Leadership: Volunteer Blues In Ukraine


August 30, 2015: In mid-2014 Ukrainian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) against Russian troops and local pro-Russian rebels seemed to be outnumbered and needed all the help they could get.  Help came in the form of over 10,000 volunteers (out of about 50,000 Ukrainian troops in the east). By the end of the year Ukraine had nearly 100,000 troops in or near Donbas and volunteers still comprised nearly 20 percent of troop strength. Going into 2015 some of these volunteers have become a problem. In part this is because Ukraine Army and Reserve forces have become better trained and equipped and in part because everyone now has a lot of combat experience. Amateur enthusiasm is no longer an excuse for bad behavior. Only a few of the thirty or so volunteer battalions bare the source of most of the problems. As is usually the case the problem is not so much the volunteers but some of their idealistic, independent-minded, undisciplined and often anti-government leaders. None of the problem battalions suffered from all these problems but as a group (of several thousand armed men and some women) the government and military high command would like to get these troublesome volunteers to behave.

The original volunteer units fell into three categories; Ministry of Defense, Ministry of the Interior and purely volunteer. Among the more numerous units were the Territorial Defense (TD) battalions full of volunteers but controlled by the Ministry of Defense and long part of the national defense plans. These battalions were formed from men who had already been conscripted, done their service and were released from active service. The military tried to keep track of where these former soldiers lived, so that they could be contacted in wartime and ordered to report for duty. There was also provision for taking men (with or without prior military service) as volunteers. In 2014 the ratio of volunteers to reservists varied. A lot depended on what part of the country TD battalion came from and how well organized the local government was. On paper each of these battalions is supposed to have 430 troops armed with light infantry weapons. In practice these battalions got so many volunteers that they often had more than 400 men but not as many weapons as they needed. The original plan was for these battalions to provide security behind the front lines. But in Donbas these battalions often found themselves on the front lines and fighting. Since late 2014 most of the TD battalions have become better organized, led and equipped. A few have retained their “volunteer” spirit (and leadership) and one or two are considered troublesome. But since the men in these battalions are considered national heroes the government has to proceed carefully in forcing the issue of who is in charge and how all TD troops are supposed to behave.

The ministry of Defense also formed several “Reserve battalions of the National Guard” from experienced volunteers (including a lot of former and retired officers). There were only a few of these and they were more reliable and disciplined, if less physically capable (because of many middle-aged volunteers).

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, which normally controls the national police and some paramilitary units (for riot control and such) formed over 30 special security battalions for patrolling and guarding areas recaptured from rebels. Some of these battalions had less than a hundred men initially but eventually nearly all had at least 300 and some over 500. These units because a kind of police auxiliary in the combat zone and did not cause a lot of discipline problems. Nationalists and anti-government leaders were much less of a problem.

Most of the problem were from the Nationalist units. These were men who were very anti-Russian and many were even hostile to ethnic Russians who were Ukrainian citizens. Some of the leaders and soldiers in these units were highly critical of the Ukrainian government (for a number of reasons) and are still a problem. The men in these battalions were very brave and resolute during the several rebel offensives and many are considered national heroes. So imposing discipline on these units (about a thousand men in all) is difficult and potentially a political disaster if handled the wrong way. Ukrainian commanders in Donbas would like to be rid of these guys because they cause so many operational, media and political headaches.

One thing all these volunteer troops had going for them, especially in 2014, was good morale and a willingness to fight, often to the death. For a long time this made up for their lack of discipline and training. Individual volunteers who were seriously wounded were often eager to get back to the front as quickly as possible. Motivation and fighting spirit in volunteers was extremely high. The problem now is how to do you get these heroes to cooperate with regular army and reserve units that are better equipped and trained and depend on troops near them to be likewise.

Russia has similar problems with its “volunteers” in Donbas, particularly the Cossacks but has “solved” that problem by sending in thousands of Russian troops wearing the same nondescript uniforms as the volunteers. These Russian “volunteers” lacked the enthusiasm of the real volunteers and suffered such high casualties that Russia passed laws making casualty data from peacetime operations a state secret.






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