ANALYSIS A unique text from Bucha: The Ukrainian researchers Denys Verba and Mariia Tyshcenko at the Kyiv National Economic University describes how mobilization of voluntary groups in the Ukrainian society, including in the army, has strengthened the overall defense structure of Ukraine. This helps explain the considerable achievements in keeping the Russians at bay since the invasion.
Local organizations in Ukraine, which are largely independent of the state and at times even compete with government structures, have become important in bringing Ukraine into closer alignment with European political and cultural values and traditions. In particular, non-profit (public) organizations have helped to ensure better public control over authorities, which, in turn, promotes transparency. Herein lies the key to prosperity, stability, growth, and development.Ukraine has also benefited from the gradual formation of a middle class, with many active citizens organizing important societal activities, including mobilization of armed groups to operate in parallel with the formal army structures.
Volunteer battalions became important already in 2014
With the beginning of hostilities in the east of the country arising in 2014, volunteer battalions have become a critically important addition to the regular army including as a provider of material support. The volunteers compensated for many of the shortcomings of the Ukrainian unreformed “post-Soviet” army, which included bureaucracy and non-transparency with respect to the army’s resources provision; a culture wherein “personal loyalty” may harm the career growth of even the most qualified officers; cumbersome management; and the lack of adaptation to conditions within a particular area. All these shortcomings of the Soviet military tradition had for decades been inherent within the Ukrainian army but have gradually begun to change due to the influence of the volunteers.
Thus, highly-motivated volunteer armed units and volunteer organizations have become leaders and agents of reform, sometimes complementing and sometimes replacing ineffective government mechanisms in order to address the challenges of providing and managing combative groups. Although it took years to change the state’s military security standards, the volunteer teams quickly solved the problems surrounding the supply of critical military equipment, such as high-security bulletproof vests, night-vision devices, gas-burners, modern food and medicines, and hundreds of other types of resources needed to fight effectively over a long period of time.
Volunteers changed the ineffective Russians-style structure of the Ukrainian army
The contribution of the volunteers with respect to the army’s needs extended beyond the mere provision of material resources: they created an alternative environment for decision-making, awareness, and applied experience as well as alternative mechanisms for social mobility and career advancement. Commanders of volunteer detachments and units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces made decisions and implemented different modus operandi that underwent the rigorous testing that only real hostility can provide. They interacted and competed, forming a common understanding through compromise before establishing the most effective methods and styles of leadership, with the most qualified and motivated officers and commanders of volunteers taking the lead.
Since 2016, active integration of volunteer military formations into the Ukrainian Armed Forces has become an established practice, and many representatives of volunteer organizations are actively involved in the work of the army’s rear support services.
Although the volunteers were never truly absorbed into the formal army structures, they remained catalysts of atypical values and ways of thinking by establishing informal interaction between the organizations, army’s units, and Ukrainian citizens.
Among those taking part in the fighting in the eastern regions of Ukraine were 44 battalions of the territorial defense of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, 32 volunteer battalions of the police patrol service, 3 special battalions of the National Guard, and several units of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps. Given the high number of self-organized volunteer groups — not to mention the support they received from the population and their links with business, civic organizations, and political forces — they could resist the dissolution within the hierarchical structure of the regular army.
Today – a reinvigorated army, fit for fight
Thus, the mutual enrichment of two very different traditions helped to overcome the challenges on the battlefield and, in spite of the lack of formal army reform, promoted the creation of a qualitatively new military structure: a regular, professional army imbued with volunteer spirit, volunteer motivation, and a degree of flexibility typically reserved for informal organizations.
Already now, in the throes of a full-scale Russian military invasion, the aforementioned structure is proving its combat effectiveness: Ukraine has been successfully fighting the enemy for more than two months despite the latter’s overwhelming advantage in all objective indicators of military power. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this unique combination of self-organized patriots and the capabilities of the regular army. Therefore, we see in the views, values, and way of life of leaders of the volunteer movement the key conditions for Ukraine’s resilience to Russian military aggression and Ukraine’s future victory.
Now, in May of 2022, the Ukrainian researchers provide an illustrative example of Ukrainian army self-organization though an interview.
The Ukrainian commanders of a volunteer battalion, from Bucha, here called YB for security reasons, tells his story
YB was in 2014 one of the three founders of the volunteer organization “Bucha guard”; from 2015–2016, he served as a fighter within the volunteer battalion. As a volunteer, he supported the fighting units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine throughout the period of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. On February 27, 2022, he commanded a territorial defense unit that stopped a column of Russian armored vehicles in the center of Bucha, burning two airborne combat vehicles and killing more than two dozen Russian soldiers. The convoy, which was to pass through Bucha to Irpin and then Kyiv thereafter, was subjected to an airstrike directed by these fighters. Ultimately, the invaders lost dozens of vehicles, suffered heavy losses in manpower, and failed to complete their task.
“We Ukrainians conduct an anti-terrorist operation”
YB: Before the war I was working in international transportation. But, since 2016, I have pushed aside my ordinary occupation in order to support the military in their anti-terrorist operations. Back in 2014, after the Maidan, we gathered like-minded people in Bucha and established the Bucha Guard, an organization that sought to maintain law and order within the city. In addition, it solved the material support deficiencies of our mobilized compatriots; at the time, there was practically no material support available within the army.
From 2014–2016, our organization not only supported, but sometimes even replaced, the police service, which was demoralized after the Maidan. Furthermore, due to political convictions, some officers were prepared to sabotage their ranks and shirk their professional responsibilities. There were around-the-clock patrols in Bucha, and those detained at crime scenes were handed over to the law enforcement agencies. We learned to interact with all law enforcement agencies and maintained the necessary documentation to reflect our purpose as an organization: working “for the protection of public order and the state border of Ukraine.”
The Bucha Guard become well-known
YB: The Bucha Guard began to gain renown; we implemented joint projects with partners from the United States, Germany, and Norway. We worked on all fronts — on land and at sea. In 2018, we faced a situation in which the level of material support to the Armed Forces had much improved, as the state had learned to provide basic products and uniforms to the military without our help, but the sailors had not yet gained the attention of the authorities. At that time, their supplies were almost on par with those possessed by the Armed Forces in 2014–2016.
Interviewer: Is the state really so cumbersome in its operation that it can take years for prominent issues to gain its attention?
YB: Yes, it is very slow. If you need something changed quickly, to provide makeshift armor where it is needed, or to feed the sailors properly so that they can at least feel like people in the service, then you will have to do it yourself. Gather people and resources. Do everything directly and, when you have a few years of experience and everything has been worked out, once you know everyone and everyone knows you, then you decide everything without waiting for the authorities. In recognition of four years of support given to the Navy, one of their ships was given the name Bucha this year.
Continue reading, part 2 of 2 published
Verba Denys Volodmyrovych and Mariia Tyshchenko
Denys Verba, Born in the Ukraine, PhD in economics, associated professor in Kyiv National Economic University named after Vadym Getman, leader of researcher group in NGO “Poruch” in field of estimate the social outcomes of programs and politics
Mariia Tyshchenko, Born in the Ukraine, PhD in economics, associated professor in Kyiv National Economic University named after Vadym Getman, expert in social cohesion and integrating gender and diversity issues into social-economics activities. Executive director of the NGO “PORUCH”.
English editing: Justin Kingsbury
Editors at large: Marcus Meyer and Gerd Johnsson-Latham