photo Kolomoiskiy

by Gordon M. Hahn

{originally posted on July 14, 2014 in Johnson’s Russia List, http://russialist.org/war-from-below-and-the-warlords-of-ukraine/}

Vladimir Lenin once quipped that in the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up”. Ukraine’s Maidan revolution has left that country in a similar condition: out of control. Power now is being picked by various nationalistic and oligarchic warlords, who are establishing competing power centers. Few of these are tightly subordinate to the central government in Kiev now headed by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Kiev’s lack of control over “its” forces means that Washington and Brussels are as impotent as the Ukrainian central government in controlling events and the combatants. The same is true with regard to the eastern rebellion, over which Moscow has little or now influence. All this was demonstrated by the failure of the Berlin conference to take hold in Ukraine this past weekend and President Poroshenko’s termination of the truce last weekend. Consequently, the window appears to have closed for a resolution of the Ukrainian civil war ‘from above’ by the international actors who helped provoke it: the U.S., Russia, NATO and the EU, especially EU member Poland.

Various Ukrainian actors ‘below’, on the ground inside the country are increasingly in control of political and military events, and it is they who are likely to determine the final outcome, which is still far from decided. None of them can or even wants to negotiate, stabilize the situation, and return to some semblance of providing public goods to the population. Each seeks power for itself and for now is trying to establish its control over a specific territory within Ukraine before moving on to bigger things.

There are at least four and potentially many more separate loci of power competing with Kiev for the claim of sovereignty to rule on the territory of post-Crimean Ukraine: rebel Novosrossiya, pro- Dnepropetrovsk and several adjacent central Ukrainian regions, and the pro-Kiev siloviki-tied National Guard and other volunteer battalions. Some of these suffer from internal competition, divisions, and occasionally conflicts. Such smaller or somewhat different formations include the Right Sector neo-fascists, who have their roots in western Ukraine, are based in Dnepropetrovsk, but tend to roam the country. Many Right Sector fighters are also embedded in the siloviki’s various volunteer battalions.

The Novorossiya Warlords

The most obvious manifestation of the rising warlord phenomenon lies in the eastern rebellions of Donetsk and Lugansk, so-called Novorossiya. Various protest, ultra-Russian or Donbass nationalist, and criminal groupings have joined various warlord structures under the umbrella of the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics (DNR and LNR, respectively). The best known warlord is the DNR’s ‘supreme commander Igor Girkin nicknamed ‘Strelkov’, a retired Russian military intelligence officer. His nom de guerre, is fitting as ‘strelkov’ connotes shooting in both Russian and Ukrainian, and he has been accused of executing deserters and assassinating Ukrainian security officials. His forces were based in Slavyansk until Sunday’s withdrawal to Donetsk. There are at least seven other major warlord commanders in the eastern rebellion, the majority of which are Ukrainian citizens. Each controls from several hundred to several thousand fighters and is a potential warlord himself.

At times the eastern warlords have tangled horns. There have been occasional small-scale clashes, and some groups have gone autonomous. Thus, Aleksandr Kozitsyn command largely Cossack battalions controlling Krasnodon, Perevalsk, Krasnyi Luch, Chernopartizansk, Antratsit, Rovenki, and several crossing points along the Russian border. He has been in frequent conflict with the DNR and LNR leaderships who have accused him of “treachery,” “cowardice,” and “Makhovshina” – a reference to the quasi-anarchist, Russian revolutionary era, Ukrainian warlord Nestor Makhno (http://www.theinsider.ua/politics/53b4772d03e94/).

Counter-intuitive is the flourishing of warlords and quasi-warlords loosely tied and perhaps only temporarily allied with the government in Kiev brought to power by the February revolutionary coup. As in the east, Kiev various warlords and their minions are a mix of ultra-nationalists, national chauvinists, and corrupt and criminal oligarchs and groups and are centered in western and central Ukraine.

The Siloviki Warlords

The ideologically Ukrainian nationalist elements are, with the exception of Right Sector, embedded inside the Ukraine’s weak state in the persons of top power ministries or siloviki, especially Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov and Chairman of Ukraine’s Defense and Security Council Andrei Parubii. Avakov has been caught in repeated lies about events in Ukraine, including the May 2 pogrom in Odessa discussed below. Parubii was a the founder of the neo-Nazi Social-National Party and only much later joined the more moderate but still considerably national chauvinist ‘Fatherland’ (Batkyvshina) party. Their appointments to the council was reward to the far-right groups that seized power in Kiev in February on behalf of the more democratic elements on Maidan.

Under Parubii’s oversight of the entire bloc of siloviki departments (military, intelligence, police, prosecutors), Avakov has created a network of para-military groups loosely tied – or not, in many cases – to the Defense and Interior Ministries and the newly-created National Guard. In one Internet posting Avakov listed some 30 such groups created on his orders (Arsen Avakov, “Lozh’ i pravda,” Ekho Moskvy, 17 June 2014,http://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1342014-echo/ and “,” Vesti.ua, 2014, http://vesti.ua/kiev/59203-avakov-rasskazal-o-specpodrazdelenijah-uchastnikah-ato). The National Guard and many of these battalions recruited their ranks from the Right Sector and other neo-fascist parties, such as the Social National Assembly and Oleg Tyahnibok’s misnamed ‘Freedom’ or ‘Svoboda’ party. For example, the Interior Ministry’s ‘Azov’ battalion consists of Right Sector recruits (www.onlinetv.ru/video/1670/?autostart=1). These battalions are responsible for many of the attacks on civilians and residential areas in eastern Ukraine under Avakov’s ‘anti-terrorist’ operation.

