Small Wars Journal

A Serious Threat or a Strategic Success? The Pros and Cons of Paramilitarising a Civilian Population in Ukraine

Sun, 02/27/2022 - 7:03pm

A Serious Threat or a Strategic Success? The Pros and Cons of Paramilitarising a Civilian Population in Ukraine

By Dale Pankhurst


The decision by the Putin regime to initiate a Russian military invasion of the Ukraine has sparked the worst security crisis on the European continent since the Second World War. Despite fears of a sweeping and quick Russian military victory over its forces, the Ukrainian State has so far managed to launch strong and determined resistance against Russian troop movements and tank columns. This resistance has slowed down Russian advances towards the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other strategic towns and cities. Much of these tactical successes are due to recent military assistance provided by Western states, including the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Anti-tank weapon systems, including Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles, have caused significant logistical problems for Russian military supply chains as their frontline forces advance deeper into Ukraine.

With Russian forces presently engaged in a battle for the capital city of the Ukraine, Kyiv, the Ukrainian Government mobilised and conscripted all males between the age of 18 and 60 years-old. The Ukrainian State has also began paramilitarising the civilian population, handing out over 18,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles to its citizens in Kyiv alone. The Government is also encouraging citizens to engage vastly superior Russian forces with Molotov cocktails with local civilian populations and even breweries now manufacturing petrol bombs en masse.

These decisions are usually taken by a Government in a last ditch attempt to save their sovereignty from a foreign invader. So far, these paramilitarisation processes have helped slow any Russian military victory. Mass mobilisation of the civilian population complementing a Ukrainian Army engaging a vastly superior military force through semi-guerrilla warfare with small arms and anti-tank weapons systems has thus far been a serious stumbling block for Russian military forces. Much of the contemporary focal point of the Ukrainian Government and the West is rightly focused on the very survival of the Ukrainian State. Notably, it seems the paramilitarisation of the civilian population by the Kyiv Government has been a tactical success in their defensive strategy.

The problem is the issues paramilitarisation leads to in any post-war society. The State-led creation of vast civilian militias inevitably means there is now a country awash with assault rifles and other weapons of war. Retrieving these weapons will be next to impossible for the Kyiv Government in any post-war setting. The spectrum of pro-state militias established long before the Russian invasion (some of whom are anti-government and neo-Nazi) will benefit from the release of armaments into the civilian population. Secondly, the proliferation of arms in the civilian population will also benefit any international and/or criminal organisations that exist throughout Ukraine. Law enforcement agencies (both Ukrainian and international) will have to ensure they are braced for difficulties in combating rejuvenated criminal gangs in any post-war scenario that will inevitably refuse to hand over any weapons they have secured.

To deal with any post-war security threat emanating from non-state armed groups mobilised during the war, the Ukrainian State will need to ensure robust demobilisation processes are put in place to disarm pro-government civilian militias. Alternatively, integration processes should be established to absorb civilian militias into the regular Ukrainian armed forces should these groups refuse to disarm. This tactic was successful in neutralising the threat posed to the Ukrainian Government from the far-right Azov Battalion militia that emerged as a strong non-state armed force after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. Recognising the potential threat posed to the Ukrainian Government by the Azov Battalions, the Ukrainian State moved quickly to integrate the vast majority of the militia into its regular armed forces.

Should Ukraine fall, these problems will be for Moscow or a pro-Russian Ukrainian regime to deal with. Grappling with a population that has undergone a State-led paramilitarisation process during a foreign invasion may lead to a protracted anti-Russian insurgency through which pro-Ukrainian militias will have access to a vast range of weapons with no shortage of ammunition (and perhaps continued logistical and technical support from Western states).

If Ukraine manages to successfully repel the Russian invasion or secure a peace agreement, the Kyiv Government will have to ensure proper demobilisation structures are put in place. The onus is also on those Western states who donated vast arsenals of weapons to Ukraine to aid Kyiv in those processes. Failure to do so may lead to a proliferation of non-state armed groups and a security headache for the Kyiv administration from internal non-state threats.

About the Author(s)

Dale Pankhurst is an ESRC NINE DTP Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University Belfast under the supervision of Dr Andrew Thomson and Dr Mike Bourne. He previously completed both his BA in International Politics and Conflict Studies and his MA in Politics at Queen's, receiving the Frank Wright Prize for excellence during postgraduate study. His PhD research project investigates complexity and variation in state-pro-government militia relationships.