ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2017

Tor Bukkvoll

Norwegian Defense Research Establishment

Tor Bukkvoll is a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo. He has studied political developments in Russia and Ukraine since the mid-1990s, especially in the areas of defence and security. He recently published “Why Putin Went to War: Ideology, Interests and Decision-making in the Russian use of force in Crimea and Donbas” (Contemporary Politics, 2016).



States and Pro-Government Militias:

The Case of the Ukrainian Volunteer Battalions


Pro-government militias (PGMs) have historically been a part of warfare. The Pro-government militias project has found that as many as 332 different PGMs were active around the world between 1981 and 2007. Nevertheless, it is a puzzle why governments spend resources on such forces. They have limited control over them, and they could have spent the same resources on regular military units over which they have more or less full control. After all, states normally try to monopolize the use of force.


The current literature has come up with three main answers to this puzzle: operational advantages for the government that outweigh the costs connected with loss of control, deflection of government accountability, and the militias as tools in intra-state power struggles. The case of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions, however, suggests an additional causal relationship. In a situation where national sovereignty is seen as threatened by significant parts of the population, and where the state is seen as either not sufficiently willing or capable to counter that threat, there is an incentive for PGMs to emerge to fill the gaps in state capability and resolve. Militias may arise on their own, thus presenting the government with a dilemma.  It can spend political and even military resources to disband them, or it can take advantage of them as force-multipliers despite the inherent risks.


The paper argues that, in the Ukrainian case, much of the initiative for the establishment of PGMs was bottom-up. To a significant extent, the government use or sanctioning of PGMs in Ukraine was an attempt to get control over a development that would have taken place even in the absence of government involvement. This is a cause of PGM emergence that so far has received little attention in the theoretical literature. Bottom-up militias are discussed in this literature, but mostly in terms of local self-defence units, and – on the individual level – opportunities for material gain. 


Furthermore, this paper takes a detailed look at the understudied topic of how interaction between regular forces and PGMs takes place. Taking  the dilemmas of principal-agent theory as the point of departure, recent developments in theory of accountability are used to explore how the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian regular armed forces tried to ensure that the volunteer battalions did what the authorities wanted them to do. The paper discusses to what extent the relationship was characterized by trust-based vs. sanction-based accountability, and to what extent ambiguity of directives was accepted or even part of the operative strategy.


The aims of the paper are both to bring forward research based knowledge on the role of the volunteer battalions in the conflict in Donbas, and to contribute to the theoretical literature on PGMs. The study is based on interviews with commanders and soldiers of the volunteer battalions in Kyïv and Donbas in September 2016, and on other Ukrainian primary sources.