The State of Anarchy in Ukraine

May 7, 2014
Police outside the Trade Union Fire in Odessa on May 2nd | Photo by Yevgeny Volokin/Reuters

As the body count begins to increase in eastern Ukraine and the chaos and general dystopian anarchy that has come to infect our conscious understanding of Ukraine has spread to other cities such as Odessa, many have started to wonder over whether or not the new government in Kiev will ever be able to truly regain control and authority of the country. The interim government has struggled to convey any sense of order and authority to the rebellious regions, and to its own military and security forces for that matter. And when messages are conveyed they are often confused and contradictory, further limiting any projection of what limited authority Kiev commands.

Ukrainian military helicopters are being shot out of the sky. The army is continually humiliated and what units they are able to muster are forced to surrender their weapons and fed by locals. The police forces either join pro-Russia separatists—like in Donetsk and Kharkiv–or acquiesce and quietly retreat–like in Odessa, where Pro-Ukraine mobs were allowed to exert their revenge on pro-Russia supporters who fired first. These are just some of the examples of the breakdown of government authority in Ukraine, where the adherence to the rule of law is based upon political ideology. Pro-Russia supporters, whose own ideologies run the gamut of supporting federalization and de-centralization of authority to full-fledged unification with Russia, view the new government in Kiev as an illegal puppet of the West bent on ruling them with no consideration for their views, and so they have taken up arms against the state. Now some pro-Ukraine crowds have fought back against pro-Russia supporters because they see them as rebels, separatists trying to destroy what is left of Ukraine, and they increasingly see their own government as being incapable of countering this threat.

These competing narratives have opened up a power vacuum, one that is encouraged and propagated in large part by Russia. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti notes:

“Although there can be little doubt that there are Russian operators, agents and commandos on the ground, the majority of the combatants are local thugs, defectors from the Ukrainian security forces, and even adventurers, mercenaries and nationalists from Russia, there with Moscow’s blessing and probably its guns, too. This has allowed Russia to claim, however disingenuously, not to be involved and also created a political quandary for the Ukrainian government as it struggles with knowing how to treat the paramilitaries.”

While Russia’s conventional troops remain on the border, threatening and intimidating any potential response from Kiev, its unconventional forces are supporting the chaos on the ground, intermittently intervening directly to prevent any disparity between the rebels and the government, like shooting down several Ukrainian attack helicopters using MANPADS (man portable air defense systems) which as Alexander Golts notes,

“Several Ukrainian Army helicopters were recently shot down near Slovyansk by man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS. These weapons are not stored in police stations or even Ukrainian security service offices, meaning that the insurgents could not have seized them locally. What’s more, it takes considerable skill to operate a MANPAD. The most likely explanation is that these weapons were brought in by units of Russia’s special forces.”

What is happening in Ukraine is a very modern form of politics and war where objectives and goals are reached not through the fighting of armies but from the manipulation of chaos. This “non-linear war,” as Peter Pomerantsev has called it, is more 21st than 19th century. It relies on propaganda, proxies and ultimately blurring the lines of loyalty and responsibility. Gone are the days of clear alliances and wars fought with large conventional armies; hackers, propaganda and shady organized crime figures are the new soldiers of the day. This new conception of war has embraced the use of gangsters, local elites and warlords who act in suzerainty of whoever is willing to pay the most and offers the better opportunities for power and plunder. These new “power brokers” emerge at the breakdown of institutional authority and thrive in the anarchy that follows as interests vie for position. They are the ones who can change the course of war and favor, operating without the tanks or airplanes of nations. “But the longer that Kiev and Moscow practice what amounts to a military stalemate, the more opportunity local armed actors have to change the actual power balance on the ground,” notes Columbia Professor Kimberly Marten. “They can ensure that either the Russian or the Ukrainian state that eventually triumphs will have to bargain with them in the future.”

And even with Russia’s newly revitalized military, most prominently on display in Crimea, the tactics of non-linear war are as much an understanding by the Kremlin that not only can they achieve their aims in destabilizing the new government without invading and committing tens of thousands of troops with only a few GRU intelligence officers and Spetsnaz, as well as realizing that despite Russia’s increased and Europe’s decreased military spending, Russia would remain far outmatched in any conventional military confrontation. (To actually occupy Eastern Ukraine it would require far more than the 45,000 frontline troops commonly cited as being near the border and closer to 100,000, including interior ministry troops to prevent any insurgency or partisan uprising).

That is why Kiev is having such a hard time of re-asserting its control over the East, among other reasons such as an under equipped and badly managed military, it is using the military which is designed to fight conventional battles against other militaries, not to act as internal police and to put down domestic uprisings. That is why many commenters have derided the chances of the new government to regain control–it is utilizing a depleted military that is neither designed nor equipped to quell an internal security threat against “rebels” equipped and supported by Russia. And if the military continues to be the sole source of authority for the new regime, then those commenters may very well be right.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the utilization of the military is due to the questions of loyalty regarding the police and interior ministry. Yet, every nation needs a proper police force and institutions to effectively govern itself. That is why all the failures of the police are so troubling; it is not only a sign of their unwillingness to enforce the rule of law, but also their lack of faith in the new government. And the statements from the leadership, both today and immediately after the fall of Yanukovych, indicate their lack of faith in the police, often conflating them with the previous regime. Immediately after Yanukovych’s ouster, Berkut, the elite riot police, were disbanded for their role in countering the protests on the Maiden. Most ex-Berkut and police officers were and are simply trying to do their job. Yes, there were abuses and the guilty parties should have been brought to justice, but by equating the police and Berkut to blood thirsty murderers, the new government alienated the very members of society that they now need to rely on (I am not excusing any misconduct or downplaying the crimes that were committed, merely recognizing that not all police and Berkut were guilty and were simply trying to do their job).

This mutual lack of faith results in a power vacuum that allows for alternate power brokers and anarchy to reign, which is exactly what happened over the weekend in Odessa.

A corollary is the disbanding of the entire Iraq army in the wake of the U.S invasion, regardless of whether each soldier was a member of the elite security forces or just a normal officer trying to serve their country. In the wake of this disbandment, disgruntled and jobless officers launched one of the lengthiest and deadliest insurgencies in recent history. A more effective tactic would have been to vet the officers and soldiers, and to prosecute those who were of questionable loyalty and guilty of crimes. By doing so, the new government would have been able to retain the expertise and loyalty of career military personnel and eliminating two causes of the insurgency—a lack of employment and a grudge against the new elite.

To effectively fight this new type of war, effective and loyal police and interior ministry troops are needed. They are the ones who are trained to deal with the confusing nature of conflict that resembles a police operation more than military combat with clearly identified uniforms and lines of battle. The new government needs to start supporting its local police forces, not chastising them or sending in hastily constructed National Guard or quasi-police units to replace them as they have done in Odessa.

Kiev needs to vet its police and interior ministry troops and prosecute or kick out any of suspect loyalty while at the same time fully supporting the remaining officers. Vest them with the necessary political support and directions and allow them to do the job they were trained for. Ultimately, whatever happens to Ukraine, partitioned or in whole, it will need police—especially to fight any future non-linear wars.