Dmitro Yarosh and Right Sector

Right Sector itself, in particular its leader Dmitro Yarosh, are allowed to roam Ukraine’s countryside seizing businesses and attacking civilians. Yarosh and the Right Sector played the leading role in the horrendous May 2nd terrorist attack in Ukraine’s glorious southern city of Odessa. A deadly mix of Right Sector shock troops, soccer thugs, and local police burned alive and otherwise slaughtered at least 40 unarmed anti-Kiev activists at the Trade Union House. Right Sector claimed responsibility for the Odessa pogrom, noting “about a hundred members of ‘Right Sector’ and patriotic-minded Odessa residents countered the rebels” and that “Dmitro Yarosh ignored the ‘expedience’ of the election campaign to coordinate the action against the Russian aggression.” Its website celebrated the slaughter as “another bright page in our national history.” Yet Yarosh remains and was allowed to run in the presidential election in May. Since then, the authorities in Kiev have made no mention of him, no less made any attempt to detain him.

Oligarch-Governor-Warlord Kolomoiskii

According to some information, the May 2nd pogrom may have been a join operation between Yarosh’s Right Sector, headquartered in Dnepropetrovsk, and banking oligarch and Maidan government-appointed Dnepropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoiskii, perhaps the most powerful warlord based outside of Kiev. Kolomoiskii has financed the National Guard and numerous battalions associated with it and the defense and interior ministries. His dominion extends across much of central Ukraine from Dnepropetrovsk in north-central Ukraine to the south as far as Odessa. In several regions Kolomoiskii has been able to get allies appointed to government positions and organize the seizure of regional government buildings from demonstrators and rebels.

It is these disparate and coercive actors led by oligarchic and nationalist warlords who are driving events in Ukraine today. Many are connected to, but none are fully under the control of the government in Kiev. Moreover, Kiev itself is divided by at least three groups: Poroshenko, the siloviki, and Maidan, which itself is divided between pro-European democrats and national chauvinists who in turn have ties to the siloviki in the corridors of ‘power.’

The Radical Warlords and Polarization in Ukraine

There is a real risk that the warlords and para-military connected to the siloviki in the Ukrainian government will attempt to seize power in a coup in the event key decisions do not go their way. The potentially powerful Donbass Battalion and its commander Semyon Semenchenko recently demonstrated this potential. Right Sector leader Yarosh and other members are fighting alongside or under the banner of this battalion (www.youtube.com/watch?v=SadSxC-zgdc#t=177). On the eve of President Poroshenko’s pivotal June 30th meeting with Parubii, Avakov, and the powerful Defense and Security Council that would decide whether or not to extend the truce the newly elected president initiated on June 23rd, Semenchenko and members of his battalion led a several thousand-strong demonstration backed by two other ‘volunteer’ battalions, the ‘Dnepr’ and ‘Aidar’ battalions. (http://slon.ru/russia/pyat_prichin_neizbezhnosti_voyny_ili_chto_poroshenko_delal_proshlym_vecherom-1121407.xhtml?utm_source=slon&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20140704). The demonstrators demanded that Poroshenko end the truce, declare martial law, and destroy the eastern rebels or they would remove the president from power “like Yanukovich.” At the demonstration a journalist was beaten up and stun grenades were thrown seriously injuring several demonstrators. One demonstrator claimed he saw MVD officers hand the stun grenades to members of Avakov’s Kiev-based paramilitary group ’17+ Sotny,’ who threw the grenades. Although Avakov condemned the violence the next day, no one was arrested (Olga Omelyanchuk, “Pod Kabminom nachali vzryvat’ granaty,” Vesti.ua, 1 July 2014, http://vesti.ua/kiev/59088-pod-kabminom-vzorvali-granaty).

Before the June 30th council meeting, President Poroshenko had said he intended to extend the truce after its June 30th deadline in accordance with the wishes of Brussels and Moscow. However, after the four-hour long meeting he emerged to announce an end to the truce and ordered a new offensive to wipe out rebels. The Donbass Battalion and its ilk had prevailed over the great powers of Europe and Russia.

Another would-be nationalist warlord, Oleg Lyashko from western Ukraine, was privileged during the decisonmaking. For background, Lyashko is infamous for, among other things, claiming responsibility for and thus apparently organizing the storming of a government building in Torez by his “Soldiers from the Lyashko Battalion ‘Ukraine.’” They killed two unarmed pro-Russian supporters of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and wounded a third (www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/militia-backed-by-presidential-candidate-lyashko-takes-credit-for-murder-of-russian-backed-separatists-349093.html). Despite his record, Lyashko attended a high profile July 1st meeting with Poroshenko in which he announced his plan of action after the June 30th council meeting. After listening the president, Lyashko said he had “heard what he had wanted to hear from him” (http://slon.ru/russia/pyat_prichin_neizbezhnosti_voyny_ili_chto_poroshenko_delal_proshlym_vecherom-1121407.xhtml?utm_source=slon&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20140704).

Lyashko has been limited in his quest for a role in the developing ‘warlordization’ of the country. He was removed as a supplier of his fighters after Avakov discovered that 12 of the first 15 Lyashko recruits had criminal issues (Arsen Avakov, “Lozh’ i pravda,” Ekho Moskvy, 17 June 2014, http://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/1342014-echo/).

Ukrainians pride themselves on their veche-style direct democracy, typified by the Maidan revolution. Unfortunately, in a revolutionary milieu of an immature civil society, nationalist radicalism and weakened state institutions, this aspect of Ukrainian political culture facilitates the country’s warlordization. Western and Russian interference provoked the revolutionary crisis, and an unwillingness to intervene strongly to restrain the conflicting forces on the ground early has intensified these problems.

Now there is little outside forces can do to de-escalate the situation. Nevertheless, Brussels, Moscow and especially Washington to step up its efforts to secure a truce and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table. Otherwise, the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state is in doubt and the possibility of a larger war may grow.