CASE STUDY: UKRAINE – The Prize/the Price of the Great Game

Author : Admin | Saturday, August 2, 2014
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For many analysts, geopolitics offers a useful framework to assess current events and evolutions in and around Ukraine, especially the movements of the power actors which have historically decided about its fate. The new feature that adds to Ukraine’s specific geopolitical position is independence, because Ukraine is an independent and sovereign state, already for more than two decades, the longest period of Ukrainian independence in centuries.

According to Western analysts, the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating after the break that followed Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration as president. On June 14, pro-Russian fighters shot down a Ukrainian military transport jet as it was trying to land at Luhansk airport in Eastern Ukraine. NATO provided satellite imagery showing Russian tanks and heavy artillery crossing the border into Ukraine. The deliveries, shown in three sets of images dated May 30, June 6, and June 11, also included rocket launchers, according to the U.S. State Department. The attempts by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and François Hollande, the French president, who asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to control better Russia’s borders with Ukraine and stop Russia’s support for militia groups in Eastern Ukraine, have failed.

The cease-fire announced by Petro Poroshenko was affected by the shooting down of a Ukrainian military helicopter by pro-Moscow separatists, only one day after the rebels vowed to respect the cease-fire. Poroshenko said in a statement that the insurgents had fired on Ukrainian positions 35 times since the cease-fire was announced, and he instructed Ukrainian soldiers to fire back “without hesitation” if attacked. On his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukrainian forces for breaking the cease-fire by launching an airborne raid in Slovyansk. During his 24 June trip to Vienna, Putin employed a combination of pressure and goodwill intended to protect Moscow’s interests without triggering heavier Western sanctions. He asked Russian parliament to cancel a March 1 resolution sanctioning the use of military force in Ukraine and said that he took the step to “help create conditions for the peace process”, but added that Russia will continue to protect the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine.

In geopolitical terms, Ukraine may be considered as a part of the Rimland the control of which is important for the West (led by the “sea powers”) but most of all for the “land power” Russia. The specific feature of these days is given by the fact that, while independent Ukraine should be in a position to opt for the foreign entity it should be aligned with, in fact the result of the competition for its control will decide its course. As pointed by Stratfor analyst George Friedman in 2010, “geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians”.

Such limitations are to be seen in the current evolution in Ukraine, where the current instability was generated by Kiev’s moves – allegedly inspired by the West – to join the European Union and, in future, even NATO.

In April, Ukraine signed the political part of the agreement with the EU, which makes up about 2% of the document, and on June 27 the bulk of the agreement, that is the so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). According to Russian analysts, the agreement deals with the creation of a free trade zone between the EU and Ukraine, in fact the opening up of the Ukrainian market to European goods, since Ukrainian industrial commodities cannot compete on European markets.

Russian analysts see the crisis in Ukraine as part of a bigger geopolitical game, in which the United States is aiming to drag the country into NATO. The NATO membership is agreed by current president Petro Poroshenko, who, in 2009 when he was Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister, claimed that the time for Ukraine joining NATO depended only on Ukraine and could take 1-2 years. Former president Viktor Yushchenko also tried to have Kiev join the NATO in 2008.

Poroshenko hopes that during the next NATO summit (4-5 September), Kiev will be offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a plan of action in order to access the Alliance.  Ukraine can be a MAP member for years and both NATO and the U.S. hope that MAP for Ukraine would not irritate Moscow. However, Russian analysts point out that NATO membership is not a goal in itself. The main task is to tear Ukraine from Russia and at the same time put a wedge between Russia and Europe. According to them, the regime in Kiev has received the task of starting active warfare against Russia and Ukraine is being actively turned into some semblance of the “fourth Reich”, which sooner or later will be pulled into NATO and “will be used as a ram to hit Russia”. On the other hand, according to estimates made by Ukrainian experts and quoted by Russian commentators, joining the NATO would break the economic ties with Russia and completely ruin the entire defense industry in the country, with an annual economic damage estimated at 5-7 billion USDollars.

For Russia, Ukraine is a matter of fundamental national security since, if dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s southern flank is open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov.

Moreover, Ukraine controls Russia’s access to the Black Sea and therefore to the Mediterranean. It is also the main route for sending energy to Europe, a commercial and a strategic requirement for Russia, since energy has become a primary lever for influencing and controlling other countries.

Even if for the West and the sea powers, Ukraine is of value only if they are planning to engage and defeat Russia – as the Germans tried to do in World War II –and currently, no Western power is seeking to challenge Russia militarily, from the Russian point of view it is a possibility always to be taken into account.

From the perspective of Europe, and particularly from the perspectives of former Soviet satellites, a Ukraine dominated by Russia would represent a potential threat from southern Poland to Romania. These countries already depend, in various degrees, on Russian energy, being fully aware that the Russians may eventually use that dependence as a lever to gain control over them. Russia’s ability not simply to project military power but also to cause unrest at their borders or use commercial initiatives to undermine autonomy is a real fear.

