Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
As the war in Ukraine unfolded, the new government in Kiev enlisted the help of volunteer units in order to reinforce their regular forces that were drastically unprepared for open warfare. These irregular units have since been central to the war in Ukraine, participating in every major clash since the beginning of armed hostilities. Volunteers have been organized between 37 and 44 volunteer battalions, most of which are under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian National Guard, which was established in 2014. Such units gathered most of their initial members from Euromaidan activists. According to 2014 legislation, every oblast in Ukraine can create its own defense battalions, which would fall under the command of the Interior Ministry but primarily operate locally.
The Donbas Battalion is among the largest (counted between 600 and 900 combatants) and most well-known volunteer battalions engaged in combat in the East of Ukraine. They are sometimes referred to as “little Black Men” (a reference to the “little Green Men” used by the Russian army in Crimea) due to the group’s all-black uniforms. The group largely consists of Russian-speaking volunteers from Eastern Ukraine, but takes volunteers from all over the country and the former Soviet Union.
The battalion was created by a native Russian-speaker under the nom de guerre Semen Semenchenko (birth name Kostyantyn Hrishyn). The Donetsk native claims to have military experience with the “Soviet or Ukrainian armies,” as is true for most of his unit’s volunteers. He established the battalion because he feared the Ukrainian army was incapable of defending his region from what he terms criminal networks, communists, and the remnants of the Yanukovych government.
During the 2014 parliamentary elections, Semenchenko was elected to the Ukrainian Rada as part of the L’viv-based Self-Reliance Party. The party is led by L’viv mayor Andriy Sadovyi (of “speak Russian for a day” fame) and describes its ideology as consisting of "Christian morality and common sense." Many Ukrainian political parties included military figures on their party lists, building bases of support off of increasing patriotism.
Such candidates, including fellow Donbass Battalion member Yevgeni Shevchenko, decided to stand for election in order to prevent Kiev’s politicians from betraying soldiers on the front line. "We're fighting on two fronts … one front is the rebels, the Russians, the mercenaries and local Ukrainians, zombified by propaganda. The second front, sadly, is in Kiev.”
On the 19th of August, Semenchenko was wounded by shrapnel during fighting near the town of Ilovaysk (18 kilometers east of Donetsk). He survived after emergency surgery and was awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky by Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov. He remains in command despite his injuries.
In early November Donbas Battalion Commander Taras Konstanchuk threatened to oust President Poroshenko if he surrendered Ukrainian territory in negotiations with the separatists. “Should a single city be surrendered, the president will fly off his chair, there will be a military coup and the soldiers will take power into their own hands.” He elaborated by saying that “every time the soldiers feel that the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada are adopting incorrect or useless laws, they will come and set fire to tires before the parliament building.”
This was only the latest threat to the Poroshenko government made by armed Ukrainian volunteers and nationalists, who view it as little better than the Yanukovych government they overthrew. In August the Right Sector likewise threatened the regime after members of that paramilitary organization were arrested. Later in October, riots broke out outside of Parliament buildings between security forces and nationalists over the government recognized-status of controversial World War II era Ukrainian fighters.
When Poroshenko paid his respects to those who died during Euromaidan this November, he found himself heckled by surviving relatives. His government hasn’t yet bestowed the title of national hero to the victims, which would bring financial benefits to the family members of those killed. This threatens his public support, which is risky for Poroshenko given that he only managed to stay in power via coalition, gaining little more than 20% of the national vote.
More faith appears to be placed in the country’s volunteer defense forces than in the largely corrupt government and state defense services. Some have even contemplated creating an official “Ukrainian Foreign Legion” modeled after the example of France or Israel in order to avoid the problem. The presence of such foreign volunteers in National Guard Battalions is an indication that there is some support for such a move, both in Ukraine and other states of the former USSR.
For instance, the Donbas Battalion is known to include volunteers from Georgia and other former Soviet Republics. These include former policemen and military veterans of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Like their Chechen opponents on the separatist side, these foreign recruits have been far from media shy. They joined the already multi-national Donbas Battalion in order to “protect the interests of Ukraine”, as well as to revenge their defeat at the hands of Russian forces.
Georgian-Ukrainian relations have long been warm. Ukrainian nationalists fought with Georgian forces during the 1992 Abkhazia War and the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. This relationship was deepened after Georgia’s Rose Revolution and the 2004 Orange Revolution, both of which put their respective countries on pro-EU paths. Former Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili is even a fluent speaker of the Ukrainian language, having studied at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Georgia unveiled a statue to this Ukrainian national hero in Tbilisi in 2007 and Ukraine erected a statue of Georgia’s national poet Shota Rustaveli in Kiev the same year. The presence of Georgian fighters in Ukraine and vis-versa is of little surprise to analysts familiar with regional conflicts.
Battalion recruits are trained in the centrally located Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, where they enforce Ukrainian authority over separatist-sympathizers (warning: explicit language). National Guard training lasts two weeks but the Donbas battalion maintains independent facilities for further operational training. The unit stands out by allowing women to engage in combat operations, even manning armed checkpoints in the Donetsk oblast. Soldiers are deployed on a rotation basis, with new recruits regularly beginning training.
The new cease-fire has left many battalion fighters disgruntled, especially given that the unit has suffered heavy losses at the hands of the separatists. Donbas has taken more damage than many Ukrainian units, and has developed something of a personal grudge against pro-Donetsk People’s Republic militants, many of whom likely originate from the same territories.
Among other high-profile operations of the battalion was the surrendering of 46 Chechen combatants to them in August. The heavy casualties suffered by Caucasian fighters was likely a factor in their decision to surrender to a unit which previously threatened to “shave” Chechen mercenaries operating in Ukraine.
Meetings with American Officials
In early November it became known that Semen Semenchenko, along with Yuriy Bereza (of the Dnieper Battalion) and Andriy Teteruk (of the Mirotvorets militia), traveled to Washington D.C. in order to meet with American officials and representatives, including the Senator John McCain. In an interview with Voice of America, Semenchenko listed three main goals for his visit:
1) “First, to see what kinds of dual-use technologies – those not prohibited from export to Ukraine – that we can purchase.”
2) "Second, we would like to help strengthen our political leaders, to present the real situation in Ukraine to the U.S. officials, including members of Congress and the president, [since] the situation there endangers the entire world. We need help, first and foremost from the United States, since Europe and Russia have close relations and [Brussels] is blocking a lot of things. It’s clear that with U.S. participation, these questions get resolved more quickly.”
3) "I want to deepen ties with the Ukrainian diaspora [in order to] organize international support, in particular, financial assistance. For example, we are buying remotely-piloted surveillance drones which can be put to [immediate] use."
Also for discussion was sending officers in Ukrainian Volunteer Battalions to the United States to receive professional military training. Whilst specifics remain hard to come by, Semenchenko stated on his Facebook page at 17:22 on 22 September that “yesterday, I concluded an agreement on arranging training of soldiers and officers of the Donbas battalion by mobile groups of US instructors, who are not currently serving in the army.”
U.S. troops had previously trained with their Ukrainian counterparts during the "Rapid Trident" exercises near L’viv. Such efforts have involved only small numbers of troops and are likely more symbolic that tactical. More substantive however are joint Ukrainian military operations with Poland and Lithuania, two states with a clear and vested interest in containing Russian influence in this former-Soviet region.