Paramilitary Forces in Ukraine: Matches to a Powder Keg
By Mitch Ruhl
On November 21, 2013, protestors gathered in Kyiv's Maidan NezalezhnostiIn in favor of European integration. Just a few months later, the government was overthrown, and Putin’s “little green men” began their military operation in Crimea and the Donbas, agitating and supporting pro-Russian separatists sparking an eight-year civil war. At the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian Army was weak, slow to mobilize, and depended on citizen fighters to supplement its capabilities. Dozens of paramilitary forces sprang up on both sides. Since then, Ukrainian militias have largely disbanded or been integrated into the National Guard in contrast to the separatist militias which still maintain a large degree of autonomy while being a part of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’ (DPR and LPR) armed forces.
In many ways, the militias of this conflict share similarities with the freikorps of Weimar Germany. Many possess a deeply-entrenched partisan nature—whether ideological or megalomaniacal, questionable loyalty to their government, and draw from a disillusioned veteran-base. The current situation in Ukraine is a powder keg. Kyiv is attempting to maintain stability to avoid providing Russia with a casus belli; however, paramilitary forces on both sides represent a match and a persistent long-term threat to regional stability. As such, it is critical to understand who these forces are and the risk they represent.
Attempts by the Kyivan government to gain control of its militia groups has seen overall success. Most militias were disbanded and either sent into the reserves or recruited into the National Guard. A few larger and more resistant militias were nationalized granting them a semi-autonomous state in a Faustian bargain. These pro-Kyivan militias have largely coalesced around three major groups: Azov Battalion, Right Sector’s Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (DUK), and Aidar Battalion. While Azov and Aidar are no longer officially paramilitary forces, their continued partisan activity distinguishes them from other Ukrainian units.
More militia forces have arisen since Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky approved the raising and expansion of civilian militias to supplement the national army, increasing troop totals by 100,000 over three years. Unlike the grassroots forces of 2014, the new Territorial Defence Brigades are locally-organized volunteer units drawing from reservists and civilians and are state controlled. However, as Ukraine prepares for civilian resistance in the event of an invasion in which its conventional forces would be overwhelmed, its paramilitary forces stand to gain in a manner that could prove destabilizing to Kyiv, whether it keeps looking West or is replaced by a more East-looking one.
The Azov Battalion is a far-right, neo-Nazi militia founded in 2014 in Berdiansk and is currently headquartered in Urzuf, Donetsk Oblast as a special police unit in the National Guard. Born from the pre-existing Patriots of Ukraine and Social-National Assembly neo-Nazi groups, the battalion has deep ideological roots and was openly opposed to both the separatists and Kyiv at its onset. One of the group’s major patrons is Arsen Avakov, the Minister of Internal Affairs from 2014 to 2021 who enabled the expansion and later integration of paramilitary forces into the National Guard. Avakov actively supported the parliamentary candidacy of its members, including its neo-Nazi commander Andriy Biletsky in 2016, and has defended them in the media. The shift in leadership to participate in democratic processes caused the Battalion shed some of its open opposition, nationalize, and form two partner organizations: the National Corps Party and the Azov Civil Corps.
Because of this connectivity, it was the first group to be nationalized. There were attempts made after this to vet out foreigners and anti-Kyiv extremists to limited success. Those vetted out were often sent to the Civil Corps, but Nazi influence remains entrenched. The continued close entanglement of Nazism, politics, and the Battalion are demonstrated by the deep ties between the commanders and the party. For example, former longtime commander and current leader in the National Corps, Maxim Zhorin, is facilitating volunteer training and recruitment for the Battalion. He has gone on pilgrimages to sites where Hitler spoke in the past. Additionally, current commander Denys Prokopenko has been with the unit since day one and maintains its partisan and Nazi culture.
In 2018, the National Corps rolled out a new Azov-affiliate known as National Druzhyna, a street gang of around 600 members. This group was responsible for multiple violent attacks on Roma, Jews, and other minority groups as well as political opponents, including academics. The larger organization is currently using the crisis to bolster its profile, recruitment, and political prospects and has been prolific on social media over the years in recruitment and radicalization.
Given the Azov movement’s extremist nature, previously open revolutionary positions, and active radicalization and recruitment tactics, there is concern for the loyalty of the unit to Kyiv.