From the U.S.-led West’s point of view, the policy toward the post-Soviet and post communist Eastern Europe has been framed by the goal of strengthening the post-Communist states’ sovereignty and independence. Although the West has denied that such a policy was “anti-Russia”, its policies have, when possible, promoted the integration of these states into Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. In Baltic and other Eastern European states in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this policy worked, largely because these states were substantially pro-Western and did not have internal breakaway territories (equally significantly, Russia was not the global or even regional power in the 1990s that it is today).

But the very success in these states promoted flawed judgments when it came to the Caucasus and Ukraine. The “sovereignty and independence” framework and especially promoting their integration into Western institutions and international norms triggered Moscow’s aggressive and disruptive attitude in exploiting regional and ethnic minorities to dismember both Georgia and Ukraine, turning portions of both countries into Russian dependencies. The Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine (like the earlier one on Georgia) aims to prevent the country permanently from joining Europe, by acting to destabilize Ukraine’s Western-oriented government and to break up the country’s territory.

The Kremlin is implementing a region-wide strategy, focusing on Ukraine at the present stage, but also targeting Moldova, where Russia pursues similar political objectives. It aims to derail Moldova’s association agreement with the European Union, influence the upcoming parliamentary elections, and change the composition of Moldova’s pro-Europe government. If successful in Ukraine, Russia will be able to focus its efforts on Moldova sooner and more effectively.


A history “at the border”


Ukraine takes its name from the Russian expression “at the border” since its territory, often divided, is situated between other states that, during history, fought for it and incorporated it.

The Ukrainian state was founded, in fact, by Northern Europe’s Vikings (the Varangians, which also founded Kiev), and one legend says that they were even invited by the local tribes to rule them. The “Kievan Rus” of the 11th century was the precursor of modern Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The Kievan Rus disintegrated in the 12th century. By the middle of the 14th century, the Ukrainian territories were under the rule of three external powers: the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Kingdom of Poland, during the 15th century these lands came under the rule of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (since 1569), and the Crimean Khanate. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary.

In the 20th century, a period of instability ensued after the Russian Revolution and a “Ukrainian People’s Republic” was formed, internationally recognized. It was followed by a Ukrainian – Soviet War, after which Moscow gained control and created the “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic”, one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union on 30 December 1922. An independent Ukraine appeared again only in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved.

The fact that Ukraine offers Russia the fundamental advantage of its two critical ports, Odessa and Sevastopol[1] explains why in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power and asked for peace, the Germans demanded that Russia relinquish its control of most of Ukraine. During World War II, the Germans seized Ukraine in the first year of their attack on the Soviet Union, exploited its agriculture and used it as the base to attack Stalingrad, trying to sever Russia from its supply lines in Baku. After the Soviets drove the Germans back, they seized Romania and Hungary and drove to Vienna, using Ukraine as their base.

For most of the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union controlled Eurasia, from central Germany to the Pacific, as far south as the Caucasus and the Hindu Kush. During the Cold War it had moved farther west than ever before. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its western frontier moved east, from the West German border to the Russian border with Belarus, farther east than it has been in centuries.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Eurasian region became fragmented and decayed. The successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia, became caught in a difficult geopolitical position where, unless it managed to create a sphere of influence, the Russian Federation could itself fragment. Foreign powers moved in to take advantage of Russia’s economy and, most significantly, Ukraine began to move into an alignment with the West and away from Russia.

The Russians saw the events in Ukraine as an attempt by the United States to draw Ukraine into NATO and thereby set the stage for Russian disintegration. If the West had succeeded in dominating Ukraine, Russia would have become indefensible. The southern border with Belarus, as well as the southwestern frontier of Russia, would have been wide open.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a series of governments that remained aligned with Russia, until the 2004 “Orange Revolution”, when the presidential elections that were won by the pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, were contested by many people that took to the streets and forced Yanukovich’s resignation, and his replacement by a pro-Western coalition. The Russians charged that the peaceful uprising was engineered by Western intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA and MI6, which funneled money into pro-Western NGOs and political parties.

From the Russian point of view, Ukrainian-EU integration represents a threat to Russian national security and Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear that he regarded Ukraine as essential to Russian security. Putin believed that Ukraine’s course toward the West would be disastrous for Russia, and he used economic pressure and state intelligence services to prevent Ukraine from taking that course. The 2008 Russo-Georgian War, at a moment when both Georgia and Ukraine were seeking NATO and EU membership, was also meant to show Kiev that Western guarantees were worthless, and Russia managed to steer Ukraine away from these organizations. In the six years that followed the “Orange revolution”, Russia worked both openly and covertly to reverse it, and in 2010 Yanukovich returned to power.

Analysts pointed out, at that moment, that such a process was favored by the United States being absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic closeness between Germany and Russia. Also evoked were the fact that Russian oligarchs had close ties with Ukrainian oligarchs who influenced the election, as well as Ukrainian people’s disappointment in the West’s unwillingness to help Ukraine substantially were also evoked.

