Russian volunteers in Ukraine and defensive mobilization

Since Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops to bolster the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics” (the DNR and LNR) in Eastern Ukraine, thousands of Russian volunteers have traveled to the Donbass to take part in the fighting. While a few of them have teamed up with the Ukrainian side, the vast majority joined the irregular DNR/LNR forces. A recent Russian study asks what made these volunteers tick. The core motivation, the study claims, was a desire to defend one’s own people. As one would expect given the current domestic climate, the findings certainly suit the official story about the conflict. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong.

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According to Ukrainian authorities, the bulk of the DNR/LNR forces was made up by an estimated 36,300 irregulars as well as 2,900 Russian regular troops by July 2017. A substantial proportion of the irregulars have consisted of incoming volunteers from Russia. Source: Ukraine Crisis Media Center

As reported by Argumenty i fakty, the authors carried out in-depth interviews with 11 Donbass veterans of different age groups and backgrounds, in order to “create an objective portrait of the volunteer”. Among the respondents were a 25-year-old resident of Rostov-on-Don and graduate of the Nakhimov Naval Academy in Sevastopol, a 63-year-old security company boss from St. Petersburg, a 40-year-old highly educated businessman, and a 30-year-old carpenter from Novokuznetsk.

Obviously, with such a sample, one can say little about the overall population of volunteers. We may, however, find some clues about the narratives volunteers use to justify their decision.

According to the study, the fighters apparently weren’t in it for the money, as the pay covered little more than expenses. They were also ideologically different, ranging from communists to monarchists as well as apolitical ones. What they all had in common was a sense of duty to defend one’s own people against ongoing injustice:

«Подводя итог, можно сказать, что в основе решения стать добровольцев в каждом из случаев была идея исправления некоей несправедливости, – резюмирует Дмитрий Карпушин. – Люди уезжали, делали то, что считали своим долгом […]

“To conclude, the idea of correcting some kind of injustice lay at the core of the decision to become a volunteer in each case, – Dmitri Karpushin [the study’s main author] says. – People went and did what they considered their duty […]

As readers will know, this statement precisely echoes the Kremlin’s narrative: We had no choice but to go in there to defend our brethren against the violently anti-Russian, neo-Nazi, Ukrainian nationalist banderovtsy and their backers in Kiev.

Sure, the researchers may have handpicked interviewees who would say the right things. There’s also the issue of respondent self-censorship, particularly salient under an authoritarian regime. Also, the sample is very small, and the full text of the study doesn’t seem to be publicly available. Nevertheless, I do think we can safely assume that a major proportion of the volunteers were indeed motivated by a desire to defend what they saw as a righteous cause.

David Malet, an authority on the history of foreign fighters, has stressed that defensive mobilization is key to understanding why recruits make their choice, at least in terms of how they frame and justify it. The caveat is important: How people think about their own choice isn’t the only or necessarily the most important explanation of why they make it. The Russian study appears to take the interviewees’ statements about defensive mobilization at face value, omitting the fact that there was a lot of framing and recruiting work going on in the background.

Russian state media went into full propaganda mode in February-March 2014 as the operation to invade and annex Crimea came underway. While on a research trip to Moscow just then, I was struck by the barrage of anti-Ukrainian messaging through the media, especially the main TV channels. Hastily made World War II documentaries suggesting how the new government in Kiev was but a continuation of Nazi-collaborating WWII nationalists, false reports about repressions and atrocities, and similar stories seemed to dominate the state-controlled media. Real incidents such as the deadly Odessa fire in May were exploited relentlessly.

All the reports on “endangered Russians in Ukraine” certainly impacted people’s attitudes, creating a mindset of defensive mobilization. As moral outrage grew, so did the sense that one had to “do something”. And that choice became more viable as recruitment campaigns came underway and an infrastructure to handle the preparation and transportation of volunteers across the border began to take shape. Soon, veteran societies, Cossack groups, and right-wing nationalist organizations were calling upon their followers to “go help defend our brethren in Ukraine”. As a result, the Donbass received thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Russian volunteer fighters (in August 2015, Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen and former “Prime Minister” of the DNR, claimed 30,000 to 50,000 Russian volunteers had taken part in the conflict).

To conclude, the mobilization of Russian Donbass volunteers was partly spontaneous and emotional, and as such a grassroots, bottom-up phenomenon. But it wouldn’t have gathered as much force without framing and recruitment efforts largely organized from above. On that note, it’s easy to see why the Kremlin would want to encourage and facilitate the flow of volunteer fighters across the border to Ukraine. As Maxim Trudolyubov notes in a recent piece for The Russia File, the phenomenon fits into a pattern by which private actors carry out the state’s bidding: “Moscow has been consistently deploying non-state groups not only to avoid bureaucratic procedures and accountability that the state, even in Russia, provides for, but also to create plausible deniability.”

The whole story of the Russian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, their motivations, mobilization, and impact on the conflict, remains to be told.

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