On March 24, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) announced it had exposed and impeded the activity of two illegal private military companies (PMC)—Doncorp Ukraine and its parent entity, Donbas Battalion Corporation. A pair of former Ukrainian people’s deputies—the former commander of the Donbas Battalion, Semen Semenchenko, and a “freelance agent” of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, Yevhen Shevchenko—are suspected of organizing these PMCs. Both face potential charges under Article 260 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, “Establishment of paramilitary or armed formations not envisaged by law.” According to the SSU, 15 citizens of Ukraine controlled and coordinated the activities of these criminal organizations. In particular, they allegedly recruited potential participants, giving preference to former military and law enforcement officers with combat experience (Ssu.gov.ua, May 24).
Even though Semenchenko blamed Russian special services for staging his prosecution and claimed that their goal is “to end the activities of his campaign because it fought against Wagner [Group] PMC abroad” (Espreso.tv, March 27), Ukrainian authorities arrived at a different conclusion. Namely, the government’s investigation revealed that the activities of Semenchenko and Shevchenko’s PMCs were aimed at preparing “serious crimes, including against the foundations of Ukrainian national security.” According to the SSU, “the company consisted of more than 150 people and operated under the guise of security firms and NGOs [non-governmental organizations].” The PMCs had a specially equipped training base in Kyiv region, where members underwent military combat training, including arms handling skills, use of explosives, and various elements of urban fighting (Ssu.gov.ua, May 24). Also, Semenchenko organized special military-tactical instruction for more than 100 members of these formations at the largest training center in Europe, the European Security Academy in Poznań, Poland (Graty.me, March 29).
Furthermore, the SSU believes that Semenchenko and Shevchenko organized an “illegal smuggling scheme of importing military spare parts and dual-use products from the Russian Federation and reselling them at an unfair markup to state-owned defense companies” (part 2 of Article 333 of the Criminal Code). Law enforcement claims that the defendants bought specialized linear-beam vacuum tubes (known as klystrons), designed for use in S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, at a price of $30,000 in Russia and sold them to Ukrainian defense companies for $200,000. The investigation revealed that Shevchenko and another suspect, Andriy Rogoza, the founder of Optimumspetsdetal LLC and one of the suspects in a separate corruption case involving the procurements of state-owned arms concern Ukroboronprom, smuggled two lines of klystrons into Ukraine through Belarus. The SSU collected supporting evidence that Semenchenko and Shevchenko were also planning to organize the supply of weapons to several Middle Eastern countries (Ssu.gov.ua, March 25).
In 2018, Semenchenko, Anatoly Vynogrodsky, another former commander of the Donbas volunteer battalion, and Akymovych Serhiy, the former chief of staff of the Donbas Battalion, first registered Donbas Battalion Corporation. Since it is illegal to establish PMCs in Ukraine, the company was registered in Delaware, in the United States. Akymovych was listed as the company’s owner and head. In Ukraine, they decided to create a “representative office” under the umbrella of a security company, Doncorp Ukraine, which was registered in October 2019. The PMC had its own military regulations based on the regulations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Those who joined the company signed a non-disclosure pledge. They were awarded military ranks and provided with shields, helmets, body armor and military uniforms (Graty.me, March 29).
In May and July 2018, Vinogrodsky organized meetings for Semenchenko with a potential investor from Kazakhstan—businessman Sergey Borysenko. He and his son invested about $1 million in Semenchenko’s PMC, in exchange for 25 percent of the company’s shares. Also, Semenchenko and Akymovych held meetings with US members of Congress and expected to obtain private and state contracts (including with the US Department of State) for the protection of oil refinery facilities in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and other countries. Moreover, they reportedly met with Blackwater founder Erik Prince and negotiated the possibility of obtaining subcontracts with his current security firm venture, Academi. Semenchenko tried to convince his US interlocutors that his PMC’s primary goal was the elimination of the Russian Wagner PMC (Pravda.com.ua, March 31). Yet after several months of preliminary planning, negotiations, and business trips to Afghanistan and Iraq, Semenchenko’s PMC failed to secure foreign assignments in any “hot spots.”
Semenchenko’s fighters were not left entirely without work, however. They reportedly started to carry out tasks in the interest of Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky. Kolomoysky’s name had already appeared in conjunction with PMCs in the past. During the initial phase of the conflict in southeastern Ukraine, he financially supported a volunteer battalion; but later, he began to employ Ukrainian war veterans in his own domestic business interests. According to one journalist investigation, at the end of 2019, representatives of Doncorp Ukraine took part in rallies against the leadership of the National Bank of Ukraine, with whom Kolomoysky had a conflict because of the PrivatBank nationalization case. Also, in 2020, fighters from Semenchenko’s PMC guarded the office of the state-owned power generating company Centrenergo, the leadership of which was loyal to Kolomoysky. Companies associated with the oligarch received huge profits from cooperation with Centrenergo. Finally, in February 2021, employees of the Doncorp Ukraine were involved in a shooting incident at a construction site in Kyiv owned by Kolomoysky’s friend and business partner Mykhaylo Kiperman (Slidstvo.info, March 26).
Apart from this, Kolomoysky has for years been actively trying to lobby for the legalization of private military companies in Ukraine. In 2020, parliamentary deputy Olha Vasylevska-Smahliuk, who used to work for Kolomoysky, officially introduced a bill “On Military-Consultancy Activities,” proposing to decriminalize PMCs in Ukraine (see EDM, March 31, 2020). Although the bill has not yet been adopted, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security promises to settle the situation with PMCs by the end of 2021 (24tv.ua, April 14, 2021).
That said, the Semenchenko affair vividly demonstrates two main problems future Ukrainian PMCs could face even if the bill is adopted. First, it will be extremely difficult for them to stay competitive globally—despite determined and lengthy efforts, Doncorp Ukraine failed to secure any foreign security contracts in 2018. Second, Ukrainian oligarchs may end up using these formations as private armies to resolve internal disputes. Ukraine cannot afford such risks amidst the continued “hybrid” war with Russia.