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Ukraine's president just fired a billionaire politician. Trouble is, he has his own army.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
  1. Early Wednesday morning, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dismissed oligarch Igor Kolomoisky from his position as governor of Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region.
  2. This appears to have been prompted by the oligarch sending armed men to occupy the Kiev offices of state-run oil company UkrTransNafta, in which he is a minority shareholder, in order to protect his financial interests.
  3. Kolomoisky's firing is much more than a local-government personnel decision. These events could set the stage for a clash between Ukrainian state forces and the oligarch's armed militia, which is supposed to be helping them fight the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
  4. The conflict has spawned dozens of private armies like Kolomoisky's that are allied with government forces. But the prospect that such groups could go rogue, and follow their own interests instead, is deeply worrying.

Ukraine does not need a fight between its forces and a private army right now

Kolomoisky funds and directs a large private militia that has been helping the Kiev government fight against the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Long-term, the rise of these private armies could create the conditions for warlordism in Ukraine — for militias turning their pieces of territory into little fiefdoms that they or their wealthy patrons would be free to govern, or exploit, as they wished.

Petroshenko's decision to fire Kolomoisky could be a sign that the central government recognizes the threat that the militias pose to the country, despite the fact that they are helping Kiev's troops fight the rebels.

But the big concern here is that Kolomoisky has both a business empire and a militia — and if he decides to use the latter to protect the former, that's essentially an act of warlordism.

Ukraine's military is already stretched thin due to the war against the separatists. It does not need a fight with Kolomoisky's private army right now.

On Monday, the Financial Times reports, Poroshenko told Ukrainian soldiers in Kiev, "We will not have any governor with their own pocket army." But it may be far too late for that: in June of last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kolomoisky's Dnipro Battalion had 2,000 battle-ready troops armed with heavy weaponry, and another 20,000 in reserve.

Now that there is conflict between Kolomoisky and the Kiev government, the battalion's loyalties may be in doubt. If they side with Kolomoisky, it raises the possibility that he will continue using them to protect his personal interests, even if that means conflict with Ukraine's national forces. A worrying prospect indeed.

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