Russia's remote controlled war in Ukraine.
The majority of this article was written by Pierre Vaux, with significant contributions by James Miller and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.
All translations by Pierre Vaux except those marked with *, which are translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick.
Russia’s military and intelligence sector has been actively involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine for months, as the United States, European Union and indeed Ukrainian authorities have maintained. Yet the evidence that conclusively links the Russian government to direct interference on the other side of the border has been more difficult to amass because Vladimir Putin has opted — at least for now — to conduct a “special war” in his neighbor’s territory, one bearing all the hallmarks of maskirovka. Maskirovka is the principle of camouflage or denial and deception established in Soviet military doctrine. The chief features of maskirovka are the maintenance of plausible deniability, concealment of forces, disinformation, and decoy or dummy structures to confuse opponents’ ability to predict and respond to actions.
The key element in the current Ukraine crisis has been the ability of the Kremlin to maintain plausible deniability in the face of overt aggression, interference and invasion. Without this presentation, the diplomatic and economic links upon which Russia depends for leverage would be vulnerable. This leverage is most important with regards to European states who would be greatly hesitant to sacrifice their business interests and gas supplies.
Those relationships would have been at much greater risk had Russia invaded Ukraine with marked military units. Instead, by invading Crimea with unmarked troops and denying the presence of any Russian military forces until after the event, Vladimir Putin provided the essential space to maintain face. No leaders have been willing to cut their losses unless they absolutely have to. The invasion of Crimea was treated as a future possibility by European and American diplomats long after it was clear, within the first 24 hours of the “little green men” arriving at airports and administrative buildings, that Russia had begun a military invasion of sovereign European territory.
Knowing that an opponent has little or no interest in military action means that an aggressor only has to grant them the ability to save some face. This was tested and proved with tragic consequences in Syria where Putin and Assad allowed the war-weary and disinterested West to back down from military action with the utterly hollow triumph of the agreed removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal (which neither stopped the killing by conventional, or as seen recently with the use of chlorine bombs, chemical means).
Of course, if Western military action was a halfhearted threat against the Assad regime, then the prospect of Western military action against Russia was an absurd joke. Maintaining the bare minimum of deniability by merely removing insignia from uniforms, ordering soldiers not to tell people where they were from (which they sometimes did anyway) and denying everything repeatedly while acting at great speed, Putin was able to carry out a complete occupation and annexation of Crimea while the clunky gears of diplomacy were struggling to produce a coherent, yet appropriately tactful response. Afterwards, seeing as no NATO force was going to launch an assault on Sevastopol to retake it for Ukraine, Putin was comfortable enough to admit there had been Russian troops involved.
The situation in southern and eastern Ukraine is much more complex however and has required a much higher degree of plausible deniability. There are a number of reasons for this: the territory is much larger than that of the Crimean peninsula; the level of support for Russia among the population is not as high; there are no large Russian military bases in the region from which to launch operations and pretend that they are going about their normal work.
Instead of merely masking the identity of troops on the ground, the Kremlin has devolved its operational activities so as to present them as the actions of independent groups, whose interests merely happen to coincide with those of the Russian government. These apparently independent actors work on both a political and an operational level.
Three Russian political figures have been highly visible in connection to the separatist groups. The first two, Aleksandr Barkashov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are leaders of far-right political parties in Russia. The third, Ramzan Kadyrov, is Putin’s brutal puppet dictator ruling over the now-repressed would-be breakaway state of Chechnya.
Zhirinovsky’s inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), a racist far-right group who play the role of a tame opposition in the State Duma, have been visible in the Ukraine crisis from early on. It was a deputy from his party, Leonid Slutsky, who acts as the chairman of the ‘State Duma Committee on CIS Affairs, links with compatriots, and Eurasian integration’, who warned:
“I think that in the event of any provocations against the residents of the east and southeast of Ukraine and the Crimean Republic we will take appropriate measures.”