The current crisis in Ukraine is only the latest manifestation of competition between the West and Russia. The European Union and the United States influenced the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in terms of financing and political organization. Russia meanwhile greatly influenced the discrediting of the Orange Regime and the subsequent election of Yanukovich, who had lost in the Orange Revolution, in 2010. The West pushed back once more by supporting the EuroMaidan movement after Yanukovich abandoned key EU integration deals, and then Russia countered by annexing Crimea.

The tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which has gradually intensified over the past decade, has hardened positions in Ukraine, culminating in the formation of armed groups representing rival political interests that quickly spread to other parts of the country. The current government enjoys Western support, but Moscow and many in eastern and southern Ukraine deny its legitimacy.


The “Fourth Generation War”


Ukraine’s current geopolitical importance is best reflected by the efforts of each power actor (Russia and the West) to bring it into the part of the Rimland which they control. For Russia, Ukraine’s critical importance generated a complex of measures that led to a clear breach of the international law by annexing a territory belonging to another country, and fomenting a civil war in the rest of it.

Similarities with the Spanish civil war and the early Cold War

According to some historians, the civil war in Ukraine seems to follow not the Bosnian scenario, but the Spanish one. Just as in the case of Spain in the mid-1930s, the civil conflict in Ukraine might rapidly escalate and internationalize, with major external powers getting actively involved.

During the civil war, Spain became an arena of confrontation between the emerging military-political alliances before World War II. It also became an arena for testing new warfare technologies, new equipment and training of military specialists, without a direct military confrontation. On the one hand the Soviet Union, which supported the left-wing political forces, on the other hand Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who supported the nationalists and the military junta. Britain declared its neutrality, but in fact supported the nationalists, in indirect but very effective ways, (all monetary assets of Republicans were frozen), working for the Western world against the USSR. Volunteers and caravans with weapons came to the territory of Spain from both sides. Italy and Germany sent a corps of volunteer forces and the “Condor” Legion. The USSR supplied Spain with about a thousand planes, 900 tanks, 1,500 artillery guns, 300 armored vehicles and 30 000 tons of ammunition, as well as about two thousand military advisers.

Other historians and analysts compare the Russian tactics with the period beginning with 1945, when Soviet secret policemen, given the task of transforming disparate Eastern European nations into communist puppet states, began by organizing local thugs and volunteers, as well as people who mistakenly believed they were fighting for a form of benign socialism, into paramilitary and secret police forces, exactly like the ones operating in eastern Ukraine. Then as now, they led from the shadows. Then as now, they adjusted their strategy depending on how much resistance they encountered and how much support they received.

The old tactic is combined with the power of the 21st century media, with Russian television, watched by many in eastern Ukraine, denouncing nonexistent violence coming from “fascist Kiev” and even showing politicized “weather reports”: “Dark clouds are gathering over Donetsk while there is sun in Crimea”. These language games and disinformation campaigns are now far more sophisticated than anything the Soviet Union ever produced.

This combination of old-fashioned Sovietization and modern media is considered by many analysts as a new kind of war, similar to what was called, during the Cold War, “maskirovka” (masked warfare), designed to confuse not just opponents, but the opponents’ potential allies. “Maskirovka” is based on concealment, plausible deniability, and carefully leaked or disseminated disinformation (dezinformatsiya), designed to both confuse the enemy and deter him from predicting or responding to one’s next move.

As in 1945, the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine involved not soldiers but local thugs and volunteers, some from criminal gangs, and some who mistakenly think they are fighting for some form of benign local autonomy. They are being led not by officers in uniform but by men from Russian military intelligence and special operations forces, some wearing camouflage without insignia, some communicating with “activists” by telephone. They are supplied with Russian logistics and a few Russian automatic weapons, but not tanks or planes. There is no bombing campaign, just organized attacks on police stations, city councils, airports.

Crimea was invaded by a military force that included a large contingent of Russian troops whose uniforms bore no insignias or identifying markings. The Kremlin continues to organize, coordinate, and finance the pro-Russian “militants” in eastern Ukraine who remain intent on defying Kiev’s authority. They belong to groups, “movements,” and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are appendices of their governments and draw their “activists” from the armed forces, security services, and government militias. They carry out their deeds disguised as “civil society”, and some analysts have called them “GONGOs” (“Government-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations”).

The Russians organizing the invasion of Ukraine are also prepared to adjust their strategy, depending on how much resistance they encounter. In the long term, Russia clearly hopes to annex eastern and southern Ukraine; maps to that effect have begun to circulate. The Russians may hope to provoke a civil war, or something that appears to be a civil war, which might require a Russian “peacekeeping mission”.

The military component: part of the “smart defense”

Russia’s response to the “EuroMaidan” utilized a broad range of political and military tools leveraging Moscow’s influence in shaping the future of its close neighbor. Moscow used these tools to maximize its role and influence in the unfolding crisis with Ukraine, and the experiment in Crimea, perhaps expanded over the following weeks in eastern Ukraine, constitutes a move toward non-linear warfare capabilities.

The developments in Ukraine are seen as part of the so-called “smart defense” that Vladimir Putin promised to place at the heart of Russia’s security strategy when he was elected to the Russian presidency in May 2012. Some of the new concepts and approaches featured in the operational-strategic exercise Zapad 2013, to be displayed to ruthless effect in the operation in Crimea.

