The Russian invasion of Crimea unleashed a full-blown security crisis in Ukraine, and the capability of Russian special services to organize armed insurrection threatened the country’s territorial integrity. Drastic action was needed to fill the security vacuum following the Maidan revolution and collapse of Viktor Yanukoych’s administration. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry began forming local self-defense units, manned by volunteers, to conduct joint patrols with local police forces. Most volunteers merely wanted to ensure order and defend the interests of Ukraine in their own cities. As grassroots civil society flourished, the movement evolving into a full-fledged fighting force in eastern Ukraine, playing a vital role alongside Ukrainian regular forces. A crowd-funded army of volunteers was born.
No need to wait for conscription
Volunteer forces are playing an instrumental role on the front lines of Ukraine’s war. For instance, Ukraine’s National Guard reserve forces are comprised exclusively of volunteers. Notably, two National Guard battalions made up entirely of Maidan activists were tasked with maintaining public order in Donbas. The Ukrainian authorities had no other option at the time. There are also various volunteer battalions subordinate to the Interior Ministry in different regions. Some maintain public order and patrol streets in those areas where the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is taking place; others, like Territorial Defense battalions, guard strategic sites. They are often poorly armed and enjoy little support from locals.
The Right Sector, much speculated about by the Russian media, is the solitary armed volunteer formation to be recognized by the state as an unofficial military unit. They are, however, operationally under the ATO command and are on the frontline.
Only one volunteer battalion, Aydar, operates within the system of the Ministry of Defense. The Azov battalion consists of activists– former members of Maidan self-defense groups and AutoMaidan, a pro-EU motorist movement. Azov began launching reconnaissance missions in April, before taking part in combat operations. The battalion suffered losses securing Mariupol in early May. Professional servicemen in the regular Ukrainian armed forces fight side by side with engineers, teachers and students and other ordinary people.
By deeds, not words
Together with volunteers involved in combat, there is also a myriad of non-fighting volunteers. One such volunteer, Maria, is a student at Kyiv’s prestigious Mohyla Academy. Maria spent time on the eastern front volunteering her time to assist in drone surveillance. Many of the volunteers are self-sufficient and must chip in their own money to buy the drones, she says. A cheap drone costs about USD 2,000 and can only fly roughly a kilometer. Maria has witnessed cross-fire at a distance but has never taken up arms herself. “Information is everything in modern warfare and knowing more about the enemy’s movements saves lives,” she stresses. “This is basic stuff–photo and video images,” she stated.
“I recently learned how to handle a rifle. You have to be prepared for anything even though we are not in the firing line.” And life hangs by a thread in the ATO. “We have had lucky escapes. Once our plane was shot at. When we looked afterwards one bullet missed where I was sat by inches while others were close to hitting the fuel tank. People prepare to live their days as if it could be their last,” she adds.
Another volunteer by the name of Yaroslav describes from first-hand experience how he and his friends organize fundraising activities to hire aircraft for aerial reconnaissance missions. “The crew, which is protected by the Ukrainian military, may fly up to a handful of the many coal pit heaps around Donetsk and gather precious data. We then hand over our images to the army commander with whom we liaise in that particular flying mission.”
Yaroslav says the volunteers survive on patriotism and enthusiasm for the common cause, rather than any kind of monetary payment. “We are doing our bit for the country, but so are many others,” he said emphatically. “We have to give a hand to our guys in Donbas. Especially the border guards. They need to know if enemy artillery is being moved within firing range of their site. Our information saves lives. We are the eyes for guys on the ground”.
Doctors and other medical professionals volunteer their skills in the war zone. Lawyers provide legal advice to soldiers and relatives pro bono, and have even established a website to assist those at the front.
Although many are driven by patriotism and politics, others simply want to help those affected by war. Some of those who go to fight are able to elicit the help of family and friends. Many soldiers and volunteers receive necessary equipment from family members, friends, and complete strangers: they show up to duty with their own boots, attire, bullet proof vests, and other vital equipment. Businessmen give their own money to the cause, while other volunteers raise funds and deliver various supplies.
In contrast, support from rich magnates, known as oligarchs, is not as common as widely believed in Ukraine. There are exceptions—Dnipropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoiskyi funds the Dnipro Battalion and MP Oleh Lyashko is the leader of the Ukrayina Battalion. However, the majority of funds are raised and provided at the grass-roots level.
Maidan kickstarted ongoing patriotic movement
The volunteer movement is a logical extension of the country’s developing civil society, as many Maidan activists eventually made their way to the National Guard or volunteer battalions. The Orange Revolution that eventually brought Viktor Yushchenko to power in 2005 was very different. In 2005, ordinary folk who spent freezing nights on Maidan entrusted power to Yushchenko. They waited, but were bitterly disappointed by the results. Blood was split on Maidan in 2014; people are determined to see the revolution through to the end. They demand transparency, democracy, and an end to Ukraine’s pervasive corruption. It is not easy to gauge how many volunteers are involved but the total certainly runs into thousands. People come and go and some do not register as they want to be anonymous due to safety concerns.
The volunteers are true patriots, not flag-waving or couch-sitting, but action-oriented. They are one of the world’s first truly crowd-funded army of volunteers in terms of both funding and staffing. Some parts may be poorly-funded and inexperienced, but a burning passion and willingness to defend Ukraine at all costs more than makes up for any shortfalls.
Peter Dutczyn, Ukraine Crisis Media Center