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Ukrainian oligarchs' private armies flex their muscles

The drama began with a seemingly bland piece of legislation on corporate law, then Ukraine's parliament passed a law to strip a prominent billionaire of control of a state company. Then armed men arrived.

Fifty-two-year-old oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy didn't take the news lying down. Within hours of the parliamentary vote on March 19 he mobilized a group of armed men who barricaded themselves in UkrTransNafta's offices in Kyiv.

Reporters who arrived to see the commotion were treated to a

stream of invective

before he left.

Poroshenko and Kolomoyskiy (Photo: EPA/MIKHAIL PALINCHAK / POOL)

Poroshenko and Kolomoyskiy met on March 25 before the resignation was announced

He returned three days later with members of his Dnepr militias and took control of the company's offices. Interior ministry troops responded and a tense stakeout ensued. It ended at night without shots being fired.

President Petro Poroshenko then announced he had

accepted Kolomoiskiy's resignation

from the governorship post he'd assumed last year.

No one was hurt despite the rifle-waving and shouting. But it also highlights a disturbing fact - that Ukraine's super-elite command private armies at their disposal whose loyalties are to the men that pay them.

"Oligarchs are the most powerful people in Ukraine," Kateryna Zarembo, deputy director of the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv, told DW. "It's the oligarchs that are subsidizing the politicians and control much of the mass media in the country."

Limited state power

Ukraine is under incredible strain fighting Russia-backed separatists in the east, its economy is in shambles and in many places the state has faded away with powerful figures like Kolomoiskiy and his militias filling the vacuum.

"Although voluntarism is an intrinsically positive phenomenon reflecting the strength of civil society, it can also be a measure, as in today's Ukraine, of the weakness of the state," political scientist Alexander Motyl

wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine

.

In the past year, Kolomoiskiy has won accolades for financing security forces in Dnipropetrovsk province, which has served as a buffer against the violence that wracks neighboring Donetsk and Mariupol provinces.

UkrTransNafta (Photo: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

Pipeline firm UkrTransNafta is at the heart of the dispute

The Ukrainian military has been unable to fight against the Russian-armed separatists on its own and volunteers and private militias - most, but not all, operating with the approval of the interior ministry - have helped fill the gap.

"Scarce funding for the Defense Ministry did not meet even the minimum requirements of the armed forces. Thank God he sent us volunteers," Poroshenko

said in a Monday speech

.

But in the same address Poroshenko warned that so-called defense battalions must be brought under the authority of the state.

"Territorial defense will be subordinated to the strict military hierarchy," Poroshenko said to applause. "Our governors will not have their own armed forces!"

Some argue that the phenomenon of super-rich individuals employing armed groups is nothing new in Ukraine and the danger shouldn't be exaggerated.

"They are a force but the nature of this force for Ukraine is yet to be understood," Zarembo told DW.

Accountable to whom?

But there is the question of accountability. Disparate militias are harder to track - and hold liable - for any violence or banditry.

"Combatants on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine are bound by the laws of war and must ensure the protection of civilians and avoid indiscriminate attacks," said Krasimir Yankov, Amnesty International's Ukraine researcher in Kyiv.

The question remains as to how much control the government has over armed groups operating in conflict zones.

"In Ukraine, the bureaucracy is very complex and really doesn't work efficiently," Zarembo said. "So it may not control battalions that it directly coordinates, let alone battalions that are within its own departments."

For the time being, Kolomoiskiy has been behaving himself. His deputy signaled that he would leave the governorship in a smooth transfer of power and maintain a bulwark against armed separatists to the southeast.

"Until we're convinced that the new authorities have the situation under control, we'll stay involved in regional security issues," Deputy Governor Svyatoslav Oliynyk said.

Dodged the bullet

Analysts say it appears - for now - that the danger of open confrontation between interior troops and well-equipped militiamen has passed.

"After that compromise between the politicians the threat is minimized to almost zero," Yuri Yakimenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center in Kyiv, said. "Both understand that it's not in their interest to fight with one another but rather focus on the threat by separatists."

But lest this be a happy ending many are wondering whether the security landscape will be shifted if one or more oligarchs fall out with the Kyiv government.

"Removing Kolomoyskiy is only part of the story, and Poroshenko will have to work with others to contain the fallout," argues Balazs Jarabik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The other big question is whether the rest of the oligarchs find themselves being targeted by the regime in Kyiv ahead of the upcoming local government elections. All the while, competition over a shrinking pool of state resources may - quite understandably - fuel even more infighting."

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