Warnings of ‘provocations’ and threats
This talk of “provocations” has been a regular theme in the warnings and threats of Putin’s peripheral mouthpieces. In an al Jazeera interview in early February, Sergey Markov, co-chairman of the National Strategic Council of Russia, and a former adviser to Vladimir Putin, warned viewers of upcoming “provocations” in Ukraine during the Sochi Olympics:
“My major concern about security in Sochi… is some possibility that somebody wants to organise a bloodshed or provocation in Ukraine.”
He then claimed that the 2008 war with Georgia was the result of someone “organising bloodshed” between Georgian troops and “Russian peacekeepers” along the border. While in previous statements, he has claimed the shadowy figure behind this action was Dick Cheney, he did not mention him this time in connection with either South Ossetia or Ukraine.
“I think that now there is a big danger that the same could be organised some bloodshed on the Ukrainian streets for the same reasons… It’s my real concern, and I want to ask Western politicians if they know that such bloodshed or provocation, is now in the process of appearing on the Ukrainian streets, on the metro, on the buses, it’s a most dangerous situation.”
The Kremlin has been suspected by many in Ukraine of organising such ‘provocations’ itself. During the Maidan protests there were suggestions from within and without Ukraine that it was in fact Russian security forces behind the abductions, torture and murders of opposition activists. There were also fears of violent provocations to discredit the opposition by pro-government titushki or the mysterious ‘Narnia’ activists who appeared with body armour, attacked police and occupied and ransacked the Kiev city hall after Svoboda and other activists abandoned the building.
As far back as the 2004 presidential elections, there were claims that the Kremlin was using neo-Nazi provocateurs to discredit the Ukrainian opposition. Anton Shekhovstov, an expert on Eastern Europe’s far right movements, wrote an excellent blog post detailing Russian efforts to brand the Ukrainian opposition as neo-nazis. In it, he discussed a march held by the fascist Ukrainian National Assembly in support of Viktor Yuschenko’s presidential bid in 2004:
“According to Andriy Shkil, then the leader of the UNA-UNSO, the whole event was staged by Viktor Medvedchuk, then the Head of the Presidential Administration (under President Leonid Kuchma), who was later involved in the electoral fraud in favour of pro-Russian Yanukovych which triggered the “Orange revolution”. Medvedchuk was (and still is) also known for his close personal relations with Vladimir Putin who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.”
Sticking to the Kremlin line, in early February, Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Putin, who deals with Ukrainian relations, threatened Russian action in response to perceived Western interference, citing the obligations of both Russia and the United States under the 1994 Budapest memorandum to maintain Ukraine’s sovereignty:
“And what the Americans are getting up to now, unilaterally and crudely interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, is a clear breach of that treaty. The agreement is for collective guarantees and collective action.”
In the same interview with Kommersant-Ukraine, he alleged that the USA was providing money and arms to “rebels.”
Looking back, four months later, these claims that the US would organise and arm rebels in Ukraine are a blatant attempt at a smoke screen as Russia prepared to carry out these very actions itself. But even earlier, in September 2013, Glazyev made Russia’s intentions, in the event of a Ukrainian schism with Russia, very clear. Glazyev warned that, if Ukraine moved towards the EU and the Russian speaking population resisted such a move, then Russia would be “legally entitled to support them”.
The far-right support for the separatists
Vladimir Zhirinovsky himself was in Simferopol during the Russian takeover of Crimea. During the south-eastern crisis he carried out a publicity event on the 6th of May in which he announced he was sending a Tigr armoured 4×4 with the initials of his party emblazoned on it to the separatists in Lugansk. Dressed in military uniform, he also pledged to give a free Volga car to any “soldier, officer or citizen who is the first to break through to Kiev at some stage and plant a Russian flag on the Verkhovna Rada.”*
More recently the flag of his LDPR party was filmed flying above a separatist training camp by the BBC. In the video report, Adam Kenyon noted that the leader of this militia, Alexei Moskoy, had recently returned from “meetings with officials in Moscow.”
Last week, Zhirinovsky was seen welcoming the self-proclaimed ‘chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Donetsk People’s Republic’ Denis Pushilin at his office in Moscow.
