Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
The new government in Kiev and their regular armed forces has repeatedly proved ineffective and militarily unprepared since the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbas. Volunteer battalions with independent funding and training capabilities have taken a disproportionately active role in the war effort. Several of the more notorious battalions have even developed something of a celebrity status, with many of their leaders being elected to public office.
For many in the Ukrainian electorate, such candidates are better alternative to President Poroshenko. Having the backing of a private army may not be standard operating procedure for elections in many European countries, but in Ukraine it certainly doesn’t hurt. Many of the potential alternatives to Poroshenko are either current officers or close associates of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions.
Numerous signs of infighting amongst such candidates have come to light in recent months, indicating an emerging power struggle on the Ukrainian frontline among different forces. Below, key players and interest groups among the various militia groups are discussed.
Kolomoyskyi and the Dnipro Battalion
The name probably most familiar to Western readers is that of Ukraine’s notorious Oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi. As previously reported, Kolomoyskyi has an impressive resume, and he has created the Dnipro Battalion with his personal wealth.
Nevertheless, Kolomoyskyi has proven a valuable asset for Kiev. Not only has he turned Dnipropetrovsk into a Ukrainian stronghold in the East, his connections abroad enable him to act as an unofficial ambassador. Being Ukraine’s second richest man no doubt also boosts his stature and would help any future run for political office.
It remains unclear what, if any, political ambitions Kolomoyskyi may have officially, but his current economic and martial power base will enable him to influence Ukraine’s political direction in the future. It is likely that whoever inherits power after Poroshenko will have extensive dealing with Kolomoyskyi and his allies, especially should the war in Donbas be prolonged or enter the “frozen conflict” zone.
Yarosh and the Right Sector
Dmytro Yarosh is the leader of the Right Sector paramilitary network, Moscow’s favorite Ukrainian far-right boogeyman. A self-described follower of Stepan Bandera, the infamous WWII-era Ukrainian insurgent, Yarosh has repeatedly hinted at a coup in Kiev, possibly with like-minded soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard assisting him.
The Right Sector has proven itself capable in combat, even reportedly boasting specialists with the S-300 missile system. Fighters have been active in the Battle for Donetsk Airport, as well as other areas of anti-terrorist operations. Like many Ukrainian veterans, these volunteers are disappointed with the new government, feeling that they have repeatedly betrayed the ideals of the Maidan revolution. The Right Sector even went so far as to issue a direct letter to Poroshenko accusing him of trying to undermine the volunteer movement which helped bring him to power.
The Right Sector also draws from an increasing dissolution with the EU. Whilst they prefer closer geopolitical, security, and economic cooperation with Europe, they stand opposed to post-modern cultural trends such as legalized abortion, gay marriage, and economic and political integration. In their own words, they prefer a Europe of “the Polish kind” as opposed to the Scandinavian kind. Put another way, a socially conservative Europe which focuses on economic development and joint military defense, but which respects the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Biletsky and the Azov Battalion
This growing feeling of resentment bodes well for political candidates affiliated with the Azov Battalion. Battalion leader Andriy Biletsky is already an elected member of the Obolon Raion, with some speculating that he may even have potential for higher offic. His volunteer militia proved decisive in the Battle for Mariupol and has seen a spike in popularity nation-wide. This surge of popular support likely contributed to other battalion members being elected to public office. A recent special from the UK-based Ross Kemp: Extreme World series examines these points in great detail.
Azov has gathered international attention as a result of their increasingly high profile. The Battalion includes volunteers from all over the former Soviet Union, even a large number of ethnic Russians (including an FSB defector and natives of occupied Sevastopol).
The potential challenge such a force may pose to Kiev is not lost by those in power, especially when combined with other powerful militias largely outside of government control.
The Donbass Battalion
Like their comrades in Azov, the Donbass Battalion has been able to leverage their military success into political victories. Battalion leader Semen Semenchenko is a representative in the Ukrainian Rada as part of the L’viv-based Self-Reliance Party. In their own words, he and his lieutenant 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.” This further indicates the level of dissent among the militias fighting the separatists in the east.