Founded in 2013 as a paramilitary confederation, it quickly expanded to include a political party and youth movement. The group deeply holds anti-democratic, neo-Nazi, and neo-fascist revolutionary ideology and is a political ally of the National Corps. Its paramilitary wing, DUK, consists of two sotnya (a Cossack unit of 100-150 persons) fighting in the Donbass. A noted ideological premise is the commitment to the destruction of the Russian state and the creation of a pan-Slavic Russia-Ukraine state.
The group initially resisted integration into national forces; however, the group took a page from the Hitler playbook after 1923 and began to participate in democracy with the intent to undermine it. Its commander Dmytro Yarosh became a member of parliament and three battalions nationalized and were eventually split apart, though members in their new units maintain esprit de corps with their former comrades and the non-combatant medical battalion remains intact.
However, five sotyna of the DUK remain active and independent of the national forces, continue to resist government attempts at integration, and are actively supported by the Right Sector party in Kyiv, and is reflected on the party website. The organization also has 25 sotnya in reserve for each territory. The DUK is currently commanded by Andriy Stempitsky "Flyer." Two sotnya are active combat units in the Donbass and are tolerated by the government. In December 2021, Zelensky awarded a Right Sector commander the Hero of Ukraine award, the country’s highest national honor. These units are the last true paramilitary units in Ukraine.
While enjoying very limited national support, the organization, like Azov, is using the crisis to bolster its profile and power. Its independent nature, extreme anti-Russian ideology, and presence on the front lines represent a significant risk for escalation. As Russian and separatist forces ramp up escalation in hopes of justifying an invasion, an unaccountable extremist group that is tacitly endorsed by Kyiv could prove the fodder that Putin desires.
The Aidar Battalion was founded in 2014 and is subordinate to the 53rd Separate Mechanized Brigade and is stationed in Sievierodonetsk.
Following its initial resistance to withdrawal in 2015 and nationalization and a brief confrontation with the Ukrainian regular army, most of the battalion acquiesced. Holdouts jumped from one independent militia to another, many of whom ended up in Right Sector. Aidar was the last militia to be incorporated. It is currently known officially as the 24th Assault Battalion of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
The force has some history of going rogue after integration. In 2017, it and the now-dissolved Donbas Battalion blockaded the DPR and LPR and created an energy crisis in Ukraine. This blockade was soon forcefully broken up by Ukrainian forces but later made official due to the political power of the Maidan veteran constituency.
It has faced significant international criticism for its role in human rights abuses and war crimes. While it does not have its own political arm, former members such as Sergei Melnichuk served as members of parliament until 2019. Despite its history, this group has the smallest profile and no real ideological bend. It poses less of a risk to the government than the other units in the event of an invasion. Russian coverage focusing on the movements of the 53rd frame it as preparing for an offensive as of February 11, 2022. This coincides with U.S. intelligence indicating the potential use of a false flag as a casus belli for invasion. In this context, a rogue element within Aidar could present a significant risk for escalation.
Pro-Russian/separatist forces are much more anomalous and extensive than their pro-Kyiv counterparts. This is in part because Russia never fully put its weight behind establishing the breakaway states. The LPR and DPR suffer from political instability as a result, seeing factional conflicts between various internal groups. The Kremlin took steps to reign in or eliminate more troublesome elements over the years; however, these efforts are largely limited to anti-Kremlin elements opposed to Russiky Mir or Putin. The governments of the breakaway states are quite moderate in and of themselves, being controlled by bureaucrats with connections to deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, the armed forces were, however, inundated with rival warlords. However, given the lack of high-profile assassinations since late 2018, the more extreme elements of separatist leadership can be considered to be eliminated.
Unfortunately, publicly available information on these groups is often dated and interspersed, and sometimes contradictory.
Donetsk People's Republic Armed Forces
These are the official forces of the quasi-state of the DPR. It is comprised of over a dozen contingent units, including the Oplot, Vostok, Russian Orthodox Army, and Republican Guard. While officially, the volunteer militias are a part of the official DPR and LPR forces, they are quite autonomous in reality. News articles indicate a fair amount of political infighting between commanders of various groups and DPR political elite. For example, the original head of Oplot and the DPR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, was assassinated in August 2018. While the responsible party was never identified, it is just one of many rebel political elites eliminated violently over the years either after falling out of the Kremlin’s grace or in an internal power struggle. Similarly, Mikhail Tolstykh, former leader of the Somali paramilitary force, was assassinated in February 2017 under similar circumstances.
Other elements are in a more uncertain state, some still have active social media, but it is unclear as to their organizational status. The Vostok Brigade, for example, was alleged to be a GRU creation as it contains veterans of the GRU’s Vostok and Zapad Battalions that participated in the war in Georgia and in Chechnya. While sources indicated the brigade disbanded and its members either joined other units or returned to Russia, its commander, Alexander Khodakovsky, put out a call to arms on February 17, 2022, to all veterans of the militia via Telegram.