Some of the new elements noted during Zapad 2013 and the series of “snap inspection” exercises that followed were the new approaches to command and control, the mixing of special forces from various power ministries to support regular troops, as well as an improved strategic mobility.

Crimea’s annexation revealed that the Kremlin found the appropriate mix of political, diplomatic, informational and military tools necessary to apply a minimal pressure to dislodge a part of Ukrainian territory. Moreover, this new mix of political and military interaction points to an application of experimental concepts to asymmetrically boost Russia’s power in the international arena.

Important manifestations of this Russian soft power and hard power synergy are evident in its actions, and NATO’s leadership warns of the threat that Russian military forces pose to eastern Ukraine in the form of troop deployments and covert intervention. There is wild speculation about the next target of Putin’s aggression. “Little green men” fight with “little black men” and Ukraine’s regular army across the east and south.

The image of “little green men” or “polite people” was crafted by the GRU Spetsnaz (Russian military intelligence special forces), and the operation in Crimea was so successful that these phrases passed into both media and analytical coverage of the crisis. But their appearance and use in the crisis marked elements of the underlying shift in Russian defense and security thinking, which blurred the distinction between war and peace, combining an array of policy tools to achieve strategic objectives.

Russian military deployments and exercises along the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine kept international media attention on the threat of an overt Russian invasion similar to Crimea, when that opportunity has long since passed. For the same month, the press has been reporting on the appearance of more “little green men” who have assisted federalist and secessionist pro-Russian militias to seize, hold and defend public buildings in eastern Ukraine.

The main element in the Russian experiment with non-linear warfare was the force mix – including all the elements of the rapid reaction forces modeled on the elite Airborne Forces (VDV), but also including naval infantry, GRU Spetsnaz (military intelligence special forces) and supporting maneuver brigades. It benefited from the nature of the operating environment and the presence of the Black Sea Fleet’s HQ in Sevastopol. The movement of forces, conduct and discipline in the Crimea operation was way advanced compared to the invasion of Georgia in 2008. There were almost no Russian conscripts involved, reflecting moves in the VDV and the Ground Forces to reconstitute the earlier model, from 2010–2012, of battalion tactical groups (BTGs) staffed with kontraktniki (contract soldiers).

Military analysts already described the Crimean conflict as a “fourth generation war”, which blurs the lines between politics and war and between combatants and civilians. The struggle is non-linear (nelineynaya voyna) and involves the application of a whole range of means to affect the conflict’s center of gravity, which is the civilian population itself. Both sides will seek to exploit the human terrain. The insurgents will attempt to conceal their assets there and to provoke the opposing state’s armed forces into actions, seeking to isolate the central government from the indigenous population. The state forces, on the other hand, will need to use the human terrain to assure the local population of its intent to restore order, establish the rule of law, and protect the life and property of its citizens. Some analysts and Western governments welcomed the reduction of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, naively ignoring just how fast those troops had appeared and can reappear in the same location. The Kremlin has a new tool at its disposal, and though largely restricted to special forces and elite units in Crimea, this is likely to be extended in the years ahead to widen the options and force mix at the disposal of Russian planners.


A new kind of war


The strategy and tactics Vladimir Putin has been employing in Ukraine represent an implementation of ideas outlined and published by General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, more than a year ago, an indication that the Kremlin has not been acting in response to events.

At the end of January 2013, Gerasimov spoke at the annual general meeting of the Russian Academy of Military Science on “The Role of the General Staff in the Organization of the Defense of the Country in Correspondence with the New Statute about the General Staff Confirmed by the President of the Russian Federation”.

Gerasimov’s speech outlines his view about the emergence in the 21st century of a new kind of war, in which the distinctions between war and peace and between uniformed personnel and covert operatives are continuously diminishing. This combination, especially at a time when “wars are not declared but simply begin”, has the potential to transform “a completely well-off and stable country… into an arena of the most intense armed conflict in a matter of months or even days”.

In these new conflicts, “the very ‘rules of war’ have been fundamentally changed. The role of non-military means to achieve political and strategic goals has grown”, and “in a number of cases”, this combination has proved to be “significantly more effective” in comparison with what could have been achieved by military means alone. In these wars of a new type, Gerasimov says, a broad range of “political, economic, information, humanitarian and other measures” are “mixed together” and supplemented by covert and thus deniable military measures plus offers of peace-keeping assistance as a means to strategic ends. “New information technologies allow a significant reduction in the spatial, temporal, and information gap between the forces and organs of administration”. And they also mean that “frontal clashes of major military formations… are gradually receding into the past”. According to Gerasimov, “asymmetric methods” also have the capacity to “level the playing field” against an opponent who may enjoy local superiority. Such methods include but are not limited to the use of special operations forces and the recruitment and mobilization of opposition groups on the territory of one’s opponent to make his entire country “a front” in the conflict.

