Ukraine’s “Invisible” Volunteer Fighters
18 November, 2018

Two battalions of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UVA) are officially demobilizing after fighting at the contact line in the Donetsk region for over four years. The announcement came from Dmytro Yarosh, the UVA’s commander since its founding in 2015.

“The 5th and 8th separate battalions of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army are leaving the contact line, but we are not abandoning the war,” Yarosh announced in Dnipro in mid-October. According to the Minsk agreements, the UVA’s soldiers were supposed to have left the contact line three years ago.

Every morning, the volunteers run 8-15 kilometers, practice shooting and carry out strength and tactical drills under the guidance of their instructors. The 8th battalion’s base outside Mariupol, Donetsk region, October 8, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

The UVA is a volunteer military formation whose members have been fighting on the contact line since the start of the war in 2014. In spite of ongoing attempts by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to integrate volunteer battalions into the regular army, the UVA remains legally ambiguous. The direct participation of volunteer soldiers in fighting with the subdivisions of the regular army is not regulated by Ukrainian law, Ukrainian Armed Forces representatives told Hromadske.  

The three-storey building of a former tourist center covered in camouflage nets. The 8th battalion’s base outside Mariupol, Donetsk region, October 8, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski/Hromadske

Hromadske traveled to the base of the 8th separate battalion of the UVA outside the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol a week before the demobilization announcement. We report on what life is like for a volunteer soldier, how the fighters imagine demobilization, and why they don’t want to officially enlist in the Ukrainian Army.

What is the UVA?

The Ukrainian Volunteer Army, which consists of two battalions, was established in 2015 by former members of the Right Sector who left the radical organization due to ideological differences. The 8th battalion is positioned outside Mariupol, while the 5th is outside Donetsk. They are among the few volunteer divisions still fighting on the contact line in spite of demands made by the Russian party in Minsk.

Drill, prayer, assignments – some to the contact line, others to training – or work on the base. This is the daily routine of the volunteers at the base. The 8th battalion’s base outside Mariupol, Donetsk region, October 8, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

The volunteers cannot count on a stable salary, or social benefits in the case they are wounded or killed. They have no official status. However, they have the opportunity to participate in battle along the contact line (and on the other side) nearly every day. That is the main reason people sign up.

Soldiers wishing to join the UVA are carefully vetted by its commanders. Not all volunteers are accepted. Some look very young, although they say they’re of legal age. Others come from foreign countries.

Shots can still be heard from the training center. They continue training during shellings. The 8th battalion’s base outside Mariupol, Donetsk region, October 8, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

Most of the volunteers consider themselves nationalists. Although they have fought side-by-side with citizens of other countries, including Russia, as well as with Roma and Jews. It seems that for most of them ideology takes second place to beating their common enemy.

Some of the soldiers have served a tour of duty with the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), but then returned to the volunteer battalion. They could not stand the “senseless bureaucracy of the regular army.”

“Why has the UVA decided to completely demobilize right now?” we ask commander of the 8th battalion Andriy, who goes by “June.”

Commander of the 8th battalion of the UVA Andriy, a.k.a “June.” The 8th battalion’s base outside Mariupol, Donetsk region, October 8, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski/Hromadske

“We can’t go on like this. We’ve exhausted our material and human resources. The Ukrainian Volunteer Army is officially coming to an end,” he says with a suggestive smile, and adds, “Then we’ll disperse into the fields of the Donbas.”

According to deputy commander “Maradona,” who drives us to one of the villages on the contact line, “We are leaving so as not to interfere with the president’s international negotiations. So they can’t claim that there are divisions not controlled by the government at the contact line.”

Volunteer Fighters

On the way to the defensive positions maintained by the UVA, we discuss the state’s official attitude toward volunteers and the reasons “Maradona” and his soldiers have declined to serve on contract in the AFU.

Deputy commander “Maradona” says that serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces is not an option for him and is concerned that the state refuses to officially recognize the volunteer groups. Shyrokyne, Donetsk region, October 9, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

“The state has misused the phenomenon of volunteerism among the Ukrainian people in every way,” says “Maradona.” He believes it would make great propaganda in the hybrid war. “It would have been enough for the state to show these ordinary people, who really are doctors or teachers, with no military background, who have gone to defend their homeland as a matter of heart.”

