The Lost Veterans of Donbas

Mykola Mykytenko, being of sound mind and body and a family man, nevertheless set himself on fire on Kyiv’s Maidan Square one day this past October.

Mykytenko is just one out of the nearly 400,000 surviving veterans of the eight-year Ukrainian-Russian conflict, but his protest was hardly his alone. The “Donbas veterans” share intense feelings about defending Ukraine against Russia, none more so than the former volunteer citizen-soldiers among them who make up half their number. These have been vociferous in denouncing any peace overtures by Ukrainian authorities that bear the slightest perfume of capitulation toward Russia. To no small degree, this is because once having left the physical frontlines, the Donbas veterans have found themselves still having to fight at home against half-Soviet ways, whether in the Verkhovna Rada, the government bureaucracy, or in society at large, for even just official recognition of their veteran status.

These former volunteer citizen-soldiers do not look at all like modern American citizen-soldiers. America’s volunteer soldiers join a well-oiled machine, with clear and established entrance and exit processes documented by a true mound of paperwork. That paper trail confirms when the citizen becomes a soldier, when a former soldier becomes a veteran, and what honors, benefits, and privileges he or she is due. When the Donbas volunteer soldiers volunteered, there wasn’t much of anything to the Ukrainian military. In the wake of the anti-Putin Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) uprising, when the “little green men” appeared in Eastern Ukraine and Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian military essentially evaporated—over 70 percent of the officer corps alone reportedly defected to Russia, and the mostly Soviet-era equipment was found to be inoperable. With no functional institution in place, it was everyday citizens that mobilized: The majority of the current Donbas veterans quite literally dropped the pens, papers, and tools of their professional trades to rush to the front, despite having zero military experience or even equipment.

Churches, civil society groups, and Ukrainian oligarchs funded and sponsored a variety of hastily constructed battalions, and in response, the Ukrainian parliament authorized the formation and deployment of volunteer armed groups—militias—to defend the nation (eventually, it passed a conscription measure as well.) By October 2014, more than forty-four territorial defense battalions, thirty-two special police battalions, three volunteer national guard battalions, and at least three pro-Ukrainian unregulated battalions that answered officially to no one had been stood up. It wasn’t until 2019 that all of the volunteer battalions became incorporated into conventional military and police structures.

Militia warfare, even when legally authorized, “invites messy margins,” and not just in terms of the (lack of) paperwork. Some of the volunteers were long-time political activists who had participated in the Maidan Square uprising; some always had had unsavory political ideologies or affiliations tending toward the radical. Some were private security attached to particular Ukraine oligarchs. But the majority were just patriotic citizens stirred by the current civic volunteerism movement that has been central to Ukraine’s post-independence national culture. When all of these volunteer soldiers returned from the frontline, they did so alongside the conventional soldiers and members of the newly reestablished National Guard of Ukraine, to find themselves at the mercy of a mostly nonexistent Soviet-era, fragmented, and corrupt veterans system, and in competition with each other for government’s attention.

Ukraine has begun working to build a veterans system more in line with its current rule of law and democratic aspirations, but similar difficulties plague this process as well. The political tensions that surrounded the volunteer units have affected their post-deployment status: Only in 2019 did Zelenskyy sign a law granting the volunteer soldiers combatant status, but there continue to be widespread instances of local officials denying Donbas veterans any benefits, whether because the official is sympathetic to Russia, has been influenced negatively by Russian disinformation coloring Donbas veterans as right-wing fascists, or is simply corrupt.

Donbas veterans “keep awake all: the Church, government, and politicians,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk recently remarked; veterans are the “yeast of the new Ukraine.” As they’ve struggled with reintegrating into civilian society with little support from official sources, these veterans have revealed how they are at the beating heart of Ukraine’s struggles toward a functional democracy.

And it’s hardly their fellow Ukrainians alone who’ve taken note of the potent potential of veterans’ civic strength. According to reports from the Atlantic Council, the Global Public Policy Institute, and even the World Bank, Russia has made it its business to delegitimize Donbas veterans through a sustained pincer disinformation campaign. Utilizing a broad array of negative narratives, this campaign seeks to demonize Donbas volunteers and the Ukrainian military as rapists, Western puppets, extremists, and corrupt aggressors wishing to inflict punishment on innocent civilians. This both targets veterans themselves in order to heighten their social isolation, and also undermines veterans’ image in the eyes of Ukrainians, so that Ukrainians will distrust and shun them—and through them, civic volunteerism.

