joined the ranks of different battalions. According to some reports the Azov battalion is probably the most international; there are also cases which point out that other groups tend to invite or acquire members who have experience in wars against Russia (the Dudaev battalion is mostly composed of veterans who have fought in the Chechen wars against Moscow). From the ideological perspective most of the battalions tend to lean towards far right ideologies, some of them like to call themselves patriots or strong nationalists but there is a significant number of groups who exhibit a classical neo-nationalist attitude. This can be troubling since we are talking about heavily armed groups in a rather unstable country; plus some commanders of these battalions have been elected to the parliament. Most of these parliamentary commanders have close ties to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s party. Some Ukrainian observers have stressed that the oligarchs are using their political ties with the government to exploit the commanders and their battalions to settle their own disputes. There is a growing concern that some of the battalions can turn into some kind of a private army.

Two main problems of the volunteer battalions are the lack of discipline and the politicization of these groups. The lack of discipline can be easily seen on the frontline and in volunteer actions in civilian neighborhoods. There are numerous reports stating that human rights abuses, rape and looting were common in areas where some of the battalions were located. Though these groups are formally under the jurisdiction of either the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Defense there is no guarantee that these state institutions can punish that kind of behavior or even prevent it, since most of the time the commander of a battalion is the only one who has authority among the volunteers. Politicization of volunteer battalions is more or less inevitable, as in an unstable society such as Ukraine these types of organizations which possess real power (men and guns) can have a major influence on politics and government. After the Maidan protests much of the Ukraine saw that the newly elected government can’t bring peace and prosperity as it had promised; furthermore corruption became an even greater problem for the Ukrainian people than before, and finally the security apparatus showed itself to be rather incompetent at dealing with any kind of serious problem in the country. The volunteer battalions which have rallied a lot of Maidan participants also managed to get some sympathy from the ordinary people; sadly the people of Ukraine see these groups as one of the possible solutions to the rampant corruption and crisis conditions which are tearing Ukraine apart. As I mentioned earlier there are already members of parliament who are commanding officers of these battalions; there is a probability that as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates other officers or members of volunteer battalions will seek political careers. Many commanders have already established wide communication platforms using some social networks and some of them even have loyal political constituencies. Shifting between gray suits and military outfits many of them seem to be able to provide a vision and an inspiration in these difficult times; however, although they appear compelling they are not always reliable political actors. Others like reservists of some battalions have once more demonstrated in Kiev along with members of different veteran organizations that the current government is equally eligible for another Maidan if need be. Their potential to rekindle the protests in Ukraine is giving these armed groups a lot of leverage in the political sphere and of course in the society. The positioning of the volunteer battalions in the Ukrainian society can potentially become an even greater threat; firstly there are many battalions and many of them have radical views; secondly the number of potential players that can misuse these armed groups, foreign and domestic (oligarchs), is high. Although at this time it can seem a bit extreme, if there comes a point at which a meltdown happens in Ukraine the sheer number of these armed groups can easily turn this country into something that is similar to the current situation in Libya, only with an Eastern European flavor.

List of territorial defense battalions:

  • 1st Territorial Defense Battalion – Volyn oblast
  • 2nd Territorial Defense Battalion – Rivne oblast
  • 3rd Territorial Defense Battalion – Lviv oblast
  • 4th Territorial Defense Battalion – Zakarpattia oblast
  • 5th Territorial Defense Battalion – Ivano-Frankivsk oblast
  • 6th Territorial Defense Battalion – Ternopil oblast
  • 7th Territorial Defense Battalion – Khmelnytskyi oblast
  • 8th Territorial Defense Battalion – Chernivitsi oblast
  • 9th Territorial Defense Battalion – Vinnyatsia oblast
  • 10th Territorial Defense Battalion – Zhytomir oblast
  • 11th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kiev oblast
  • 12th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kiev
  • 13th Territorial Defense Battalion – Chernihiv oblast
  • 14th Territorial Defense Battalion – Cherkasy oblast
  • 15th Territorial Defense Battalion – Sumy oblast
  • 16th Territorial Defense Battalion – Poltava oblast
  • 17th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kirovohrad oblast
  • 18th Territorial Defense Battalion – Odessa oblast
  • 19th Territorial Defense Battalion – Mykolaiv oblast
  • 20th Territorial Defense Battalion – Dnipropetrovsk oblast
  • 21th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kherson oblast
  • 22th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kharkiv oblast
  • 23th Territorial Defense Battalion – Zaporizhia oblast
  • 24th Territorial Defense Battalion – Luhansk oblast
  • 25th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kiev oblast
  • 34th Territorial Defense Battalion – Kirovohrad oblast
  • 37th Territorial Defense Battalion – Zaporizhia oblast
  • 39th Territorial Defense Battalion – Dnipropetrovsk oblast
  • 40th Territorial Defense Battalion – Dnipropetrovsk oblast
  • 41th Territorial Defense Battalion – Chernihiv oblast
  • 42nd Territorial Defense Battalion – Kirovohrad oblast
  • 43rd Territorial Defense Battalion – Dnipropetrovsk oblast

Other Ukraine volunteer battalions include:

  • Azov Battalion which was formed in the city of Mariupol. This battalion was one of the first to be formed after the conflicts began in the East of Ukraine. This group is usually connected to the nationalist and far-right agenda which can also be seen on their logo. It is reported that the Azov battalion has around 1,000 men.
  • Donbass Battalion was formed in the spring of 2014 in the Donbass region in order to fight the insurgency and since then it has been led by Semen Semenchenko. This is one of the largest battalions in the Ukraine with more than 900 men, with a rather diverse set of volunteers coming from all over the Ukraine as well as abroad.
  • Dzokhar Dudayev Battalion aka the Chechen Battalion was formed in March 2014. As of May 2015 it is in the process of integration with the Ministry of the Interior forces. This battalion is mostly formed of Ukrainians and Chechens from various European countries; also there are Muslims like Tatars, Azeris, Ingush and Georgians. This armed group specializes in subversion and countering subversion.
  • Shah Mansur Battalion was formed out of members of the Dzokhar Dudayev Battalion in 2015; this battalion was active in battles around Mariupol.
  • Noman Celebicihan Battalion is based in Kherson formed of Crimean Tatars. It is believed that Turkey actively supports this group.
  • Maidan Battalion formed in 2014 out of participants of the Maidan uprising. The intention behind this is to create a solid group which can serve the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
  • Shakhtar Battalion was formed out of volunteers in the Donbass area in 2014. The group has around 700 members.
  • Battalion of Organization of Ukranian Nationalists or OUN was formed in Pisky, Donetsk.

List of special police units:

  • Artemivsk police battalion formed in Dnepropetrovsk oblast
  • Bogdan police company formed in 2014 in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine
  • Chernihiv police battalion formed in Charnihiv oblast
  • Dnepro police battalion formed in Dnepropetrovsk oblast
  • Ivano-Frankvisk police battalion
  • Kharkiv police battalion formed in Kharkiv
  • Kremenchuk police company formed in Poltava oblast
  • Kyiv-1 and Kyiv-2 police battalion formed in Kiev
  • Kyivshchyna police battalion formed in Kiev oblast
  • Lugansk-1 police battalion
  • Lviv police battalion formed in the city of Lviv
  • Myrotvorets police battalion formed in Kiev oblast
  • Poltava police battalion formed in Poltava oblast
  • Saint Mary police battalion operates in Mariupol
  • Shtorm police battalion operates in Odessa oblast
  • Sich police battalion operates in Kyiv
  • Sicheslav police battalion formed in Dnepropetrovsk oblast
  • Skif police battalion formed from volunteers in Zaporizhia
  • Svityaz police battalion
  • Svyatyi Mykolai police battalion formed in 2014 in Mykolaiv area
  • Zoloti Vorota police battalion formed in Kiev oblast


  1. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/ukraine/btro.htm
  2. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/ukraine/personnel.htm
  3. http://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaiwp1508.pdf

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Excellent discussion of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions.

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