Ukrainian response

Ukraine seems to have adopted a similar strategy, with Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov recently declaring that he planned to replace the local police force with “Kiev-1,” a group of “civil activists” who would help the Black Sea city “in these difficult days”. On May 9, Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” struck at the coastal town of Mariupol, using heavy weapons to engage “separatist police” at their police station, killing 20, and burned the building to the ground before attacking unarmed civilians in the streets and then withdrawing, plunging the town into complete chaos.

Ihor Valeriyovych Kolomoyskyi, the billionaire oligarch, whom the government in Kiev appointed governor of Dnepropetrovsk Oblast, has used his personal funds to help pay to arm and equip special units of the Ukrainian National Guard to conduct operations against Russian-supported paramilitary forces in the east. Boris Filatov, the deputy governor of Dnepropetrovsk, with the support of his boss, put out a bounty on arms turned into Ukrainian authorities and $10,000 for each “little green man” mercenary handed over.

Whether a quasi-private force funded by an oligarch can be a legitimate instrument of national security remains open to question. Rinat Akhmetov, the founder and president of System Capital Management and the owner of Metinvest, Ukraine’s largest steel mill, sanctioned the creation of unarmed “volunteer warriors” from among Mariupol’s workers to cooperate in restoring order in Donetsk Oblast and keep Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation out of the region.

Irregulars from the West

After the accusations launched regarding the Western intelligence agencies’ involvement in the “EuroMaidan” riots that brought down the Yanukovich government, the Russian authorities accused again the West of “special operations” against the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine.

According to Russian military officials, Western private companies are participating in the military operations in eastern Ukraine, mainly the private security contractors Blackwater and Greystone. The news came after the German newspapers Bild am Sonntag and Der Spiegel said some 400 elite commandos from the military firm Academi, previously known as Blackwater, were taking part in a special operation mounted by the Ukrainian government in the country’s southeastern regions.

In April, the Russian Foreign Ministry also reported that some 150 US commandos from Greystone, registered in Barbados and part of Academi Corporation, a private military contracting firm, had been deployed to Ukraine to help Kiev’s authorities suppress the protest movement.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry denied foreigners were involved in the special operations. The White House National Security Council also denied media reports that claimed that hundreds of US mercenaries were involved in the conflict.

Russian media also disclosed a supposed connection between Poland and the supposedly Western-backed mercenaries operating in Eastern Ukraine, in the person of Jerzy Dziewulski, a security advisor to former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was photographed near the Slovyansk front lines. Jerzy Dziewulski is a prominent name in the national security field in Poland, known to be specialized in training practices, security, consultancy and many more spheres. He also advertised that he was trained in the US, Germany, France and Israel, including cooperation with the State Department.

According to the Russian sources, it is more than likely that he is advising and running the mercenary operations, or even advising the Kiev authorities or the Right Sector National Guard. The same sources claimed that Poland has been operating in the Ukrainian crisis by means of its mercenary companies, including the ASBS mercenary service.

It remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s ongoing Anti-Terrorist Operation will end the armed resistance in the east in a quick victory, bring about the evolution of that struggle into a protracted civil war, or even produce a direct, overt Russian military intervention and a much wider war. Vladimir Putin has many military and political cards to play in this situation, which will define the future of Ukraine and the issue of war or peace for Eurasia.


Intelligence and propaganda


Until now, the West’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war cannot be compared with Russia’s, a fact that reflects the overwhelming importance that Ukraine has for the Kremlin, which developed a complex strategy that mixes political, diplomatic military, intelligence and propaganda tools. The battle over Ukraine is being fought with diverse means – harsh words and soft diplomacy, natural gas, weapons and intelligence services.

In some ways, there is nothing new about this phenomenon: the deployment of militias, paramilitaries and mercenaries is as old as warfare itself, and their use in proxy conflicts between nation-states is also a longtime practice. But in the twenty-first century, they’ve acquired unprecedented potential as tools of war. As shown since the second half of the last century, most of the armed conflicts no longer pit the armies of nation-states against one another, but are fought by soldiers impersonating civilians.

According to Mikhail Koval, Ukraine’s acting minister of defense, “Russia is conducting against Ukraine a war of a new type”, one that is so different from military campaigns in the past that it is obvious that Moscow has been preparing for its current actions “for several years”.

Russia’s campaign against Ukraine, the Ukrainian defense minister said, is “a war of a new generation”, with the neighboring country having dispatched “special diversion detachments” whose members had received extensive training, something that could not have been carried out in a short time.

Russian intelligence agents in the separatists’ camp

Several leaders of the pro-Russian movements in Eastern Ukraine were found to have been connected to the Russian intelligence services, and some of them even indicated that their activities were planned and coordinated from outside.

Aleksandr Boroday[2], the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic acknowledged that “a single command” had prepared the pro-Russian operations in Crimea and in other parts of Eastern Ukraine. He admitted that he personally had “worked in Crimea” but refused to say whose project this was.

He also acknowledged that he was a Moscow native and a citizen of the Russian Federation and “for many years” had been “involved in political and business consulting for various structures,” and would be seeking Donetsk’s annexation by Russia.

