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Control of defiant volunteer battalions is Ukrainian authorities’ big headache

November 12, 2014, 17:10 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara
© EPA/OLEG PETRASYUK

MOSCOW, November 12. /TASS/. Who will gain control of the volunteer battalions - spearhead of the Kiev authorities’ crackdown on independence-seeking south-eastern regions - has become one of the main intrigues in the process of forming the ruling coalition in the national parliament - the Verkhovna Rada - after the October 26 parliamentary elections.

To the disappointment of President Petro Poroshenko the Popular Front party under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk emerged the winner. The presidential bloc fell just 0.3% behind, but Yatsenyuk, his chin boldly up, feels free to dictate coalition terms to the president. In the meantime, Ukraine is in a state of semi-war, so winning to one’s side the army, the police and the security service as well as the volunteer battalions, which formally obey nobody, is a question of retaining power for both the president and the prime minister.

Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak would like to re-subordinate all of the volunteer battalions in Donbass to the armed forces. Yatsenyuk’s close associate in the Popular Front party, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, wants to see these battalions part of the National Guard, which has emerged on the basis of Interior Ministry troops.

Ukrainian politicians make no secret of their fears that the uncontrollable volunteer battalions are a menace to law and order and to the authorities themselves. Those officials who have fallen under the operation of the recently enacted law on lustrations are already hearing public threats.

Also, 16 commanders and rank-and-file members of the volunteer battalions have won seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Nine of them were elected from Yatsenyuk’s Popular Front. The Poroshenko team is now trying to devise a way of preventing the battalions’ commanders and their subordinates from gaining a firmer foothold in Ukrainian politics.

“Of course, Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk and their government ministers should feel scared. The battalions’ commanders and their men have been fighting a war against their fellow Ukrainians in the south-east voluntarily, for ideological reasons," International Center of Geopolitical Problems president Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, told TASS. "The battalions were formed during demonstrations by euro-integration supporters in Kiev’s Independence Square early this year," he said. "Those forces staged the government coup in Ukraine at the end of last February. Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, had to flee for his life."

Odds were that his successors may have to follow suit some day, said Ivashov, adding that “The men in the volunteer battalions have vast combat experience. They are really dangerous. They will never be an obedient tool in the politicians’ hands. Naturally, the politicians are rushing around in search of a decision as to who should command the uncontrolled battalions.”

“The Ukrainian president and prime minister have at least three ways of handling the future of these paramilitary groups," Ivashov added. "One looks most logical - disbanding them altogether and helping their members get back to normal life. But the problem is the next day after the battalions have been told to go home their members will find a way of getting together again into a powerful armed opposition confronting the authorities."

Another way was to put the volunteer battalions under the control of the armed forces or the National Guard, he observed. This was being discussed at length in Kiev these days.

In comments on the issue, Ukraine's Defense Minister is on record as saying that volunteer battalions had played an important role. "We need their help. They have undergone military service as part of regular units and this will make it possible to do the planning properly," the minister was reported as saying. Moreover, Kiev’s prosecutor Sergey Yuldashev had warned that the volunteers were “unpredictable”, even suspecting they may try to stage an armed coup.

“The third possible solution might be to send volunteer battalions to Ukraine’s southeast again without artillery support, thereby letting the Donetsk and Luhansk militias and the volunteer battalions bleed each other white," said Ivashov. "This sort of scenario should not be brushed aside altogether either, because the volunteers are very angry about the politicians and the oligarchs. They are likewise furious over glaring corruption - the root reason why throughout their stay in the zone of the so-called anti-terrorist operation they had to put up with outrageous shortages of weaponry, combat vehicles, bullet-proof vests and food.”

“Dozens of volunteer battalions in Ukraine - thousands of angry armed men - is a terrible headache for the ruling elite," Ivashov added. "The commander of the battalion Donbass, Semyon Semenchenko, has warned in public that the volunteers were originally targeted against the oligarchic system of clans. Units on the payroll of the Dnepropetrovsk governor, big business tycoon Igor Kolomoisky, number 30,000 men. Each of Ukraine’s oligarchs or large companies has such forces and large security services of their own. The powers that be are dismayed over who the volunteer battalions’ commanders will vow allegiance to.

 

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