Yes. Denis Pushilin is in Moscow. pic.twitter.com/n5aaMqxsY2
— Daniel Sandford (@BBCDanielS) June 11, 2014
Another member of Russia’s extreme right, Aleksandr Barkashov, the leader of the neo-nazi Russian National Unity movement, has been linked with separatist activity.
The separatist ‘people’s governor’ of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev, was a member of Barkashov’s movement and has been photographed and filmed at Russian National Unity meetings in both Belarus and Russia.
On the 7th of May, a day after Zhirinovsky’s publicity stunt, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) released the audio of what they said was an intercepted phone call between Barkashov in Moscow and Dmytro Boitsov, whom they described as one of the “leaders of the unregistered Orthodox Donbass organisation” in Donetsk.
During the call, Barkashov appeared to give instructions to Boitsov on faking the referendum, which the separatist was worried about:
Boitsov: The troops are landing… Donetsk won’t stand up…
If we don’t get support, if Russia does not bring its troops, we will be fucked up. I am canceling the referendum set for the 11th, because it can’t be held. We can’t conduct it lawfully as long as these cocksuckers are here.
Barkashov: Dima, Dima Dima, there is no way that you cancel it. It will mean that you got scared…
Boitsov: No, we are not scared at all. We simply can’t hold it, we’re not ready.
Barkashov: Dima, just flog whatever you want. Write something like 99% down… Are you going to walk around and collect papers? Are you fucking insane? Forget it, fuck them all…
Boitsov: Got it.
Barkashov: Write that 99%… well, not 99%… let’s say 89% voted for the Donetsk Republic. And that’s it, fucking shit.
Zhirinovsky also comes up in the conversation, as Barkashov expresses frustration with perceived inaction from the Kremlin:
Barkashov: I was the first to write to the president, then Zhirik [Zhirinovsky], Zyuganov[leader of the Russian Communist Party]… In the end everyone spoke on TV, even Kadyrov by the evening…
Boitsov: Everybody will turn their backs on him – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus – if he does not help.
Barkashov: What the fuck is our damn tricky president waiting for? I have no fucking idea… People are already writing and they are very indignant. They come down on him but that’s what I can’t do… I’m just not in a position to call him names and come down on him.You understand?
Boitsov: Of course, it’s certainly a mess.
This intercept should be treated with caution. It is possible that Barkashov’s distance from, and frustration with the Kremlin is genuine. He is far more of a political outsider than Zhirinovsky, with whom Putin has been happy to appear, and whose nationalist ideas the president has sometimes publicly supported. But it is also possible that this information has been deliberately leaked to the SBU, or, even more worryingly, that some in the SBU are working to aid Russian disinformation. Stanislav Rechinsky, the former head of the SBU’s public affairs department, said in January that:
“More than one source has already said that there are FSB ‘specialists’ sitting in SBU offices.”
It seems unlikely that the FSB would have lost all influence over the SBU in the time since Yanukovych’s fall. In April Vitaliy Naida, a senior official in the SBU’s counter-intelligence department, suggested that an extensive network of Russian agents had been behind the entrapment of an SBU team in Semyonovka, near Slavyansk.
Separatists in Ukraine have also received enthusiastic support and advice from the Russian nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, the chief proponent of ‘Eurasianism’ and a frequent adviser to Putin. On April 9 Dugin posted this message on his Facebook page:
“We view these actions as a military annexation against the people of the Donetsk People’s Republic and call on all our supporters and militia to come to the assembly place at the National Council building for a general mobilization and readiness to defend our positions. EVERYONE TO THE NATIONAL COUNCIL BUILDING! EVERYONE TO THE DEFENSE OF THE DONETSK NATIONAL REPUBLIC!”*
Dugin also reportedly provided advice by telephone to Gubarev’s wife, Yekaterina, while the ‘people’s governor’ was under arrest.
It would be greatly advantageous to the Kremlin for the Russian backing for the separatists to be seen as coming not from the top, but from fringe neo-Nazis or romantic nationalists. These groups would be acting entirely on their own accord, leaving Putin’s hands clean.
