Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Whither Ukraine's National Guard?

Amidst the drama of Russia conquering Crimea, and thus breaking international law with seeming impunity, the future of the rest of Ukraine has been overlooked. Irrespective of Russian aggression, Ukraine witnessed significant violence in Kiev in February. Even, and especially, those who wish Ukraine well must query how Ukraine moves forward now - not just internationally, but in domestic affairs, too.

A pointer to how Ukraine could develop under its new regime may perhaps be found in the new-fangled National Guard, which has been created to "capture the spirit of Maidan," so to speak. But where did this National Guard come from, of whom does it consist, and how can we expect it to develop?


The creation of a Ukrainian National Guard was officially suggested on March 11 by the administration's National Security and Defence Council. Acting Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, made clear that the Guard would be representative of civil society and would be engaged in military activities, such as guarding state borders, as well as civil ones. ( Possibly, Avakov was the right person to announce the creation of such an apparently unifying force, himself having begun as a politician in the eastern city of Kharkiv while supporting politicians identified with Western Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko and then Yulia Tymoshenko.

With Avakov's backing, and the backing of the Council, the Guard was officially voted into existence by parliament the following day, with a projected size of 60,000. The vote was quite clear with 262 of 330 (or 79%) of parliamentarians present voting in favour. Note, though, that the parliament holds 450 seats; thus only 58% of all parliamentarians supported the creation of the Guard. Also, all members present from the Communist Party voted against the proposed law, as did all but one members present from the Party of Regions. ( This means that two parties, which received around 13% and 30% of the popular vote in the October 2012 parliamentary elections (, have come out united against the National Guard.


So far, the Guard is not a fighting force. Its projected size has now been reduced by about half. The few thousand recruits, who have so far showed up for training, are not trained soldiers and would not be likely to inflict much damage on an invading Russian force despite plenty of patriotic speech from the new guards ( Also, it is noticeable that the idea of using the Guard to protect the borders of Ukraine has been quickly dropped, with that task now squarely on the Ukrainian military, which has sent the bulk of its 180,000 soldiers to face Russian troops alongside their shared border. The Guard, however, has been tasked with the potentially important defence of natural gas pipelines running across the country, which are vulnerable to sabotage (unless and until, of course, Gazprom turns off the gas). (

Although the Guard does not consist of soldiers, per se, it is to some extent integrated with the military and other Ukrainian security forces and does include a number of recruits with fighting experience from the violence in Kiev. Indeed, the Guard especially seeks to continue and develop the so-called "Maidan spirit" that helped overthrow President Viktor Yanukovych. This is hope to assist both the development of the Guard and the prestige of the acting government in the face of a still uncertain country. (


Undoubtedly, Ukraine would benefit from a more effective national security programme. Similarly, in case of an emergency it would be very useful for everyone concerned with preserving the Ukrainian state to be coordinated in civil as well as military defence tasks that might keep vital infrastructure running during an attack from Russia.

However, it is far from clear that the Guard will be ready to do so in the far future, let alone within the coming days and weeks. The problem is not just the blatant lack of combat prowess in the Guard, but the potential it has to deeply divide Ukraine.

The stated purpose of the Guard includes 20 points. Of these, 6 refer to the territorial defence of Ukraine, which predictably is a high priority for the acting Ukrainian government. Beyond these 6 points, however, the rest of the tasks set for the Guard are also military in nature, including helping to preserve conditions of martial law when necessary, stopping "violent riots" (the nature of which are left undefined), and helping to restore the constitutional order. (

As such, these of course seem like sensible priorities for an administration, which may yet face internal collapse. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the Guard has been created following the disbanding of the riot police (the Berkut) and the sacking of highly placed officers elsewhere in the security services. (; also

OK - so now we have, on the one hand, a Ukrainian National Guard with wide remit to enforce the new order and consisting of people who, one must assume, are strong supporters of the acting government and thus were opponents of Yanukovych. On the other hand, we have a large number of sacked Ukrainian riot police, consisting of people who, if they have not already declared their undying loyalty to Yanukovych and Putin, might be tempted to do so considering that they and Berkut have been universally blamed by the acting Ukrainian goverment for the deaths that preceded Yanukovych's departure. ( This is a recipe for confrontation between a Guard backed by western Ukraine and ex-Berkut members backed by eastern Ukraine. And with a military unable to prevent potential domestic conflict with Russian tanks parked nearby.

It would have been much more helpful if the Ukrainian administration had constructed a National Guard specifically focused on civilian tasks and on including participants from all of Ukraine. Similarly, while the main blame for the deaths in Kiev does almost certainly lie with Yanukovych and (some parts of?) Berkut much uncertainty has appeared regarding exactly what happened on the Maidan and elsewhere in Kiev. An official inquiry should have been begun, as a priority and with participation from all of Ukraine and all political parties. Instead, a beleaguered Ukrainian administration reacts to a very real Russian danger by constructing symbolic forces displaying Ukrainian nationhood and defiance.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear whether the Ukrainian nationhood symbolised by the Guard can accommodate everyone in Ukraine.

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