As Kyiv Tackles Corruption and Reform, a New Threat: Warlords

Kyiv’s Government Is Failing to Act Against Some Volunteer Defense Units Now Acting Like Outlaws, Adrian Karatnycky Writes

As Ukraine’s new parliament and cabinet are tackling corruption and the country’s fiscal crisis with the energy of an unprecedented new crop of civic activists, pro-democracy activists and skilled technocrats, a new threat is arising: outlaw-style threats and violence by armed groups that were formed last year to support the country’s self-defense against Russia’s invasion into the Donbas region.

Especially disturbing is that outlaw behavior by volunteer defense brigades is being tolerated, condoned or sponsored by high-level government officials, including Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and the billionaire governor of Dnipropetrovsk province, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky wrote last week in the Washington Post.

President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have been slow to intercede because Avakov and Kolomoyskyi also have been valuable political allies, Karatnycky says. The US government and its allies must use their influence as critical donors of aid to Ukraine to press Poroshenko’s government to halt this slide into warlordism, he wrote in the Post.

Ukraine’s Volunteer Defense Units

Ukraine survived the seizure of its Donbas region by Russian troops and Russian-backed militias only by hastily re-constructing its corruption-riddled military—and by letting volunteer defense brigades join the fight. These defense units have been financed largely by a combination of public fundraising campaigns and Ukrainian businesses, including some of the county’s super-rich oligarchs.

A minority of these defense groups are run by ideological right-wing movements, including the Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) and the neo-Nazi Azov Brigade, Karatnycky wrote in the Post’s December 30 op-ed section pages. Ukraine, in its desperation, is seeking defense forces where it can, but these groups have been shunned by the mainstream of the pro-democracy Maidan movement, and indeed the entire electorate, which has relegated far-right organizations to the country’s political margins in two national elections this year.

“But now several of these units, especially those linked to oligarchs or the far right, are revealing a dark side. In recent months, they have threatened and kidnapped government officials, boasted that they will take power if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko fails to defeat Russia, and they served as armed muscle in illegal attempts to take over businesses or seize local governments,” Karatnycky wrote.

Kidnapping, Detentions

A volunteer defense brigade kidnapped a national government official to prevent him from making an appointment in his agency that the group disliked. Last month, other brigades blocked a humanitarian aid convoy taking assistance to the war-shattered Russian-controlled zone in Donbas. And the Azov brigade declared unilaterally that it was taking over law enforcement duties in the city of Mariupol—this with no government authorization.

“A pattern of blatant disregard for the chain of command, lawlessness and racketeering is posing a growing threat to Ukraine’s stability at a critical juncture. Concern about volunteer groupings is widely shared in the Poroshenko administration, which reportedly raised the question of dealing with these dangers at a meeting in November of his National Security and Defense Council,” Karatnycky wrote.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky

Image: New volunteers for the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's Azov Battalion take their oath of allegiance in a ceremony in Kyiv October 19, 2014. (Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko)