Late last year, on December 16, the Ukrainian parliament took up a new draft bill (#4504) on territorial defense (Rada.gov.ua, December 16, 2020). The proposed legislation, written by a group of lawmakers headed by Andrii Sharaskin, is based on recommendations from domestic experts as well as foreign advisors on how to reform Ukraine’s outdated system of territorial defense (TD). The bill draws on the experience of foreign countries like Estonia, Poland and Lithuania. Currently, Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces operate according to Chapter 3 of the Law on National Defense, based mainly on Soviet-era doctrines. The last time it came under review was back in December 2008 (Rada.gov.ua, October 24, 2020). In 2014, all rapidly established TD units were transferred directly to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Further changes came as a result of a 2016 order of the president of Ukraine. And by 2018, the first TD brigades were created by merging preexisting smaller formations. At present, Ukraine fields one TD brigade for each region (oblast) of the country, except for temporarily occupied Crimea. These brigades are structurally part of the UAF Ground Forces and subordinated to the General Staff. TD brigades have a cadre structure, with the commander and chief of staff as regular (full-time) military officers. All other service members are in reserve and train several times per month or participate in military exercises.
The key features of the newly introduced bill include the creation of a separate civil-military formation that would not structurally be part of the UAF, and would be subordinated directly to the Ministry of Defense (MoD). In addition to its current responsibilities (guarding state borders; securing local state administrations, military command, control and communications structures, as well as critical infrastructure; carrying out anti-sabotage and counter-terrorism operations), the proposed reformulated TD force will also be responsible for assistance in responding to natural or anthropogenic catastrophes; engaging in counter-disinformation; organizing resistance cells in case of occupation; training civil personnel; and running patriotic education. The TD will also engage in cyber defense, like in Poland or Estonia (Ukrinform, July 8, 2020). Most focus would be on security and defense of territorial communities. Some of the TD functions are quite similar to the National Guard of Ukraine, but the latter is a regular force and law enforcement body within the structure of the Ministry of Interior, without strong connection to the regions.
According to the draft, in the first stage, the TD will be 80,000-strong, including 10,000 regular military commanders and instructors as well as full-time civilian personnel, mostly chosen from among current TD service members. The bill demands that the forces be ready within a few hours (the existing brigades use mobilization to fill all positions within 30 days) (ArmiaInform, January 21, 2021). This change is crucial since Russian operations can ramp up in several hours, like the first wave of the occupation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. Additionally, the draft law turns volunteer TD service into a new legal form of military service; and it proposes special gun ownership rights for TD service members, in particular, permitting them to store their personal weapons at home.
The TD draft law almost immediately came under criticism from politicians and some high-ranking military commanders. Most detractors concentrated on three topics. First, they critiqued the status of the new TD as a separate formation subordinated to the MoD. The newest edition of Ukraine’s Law on National Defense divided the responsibilities of the minister of defense and commander-in-chief: MoD duties are concentrated in the field of political and administrative activities, while the commander-in-chief commands the military (Rada.gov.ua, October 24, 2020). General Anatoliy Bargilevich, the current commander of TD forces, wants the service to stay inside the structure of the UAF (ArmiaInform, January 21). He insists that a separation could lead to the duplication of existing functions and command, control and communications structures.
The second point of contention related to the source of financing. According to the proposed bill, military equipment, ammunition, weapons and medical supplements to TD units should be provided by the MoD. But due to the decentralization reforms in Ukraine, other costs and resources (including fuel, training bases, communication systems and automobiles) for the TD would come from regional budgets (Ukrainian Military Pages, December 18, 2020). Most oblasts lack such resources. Moreover, financing an additional 80,000 troops could prove challenging even for the national budget. General Bargilevich argued that the UAF should provide the necessary funding for the TD, while some obligations of local and regional government (including financial) should be restored (Defense Express, January 20, 2021).
The third topic regarded gun ownership. According to one of the most prominent advocates of the new law, General Serhiy Kryvonos—former deputy commander of the Ukrainian Special Operations Forces and a former deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC)—this could help citizens to defend their own land more effectively from an invading force (ArmiaInform, September 29, 2020). But other Ukrainian politicians and experts have strongly opposed this point as too risky. Denys Podanchuk, a member of the MoD Volunteer Council, has insisted that TD personnel should carry their weapons only on military bases. Oleksiy Orestovich, an advisor at the Presidential Office, shares this view and sees risks of separatism (Ukrinform, December 22, 2020). But according to Edvard Reshevskiy, the commander of a TD battalion in the Donetsk region, only the most patriotic and reliable of all volunteers are allowed to join the TD forces (Tyzhden, July 20, 2020).
A few days after its release, the draft bill was sent for revision to the Presidential Office, MoD and NSDC, with a replacement expected no later than December 29, 2020 (Ukrainian Military Pages, December 23, 2020). But as of February 23, there is still no news regarding the new draft. General Kryvonos, who was dismissed from his position at the NSDC via presidential decree just days after the original presentation of the TD bill (President.gov.ua, December 29, 2020), believes that the successful modernization of the country’s territorial defense forces is “disturbing to the external and internal enemies of Ukraine” (ArmiaInform, May 26, 2020). In an interview with this author, on February 3, Kryvonos asserted that most of the criticism of the draft law represented only manipulation and conscious efforts to delay the process in order to prevent real reforms to the TD. As he contended, the subordination to the defense ministry reflects the wider range of proposed duties accorded for the TD. And gun ownership rights will be vital for a rapid response, especially in the border regions.