The Ukrainian Crisis: The Role of, and Implications for, Sub-State and Non-State Actors


The conflict in eastern Ukraine has entered its fourth year with little sign of a negotiated resolution. Crimea has been absorbed into the Russian Federation and celebrated the third anniversary of its ‘integration’ in March 2017. To date, most scholarly analyses of the conflict have focused on the geopolitical implications of the Ukrainian crisis, such as the impact on NATO-Russia relations, and foreign policy responses to the crisis from a variety of state and supranational actors including the EU and Russia, as well as Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’. The role of sub-state and non-state actors has been largely overlooked. In a recently published book, we seek to rectify this by examining their role in the evolution of the conflict, looking at topics such as the popularity of the separatist movement in Donbass, the perception of local political elites, the involvement of private armies and the implications for regional security across the post-Soviet space: how has the annexation of Crimea affected the separatist territories of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria?

The impact and influence of non-state actors is dependent upon the political, economic and social context within which they exist. In a conflict situation where state structures are not as effective as they could be, non-state actors can exert a disproportionate amount of influence on a situation, as has been seen in eastern Ukraine. From the Russian diaspora, non-governmental organisations, paramilitary groups and volunteer militias, there are a diverse range of non-state actors involved in the crisis, which is also having an impact on sub-state actors in other parts of the post-Soviet space, notably the separatist territories of Georgia and Moldova.

Since 2014, thousands of individuals (who are neither conscripts nor professional soldiers) throughout Ukraine have joined pro-Kiev armed groups to fight against Russian-backed insurgents in the eastern part of the country. Emmanuel Karagiannis conducted a series of interviews in Ukraine in the summer of 2015 in an attempt to shed some light on who the Ukrainian volunteers are and why they chose to fight against pro-Kremlin forces. Although the formation of armed groups is the result of separatist actions, far right parties have used them to promote their political agendas and nationalist ideas have motivated some individuals to join the campaign against a perceived enemy. Political-social norms have also generated collective action by influencing behaviours and perceptions.

The role of paramilitaries in Ukraine is also examined by Tatyana Malyarenko and David J. Galbreath. They argue that an understanding of the important role of paramilitaries on both sides (pro-government and pro-Russian) is key to understanding the conflict as a whole, but that they also pose the biggest threat to a sustainable peace. Their analysis shows that paramilitary troops have replaced regular armies, for different reasons on each side: pro-government paramilitaries in Ukraine were deployed as force multipliers, to boost the capacity of the Ukrainian regular army, while pro-Russian troops were deployed despite Russian operational capacity. However, paramilitary troops on both sides have subsequently become an obstacle to effective and efficient military operations, resisting efforts to either integrate them into regular armed forces or disband them. Both sides are able to use paramilitaries to absolve themselves of responsibility for many of the actions carried out in their name, such as the killing of civilians, forced removal and the mistreatment of prisoners of war, all covered under the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, Russia has sought to use paramilitaries, including the deployment of its own troops on the both sides of the border, as a way of provide disinformation in what has been referred to as hybrid warfare.

A variety of other non-state and sub-state actors have either been involved in or impacted by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the book also examines the role of the Russian diaspora in Ukraine, civil society (which Laura Clearly asserts has generally been classed as apathetic, weak and ineffectual) and the Russian approach to sub-state actors across the post-Soviet space. Moscow confers statehood with one hand, using the language and discourse of statehood, but takes it away with the other, manipulating its relations with these actors in order to achieve broader foreign policy objectives, notably the retention of its influence across the post-Soviet space.

Image: War in Donbass, via wikimedia.

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