VALENTYN OGIRENKO / REUTERS Members of Right Sector during an anti-government rally in Kiev, July 2015.
When the conflict in Ukraine began in early 2014, a disturbing number of armed groups—from looting gangs to militias with ties to European white supremacy movements—sprang up from the chaos. Although the role and origin of those pro-Ukrainian militias has been hotly debated, one thing is clear: several years after the start of the conflict, the Ukrainian government has managed to stifle the independent armed groups fighting on its side. Its success offers lessons for other countries attempting to demobilize populations after a war.
At the start of the war in 2014, there were as many as 30 small armed groups made up of 50 to 100 people. This assortment quickly consolidated into five main militias: Right Sector, Azov, Aidar, Donbas, and Dnepr 1. These semi-independent groups absorbed most of Ukraine’s freelance fighters and small ethnic militias. Although each group had its own leadership, logistics, and funding, they had to negotiate access to the frontline with the Ukrainian government, and they depended on the regular army for artillery cover. Many of the volunteer fighters were internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, although some Russian far-right activists came to participate in the fight.
At the start of the war, when Ukraine’s standing army was weak and slow to mobilize, such groups were crucial to the defense of the territory. However, even from the start, there were major problems with their operations. They rarely coordinated with each other or the Ukrainian army on the battlefield or off. Furthermore, there was no legal supervision of their activities, as Amnesty International has repeatedly pointed out.
The simmering war in east Ukraine saw a large-scale escalation last weekend, with five Ukrainian soldiers killed and more than 20 wounded, after separatist militants tried to take over army positions.
While fighting is picking up on the front, Jake Hanrahan visited the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) to see how the breakaway region is trying to establish government, and to meet the people living under their rule.
The West has used everything from signals intelligence operations, espionage, fighter jet saber-rattling, and diplomatic standoffs to stem the rise of Russian influence around the world. These efforts are coming to a dangerous head in Ukraine — a classic Eastern Bloc proxy state — where the presence of NATO troops is driving tensions to Cold War-era levels.
As the armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists enters its third year, VICE travels to the frontline to take a closer look at what international assistance really looks like for those caught in the line of fire.
At the top of the agenda during last week’s NATO Summit in Warsaw was Russian aggression against the West. In response to the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Armed Forces, NATO reiterated their support of Ukraine’s fight against Russian advancement in the east, and committed to a comprehensive assistance package.
But on the ground, the conflict rages on. Despite a Minsk ceasefire agreement, signed in 2014, and again in 2015, fighting continues to intensify along the contact line.
A recent spike in violence that included heavy shelling, mortaring, and small arms has made the past few months particularly bloody, with casualties becoming an almost daily occurrence. Despite a complete failure to implement any ceasefire, NATO insisted the Minsk agreement was still the way to go.
VICE News traveled to Avdiivka, the hottest point of contact in the conflict, where Ukrainian military and civilians have both lost faith in the so-called ceasefire and remain trapped in a brutal war.
Watch “Shell-Shocked: Ukraine’s Trauma” – http://bit.ly/1XiydJd
During the course of the war in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have been either captured as POWs or gone missing during the fighting.
During the battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014, Ukrainian soldiers became encircled by Russian regular soldiers and separatist fighters. After intense negotiations the Ukrainians eventually managed to secure safe passage to leave the town. However, that never happened. As the Ukrainians fled the town in their vehicles they were ambushed and slaughtered. It’s thought up to a thousand soldiers were killed and hundreds more were captured.
Many of these POWs were released over the course of the following week, however some were summarily executed and others still remain missing.
Families of the missing soldiers have had to endure a torturous and bureaucratic process to find their sons, passed from one ministry to another, with some families having to travel to rebel territory themselves to search for them. VICE News spoke with a British journalist, Lily Hyde, who has been documenting the efforts of families struggling to find their sons and with one mother who continues to wait for her son to return home, 18 months after he went missing.
Watch “Shell-Shocked: Ukraine’s Trauma” – http://bit.ly/1XiydJd
Ever since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO has focused on bolstering its defense and deterrence capabilities in central Europe. These efforts look set to pay off; at the alliance’s July summit in Warsaw, NATO is expected to adopt significant new initiatives to protect its eastern flank.
But the alliance risks coming up dangerously short on the threats that matter most to most of Europe and thus to NATO: terrorism and the ongoing influx of migrants. Especially in the wake of the Brussels and Parisattacks, if NATO fails to define a strategy for its southern challenges, it could slip into strategic irrelevance. There is precious time left before the Warsaw Summit to outline such a strategy.
NATO’s record in the Middle East and North Africa is mixed. Its approach has focused on building partnerships with regional powers. Its Mediterranean Dialogue—a forum that brings together Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia—has existed since 1994. Its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which includes four of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, was created in 2004. Yet with the important exception of Arab participation in the 2011 air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, both forums have lacked practical substance.