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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Volunteer Battalions: Potent Weapon For Ukraine Against Russia or Problem?

Ukrainian Marines form up to control a group of demonstrators during Situational Training Exercise-4, Civil Disturbance/ Mass Casualty, COOPERATIVE OSPREY Ô96. Cooperative Osprey '96 is a United States Atlantic Command sponsored exercise, that will be conducted by Marine Forces Atlantic, in August 1996 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Cooperative Osprey, under the Partnership for Peace program, will provide interoperability training in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations along NATO/IFOR standards, with an emphasis on individual and collective skills.

What Role for Volunteer Battalions in Ukraine? – The 2014 conflict in the Donbas region saw a widespread phenomenon that is unlikely in most political and economic theories of defense: the rise of multiple successful independent volunteer battalions. These battalions were the reaction of Ukrainian citizens to the fact that their government had failed to provide the national defense that is the core responsibility of any state. They held the Russian-backed separatist to minimal gains, took some of the captured lands back, and gained a fearsome reputation among their opponents. They also gained reputations as extremists, and as a potential threat to the Ukrainian government itself.

There is a question of whether or not these once successful independent volunteer battalions could re-emerge now that the conflict has escalated so greatly, and of what threat they might pose if they did. Volunteer battalions have previously acquired material intended for use by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the possibility that they could do so again as much more lethal and sophisticated weapons flow into Ukraine from Western allies has some analysts worried.

The original volunteer battalions arose under unique circumstances. The Ukrainian military was wracked by corruption to the point of ineffectiveness, causing many units of the Ukrainian military to abandon their posts and their weapons. Those units that did attempt to fight did so with weapons that were often in disrepair or obsolete, and many units could not be fielded for lack of supplies. With no other options, Ukrainian citizens formed their own battalions to defend themselves, but today’s Ukrainian military is much improved over 2014’s Ukrainian military.

Corruption is still a widespread problem in Ukraine, but changes in leadership at many levels have begun to move the needle in the direction of transparency. This is even the case for Ukraine’s defense industry, with its claims to the necessity of secrecy in military affairs, which has begun working with Transparency International and making more of its procurement process open to public scrutiny through a public contract bidding database.

The Ukrainian defense sector still scores poorly on many transparency-related metrics, but these improvements make it more likely that the Ukrainian government will purchase the correct material for a lower price. It also makes it more likely that Ukrainian citizens will donate their money to the government in a time of crisis rather than to volunteer organizations, whereas the reverse was true in 2014. Indeed, the donations that have flowed into accounts controlled by the Ukrainian government have been much greater in size than the donations that flowed into the private military charities that helped fund the volunteer battalions in 2014. Greater trust in the Ukrainian government has caused an enormous shift in the direction of charitable funding and is now starving out potential independent volunteer battalions of the size and type that earned volunteer battalions their earlier fearsome reputation.

The Ukrainian military itself has grown and modernized since 2014. It now features increased civilian control, a transition away from old Soviet equipment and operating procedures, a move towards modernized equipment and operating procedures better aligned with NATO standards, more personnel, and years of experience with low-intensity conflict. These improvements have allowed the Ukrainian government to resist the Russian invasion for far longer than many expected. They have also eliminated much of the demand for the services of volunteer battalions and thus made Western nations less reluctant to send advisors and weapons to support the Ukrainian military which only further reinforces the advantage the Ukrainian government now enjoys over independent volunteer battalions in terms of attracting charitable support.

However, Russia is still favored to eventually take their objectives. This means that, at some point in the near future, it is likely that the Ukrainian government will not be able to engage in conventional warfare with Russian forces. While this would be another failure to provide Ukrainian citizens with defense, it is a failure that leaves little room for large volunteer battalions to re-emerge without becoming easy targets for Russian forces. This does leave room for small volunteer battalions that are lightly armed and focused on guerilla action. These groups were effective in 2014, operating as scouts and ambush specialists, but they also had their ties to extremist and terrorist groups. Small volunteer battalions engaged in guerilla fighting are still viable, and therefore still a potential problem for Western nations looking to donate lethal munitions.

The Ukrainian government has made attempts to pre-emptively establish control over volunteer efforts by expanding its Territorial Defense Battalions and promising weapons, training, and support to volunteers who subordinate themselves to these battalions. Ukraine’s National Resistance Act provided the expertise of a core of 10,000 professional soldiers and an organization of volunteers into battalions centered on their hometowns. Since it was often the defense of a hometown, rather than the desire to travel to the frontline, that was the reason many of the smaller volunteer battalions originally organized around it is likely that the National Resistance Act has produced a government-controlled outlet for Ukrainians who would have otherwise joined small independent volunteer battalions. The Ukrainian government’s delivery of weapons to these Territorial Defense Battalions has been significant, with 88,000 assault rifles given to volunteers by late February. Fully manned, the Territorial Defense Battalions would be 130,000 personnel strong, leaving some gap in weapons supplied to volunteers. If this gap persists, it will leave room for any threatened localities that did not receive sufficient support to move away from control by the Ukrainian government and organize their own independent volunteer battalions, as they did in 2014.

Ukraine has even managed to establish control over foreign volunteers seeking to aid in the fight against Russia. In 2014 foreign volunteers were attracted to the larger independent volunteer battalions by the promise of conventional combat and decent weaponry, something neither the Ukrainian military nor the smaller volunteer battalions could offer at the time. Now, however, the Ukrainian government has added an International Legion as a part of the Territorial Defense Forces and it is receiving hundreds of volunteers who would previously have bolstered the ranks of independent volunteer battalions.

The combined efforts of the Ukrainian government to reform, become transparent, and improve its military have greatly reduced the need and desire for independent volunteer battalions. This should be reassuring to Western allies who have donated significant quantities of anti-air and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine on the understanding that those weapons will not fall into the hands of combatants not controlled by its government.

Garrett R. Wood is an assistant professor of economics at Virginia Wesleyan University and veteran of the US Navy. He researches the intersection of economics and defense and has previously published peer-reviewed articles on the conflict in Ukraine.

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Garrett R. Wood is an assistant professor of economics at Virginia Wesleyan University and veteran of the US Navy. He researches the intersection of economics and defense and has previously published peer-reviewed articles on the conflict in Ukraine.