Of course, the Kremlin does not have to invent such groups itself. There are clearly those among the separatists and the Russian far-right who have been hoping for such an opportunity to engage in patriotic warfare for a long time. The government can maintain a near hands-off approach in some cases. Money certainly does not only emanate from the Kremlin alone. Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian billionaire who previously headed Marshal Capital, has been linked directly to separatist activity in both Crimea and the Donbass.
Aleksandr Boroday, the self-declared ‘prime minister’ of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, worked as a ‘consultant’ for Marshal under Malofeyev. The Russian journalist Oleg Kashin points out that Malofeyev is also recorded as having given $1 million to the separatist ‘people’s mayor’ of Sevastopol, Andrei Chaliy. Boroday, a Russian citizen, was an editor for the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) in the 90s and continues to write for them. He also co-founded the Den (Day) television channel in 2011 with the neo-Stalinist anti-Semite Aleksandr Prokhanov. For people like Boroday, the motivation to take part in the campaign in south-eastern Ukraine is clear. They have long anticipated the nationalist moment that Putin has propagated. It has been easy for the Kremlin to claim clean hands while such figures are present and willing to jump into the fray themselves. Boroday has also been linked by telephone intercepts with Igor Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin.
Strelkov is one of the two most infamous separatist leaders, along with Igor Bezler, also known as Bes (“daemon”). Both of them have been identified by the SBU as GRU (Russian military intelligence) officers, but have been the subject of repeated counterclaims and leaks which present them as former, or reserve officers who are acting independently.
Bezler, who most recently appeared in a video conducting an apparent (and quite possibly fake) execution, introduced himself, addressing police in Gorlovka, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian Army. He was subsequently identified by regional media as either a local crime boss, (who ran a dodgy funeral company) or a former Spetsnaz officer turned private security manager. On the 16th of April, Odessa politician Oleksey Goncharenko wrote in more detail about Bezler on his blog. According to him Bezler was a former officer who had served in both Afghanistan and Chechnya. He also said that Bezler had worked at a funeral company, and with a veteran paratrooper organisation. Two days later the SBU issued a wanted notice for Bezler describing him as a GRU agent.
Similarly, Strelkov, perhaps the best known of the separatist leaders, has been the subject of what may be extensive disinformation. Since his identification by the SBU as a GRU officer, he has been portrayed as a somewhat eccentric former officer who spends his days in military reenactments and dreams of the restoration of the monarchy. A purported dump of his emails was suspiciously leaked by a newly emergent Russian hacker group.
One of the conversations in the dump appears to be between Strelkov and Olga Kulygina, a Russian journalist, with whom he appears to have regular correspondence and vets a potential “volunteer” to work with her friend ‘Marat’, presumably Marat Musin, as a bodyguard or such in Syria. This and other conversations give the impression that Strelkov has had experience in the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia. These emails may well, however be heavily edited or carefully selected to present a certain impression. In an email to Strelkov dated the 24th of February 2013, Kulygina asks him: “How’s the service?” We presume this refers to his role in the security services. Strelkov replies “I’m quitting”.
“Yes, everything, debrief/report written down. Already sorted out a new job (on probation).”
While the leaked emails leave open the possibility that the new, probational job could be anything, including other work for the state, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest GRU activity. Leaving a heavy hint, but stopping short of providing any proof aids in maintaining the front of plausible deniability for the Kremlin. By dumping enough material in public to appear exhaustive (there are over 3gb of emails in the leak), the security services would be able to give the impression of a revelation of transparency while masking their real actions.
There have been other reported arrests by the SBU of apparent Russian agents. On the 5th of April, the SBU announced that they had detained a Russian citizen, Roman Sergeyevich Bannykh, crossing the border in the Lugansk region:
Bannykh, born 1985, is registered in unit no. 13204 which is part of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces), and directly organized and coordinated the work of a sabotage group from Russian territory which operated in Ukraine. The purpose of these deeply clandestine groups was to overthrow the constitution order and seize power, commit terrorist acts, incite separatism and destabilize the situation in the eastern regions of our country.