In Ukraine, volunteer fighters are semi-legal and have to continuously participate in complicated negotiations to have the opportunity to fight. However, “Maradona” does not even consider serving in the AFU on contract.

“Imagine a well-prepared group of 12 fighters that have performed over 20 successful raids in the opponent’s rear, and instead of this they are forced to inspect [automobile] trunks at a checkpoint. That’s how it is,” he says.

Company commander “Bear” is sure that most of the soldiers in his division will not enlist in the regular army so as to avoid conflicts. “The high command does not want to fight. And performing senseless orders is not our way,” he says.

Company commander “Bear” jokes that volunteers make up the entire community in Shyrokyne, where there are no more people or intact buildings. Donetsk region, October 9, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski/Hromadske

Volunteer soldier “Bielyi” believes it is not necessary to bind yourself with a contract to defend your country. He’s been fighting since the start of the war, but he left the volunteer Aidar battalion in 2016, when commanders began insisting that the soldiers sign contracts with the AFU.

“The army does not give us the answers we need,” says “June.” “I understand that in political processes we have to negotiate some other way. But that’s not my job – it’s the president’s or the Ministry’s of Foreign Affairs. For my part I am helping the state, the president, by killing those idiots who hate my country every day.”

Volunteer soldier Bielyi stepped on a mine several metres away from enemy lines during a reconnaissance mission and lost his leg, Shyrokyne, Donetsk region, October 9, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

Complicated Relationships with Official Bodies

Cooperation between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and volunteer fighters is an open secret. According to the AFU soldiers we spoke to, the volunteers are anything but a nuisance. UVA commander “Maradona” explains, “If we destroy the enemy’s equipment then this benefits the brigade commander. Because the marines get credit for it.”

Locally stationed AFU divisions have been cooperating productively with the volunteers since 2014, says marine battalion commander Viktor Sikoza. “Of course, we can’t violate the orders of the high command, but we do meet with the volunteers and resolve certain issues. For the sake of our common purpose,” he states.

Sikoza praises the volunteers: “They are very motivated. They’ve been fighting for over four years and have combat experience. They are now an integral part of our army.”  

Most of the volunteers do not want to join the regular army. They say that carrying out “silly” orders is “not their thing,” Shyrokyne, Donetsk region, October 9, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

He believes the volunteers are necessary and that the armed forces should find a compromise to legalize their work in the combat zone. Several times the armed forces have suggested that all volunteers sign contracts and officially join the regular army. However, this offer does not satisfy the fighters in the UVA.

The UVA receives food from volunteers and financial support through private donations, including from businesspeople, politicians, mayors of numerous Ukrainian towns and one regional administration head.

“June” says that none of the injured or the families of fighters killed in combat are left without assistance. The UVA command does everything it can to ensure those injured or killed in battle receive the official status of “participants in combat action,” which allows for material aid from the state.

Part of the Local Landscape

In the village Shyrokyne, where UVA soldiers are stationed, not a single building has escaped artillery fire. The village was contested for two years under heavy fighting. No local residents remain. The fighters of the UVA now call themselves residents.

“We are the local community. The village is gone, but the community remains,” jokes company commander “Bear.” He says that as locals they know every path and are familiar with the territory. They help all the Ukrainian army divisions who take up positions here with everything from digging trenches to storming enemy positions.

Marine battalion commander Viktor Sikoza says that the Armed Forces should do more to find a compromise in legalizing the participation of volunteers in the combat zones, Shyrokyne, Donetsk region, October 9, 2018. Photo: Konstantin Reutski / Hromadske

The fighters are reluctant to talk about their plans for after the war. They don’t have ready answers to the question of what demobilization means for them.

“I’ve never had to deal with this before,” says “Bear” and admits that in reality little will change for him and his soldiers. “We are staying here. With whichever military divisions arrive.”

“But the commanders have officially declared that the UVA is stepping back from the contact line, right?” we ask.

“Officially, we’ve never been here,” says “Bear.”