Another “visible” example is Colonel Igor Strelkov, or Igor Girkin, the military leader of the pro-Russia separatists, who is considered by Ukrainian intelligence as an agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence and the top Russian operative in Eastern Ukraine.

Recently in a leaflet distributed in the Donetsk region in the name of “The Commander-in-Chief of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, under the name “Colonel Igor Strelkov”, he assumed command of all rebel forces there and called for Russian army’s help. Strelkov is nicknamed by the separatist fighters as “Strelok” (the Shooter). In fact, during the TV broadcasts from the field, Strelkov was recognized by his neighbors in a Moscow suburb as being a mild-mannered person they have known under the name of Igor Girkin.

Since fighting flared in the east Ukraine, Girkin/Strelkov has been based in Slovyansk, leading the “little green men”, armed fighters in uniforms without official insignia, that Kiev says are Russian-controlled agents and Moscow says they are “self defense” volunteers.

Strelkov was previously active in Crimea and said that his brigade in Slovyansk had been formed in Crimea from volunteers, most of whom had combat experience fighting for the Russian armed forces in Chechnya, Central Asia, Yugoslavia, Iraq and even Syria. According to various sources, Igor Strelkov took part in conflicts in Yugoslavia as a volunteer and in Chechnya under contract.

Russian media dismissed any links with the Russian military, saying that Strelkov was not a GRU colonel, but a retired officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). His last role before retirement was reportedly with the FSB’s Directorate for Combating International Terrorism.

The European Union added Strelkov to its sanctions list on April 29, describing him as a staff member of Russia’s GRU military intelligence. It said he also worked as a security aid for Sergei Aksyonov, the former head of the Crimean Greco-Roman wrestling club who declared himself leader of Crimea when armed men seized its regional headquarters in late February and now is the official leader of Crimea as a Russian region.

To Kiev, Strelkov’s tactics show that Moscow aims to repeat the Crimea operation: armed men seize government buildings, proclaim themselves in charge, declare independence and proclaim their own militia to be the official security forces.

Tatars, Chechens and Cossacks

The other ethnic groups in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are increasingly used at various levels in the civil war.

a) Recently, tensions have been growing between the Crimean Tatars, whose leaders have been consistently loyal to Ukraine, and the ethnic Russians in Crimea. As part of his ideological campaign to seize Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that he would “rehabilitate” the Crimean Tatars. On April 22, Putin officially signed the decree “rehabilitating” the Crimean Tatars, but Sergei Aksyonov, the head of the occupation authorities, accused the Crimean Tatars of “provoking” inter-ethnic tensions by their continuing support of Ukraine.

In turn, the leader of the Crimean Tatar movement, Mustafa Cemilev, recently said that Ukraine will seek membership in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC, formerly the Organization of the Islamic Conference with the Russian Federation as observer), in a move that could help Ukraine rally support in the Muslim world for the recovery of Crimea.

The decision was apparently taken in the context of the Russian occupying authorities on the peninsula have denounced the Crimean Tatars as extremists, banned any mention of Cemilev, and declared that he will not be allowed to return to Crimea before 2019.

The attitude of the international Muslim community may become both a new sphere of conflict between Moscow and Kiev and an important resource for Ukraine as it seeks to end the Russian occupation of the peninsula.

Turkey and other Muslim countries have been longtime supporters of the Crimean Tatars and continued to make statements in support of the rights of that community, including the right of return and the right of national self-determination in the form of the restoration of a Crimean Tatar Republic.

b) Reports from Russia, Chechnya and Ukraine suggested a Chechen military involvement in the eastern part of Ukraine, on the pro-Russia side. While the number of Chechens in Ukraine is hard to gauge and their existence difficult to prove, even a small number could have a deep significance.

According to former deputy director of the CIA John McLaughlin, the developments in Ukraine suggest a “classic covert operation”, involving the Chechens in order to confuse the adversary. It may be hard for observers in Eastern Ukraine to distinguish Chechen forces from the Crimean Tatars, since both groups are Muslim and looking similar. In that manner, the Crimean Tatars could be blamed for what the Chechens do and this would increase support for tough measures against the Tatars.

Involving the Chechens could intensify instability, yet have minimal consequences for Russia. Moscow could easily deny any responsibility for actions taken by the Chechens, as nothing has been officially ordered. An official Chechen military involvement was denied by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who, however, was careful to say that “Chechen battalions” are not currently deployed in Ukraine, which does not really touch on the issue of informal military units.

While there is no definitive proof that Chechens are in Ukraine, a report published by Kavkazcenter mentioned a man who claimed he was sent to Crimea and then to Slovyansk, as part of a Chechen security force. Recruitment centers in Grozny were reportedly asking for volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine, but the offices suddenly closed after stories about them were published.

c) During the negotiations for the release of the two teams of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), held hostage in eastern Ukraine since last May (some of them were released on June 26), it appeared that influential circles in Russia linked to the eastern Ukraine Cossacks were in a position to influence the kidnappers.