On the 9th, the SBU announced the detention of Maria Koleda, a young Russian woman who they claimed had been coordinating and taking part in separatist operations in Mykolaiv, Kherson and Donetsk. Koleda is reportedly a member of the pro-Kremlin Rossiya Molodaya (Young Russia) movement, describes herself as a ‘revolutionary’ on her VKontakte page and has a number of photos of herself posing with weapons online. Koleda does not however appear to be a member of the Russian security services: the SBU reported that a ‘traumatic pistol’ adapted to fire live ammunition and “guidelines for preparing diversionary groups” were found on her during the arrest. The extensive online presence also suggests that she is not an intelligence operative. The arrest may however suggest that the Russian security services are recruiting enthusiastic volunteers to do their work for them, waging their campaign through proxies.
Later that month, the head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, told a closed session of the Verkhovna Rada that the security service has so far arrested more than 20 Russian agents in eastern Ukraine. Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine also confirmed the detention of between 23 and 25 GRU officers to Ukrainian media. However, despite such announcements, the SBU has yet to come forth with any demonstrable proof.
Another key Russian political figure who appears to be being used by the Kremlin as a proxy for more overt aggression towards Ukraine is Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen dictator has threatened to send ‘volunteers’ and even to go himself to south-eastern Ukraine to fight government forces, while regularly denying the presence of Chechen fighters there despite claims to the contrary.
Towards the end of May, a new separatist military force appeared, mounting major attacks and inflicting heavy losses on Ukrainian forces. The name of the separatist battalion – Vostok (East) – was shared by an infamous Russian GRU- controlled Spetsnaz battalion largely manned by Chechens who fought in the wars of the Caucasus and South Ossetia. The battalion was disbanded in 2008 following tensions between their leader Sulim Yamadayev and Kadyrov including an armed shoot-out in June that year.
Men from the unit were filmed in Donetsk telling journalists that they were kadyrovtsy (supporters of Kadyrov) from Chechnya. Further evidence came from local reports in Chechnya of the return of fighters’ bodies from Ukraine. The regional news site Caucasian Knot reported that they had been told of tens of bodies arriving in recent days. One resident told them:
“When they say that there are no Chechens there, it’s a bare-faced lie. Over the last two weeks former soldiers from the Zapad and Vostok Spetsnaz battalions, which came under GRU command, have been sent there. There are also some sorts of volunteers from other organizations. No one talks about the losses suffered there, but I know that among the dead there is a resident of our district, from the village of Germenchuk, who was brought home yesterday from Donetsk. There are also dead from Urus-Martan, Gudermes and other places.”
A former member of the separatist Chechen government, speaking anonymously, told their reporter that:
“The practice of using Chechens and other peoples from the North Caucasus, to deal with one conflict or another that affected the interests of Russia, has been in use since the early 90s. Suffice it to recall the events in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, where Chechen field commanders who would later become well-known fought such as Umalt Dashayev, Shamil Basayev, Ruslan Gelayev and others.”
Employing a publicly outspoken, geographically and politically distanced figure like Kadyrov would also have benefits for the Kremlin in terms of maintaining plausible deniability – either the Vostok forces are volunteers, or they are kadyrovtsy, but not under direct control of Moscow (the illusion of autonomy for Kadyrov is a useful prop for Putin).
But Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, is convinced that Vostok are under direct Russian control. Speaking to Business Insider:
“This is a specifically Russian military intelligence operation,” says Galeotti. “They stood this force up and its role is to try and reassert some degree of control over the situation. Moscow is beginning to become alarmed how Eastern Ukraine was spinning into chaos and warlordism.”
Vostok is one of Moscow’s instruments in achieving this victor’s peace. Their role is “essentially political,” Galeotti says: Vostok is Putin’s way of controlling other, less disciplined pro-Russian militants.
There appears to have been an attempt to manipulate one of the most striking pieces of evidence in this story, the return of bodies to the Russian Federation. Around the same time as Caucasian Knot were reporting on the return of coffins to Chechnya, Aleksandr Boroday suddenly offered journalists from the Ekho Moskvy radio station the opportunity to document the journey of a truck carrying bodies from Donetsk to Russia. Here is an excerpt from their report:
“Toward the end of the day, we were meeting our colleagues in the cafe of the hotel for dinner, when a man from Aleksandr Boroday’s entourage approached us. Boroday is the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
He said that on the following day, a convoy of two trucks with the bodies would leave from Donetsk for Russia and asked journalists for a favor: to accompany them to the border. He promised to inform us in half an hour where they would be brought and who would accompany the ‘cargo’ and asked us to give him an answer as to whether we consented to go. We were stunned by what we heard.
