Promise and Peril: Crisis Power Delegations in Ukraine


Following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine was beset by conflict: scarred by the brutal means Yanukovych employed before absconding to Russia, adrift in a political vacuum, split, enduringly and perhaps increasingly, along an east-west divide. And to this unsettled condition was added the rebellion of eastern Ukraine, spurred on and aided by a surreptitious Russian invasion, which included the seizure and eventual annexation of Crimea. Throughout 2014 and well into 2015 insurrection and invasion menaced the Ukrainian government[1], such as it was, represented chiefly by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and by President Petro Poroshenko. Indeed, at times it seemed military reverses would prompt government collapse.

The official apparatuses of the state, in the aftermath of a coup and in a persistent condition of instability, could not cope with the pressures of the crisis alone. Independent actors in multiple sectors of society adapted or materialized to fill the gap of the state’s inadequacies. Ukraine’s transitional cabinet, which presided from February to November 2014, authorized non-state actors[2] to perform services in critical areas: defense, internal security, propaganda (countering Russian disinformation campaigns), election monitoring, and lustration. This delegation of powers, though conceptually worrisome, was a necessary measure by an embattled state; the authorities in Kiev were not strong enough to operate all these functions, nor even to prevent other entities from taking over—state collapse was not an unreal prospect for Ukraine in 2014.

The result of the state’s delegation was formally to empower two pre-existing societal elements: civil society and citizen militias. Both were crucial to the expulsion of Yanukovych and in 2014 proved essential to war efforts in the east. Yet these twinned elements, alike in patriotism and self-starting dynamism, in stark contrast represent promise and peril. The exertions of civil society during the revolution and its development since, the public sphere strength indicated thereby presents the hope of truly realizing some of the revolution’s objectives; on the other hand, the enduring presence of militias is as much a challenge to the government in Kiev as it is to the separatist insurgents and Russian forces in the east.

Ukrainian society, responding to crisis

Ukraine’s civil society — pre-existing social movements and organizations, spontaneous volunteer initiatives, and many other varieties of grassroots groups — responded to the necessary, though unusual delegation of state functions. Election monitoring, lustration, and ‘propaganda’ are not unprecedented or even uncommon functions of civil society. Elections are often monitored and evaluated by supranational bodies, such as the European Commission, by intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and by private groups, such as the GOLOS Association in Russia; the OPORA Network[3] is one such private, domestic group that has taken a lead in election monitoring. As a measure of transitional justice, lustration is commonly propelled by the input of private individuals and groups that were victimized by the previous regime; the public advisory committee, drawing upon media and civil society representatives as well as unaffiliated citizens, forms one of the essential components of Ukrainian lustration. And ‘propaganda’ encompasses the vast and dense network of information gathering and reporting organizations in civil society — these were, and indeed continue to be vital in refuting the influence of Russian media and ‘propaganda’ in Ukraine. VoxUkraine[4] and Ukraine Today[5] are just two of the many media organization forged in the fires of revolution and war.

Still other groups have formed to seek and promote peaceful solutions to the conflicts in eastern Ukraine. The Donbass Think Tank (‘Фабрика думки ‘Донбас’), for example, is a Kiev-based organization researching, formulating, and promoting reconciliation and development in the east. Given time and opportunity, the work of such groups may create the foundations of stable peace and perhaps even reunification.

Both those prospects and the wider democratizing effects of Ukraine’s civil society are undermined by militias. Lecturing in 1842, historian Thomas Arnold characterized militias and other ‘irregular warfare’ as a ‘great evil,’ giving “licence to a whole population to commit all sorts of treachery, rapine, and cruelty, without any restraint; letting loose a multitude of armed men, with none of the obedience and none of the honourable feelings of the soldier.” This practice, he consequently asserted, must be prevented by the regular army and authority of the state — that is, the forces bound to rules of military conduct. Despite the problematic facets of applying this understanding of war — idealized, perhaps romanticized, and in many ways antiquated — to contemporary conflict, Arnold’s warnings about the threats of unaccountable men under arms remain. Militias undercut the authority of the state and the national army.

In 2014 militias, wholly new battalions as well as some old street fighters that resisted Yanukovych’s violent efforts to remain in power, formed to halt and repel Russian and separatist aggression. They proved surprisingly adept in this, establishing by their exertions (alongside the Ukrainian army) a tolerably stable boundary between the areas of Ukraine controlled by Kiev and those controlled by eastern separatists.

The largest militia, which is still operating, is Pravyi Sektor, or ‘Right Sector.’ Originally an amalgamation of nationalist (alternatively described as extreme nationalist, ultranationalist, neo-Nazi, and far-right) political and paramilitary groups leading the street-fighting against riot police during the revolution, Pravyi Sektor organised into regional battalions to confront the eastern separatists. Thus, Pravyi Sektor has a Donbas Battalion fighting across the Donbas region (principally around Donetsk), an Azov Battalion fighting along the coast of the Azov Sea around Mariupol, and several other ancillary units.

Several incidents attest to the hazards of Ukraine’s citizen militias. Before being disbanded and partially reconstituted within the Ukrainian Army, the volunteer Aidar Battalion was infamous for ruthless conduct. In 2014 Amnesty International leveled charges of war crimes at the unit.[6] Pravyi Sektor forces actually engaged in skirmishes with the Ukrainian Army in 2015 in Mukachevo, a town in western Ukraine, far from the civil war. The dispute stemmed from recriminations against local law enforcement about illegal cigarette smuggling. Most recently, a report[7] by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights noted the alarming conditions created by militias and volunteer units. They created, it said, “an unbridled rule of the gun with armed men readily resorting to violence towards civilians, especially to those who ‘disobeyed’ their orders.” Much of the bloodshed has resulted from indiscriminate Russian shelling, as well as from separatist militias, but western Ukrainian forces are not blameless. Crucially, for a country struggling to democratize and establish genuine rule of law, “impunity for killings remains rampant, encouraging their perpetuation and undermining prospects for justice.” Yet, despite instances of open conflict with official Ukraine authority, despite the resignation of Pravyi Sektor’s principal leader Dmytro Yarosh in November 2015, and it despite being declared an ‘illegal armed group’ by Prosecutor General Anatoliy Matios[8] in 2016, volunteer militias endure.