The OSCE teams were said to be held by rebel commander and businessman Nikolai Kozitsyn, a member of the ethnic-cultural leadership of the Cossacks in Ukraine, who, in his turn, may be influenced to free the hostages by Viktor Vodolatsky, who is senior to Kozitsyn in the Cossack leadership and is also a lawmaker in Russian parliament, the Duma.

The Cossacks are also involved in organizing aid but also recruiting for the pro-Russian militias in the Luhansk region, which is also the historic region of the Don Cossacks.

“Orthodox terrorism”

According to local observers, the selection of Aleksandr Boroday and Igor Girkin to leading positions in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Peoples Republic” in Ukraine also shows that Kremlin is using the so-called “Orthodox terrorism”.

Boroday and Girkin were linked to the extreme right of Russian nationalism in the 1990s, a trend that enjoyed the protection and even sponsorship of some hierarchs in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, some businessmen, and some in the Russian security services. Out of this community emerged groups of “convinced Orthodox Russian nationalists” who came to believe that they could take their revenge for the defeat of the anti-Bolshevik White Armies by engaging in violent and even terrorist actions.

The so-called ‘White’ Orthodox volunteers were present in former Yugoslavia and in Transdniestria at the beginning of the 1990s; they also took part in the October 1993 putsch in Moscow, and the shooting of the American embassy in Moscow from a grenade-launcher in 1999, claimed by a group calling itself “the Partisan detachment named for Metropolitan Ioan of St. Petersburg and Ladoga”. Another incident took place in 1999, when a group led by radical Novosibirsk priest Aleksandr Sysoyev attacked a militia station with the goal of obtaining and distributing arms. Three militiamen were killed in that attempt, while Sysoyev, despite being confined to a St. Petersburg psychiatric hospital, writes in his memoirs that, before being apprehended, he had “received support from Orthodox radicals” who hoped to spirit him out of Russia to Abkhazia.

A recent development was noted at the end of March, when a video clip was posted on the online publication showing Aleksandr Dugin, known for promoting orthodox activism, supposedly giving instructions for the extremist groups in Eastern Ukraine to Katerina Gubareva, the wife of Pavlo Gubarev, one of the Donetsk separatist leaders recently detained by the Ukrainian authorities.

The religious factor is also used for propaganda purposes, with Russian officials and commentators suggesting that the West is opposing Moscow in Ukraine because Russia is returning to Orthodoxy and Russia must fight in Ukraine not just to oppose Kiev’s shift toward Europe but also to block the eastward expansion of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism into the Slavic world.

In this context, a mention should also be made about Aleksandr Dugin’s visit to Romania (22-25 June), during which he talked with orthodox priests, officially about his “Third Rome” project.

On June 5, speaking to the Russian World Affairs Council in Moscow Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov argued that the West deployed Ukraine against Moscow because it is opposed to Russia’s return to its “traditional spiritual values”. Vladimir Putin also reflected on the deep national antagonism toward Catholicism and Protestantism, and other politicians and analysts taking the lead and suggesting that what is going on in Ukraine is not just a political struggle between those in Ukraine who want to become part of Europe and those who prefer to link their fates with Moscow. Rather, the defenders of this view argue that the Ukrainian crisis represents a clash of civilizations between Western Christianity and Russian-led Eastern Christianity.


The Propaganda weapon

One of the most important instruments being deployed by Moscow are the Internet, newspapers and television, including allegedly neutral journalists and pundits dispatched around the world to propagate the Kremlin position.

According to Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow is looking beyond the short-term, seeking to influence opinion in the long-run to create an alternative discourse in Western countries as well. The Kremlin invests around €100 million a year in Russian media abroad in order to influence public opinion in the West.

Sources within the Kremlin express satisfaction these days when talking about Moscow’s information policies. Whereas Ruptly is seeking to establish itself as an alternative to Reuters and the Associated Press in providing video footage, RT (formerly Russia Today) has successfully established itself in the nine years since its creation, recently surpassing even CNN when it comes to clips viewed on YouTube. With close to 1.2 billion views, the BBC is the only media outlet ahead of RT. In Britain, RT has more viewers than the Europe-wide news station Euronews and in some major U.S. cities the channel is the most-viewed of all foreign broadcasters.

Ruptly and RT are only the most visible instruments being used by the Kremlin. Other propaganda methods being exploited can be less obvious. In Germany, it was noted that when Russian journalists are invited to speak about the Ukraine crisis, experts either don’t want to be critical of the government or are kept from doing so. An example mentioned by Spiegel was that of Sergej Sumlenny, German correspondent for the Russian business magazine Expert. He appeared often on German talk shows, intelligently and pointedly criticizing Putin’s policies. After a while, he had to leave the magazine.

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, it has been reported that the presidential administration in Moscow has been testing how public opinion in the United States and Europe can be manipulated using the Internet and social networks.

Most of the professional comment posters active in Germany are Russian immigrants who submit their pro-Russian comments on Facebook and on news websites. In addition, journalists and editors at German websites and publications report receiving letters and emails offering “explosive information about the Ukraine crisis”, from “sources” who claim they have evidence about the right-wing nature of the Kiev government.