It was the first admission that in the battles in Donbass, Russian citizens were dying.” *
The journalists were allowed to follow the journey of a truck, marked “Cargo 200” (Soviet-era code for military fatalities), on its journey to Russia. The invitation is suspicious. Having made efforts to refute claims of Russian involvement, Boroday, who had admitted shortly beforehand that Chechen fighters were present in Donetsk, had offered journalists what appeared to be transparency with regards to the origin of his fighters. The journalists were shown only one of the 31 names of the deceased on certificates, and managed to find out a few others. One of these men, Sergei Zhdanovich, was mentioned in the Ekho Moskvy report as being described on VKontakte pages as a member of the FSB. The pages cited did not contain any mention of this link and there does not appear to be any evidence to support this claim. The report was subsequently challenged by Novaya Gazeta for this apparent inaccuracy. The origin of the claim is unknown, but it would be surprising for Ekho Moskvy, a highly respectable outlet to scurrilously invent such a critical detail.
The surprise invitation and subsequent Zhdanovich debacle suggest a deliberate attempt by Russian security services to make the best of a bad situation. The number of casualties following the Ukrainian assault on the separatists at Donetsk airport had made it untenable to deny the origin of many of the fighters. However, by appearing to offer transparency on the issue while managing the information provided to journalists and, perhaps deliberately misleading them into making themselves appear unreliable, the organisers of the Cargo 200 trip were able to take control of the situation and turn it to their advantage.
The inevitable problem of trying to pin down specific evidence of Russian involvement is that Russia’s highly competent intelligence services are unlikely to leave overt traces. Instead we must work with heavy circumstantial evidence. There is overwhelming evidence that Russia is colluding with and encouraging the separatists with large quantities of high tech weaponry and personnel crossing the border on an almost daily basis. Unless Russia’s Federal Border Service (now a division of the FSB) is completely unfit for service, and local police and security services are unable to detect large convoys of non-state fighters in military vehicles within a heavily populated and militarized area like the south-western borders with Ukraine, then it is impossible that the state is not involved.
The most recent incident that points to direct Russian intervention, as opposed to funding or logistical support, was the appearance of three T-64BV tanks in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snezhnoye on Thursday the 12th of June. NATO has published a report which makes a strong case in suggesting that these tanks were Russian vehicles brought out of storage and transported into Ukraine. An interesting aspect of this story is that politikus.ru, a pro-Kremlin Russian news site, which has spread disinformation in the past, published a story on the 9th of June, three days ahead of the appearance of the tanks on Snezhnoye, describing the capture of three Ukrainian T-64s by separatist fighters.
The claim sticks out for a number of reasons. Firstly, the report provides no sources, instead opaquely citing “reports from social networks”. Secondly, no other media outlet, Russian or Ukrainian, picked up on this report. Such news would be expected to be of major significance as the separatists have so far lacked any heavy armour. The Ukrainian military has issued no report of such a loss either. Thirdly, there has been no other evidence of this seizure online. Usually separatist fighters upload video and photos of their conquests, regularly parading captured armoured personnel carriers. These vehicles are sighted and reported by locals and journalists too. In the intervening three days, there was nothing to suggest this report was real. Instead, it appears as if the report was inserted into the media by Russian agents ahead of a planned operation to send three tanks of that model into Ukrainian territory. The vehicles were chosen as they are widely used by the Ukrainian military but are out of service in Russia itself. However, a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, published last year, said that Russia had a large number of these tanks in storage as reserves. The vehicles visible in the video from Snezhnoye are noticeably without markings or the camouflage pattern usually seen on Ukrainian army armour. Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, has publicly speculated that the tanks were selected so as to manipulate public opinion.
