At the start of the war in Donbas, volunteers saved the Ukrainian army, providing everything from socks to sniper rifles. But as time passes, the role of these so-called volunteers comes up for discussion more and more often. Are they still indispensable? Or does the Ukrainian army now stand on its own two legs, as Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak claimed recently in an interview for Voice of America?
The issue is indeed complicated, for more than one reason. Most directly, it concerns the needs of the Ukrainian forces in the warzone in Donbas. Additionally, it illuminates the rift between civil society and the formal power structures in Ukraine.
Volunteers, in the Ukrainian sense of the word, are a special breed. United and connected by the Maidan-events, the volunteers are extremely loyal to the country and the idea of a free Ukraine. This means that they often toss the authorities aside, if that hampers their efforts to do what they consider right. In the war in Donbas, this has offered – and still offers – unique tactical-logistical advantages in the special kind of low-intensive war that is going on in Donbas.
Volunteers know that their war efforts has to be cheap, or at least fairly affordable. They do not have the luxury of annual budgets and are dependent on the limited running resources provided by civil society itself. While sometimes this delays needed efforts, the phenomenon of small and irregular funding is not necessarily a bad thing: you have to think hard how to use available resources. In talks with Americans and others, I often repeat what the war in Ukraine has taught me, the hard way: that “ten thousand is often more than a million.”
Regarding Poltorak’s claims that the demand for further volunteer efforts is limited, and that they should be more related to consultations and control of ongoing activities, I can understand what he means, from the perspective of the ministry itself. And there are some good recent examples of just that. Take the somewhat bizarre example with the newly issued military ambulance Bohdan 2251, suffering from some severe construction flaws. In this case, an evaluation of the project by experienced volunteers has put the project on halt, until it is reviewed.
I am personally one of those volunteers and I get indications on a daily basis, that we cannot stop our efforts, that we are needed in many ways yet.
Speaking in strictly tactical terms, while the armed forces of Ukraine by now, compared to 2014 and winter 2015, are much more capable of maintaining and supporting themselves, there are still severe gaps that the armed forces are not able, or maybe not even willing, to fill.
After almost four years of war, there is a surprisingly wide range of items in everyday use at the frontline that are not officially listed anywhere and therefore cannot be taken care of by the logistics system of the armed forces. Take the vehicles: any given unit, out of sheer necessity, uses a number of civilian minibuses, jeeps and other means of transport provided over the years by the volunteer movement. To maintain or, eventually, replace these vehicles is not easy, if at all possible.
One simple example are tires to such vehicles. To be able to move around with a jeep in demanding terrain, say with a heavy machine gun in the back, you need mud-tires. Such tires are, indeed, readily available commercially, but the armed forces, with its official “tender-bureaucracy,” is often not able to provide such items, so much less on short notice. So, what do you do as a battalion commander? You call the volunteers, they get you the tires in a couple of days, with a request to go kick some Russian ass written on the side of the rubber.
And, remember the Bohdan? While the army is still striving to figure out the medevac-issue in some standardized way, the volunteers buy ordinary minibuses and redo them into ambulances. It is not ideal, but it works, and it is far cheaper than any other solution, not to mention that it is a solution that is in place today, saving lives.
The swiftness of the volunteers, together with a keen ear for shifting tactical demands, has proven its relevance repeatedly. A good example is the rifle calibers in the sniper-war that the conflict in Donbas essentially has turned into. One of the most optimal calibers, providing the widest possible range of tactical options, has proven to be .338. For a long time, the only available .338 rifles at the frontline were provided by, or in cooperation with, the volunteers.
The volunteers are further keen on improving existing items by adapting them for enhanced tactical use. A primary example would be the Soviet-made sniper rifle SVD, as army-standard featured with almost obsolete PSO-scopes with limited magnifying power. Instead, the volunteers offer modern optics, with a magnifying power of, say, 3-12, or 6-24, providing a much wider range of use and tactical choices to the shooter (including recon ability). If you know how – and volunteers do – the modern scopes are easily adapted for use with the Soviet rifle.
The dynamics of the war in Donbas require ever-ongoing adaptation. Here one can mention the relations that have developed over time between battle-hardened commanders and devoted volunteers, both sides trying to figure out how to get an edge over the Russian side. The process itself is very basic: the unit commanders figure out what kind of tactical capacities they would like to try out, and the volunteers go home and figure how to get hold of it. Sometimes, needless to say, compromises must be made, but whatever the volunteers come up with often significantly improves the tactical capacity of a given unit. One very good example are rifle scopes for night use.
One could mention other fields, such as drones, where the volunteers often are able to come up with relatively cheap solutions that in many ways equals far more expensive equipment. One could further tell about the use of sophisticated electronic maps for artillery are to a large extent provided by volunteer organizations to units in need, needless to say, free of charge.
Notwithstanding, while improving over time, the still inherent inefficiency of the system itself, with the addition of a vivid corruption and mentality of “protection of interests” is a real pain for anybody involved in the logistics part of the war effort. There are still severe problems with “ordinary” army logistics and support, and this when we are at the fourth year of war. For instance, every spring since 2015 my Lithuanian organization gets requests for mine-detectors, often as a result of direct casualties. There is not only a lack of a sufficient numbers of such detectors, but also a need for more sophisticated ones, able to deal with more sinister ordnance. We think that the soldiers deserve the best we can offer, and offer fairly hi-end items, such as XP.
While this is in no way to say that the relationships between the authorities and the volunteers are impossible to improve, the issues related to the support of the armed forces remind us of some of the gloomy aspects of what is going on in Ukraine, shedding some light on the latent tension between the authorities and civil society. While the war sometimes indeed functions as a convincing reason for cooperation, it has not really worked as a mean for cohesion of Ukraine itself.
One can feel that things are changing, at least on the surface. When defense minister Poltorak invites volunteers to work at the ministry and contribute to the enhancement of logistics it is of course a nice gesture, and I have no doubt that there are volunteers who would make a difference in the ranks of the armed forces. The offer, however, will hardly appeal to the majority of the civil volunteers who have no interest in a career in the armed forces, and who already long since found their own mode of supporting the defense of their country or, as in our case, the region as a whole.
Needless to say, there can be only one army (with its support structures) in a stable country. But, the present unique situation in Ukraine requires different thinking. This means taking into consideration the uniqueness and strengths of a civil society that by now is well geared to enhance the security interests of Ukraine, while at the same time not necessarily being in favor of the present formal authorities of the country.
The issue of cooperation between the volunteer movement and the state is, at its roots, not only a matter of technical or tactical concern. It is a test of whether it is possible to forge a society where active and capable citizens feel they are a part not only of a nation but also of the state-building process. The war is indeed, in its own peculiar way, a thorough test of the will for unity and of the ability of various parts and layers of the Ukrainian society to act together. When the peace eventually comes, we will most likely see challenges even greater and more complicated than those Ukraine is facing in Donbas today. We must prepare for those challenges now. The case of the volunteers, their relation to the formal authorities and the ability of both to shape common ground for the future is indeed an indicator of whether such challenges can take place or not. As we consider this, the volunteers keep on hauling.
Together with his friends, Jonas understands the threat against Ukraine from Russia as a direct menace to Lithuania and the Baltic States. Most of the members in Blue/Yellow have no military background. Instead, they use their civilian skills and knowledge for the activities. The organisation has a wide network of partners in the Baltics as well as in Ukraine.
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