Again like Azov, the Donbass Battalion includes volunteers from all over the former Soviet Union, but with an unusually significant Georgian presence. The Donbass Battalion went so far as to directly challenge Poroshenko, over his willingness to negotiate with separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Poroshenko and the Current Government
All signs indicate that Kiev takes these challenges seriously. Demonstrations and riots directed against the Poroshenko administration add fuel to the fire. Attempting to incorporate such forces appears to be Kiev’s main counter-measure tactic, but it is unclear how successful this will be in the long-run. Poroshenko has presented awards to members of volunteer battalions in thanks for their service, likely in an act of further appeasement.
The Ukrainian president is in the uncomfortable position of having to juggle many divergent interests. Nationalists, liberals, advocates of Euro-Atlantic integration, Russian sympathizers, and apolitical Ukrainians have very different ideas about the future of their country. Poroshenko, having received support from each of these groups, cannot afford to marginalize any of them. While politically necessary to maintain unity, Poroshenko is limiting his ability to decisively maneuver going forward.
Scenario 1: Poroshenko Holds Onto Power but Central Government Remains Weak
It is entirely possible that the coalition around Poroshenko may hold onto power in Kiev. However, should fighting persist in the East it is likely that the central government will continue to have real power slip in favor of divergent militant groups. As a recent story of Canadian volunteers indicates, frontline militias are capable of receiving foreign support and waging a self-sufficient campaign without Kiev. Not only is this an obvious problem for Ukraine’s command and control structure, it becomes a base upon which a militarized opposition may be built.
Scenario 2: Poroshenko Challenged Militarily and Multi-Front Civil War
Should President Poroshenko fail to appease the demands of volunteer battalions, they may ultimately challenge his power. Their military success, independent supply mechanisms, growing popular support, and proven commitment to their cause all qualify them as an alternative to Poroshenko should his position continue to weaken. The path forming from this point strongly resembles the Yugoslav wars, with multiple fronts and international intervention.
If either one or a coalition of volunteer battalions is able to seize power, it is unclear how the rest of the country would react. Waging a war is one thing, but governing a country at war is quite another. Whoever would inherit Poroshenko’s position would also inherit his dilemma of having to balance disparate and radically different political factions amid a dire financial crisis.
Just as the remnants of the Yanukovych government helped begin the armed opposition in Donetsk and Lugansk, it is entirely possible that the remnants of the Poroshenko government, those opposed to the battalions’ takeover, could help organize another armed resistance movement in Ukraine. The result would be a prolonged multi-front war with few clear frontlines.
How such a war would unfold is unclear. The stance taken by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (which is larger and in possession of far more heavy weaponry despite its general ineffectiveness) would be a likely determinant. Ukrainian regulars have fought side by side with the volunteer battalions, developing a strong sense of mutual respect. It is quite possible therefore that many would side with the battalions in a struggle with Poroshenko.
The ensuing chaos would be to Ukraine’s definite detriment. A coup would offer the Kremlin the perfect excuse for open intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Talking points about the “fascist junta” in Kiev would now have a larger basis in reality (the fact that similar characters are fighting on the Novorossiyan side doesn’t seem to give them pause).
Russian troops acting as “peacekeepers” would likely limit their overt operations to the oblasts already claimed by the separatists, as anything more would make clear their intentions to undermine all of Ukraine.
Be this as it may, the open presence of Russian troops in mainland Ukraine would likely prompt a response from NATO members such as Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. The former two are already in official military cooperation with Ukraine, and would likely back Poroshenko should the battalions attempt to topple him.
What to Look For
- Increased tension between the government in Kiev and volunteer battalions on the frontline
- Increase dissatisfaction with the Poroshenko government from multiple political camps
- Continued tit-for-tat fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces
- Mounting demands issued by Ukrainian volunteers and veterans towards Poroshenko
- An increased capacity for independent action coming from volunteer battalions such as Azov, Donbass, Dnipro, and paramilitaries such as the Right Sector