The intersection of covert warfare and overt intimidation
In the initial weeks of the separatist movement in the east, Ukraine’s military was hesitant to directly intervene out of concern of making the situation more tense. However, by late April the separatists controlled large parts of the east, and Ukraine’s military launched its anti-terror operation (ATO). On April 23rd and 24th, the Ukrainian military was in a position to recapture Slavyansk, the headquarters for the insurgents. However, that day videos and eyewitness reports confirmed that convoys of Russian tanks, troops, and equipment were racing toward the border. In light of this threat, Ukraine announced that it was halting its ATO out of concern that Russia would directly intercede. As such, the overt threat of Russian force allowed the covert Russian-backed insurgency to grow in strength to the point where by late May the separatists were so well armed and equipped that they were winning new military victories against the Ukrainian security forces. With the threat of the defeat of the insurgency defused, Russia made new pledges to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s borders.
In the last several weeks the media has focused on Russians signs that it was deescalating the conflict by withdrawing its troops and recognizing Ukraine’s presidential election. While Russia made the pledge to withdraw a total of three times, only days (and really more than a week) after the third pledge did NATO notice any substantial troop movement away from Ukraine’s borders. This, combined with the fact that Russia has recognized the election of Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko, had given the media the impression that Russia is interested in closing this crisis and move on. Russia, according to this narrative, is no longer moving forward with plans to invade Ukraine.
But while Russia was making these overtures, the situation in eastern Ukraine was actually dramatically decaying. In late May, after resisting several waves of Ukraine’s military operation to retake territory held by the armed separatists, Russian-backed gunmen stormed the Donetsk airport, briefly taking the facility before Ukraine recaptured it (with the assistance of airstrikes from helicopters and fighter jets). All estimates suggest that at least 50 separatists were killed in those attacks. But as was discussed earlier, in the days that followed, between 31 and 33 bodies were shipped back to Russia. That could mean that the majority of the dead separatists were Russian citizens.
Following this incident, the Vostok battalion established military control of the separatist leadership and began to attack Ukrainian National Guard bases and border outposts. Those attacks secured a significant amount of firepower for the insurgents, further reinforcing the probable deniability that the militants were not armed by the Kremlin but through captured stores of Ukrainian arms. But these victories have also allowed the separatists to move fighters, arms, trucks and armored vehicles, and possibly even tanks across the border to militarily sure up the pro-Russian insurgency.
Between June 14th and 16th, however, the Ukrainian military stepped up its anti-terror operations. By the morning of June 16th, a much more robust military response to separatist gains had recaptured Mariupol and was poised to recapture Lugansk and secure the border, thus shutting the separatists off from Russia. In response to this new threat to the insurgency, videos and eyewitness reports back up claims from the Ukrainian government that convoys of Russian troops are once again racing toward the Ukrainian border. After weeks of supposed deescalation, the moment the insurgency is threatened in eastern Ukraine the Kremlin has reacted with an overt threat, an attempt to intimidate Ukraine into halting its success for fear of triggering a Russian military response that would guarantee defeat.
Heavily armed gunmen, many of them Russian citizens, fighting in coordinated attacks, operating with military efficiency, striking targets which suggest the possession of military-grade intelligence, all serve as compelling-but-circumstantial evidence that the separatist insurgents are directly supported by the Russian military intelligence apparatus. But the methodical intersection of the Russian government’s diplomatic, propagandistic, and military actions with the military and political realities on the ground in eastern Ukraine prove that at the very least Russia’s military intelligence complex is coordinating its efforts with the pro-Kremlin separatists in order to destabilize eastern Ukraine and increase Russia’s control over post-Yanukovych Ukraine.
The problem that Ukraine and the West face is that Putin is able to preserve face and thus his economic and political influence as long as he can deny direct state control. By utilizing proxy groups and spreading disinformation as long as possible, the Kremlin is buying itself time to destabilize the situation until Ukrainian control in the Donbass is no longer tenable. Knowing full well that European states will hold out until the last before sacrificing their economic interests (exemplified by France’s continued export of Mistral assault ships and the UK’s hesitancy to risk economic relations), Putin can act as long as that thinnest sliver of doubt remains as to whether the Russian state is in full control of the operation.