Can the ‘Donbas Experience’ Help Kyiv Deal With ‘Hybrid’ Threats?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 68

(Source: Unian)

In an April 23 interview on Ukrainian television, Colonel (ret.) Ivan Aparshyn, a military advisor to Ukraine’s President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky, spoke on the subject of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and touched upon three crucial aspects for their future development. First, he claimed that the standing Ukrainian military should not exceed 200,000 personnel; but in cases of national emergency, it should have the capacity to rapidly increase to 1,000,000 personnel based on active reliance on a pool of reservists. Second, he mentioned that “territorial defense units” should have a more important practical role within the Ukrainian Army. Third, he implied that “rapid deployment forces” ought to become a reality, not just a rhetorical promise (see EDM, May 1; Telekanal ZIK, April 23). None of these ideas are particularly new to Ukrainian military thought; yet, the range of challenges faced by the country since 2014 (which are unlikely to disappear, if Kyiv proceeds on a Euro-Atlantic path) call for decisive steps by the incoming Zelensky administration. Specifically, the new president will need to reform and restructure the Ukrainian Armed Forces to meet the realities of, as Russian military experts say, “wars of the next generation” (voini novogo pokoleniia), i.e., New Generation Warfare (often erroneously referred to as “Hybrid Warfare” in the West). As the early stage of the conflict in Donbas vividly demonstrated (March–May 2014), the ability to maintain control over territory was a key factor that set the stage for further developments.

In order to draw appropriate lessons from Ukraine’s experience gained during the Donbas conflict, it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the paramilitary regiments Dnipro-1, Dnipro-2, Donbas, Azov, Shakhtarsk and Aidar, all of which took part in hostilities in southeastern Ukraine. It is worth mentioning that the idea to create “territorial defense battalions” was first voiced on March 15, 2014, by the Ukrainian oligarch and the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Ihor Kolomoysky (YouTube, February 18, 2016). (The billionaire businessman is known to be close to Zelensky and is widely suspected of having supported or possibly even financed the latter’s presidential campaign this year.) Two weeks after Kolomosyky’s remarks, on March 30, 2014, Oleksandr Turchynov (at the time acting president of Ukraine) tasked the heads of Ukraine’s oblast administrations to start creating such forces (UNIAN, December 6, 2014). Meanwhile, with growing instability in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov issued a decree creating “special corps tasked with counter-terrorist and counter-separatist operations.” The first such special unit (spetspodrazdelenie) was “Vostok” (not to be confused with the Russian Vostok Battalion), which emerged in Luhansk (, April 13, 2014).

According to Hennadiy Korban, a Ukrainian businessman and politician close to Kolomoysky who oversaw the organization of such structures in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, victories of these new paramilitary formation were mixed, with quite painful defeats (Iskra, Karlivka). Nevertheless, he added, if “those formations had not been enacted, we would be living in a different country… Dnepropetrovsk Oblast would have been lost… Ukraine would have ceded the Kherson, Nikolayev, Odesa and Zaporizhia oblasts.” Korban also claimed that these entities played a decisive role in “freeing Krasnoarmiysk, Dobropillia, Aleksandrivka, Velyka Novosilka Raion, [and] Mariupol” (, January 28, 2017).

Reportedly, the cumulative number of irregulars used by the Ukrainian side in hostilities in the southeast “was nearly three times larger than the whole Estonian army” (, August 29, 2014). While refraining from revealing specific numbers under its direct jurisdiction, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced there were 50 battalions, another 37 subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and 4 unit within the Ukrainian National Guard (NGU). Moreover, as noted by the MVD press secretary, Vladyslav Seleznev, several other units in the Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone (ATO) (including the Right Sector, the OUN and Chechen battalions of “Al-Imam al-Mansur” and “Dzhokhar Dudayev”) acted independently (, April 21, 2015). Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (despite already-visible signs of conflict with Kolomoysky) admitted, in 2015, the important role of these formations in “maintaining security and preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine” (, March 25, 2015).

Indeed, leaving aside multiples points of contention, enacting these irregular formations (which were later partly merged with nascent “territorial defense units”) arguably allowed the Ukrainian Armed Forces, between 2014 and 2015, to maintain control and extinguish developing signs of separatism in major parts of the strategically important southeastern region. In practical terms, Ukraine implemented a thesis once put forth by the head of Russia’s General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, who declared that maintaining “territory control” is one of the main antidotes against “hybrid threats” (Voyenno-Promyshlennyj Kuryer, February 26, 2013).

Nonetheless, to be effective, some of the existing deficiencies with these forces need to be resolved. To begin with, the Ukrainian government will have to clarify the status of these irregular forces. It is an open secret that, aside from (para)military tasks, Ukraine’s irregular units have been widely employed by their patrons as a means of illegally seizing private property (corporate raids), de facto turning these forces into “private armies” that serve the interests of certain oligarchs (, January 14, 2018). On some occasions, actions of the Azov and Donbas battalions caused discontent between various oligarchs (Rinat Akhmetov, Serhiy Taruta and Vadym Novynskyi) who, in turn, formed de facto paramilitary “workers’ brigades” of their own as a counter-force. Some Ukrainian sources have argued that the activities of the Azov Battalion near Mariupol were nothing but “a corporate raid to hammer out their share of control, masked as an anti-terrorist operation,” since “the area contains two major metallurgical plants and a major seaport” (, accessed on May 4, 2019). These tensions, particularly visible in the past, have been partially alleviated by addressing the poor coordination and lack of unity previously experienced by Ukrainian irregular units (, June 19, 2014). But at this stage, more clarity in terms of ties between “territorial defense units” and other irregular formations is required (, June 12, 2018).

The other essential aspect is related to the level of professionalism and the necessity of engaging top-notch experts (including private forces) in training Ukrainian irregulars to increase the overall level of preparation for non-linear forms of confrontation. However, the prospect of using this method—which proved its effectiveness during the Yugoslav Wars, when Western private military contractors (PMC) trained the Croatian military (1991–1995)—has caused some disturbance among Russian experts (, March 27, 2015).