Other paramilitary elements include the Russian Orthodox Army is a religious extremist group with a record of terrorist and thuggish activity against non-Orthodox groups and is also active in the LPR. Its original commander was Igor Strelkov, a former FSB colonel and since become a leader in the neo-imperialist Russian National Movement opposed to Putin. Another unit of notoriety is the Varyag Battalion, which is a neo-Nazi unit finding its origins in being far-right paid provocateurs during the Orange Revolution. It has companies parsed throughout a few DPR units, such as the Republican Guard. These units, while primarily focused on the defense of the Donbass, may either participate in or see sister units spring up to support counter-insurgency efforts by a Kremlin-appointed government in Kyiv.
The DPR has seen regular skirmishes with Ukrainian forces over the years, and increasingly in recent months. The official line holds that Ukraine is the aggressor, however, the reality is likely culpability of both forces with Russian instigation to justify its invasion. Additionally, the political instability is an unintended boon for Russian plausible deniability, as it can simply dismiss accusations against the pro-Russian side as rogue elements of young independent government.
Luhansk People's Republic Armed Forces
LPR forces operate similarly to the DPR with official units supplemented by semi-autonomous volunteer and international brigades.
Similar to the Russian Orthodox Army, the Cossack Guard are an ethno-Orthodox religious extremist organization with a record of human rights abuses on religious grounds. They believe they are in a holy war for Russia and enjoy tacit support from the Moscow Patriarchate given the institution’s embrace of Russiky Mir. They primarily operate in the LPR and have members spread throughout LPR forces.
The Prizrak Brigade had close ideological ties to the Vostok brigade, through their initial leader Aleksey Mozgovoy’s ties with Vostok’s Igor Strelkov. Once Strelkov was forced to leave the Donbass, Mozgovoy and the unit, which has a socialist political arm, became increasingly antagonistic to the Kremlin. It is suspected that the Kremlin orchestrated his and Cossack Regiment commander Pavel Dremov’s 2015 assassinations.
While the various component elements of the LPR’s military and paramilitary forces do not seem particularly concerning in their own right, the deeply-entrenched political rivalries—marked by assassinations, attempted coups, and inter-faction standoffs—are of significant concern. While leaving the LPR’s cohesion and combat effectiveness significantly lacking, units or leaders seeking to shore up power at the expense of its rivals may inadvertently risk escalation with Ukraine. The 2015-2017 assassination wave was often blamed on Ukrainian subversive elements by Russian state media. The potential expansion of their role to assist in counter-insurgency efforts after an invasion remains a strong possibility as well.
The most immediate concern lies in the escalation risk factor of these forces. As cease-fire violations skyrocket, it should be recognized in its precedence. Over the past eight years, both sides have been guilty of violations largely out of a desire to coax the opposing side to violate even more in a race to the bottom. Given recent intelligence reports indicating a Russian moving towards a false flag, it stands to reason that the Kremlin is pushing separatist forces to provoke violations by the Ukrainian armed forces. While NATO and Zelensky have little control over how the separatists behave, they can move to pull the most troublesome units, including Right Sector, away from the front to minimize the risk of escalation. The volatility of the situation in the Donbass demands disciplined troops there. Provoking aggression from Ukrainian forces would eliminate the diplomatic risk factor of a false flag operation, but it appears that Russia is ready to go either way.
Despite the political influence of Ukraine’s veteran constituency, popular support for Ukraine’s far-right paramilitary forces is negligible. Biletsky and other members of far-right parties lost their seat in Ukraine’s Parliament—the Verkhovna Rada—in 2019. However, fascist paramilitary organizations could expand significantly in the wake of a Russian invasion. Ongoing civilian resistance training grant these organizations the opportunity to create widespread recruitment pools in the general populace. Further to that, a defeated democratic Ukraine would face a legitimacy crisis that extremist organizations like Azov and Right Sector could exploit to establish themselves politically, not unlike the Yugoslav Partisans in the Second World War. In this event, while NATO should refuse to recognize any Kremlin-appointed regime, it should likewise refuse to recognize any rebel Nazi government. Even if a strong opposition government led by Nazis may be enticing for the purpose of undermining a puppet regime, it would be a catastrophic mistake that would further destabilize the region and provide legitimacy to other far-right movements globally, particularly in the US.