Early in the morning on the 7th of August, Russian border guards closed all the security checkpoints on the border between Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014, and the rest of Ukraine. Witnesses reported the sounds of shots fired near the administrative border. The Russians re-opened the security checkpoints later but offered no official explanation as to the reasons of their closure in the first place. Some Russian media and bloggers claimed that there had been a fire-fight between Ukrainian “intruders” and Russian personnel; the alleged fire-fight had ended with one Russian killed and three wounded.
Since the closure of the border on the 7th of August, witnesses reported an increased military presence in Crimean towns and villages, while checkpoints were set up along major Crimean roads. It looked like the Russian servicemen were looking for someone.
On the 10th of August, Russia’s Federal Security Service (or FSB) issued a statement directly accusing Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) of attempting a series of terrorist attacks in Crimea. The FSB claimed that, on the night of the 6/7th of August, they had detected a subversive Ukrainian group and, while trying to detain it, the FSB lost one officer killed. On the site of the alleged fight, as the FSB stated, they found explosives and weapons used by the Ukrainian army. The Russian security services also claimed to have disclosed and “liquidated an agent network of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine’s Armed Forces”, and detained several Ukrainian and Russian citizens who had been engaged in planning terrorist attacks in Crimea. Moreover, the FSB declared that Ukrainian subversive groups had attempted to enter Crimea twice on the night of the 7/8th of August covered by fire from the Ukrainian side, and one Russian serviceman had been killed.
This grave accusation was amplified by Vladimir Putin’s statement on the 10th of August that Ukrainian authorities resorted to terrorism, that there was no sense in discussing the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in a Normandy format (Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia), and that Russia would not ignore the alleged terrorist attacks. On the 11th of August, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement summing up the claims made by the FSB and reiterating Putin’s arguments. Russia’s MFA also warned Ukraine and “its foreign supervisors”, i.e. Western countries, that “the damage to the Russian side” and “the deaths of Russian servicemen” would have consequences.
The Ukrainian authorities dismissed all the accusations and referred to the statements made by the FSB and Putin as provocations. The situation, however, is very serious, and many fear that the Russians may use the alleged incidents as a casus belli and start an open, non-hybrid war against Ukraine. Some experts even started to refer to the “Gleiwitz incident” that was an operation carried out in 1939 by the Nazis posing as Poles who attacked a German radio station in Gleiwitz and used this “incident” as a justification of the invasion of Poland.
While it would be perhaps counterproductive to try to predict the future developments, it seems important to consider the background of the “Crimea situation” and discuss its possible meaning.
The alleged incidents in Crimea took place against the background of a massive military build-up of the Russian troops along the border with Eastern Ukraine, parts of which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces. With the increased fighting across the line of demarcation between the Ukrainian territories controlled by the Ukrainian authorities and those uncontrolled by them, the Minsk-2 agreement that aimed to halt the war is destined to fail. As the Western sanctions against Russia are linked to the implementation of the Minsk-2 agreement, they cannot be lifted in any foreseeable future, and Moscow knows it. But the Russians also know that disagreements exist among Western leaders as to the efficiency of the sanctions, and Moscow seems to believe that the West will not impose heavier sanctions if Russia becomes even more aggressive against Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO and, thus, is not protected by its collective defence principle. Western countries rejected all requests from the Ukrainian authorities to provide them with advanced lethal weapons to enhance defence. While the West has helped Ukraine enormously during the last two years in other areas, Ukraine – in military terms – is essentially on its own against the Russian aggression. Under these circumstances, is Ukraine interested in aggravating an already complicated situation by sending alleged terrorists to Russia-annexed Crimea? Highly unlikely.
The “Crimea situation” may indeed become a new “Gleiwitz incident”, but it may also be something else. One possible explanation is that the “Crimea situation” is a psychological operation (or psyop) devised by the Russian security services to put increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and Western countries that imposed sanctions against Russia.
The history of Soviet counterintelligence operations may provide useful insights as to what happened in Crimea, who the detained Ukrainian and Russian citizens are, and why the FSB could have carried out a psyop. In the beginning of the 1920s, the Soviet counterintelligence services conducted a so-called “operative game” called “Operation Trust” that involved running a fake anti-communist and monarchist organisation in order to lure real anti-communists and monarchists into this organisation and then arrest them. The Operation Trust that ended in the mid-1920s was very successful and helped the Soviets to undermine the anti-communist resistance network in the Soviet Union and abroad.
It may be the case that, with the “Crimea situation”, the FSB built on the success of Operation Trust and many other similar Soviet “operative games” in order to uncover a possible pro-Ukrainian resistance underground in Crimea. If the FSB indeed followed the Soviet counterintelligence playbook, they could have done the following.
The FSB sets up a fake pro-Ukrainian covert organisation in Crimea and finds real local allies for the cause. This organisation then contacts Ukrainian patriots outside Crimea telling them that the organisation is prepared to act to either return Crimea to Ukraine or subvert the Russian occupation forces in Crimea. Russian agents in Ukraine posing as representatives of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s MoD contact those Ukrainian patriots too and assure them that they have support from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Then the FSB provides a fake pro-Ukrainian organisation with explosives and weapons, and invite Ukrainian patriots to go to Crimea to carry out subversive actions.
The value of such a simple “operative game” is high for the FSB. On the one hand, this operation helps uncover potential pro-Ukrainian activists prepared to take action against the Russian forces in annexed Crimea. On the other hand, the FSB detains real Ukrainian patriots who might have entered Crimea to carry out subversive actions and who thought that they were secretly supported by Ukraine’s MoD – something that they would tell during the interrogation, especially under torture. This provides the FSB and Russian officials with an opportunity to accuse Ukraine of supporting and directing would-be terrorists.
Naturally, we still do not know many details about the “Crimea situation” and can only speculate how Russia will use it. What we know for sure is that Moscow is definitely raising the stakes in its aggression against Ukraine by accusing it of attempting terrorist attacks and claiming that peaceful negotiations do not make sense.