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Apr 18, 2015 | 12:59 GMT

4 mins read

In Ukraine, Rogue Elements Defy Kiev and Separatists Alike

In Ukraine, Rogue Elements Defy Kiev and Separatists Alike
(Photo by ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images)

Though many parts of the February Minsk agreement are unresolved, the ongoing cease-fire has significantly lowered the intensity and frequency of fighting in eastern Ukraine. This relative lull has given Ukrainian authorities an opportunity to take greater control of the volunteer battalions that have augmented Kiev's military footprint on the ground. Simultaneously, the cease-fire has enabled separatist leaders attempting to weaken some of the pro-Russia armed groups outside their direct control. Nevertheless, both sides will encounter difficulties as they work to boost their grip and fetter rogue elements.

The lower-intensity fighting in Donbas has reduced the Ukrainian military's reliance on volunteer battalions. These units, which hold strongly nationalist and at times far-right ideologies, served on the front lines during the war in the east. Some of the groups are financed by oligarchs: For example, former Dnipropetrovsk governor Igor Kolomoisky reportedly spent at least $10 million on funding the Dnipro 1 battalion.

Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly tried to integrate these battalions into the regular military structure, with mixed success. The volunteer formations include thousands of armed fighters who are seasoned in combat, raising concerns that the battalions could eventually present a security challenge for Ukrainian authorities. Moreover, there are reports that some battalions committed human rights abuses and are increasingly involved in criminal activity in the east, further galvanizing Kiev in its attempts to manage and restrain the groups.

After the Minsk agreement was signed, efforts to integrate the volunteer battalions into the regular Ukrainian military accelerated. In some cases, this meant dissolving the original units. Kiev formally disbanded the Aidar battalion March 2, arresting several members suspected of attempting to bring weapons into the capital. On April 6, Ukraine's Defense Ministry appointed Dmitry Yarosh, head of the far-right Right Sector organization, as an advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Viktor Muzhenko. Yarosh's appointment was part of an effort to integrate the Right Sector battalion, thereby limiting its role in the conflict. In fact, on April 10, the battalion announced that in preparation for joining the formal military structure, all Right Sector sub-units would withdraw from the front lines in Donbas.

The process of integrating the battalions, however, will not be easy. In early April, the head of the Luhansk regional administration, Gennadiy Moskal, warned that members of the Aidar battalion — now formally under Defense Ministry control — were involved in criminal activity in the region, including seizing control of a factory and assaulting local civilians.

The separatist leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics have also tried to limit independent armed groups operating in the areas under their control. The leaders have been motivated partly by a desire for the predominantly Moscow-directed people's republics to become the undisputed governing bodies in separatist-held territories. The separatist leaders also want to ensure that they — and through them, the Kremlin — can make decisions regarding the extent to which separatist forces adhere to the cease-fire. The conflict between the internal groups reportedly also revolves around the distribution of the region's resources.

On March 30, the Deputy Commander of Ukraine's operations in Donbas, Col. Valentyn Fedichev, said that a Special Rapid Response Unit of the Russian Interior Ministry had arrived in the region to crack down on the Cossacks forming the core of the Don Army, which had reportedly refused to join the formal separatist army structure. Cossack and separatist forces fight continuously, especially in the Luhansk region. Over the past few months, Cossack groups have been on the defensive, and several Cossack leaders have been killed, reportedly by forces loyal to the Luhansk People's Republic.

Although the Donetsk People's Republic faces fewer direct threats to its position in the region, Donetsk leaders have taken steps to consolidate control. In late March, Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko ordered all illegally held weapons to be turned in to the Donetsk People's Republic. In early April, he proposed legislation that disbands armed formations outside of the formal Donetsk People's Republic military structure, outlining penalties for those who refuse to comply. 

The Luhansk and Donetsk people's republics have the Kremlin's support and receive both supplies and arms from Moscow. However, the republics have not received sufficient financial backing from Russia to be able to revive the region's economy or even cover basic social and pensions payments. These financial insufficiencies contribute to the republics' inability to completely eliminate rival armed groups because they cannot offer financial incentives to civilians and armed militants to accept their authority. At the same time, in Russia, different factions of the intelligence services are involved in a political struggle inside the Kremlin. These internal battles could ultimately affect the Kremlin-supported republics.

The February Minsk agreement led to reduced fighting in Donbas, allowing both sides more leeway to begin addressing some of their internal challenges. Yet, Ukrainian and separatist leaders will continue to face uncertainties as they work to consolidate their control over rogue elements. 

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