Beyond their intrinsic perils, militias also permit particularly menacing corruption by oligarchs. Whereas influence over the state and capture of its resources has long represented the primary objective for ambitious oligarchs, the chaos of war and authorization of militias presented new opportunities. Controlling militias, including ones with political arms, became another means of exerting pressure, gaining influence, and winning personal aggrandizement.

The most notorious example of this oligarchic perversion is that of Igor Kolomoiskiy. Before President Poroshenko dismissed him from the governorship of Dnipropetrovsk in March of 2015, Kolomoiskiy had leveraged his considerable financial worth to foster a vast network personally loyal to him and composed of media organizations, lobbying components, and social movements. Added to this was the conspicuous and menacing presence of militia units — partially funding the Dnipro, Aidar, Azov, Dnepr 1, Dnepr 2, and Donbas battalions, reputedly. His dismissal came shortly after armed men, apparently in Kolomoiskiy’s militia, attempted to seize the headquarters of Ukraine’s state-owned oil pipeline operator. His removal and expatriation does little to distract from the allure of exploiting the existence of militias, carving out fiefdoms of control with private armies.

The enduring international outlook

Ukraine seems challenged by an entrenching frozen conflict. Each day that passes in peace, relative to earlier periods in the conflict, also ossifies the status quo:  significant areas of Ukraine occupied or in a state of ambiguous quasi-independence. As in other cases of so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ in the post-Soviet space, the current situation in Ukraine is likely to persist because the condition suits, at least tolerably, the most powerful actors involved, especially Russia. Occupying part of Ukrainian territory ensures that the government in Kiev cannot move toward NATO accession — the Kremlin has reiterated yearly its perception of NATO as the principal threat to Russia at least since President Putin’s famous speech in Munich in 2007.[9] The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, the somewhat controlled disorder of armed proxies also furnishes the Kremlin with another lever with which it might apply pressure on the West.

For the other states of Europe and for the United States, which have considerably less national self-interest invested in Ukraine than Russia, a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine is a bearable condition. As in other such conflicts in the former Soviet Union, Russia holds the advantage of preponderant military power and forward deployment. Since war with Russia, even by proxy, is not a realistic option, the West will likely exert soft power measures, supporting democratization and development in western Ukraine and applying some pressure on Russia. Unfortunately, therefore, for Ukraine, the principal international actors around the conflict are inclined to inertia, to maintaining the status quo of the conflict.

Promoting a stable democratic society

The government and people of Ukraine now must carry on with the ordinary business of state and society. In doing this, the government and others interested in a stable, genuinely democratic Ukraine should have two priorities high on its agenda: eliminating the threat posed by militias and nurturing civil society vibrancy.

First, the state must fully reassume essential state functions of defense and internal security. Under duress the state took the required steps to survive by permitting militias. But men under arms, considerably removed from state control, answering to private commanders, is a condition incompatible with liberal democracy. Such militias undermine state authority and imperil societal stability. Constructively, the state apparatus is the only organ able to coordinate forces, maintain the conflict boundary, and enforce the fortified restraint that eastern tensions will demand for many years. Strategic and material support from Western Europe and the United States may aid the reinvigoration of Ukraine’s army and the normalization of the de facto boundaries in the east.

Ukraine’s government has already demonstrated the capacity to reduce and remove militias deftly. After numerous troubling incidents the Ministry of Defense ordered the Aidar Battalion to disband and subsequently reorganized it under the control of regular military command structure. Also, by recruiting Dmytro Yarosh to an advisory position in the army, which was followed by his resignation as leader of Pravyi Sektor, the government diminished the strength and political potency of the largest remaining militia. Continued use of this calculated approach, culminating in the proscription of all militias and the army’s full control of the conflict zone, is essential for Ukraine’s stable democratic development.

Second, as the state reasserts its control over defense and internal security, it must simultaneously encourage civil society activity and development. Happily, Ukraine has promising prospects in this. Nestled in two compact articles of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement[10] are the manifestations of governmental intention, both Ukrainian and European, to create space for civil society growth. Article 469 § 2 established the Civil Society Platform, a forum of international civil society communication and cooperation. Article 470 bonds the input of the Civil Society Platform to the Association Council, the body charged with coordinating the development of EU-Ukraine partnership. This tidily exemplifies the necessary allowance for civil society operation and advancement; it assures a space for civil society actors to present their interests to state authorities. Private and semi-private organizations are also bolstering civil society. George Soros’s Open Society Foundation[11], the National Endowment for Democracy[12], the U.S. Agency for International Development[13], the National Democratic Institute[14]—by donation, partnership, and capacity building, external actors are taking part in strengthening the Ukrainian public sphere.

For much of its post-communist existence, Ukraine has been characterized by corrupted or marginalized media, social movements, and public sphere entities. Too often government was responsive to the narrow interests of oligarchs, at the expense of the wider populace. Preventing this lethargic gravitation toward corrupt patronage networks is a crucial concern for Ukraine, one in which the influence of vibrant civil society organizations can be decisive.







[6] Available here:









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About the Author 

Michael Zeller holds Master of Arts degree in Political Science from Corvinus University of Budapest. His bachelor’s degree is in Political Science from the University of Louisville.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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