Lay Down Your Weapons

While facing off with Russia, Ukraine’s new government is also struggling to disarm militias in Kiev. If it can’t, will new violence erupt?

KIEV — In eastern Ukraine, the last week has given rise to an armed seizure of government offices by pro-Russia protesters; a faltering state-led anti-terrorism operation; and reported defections from the Ukrainian army. Meanwhile, a tepid calm has set in on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev where this all began.

On April 10, the very day that pro-Moscow separatists in the east rejected a government amnesty offer, the Maidan was quiet. At one end of the square, a bulldozer worked to push down a barricade that had, for months, separated Euromaidan protesters from special police forces. Elsewhere, passersby stooped to photograph the many small memorials that are scattered around the area, and a group of young girls posed for photographs around an army tank.

But while the physical legacy of the Euromaidan movement is being dismantled, other remnants hold firm. The months-long protests in Kiev gave rise to a network of so-called self-defense militias. Some of these groups remain intact -- and are less-than-supportive of Ukraine's new government. And while many Euromaidan protesters have returned home, several hundred remain in tent encampments in the center of the capital. Reportedly, some say they are there to maintain law and order in the capital; others say they will stay in the square until national elections, scheduled for May 25, take place, as that will provide a bookend to the political revolution that began in the Maidan.

Though the government in Kiev is largely preoccupied with preventing outright war with Russia, the Maidan's still-mobilized groups have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, at the behest of European officials, Ukrainian authorities stepped up their push to disarm Maidan militias and assert their authority over the capital, as well as the rest of the country. According to some observers, the government has likely learned from the example of Georgia, which, after it was invaded by Russia in 2008, struggled to demobilize its revved-up citizenry.

There is, it seems, no time like the present. At the Kiev Security Forum, on April 9-10, Ukrainian professor of political science Oleksii Haran warned that some Maidan activists now believe that "the Maidan has sold out," and so they should "do something more radical." The threat, in other words, is that embattled protesters, including some militias, might turn against the government.


Most protesters on the Maidan were not armed -- at least, not with guns. Yet self-defense groups did form, comprised of thousands of people and organized into tight units. These groups guarded the perimeter of the Maidan and helped to maintain law and order inside. They also fought state police.

It became clear in March, after President Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia, that some of these militias would maintain their guard of the Maidan. Some were hesitant to disarm in light of Russian maneuvering in the east, while others wanted to keep a watchful eye on the new government. Journalists combing the square encountered weary, camo-clad, baton-wielding men declaring some variation of, "We will stand until the end."

"It's all a symptom of this total lack of trust in the institutions of government that gave rise to the Euromaidan," says Heather McGill, a Ukraine researcher at Amnesty International. "It's a big problem.... Obviously, it's alarming to have people in a semi-military uniform patrolling the streets."

So the government in Kiev began efforts to disarm its citizens. On March 20, the Interior Ministry announced that Ukrainians had until the next day to voluntarily hand in arms to authorities, without risk of punishment. Voluntary surrender, noted Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, would be "a key factor of stabilization." The announcement was supported by, among others, the French ambassador to Ukraine, who reiterated that the disarmament of Maidan militias was an EU priority -- and a precondition for financial aid.

By early April, some 8,000 weapons had reportedly been given up. But Avakov estimates that several thousand are "still in uncontrolled circulation."

Indeed, guns remain cheap and plentiful, easily accessible for militias that still want them. According to Balázs Jarábik, a Ukraine expert at the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program, "You can buy anything in Ukraine for a few thousand dollars ... The price of getting a gun and getting it registered in Ukraine is really not that high." This, Jarábik says, "could turn into a problem, but there is very little we can do about that."

Taking efforts a step further, on April 1, Ukraine's parliament ordered the Interior Ministry and Security Service "to immediately disarm illegal armed groups" around the country. Only those people incorporated into state-run forces may carry arms. President Oleksandr Turchynov declared, "If they do not belong to the army, the National Guard, or the police, they are saboteurs who are working against Ukraine."

The move followed a violent incident in which a member of Right Sector, a far-right militia, shot three people outside a restaurant in Kiev. The Interior Ministry said the reasons for the shootings were unknown. But not long before, on March 25, a Right Sector coordinator had been killed by Ukrainian law enforcement during a security operation. After the restaurant incident, the police moved in to shut down the controversial group's Kiev base.

Right Sector became infamous for lending Euromaidan a touch of strong-armed flavor -- seizing buildings and battling state police -- and now it symbolizes the government's struggle to demobilize Ukrainian citizens. In early March, the group swore that it would remain on the square; it is deeply skeptical of the new administration and wholly dismissive of disarmament efforts. While likely vastly exaggerated by both Russian officials and foreign reporters, the group's influence remains strong.