The Donbas veterans reveal a nation strongly in love with a non-Russian Ukrainian “Motherland”; a people frustrated by political corruption; but a nation still believing in civic volunteerism, civil society, and the possibility of a free and functional democracy.

In today’s America, with our reported high esteem for the US Armed Forces, we don’t really think about our enemies propagating negative stories in disguise about veterans across our media ecosystem as a deliberate tactic to undermine our civil society or national security—or that we would fall for them. But our enemies certainly know that for us to have military recruits in the first place, those young souls have to be willing to embrace the full spectrum of the soldier-veteran image popularized by civil society. We are a large country, however, and our diversity layered on top of established democratic institutions and processes inures us to the potential threat. Even in a protracted twenty-year war with increasingly ambiguous goals, thousands of Americans still voluntarily served.

Ukraine has none of this luxury—it never had the wealth, the institutional stability, or the state capacity to build up its democratic infrastructure before the country’s existence was assaulted by Russia in 2014. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine largely struggled on its own, without the levels of Western support that Eastern Europe enjoyed to help create and sustain a democratic infrastructure. Thus, even while it has had to fight against a powerful foreign aggressor, it was trying to establish democratic institutions and processes that challenge at every level the Soviet-style habits instilled in society for decades. As any post-college graduate new on the job knows, no matter how brilliant one’s ideas or kinetic energy, to overcome the unconscious habits of a workplace culture is a gargantuan task, and unwinnable with only one day’s battle.

Russia gleefully exploits the messy truths that this baseline situation has necessitated. And this is why they target the Donbas veterans in particular—Ukraine’s mix of militia and conventional warfare has been messy, and has involved its share of unsavory characters.  

All of this is true: Since the beginning, soldiers bring diverse motivations to war. And yet this, too, is true: The citizens of Ukraine stepped up to defend their own. They fought in combat, no matter whether they were officially and legally “on paper” allowed to do so (as was the case for women) or whether they were formally affiliated with the military. Since December 2020 far-flung fellow Ukrainians have remembered this civic sacrifice, and the Donbas volunteer combatant veterans are celebrated as national heroes, as the comments from Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk illustrate, and as the new soldier-volunteers stepping up since January shows. But they are also celebrated as a source of inspiration for today’s, and future, fights—and this is why Russia cannot let them go. Civil society has ever been the autocrat’s foe.

A cohort of 400,000 veterans trained on the job in combat and animated by volunteerism is a force large enough to mount a rearguard action against Russia, should Russia attempt again to invade Ukraine. And indeed, in January Ukraine’s new “On the Fundamentals of National Resistance” law took effect, which codified the roles and responsibilities of ministries in harnessing citizen resistance potential through territorial forces units, volunteer battalions, and other citizen-centric tasks. Thus to fracture that movement before it can even form is a logical necessity for Russia—not only would delegitimization weaken that action, it could frost over any society-wide imitation of those original defenders. And thus Russia keeps the Donbas veterans squarely in its disinformation sights. And, however sobering for the personal costs that this has entailed, so also are the Donbas veterans keeping Russia in its sights.

Veterans’ stories too often are treated as merely human-interest stories—tales to invigorate or innervate the heart; to lighten the pocketbook; to castigate government. But Mykola Mykytenko’s death is not just some tragic veteran story. For Tocqueville in the 19th century, the story about veterans was about the nation. They are a mirror for its issues—especially in democratic-leaning nations, soldiers and so veterans are “a faithful image of the nation,” Tocqueville wrote. They do not come from one class, segment, political party, or religious persuasion; they reflect often the nuances of society in being expressions of its various parts. Some of them are sinners, other saints, and others just average human beings who love their country. The Donbas veterans of today reveal this type of Tocquevillean tale. They reveal a nation strongly in love with a non-Russian Ukrainian “Motherland”; a people frustrated by political corruption; but a nation still believing in civic volunteerism, civil society, and the possibility of a free and functional democracy.