Fight Club

11.24.14 10:55 AM ET

Should the U.S. Arm Ukraine’s Militias?

In an exclusive interview, one of the top pro-Kiev militia commanders talks about the cowardice of some of Ukraine’s regular army officers and his need for U.S. weapons.

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine—When skirmishes began in this corner of eastern Ukraine earlier this year, Yuriy Bereza decided to use “direct action” (read fists and clubs), threats, and incentives to ensure this fourth largest city—and a mainly Russian-speaking one—didn’t slide into rebel hands as Donetsk and Luhansk had done. Bereza, a veteran of the Orange Revolution of mass protests against Russian-backed governments, joined forces with a group of local businessmen, including billionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, to make sure this city stayed on the Ukrainian side of the political divide.

The strategy seems to have worked. In the Dnipropetrovsk’s regional administration building on a frigid Saturday morning, I waited for him along with members of Bereza’s Dnipro Battalion, a motley militia that has been in the forefront of a weeks-long battle three hours away at Donetsk airport. They wanted to welcome Bereza back from a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C.

This stocky 44-year-old grandfather with a neatly cropped beard arrived in an ebullient mood, laughing often and easily as, behind closed doors with some of his lieutenants, he narrated his adventures in America to a chorus of loud guffaws. But make no mistake, this former officer in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies is a man on a mission—to take back the Donbass region from the separatists and to exorcise Russian political influence on Ukraine.

“During the Orange Revolution we were all romantics—we were all romantics being shot at—and now we are determined to be free of Russian oppression,” he tells me in his office decorated with maps and Ukrainian flags and crests, two removed from Crimea before it was annexed by Russia last spring.

Bereza took the same message to U.S. lawmakers in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, telling them they need to do more for Ukraine. “I tried to explain that World War III has started and is being fought in east Ukraine and there is no way the U.S. cannot be involved in the fight,” says Bereza. “It can delay but it will have to intervene some time or another—later in the Baltics when Moscow is threatening them and maybe Poland.”

Jamie Dettmer

Bereza’s views about World War III and American reluctance to engage offended some of his audience on the Hill. “Democrats didn’t like what I had to say and at one meeting they tried to get out of the room because I was being very harsh on President Obama,” he laughs. He said that on the whole he got a better reception from Republicans, especially the pugnacious Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). “He’s a huge man,” said Bereza.

On Tuesday, amid alarms about a renewed invasion threat by Russian forces, the Arizona senator once again urged President Barack Obama to take more action. “The United States and the European Union must provide Ukraine with the arms and related military and intelligence support that its leaders have consistently sought and desperately need,” McCain said in a statement. 

Last week, the Pentagon announced delivery of three lightweight, counter-mortar radar systems to the Ukrainian army—part of a $118 million package of “non-lethal equipment and training” the U.S. has committed. Moscow has warned the U.S. not to supply weapons to Ukraine, saying it would amount to an escalation and breach the ceasefire accord reached two months ago in Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Ukraine’s militiamen ask “What ceasefire?” According to the United Nations, almost 1,000 people have died since the Minsk truce agreement was inked—an average of 13 dead a day. Fighting remains intense in flashpoints in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces. Artillery and mortar duels all around the outskirts of Donetsk rumble angrily every day.

At the weekend, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 others wounded, according to security officials in Kiev, who claim Russia now has 7,500 troops deployed on Ukrainian soil to back pro-Moscow separatists.

Bereza says what the U.S. is giving is not enough. His shopping list includes surveillance drones. (At the moment, his troops are flying small amateur ones that have a short range and can’t cope with harsh weather conditions). And he would especially like American FGM-148 Javelins, man-portable anti-tank missiles to hit at Russian armor.

But the 500 men in Bereza’s militia are not the Ukrainian army. Most have little military experience. They are shop managers, salesmen, students, and accountants. “I have no idea how many of them have had military training before,” he tells me later with a chuckle.

The Dnipro Battalion is one of 37 pro-unity militias—they are formally known as territorial defense battalions—which were formed this year as exasperation mounted at the inaction and ineffectiveness of the Ukrainian armed forces up against the pro-Russian separatist forces spreading across Donbass. Moscow paints them all as far-right groups such as Right Sector, calling them terrorists, a term the Kremlin doesn’t apply to the separatists. But the 15,000 militiamen come from a variety of political backgrounds and formally, at least, the battalions are legal forces subordinate to the interior ministry.

Dnipro has become a vanguard militia, along with the Aidar, Azov, and Donbass battalions, and last month the unit claimed the slaying of the highest ranking Russian soldier to die in the war in the Donbass, Gen. Sergey Andreychenko, who was killed in a firefight in Telmanove.

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Despite its creditable fighting performance, Dnipro relations with army commanders can be tense and in August they nearly flared into a firefight. Bereza says he thought about shooting Gen. Petro Lytvyn, the Ukrainian army officer commanding on the ground during the battle for Ilovaisk, an engagement that left at least a hundred Ukrainian militiamen and soldiers dead and possibly as many as 500 taken prisoner.

Bereza accuses Lytvyn of abandoning his post along with many of his men as Russian reinforcements poured across the border at Amvrosiivka and made for Ilovaisk, a rail hub that Ukrainian forces were attempting to wrest from the separatists. The covert invasion by thousands of Russian troops backed by tanks hardly was registered by an international media focused on the sweeping offensive of jihadist forces in Iraq and Syria. And Western capitals sought to play down the Russian invasion.

According to Bereza and other militia commanders, Lytvyn’s flight left militiamen encircled. In the end he told the general he should shoot himself for his cowardice. Bereza suffered a concussion in the subsequent fighting, the commander of the Donbass battalion was wounded and his counterpart in the Kharkiv militia was killed. A withdrawal agreement for the encircled Ukrainians, made with the Russians and separatists, was not honored and a column of retreating Ukrainians was wiped out as it came under mortar and heavy machine-gun fire.

The defeat at Ilovaisk, the worst reversal so far for Ukrainian fortunes in the war in the Donbass, prompted Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to agree to the Minsk ceasefire and led to the resignation of Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey. But a criminal probe into the actions of top Ukrainian army commanders appears to have been shelved and the incident remains a nagging sore, adding to militias suspicious of the politicians in Kiev and whether they can be counted on.

The Minsk agreement rankles. “It would be possible to capture Donetsk. But it is only Ukraine that restrains itself to abide by the accord,” says Bereza. “We are fighting in the east and we still have traitors in our parliament,” he frets. “But we can’t have another revolution, that would fall into a Russian trap.”