The government, says Jana Kobzova, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is in a tough bind. On the one hand, it needs to pre-empt Russian state news propaganda, which is eager to portray Ukraine as a nation awash in lawlessness. But at the same time, authorities must not "be seen as acting too aggressively" against former Maidan activists, or they will lose public support.


The existence of unauthorized self-defense units has pre-Maidan roots. Factions formed in the years after World War II: guerrilla bands that fought Soviet forces into the 1950s. What's more, at independence, Ukraine inherited large numbers of Soviet arms, and gathering them has long been a problem.

David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, says Ukraine and the surrounding region provided "a model back in the 1990s, when it came to weapons at a strategic level... nuclear weapons." Ukraine, after all, agreed to give up its nuclear arms in 1994. "But when it comes to disarming individuals," Kramer says, " I'm not aware of very successful campaigns."

Some are now criticizing the Kiev's latest efforts. Amnesty International's McGill believes that the reticence among militias to hand over weapons is rooted partly in the government's failure to prosecute the many police officers who took up arms against Maidan protesters. "They haven't established rule of law," McGill insists. "I have heard demonstrators say... 'I am prepared to answer for the fact that I threw Molotov cocktails at the police. But I want to know that the police... are going to answer for their acts.'"

Yet some strategies are also garnering praise. In mid-March, the government pledged to recruit tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers into the National Guard, and Kobzova says this has already brought many Maidan protesters under the watchful eye of the state. "I think it's really, really good," she stresses. "And I'm aware that a number of NATO members are assisting on this." Carnegie's Jarábik also thinks the National Guard has been useful in "getting these people into a regulated structure" -- though he adds that the guard is not ready for combat. "That would be suicide. They are not prepared for this type of warfare."

Amnesty International's McGill says there has also been "quite a lot of talk in Kiev" about absorbing self-defense units "into some form of community policing." During the Maidan protests, makeshift groups were credited with maintaining a strict (and sober) lawfulness on the square and for showing restraint in the face of police aggression.

Whether that could now work under the guise of the state, however, remains to be seen. But some observers say, for the time being, absorbing the Maidan units, rather than seeking to disarm them outright, might be the apt strategy -- especially given all the troubling news in the east.

"It's difficult because so many people now fear that their security is threatened," rues Kobzova. "Would you hand in your weapons if you lived in a state where you might face a war?"



Back to the Bad Old Days

A diplomatic spat over Iran’s ambassador to the United States has Washington and Tehran at odds again.

TEHRANAfter months of warming relations, the United States and Iran reverted last week to their more familiar role as enemies. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's choice of Hamid Aboutalebi as his new ambassador to the United Nations set off the latest bout of recriminations: Aboutalebi had served as a translator in the 1979 hostage taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, leading American senators to brand him as an "acknowledged terrorist" and causing President Barack Obama's administration to announce that it would deny him a visa to enter the United States in order to take up his post. Iranian lawmakers, meanwhile, accused the United States of "bullying."

The quarrel shows just how wide the gap between the U.S. and Iranian understanding of their shared history remains -- and highlights why rapprochement remains so difficult. Despite the recent talks over Iran's nuclear program, Washington and Tehran continue to hold wildly different views on Iran's place in the world, and the Rouhani administration's mandate to engage with the West is under constant threat of being undermined by the country's hardliners.

The very idea of improving ties with the United States, after all, marks a stark departure from the Islamic Republic's foundational principles. Habib Ahmadzadeh, a former captain in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and author of several novels on the Iran-Iraq War, explained that resistance to Western dominance, rather than Islam, is the core of the ideology that sprung from the revolution.

"Imagine a child who keeps tormenting a kitten," he said, drawing an analogy about America's supposed attempts to push Iran around. "After getting a lot of beatings, the kitten scratches back."

Ahmadzadeh rehearsed a long line of American injustices perpetrated against Iran, starting six decades ago -- when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was the center of the CIA-supported coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. That previous experience, he said, helps explain why Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in 1979.

"What would you think our people would later on say if we allowed the embassy to stay open and then there was another coup?" he says. "After the Snowden leaks we now know that the U.S. spies everywhere. We know that embassies can be centers for listening in on people and they can be centers for creating civil war."

The hostage crisis, in which 52 embassy staff members were held captive for 444 days, was a crucial moment for U.S.-Iranian relations -- and also for shaping the revolution's nascent ideology. The incident remains a pillar in the post-revolutionary psyche: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini intoned that by storming the embassy, the students proved that America couldn't "do a damn thing" against the rise of political Islam. The compound's outside walls, adorned with well-maintained anti-American propaganda, is still one of Tehran's few tourist attractions. Every year, crowds of regime supporters celebrate the anniversary of the takeover with rallies and chants of "Death to America."

For Ahmadzadeh, it's hard to compare the hostage crisis to what he sees as the long list of American misdeeds. In 1988, he reminds me, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iran Air civilian passenger flight over Iranian airspace, killing 290 Iranians.  Meanwhile, the biggest injustice of all, according to him, was America's support for Iraq during its war with Iran. After having stood idly by while Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched chemical weapons at Iranian soldiers, he is incredulous that the United States is now trying to limit Iran's pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy.

"Everybody hypes up the U.S. embassy takeover, but the truth is that all the people who were taken hostage were returned home safely," says Ahmadzadeh. "Which one is worse? That, or 290 dead Iranians?"

While Ahmadzadeh's views are fairly representative for mainstream regime loyalists, he doesn't fit the stereotypical image painted in the West of men in his position. He opposes many of the Islamic Republic's current policies, including religious restrictions on arts and culture, which have been tightened the past few years by what he calls "shallow moralists" who use Islam as a political tool. 

Similarly, the 56-year-old Aboutalebi also escapes typecasting. With a degree in sociology from a Belgian university, the rejected U.N. envoy speaks fluent French and English, and has stellar diplomatic credentials after serving as ambassador to Italy, Australia, Belgium, and the European Union. As a close advisor to Rouhani, he is viewed inside Iran as a moderate and a proponent of closer diplomatic relations with the United States. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, himself widely respected for calming diplomatic waters, has called Aboutalebi "one of our most rational and experienced diplomats."

Aboutalebi's role in the embassy takeover seems to have been marginal. In a March interview with Iranian media, Aboutalebi said he only acted as interpreter a couple of times, "based on humanitarian motivations."

Nor is Aboutalebi the only senior figure in Iran today who was involved in the event. In fact, several students more deeply involved in the crisis have gone on to become prominent reformists in the Rouhani administration.

Take Masoumeh Ebtekar is one of Iran's former vice presidents and the head of its Environmental Protection Organization. In 1979, she acted as spokesperson for the students at the embassy, and became known to Americans as Sister Mary. Today, she is the highest-appointed woman since the Islamic Revolution, often held up by Western media and diplomats as a torchbearer for reform. With impeccable English skills, Ebtekar also regularly meets foreign dignitaries visiting Iran and maintains an English-language Twitter account.

Conservatives see the ban on Aboutalebi as yet another instance of direct American meddling in internal Iranian affairs -- something they warned long ago would be the only result of trying to curry favor with Western powers. And they have used it to stoke skepticism about the Rouhani administration's broader diplomatic aims.

"Resistance and firmness are the only solution with America and the West," read an editorial in Sobh-e Sadegh, a weekly belonging to the IRGC. "Having hope in negotiations and dialogue to resolve bilateral issues is an unrealistic hope."

Until now, Rouhani's opponents have had little to gloat about -- the president, after all, still has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But if speed bumps like this continue to stack up, Khamenei could shift his support.

"The supreme leader has adopted an ambiguous position. He is striking a balance between conservatives and Rouhani's group," said Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran's Allameh Tabatabaei University and a spokesman for the National Front, an opposition party founded by Mossadegh. "But his inclination is much stronger toward conservatives."

Speaking in the living room of his North Tehran apartment, Hermidas-Bavand said that the economic havoc wrought by international sanctions and eight years of mismanagement under Ahmadinejad had left the supreme leader with no choice but to give negotiations a try.

That kind of concern for the general state of the country doesn't necessarily weigh on ordinary lawmakers. Parliament, which is dominated by conservatives and heavily influenced by the IRGC, has already attempted to obstruct the government's policies. In December, dozens of parliamentarians tried to force Zarif's resignation for comments he made about American military supremacy, while Rouhani's pledge to relax control on the Internet and social media has likewise run into fierce opposition. Hardline MPs will likely use any affront from the United States to dig in their heels further.

"They are thinking of factional rather than national benefit," said Hermidas-Bavand. "The parliament wants to curtail Mr. Zarif."

So far, the diplomatic standoff continues: Iran refuses to name a replacement for Aboutalebi, and the United States refuses to let him in the country. While the diplomatic brawl causes headaches in Tehran, it may also prove to be a lost opportunity for Washington.

"[Aboutalebi] is a chief advisor to Rouhani," said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. "It would have been valuable to have him in New York to make sure that messages were conveyed authoritatively."