“Secret recordings”

Other forms of propaganda have also been deployed in recent months, a specific one being the intercepted conversations of Western diplomats or Kiev politicians getting published in ways that serve Russia’s interests. Such incidents included the “Fuck the EU” statement by Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat to Europe, as well as statements made by Estonia’s foreign minister that were apparently supposed to prove who was responsible for the deaths of protesters on the “EuroMaidan”. The Russian media also seemed to take pleasure in reporting in mid-April that CIA head John Brennan had traveled to Kiev.

The most recent incident of this kind involved Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who was dismissing Polish ties with the US as “worthless” in a private conversation with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski. This was secretly recorded and made public by Wprost, a news magazine. Sikorski added that “the Polish-US alliance isn’t worth anything… It’s even harmful because it creates a false sense of security for Poland” and warned that close ties with Washington could alienate Poland’s neighbors Germany and Russia. Even if the incident seemed to have no diplomatic consequences, Sikorski’s comments might still diminish his chances as a candidate to succeed Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief.

While there was no evidence to link those incidents to a specific Russian intelligence operation, there’s a high likelihood that this confidential information and the content of intercepted communications is being strewn by Russian intelligence. Western intelligence agencies assume that even communications encrypted by the Ukrainian army are being intercepted by the Russians.

Exploiting Anti-Americanism

The Kremlin also exploits the anti-American sentiment of many Western Europeans, by claiming, for example, that American mercenaries and consultants have been deployed in eastern Ukraine. Even if there is still no evidence to back any of these allegations, America’s credibility isn’t helped by the fact that Washington also disseminates its own anti-Russian propaganda.

Backed by conservative Fox News, Republic Senator John McCain has been loudly calling on the US government to provide pro-Western forces with active aid, including weapons. Meanwhile, Forbes magazine has asked: “Is Putin a new Hitler?” In addition, Washington’s development agency, USAID, announced at the start of May that it would provide $1.25 million in support to Ukrainian media organizations as they prepared for presidential elections. Washington has long provided support for a network of opposition groups who were active during the “Orange Revolution” and are now mobilizing against Moscow. A media center established by the new government in Kiev’s Hotel “Ukraina” has been partly financed by George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation. Day in and day out, reporters are airing interviews with ministers and loyal political scientists who interpret events in eastern Ukraine the way the Kiev government would like to see them portrayed.

The Russian RIA Novosti recently cited “Wikileaks” data according to which the current Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, gave to the US Embassy in Kiev inside information about the forging of a coalition government in 2006. According to the source, Poroshenko described himself as an insider from the party Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine), a bloc associated with former President Viktor Yushchenko.

Cables sent from the Embassy to the US State Department however suggest that Ambassador John Herbst doubted the authenticity of Poroshenko’s information and considered it to be part of backdoor games aimed at arresting Yuliya Tymoshenko (former Prime Minister) and Oleksandr Turchynov (acting President before Poroshenko’s election).

“Economic” propaganda

Another theme of the Russian propaganda exploits on the economic/energetic element, with analysts suggesting that one of the reasons of the United States’ alleged involvement in the Ukraine crisis was to disrupt the Russian energy supplies to Europe, in order to avoid yielding the European Union market to Russia or China or even Germany. “Washington’s global economic aim is to destroy and devour the European Union consumer market to harm Russia and China, as the latter is set to become world leader this year and challenge the U.S.” said one such analyst.

He also pointed out that the U.S. “has revised its energy strategy and is going to export shale gas to Europe” and, since shale gas is more expensive than Russian natural gas, Washington seeks to limit or altogether stop Russian gas supplies to Europe. This is supposed to be the reason for Kiev’s stubbornness in the gas conflict with Russia, forcing Gazprom to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine on June 16, until Ukraine pays for the already supplied gas.

The same point was made by other economists cited by Russian media.  Daisuke Kotegawa, former executive director for Japan at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) considered that the political crisis in Ukraine is hugely influenced by global financial instability and “uncertainty among the U.S. establishment patronizing Ukraine about its position in the world”. Also, Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute for Globalization Problems, said that “Washington provoked political crisis in Ukraine. Russia can be its next target. The chief U.S. strategic goal in the context of these destructive actions is to instill fear and drive global financial speculators’ money into US securities to keep the national economy afloat”.

The theme was also stressed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Austria on June 24, for the signing of the South Stream agreement. Putin told at a press conference that the U.S. is trying to derail South Stream, since it will pump half of Russia’s gas supply to Europe from 2016 onward, bypassing Ukraine. “They [the US] themselves want to supply gas to the European market. But I assure you, it will not be cheaper than Russian gas. Pipeline gas is always cheaper than liquefied gas… they are doing everything possible to break up this [South Stream] contract”, Putin said. He claimed South Stream will increase Europe’s “energy security” in “the context of the current developments in Ukraine”.


Moscow’s propaganda success

Moscow’s propaganda efforts are favored by the diminishing activities of the independent European media companies, which generated a shortage of experts who can penetrate the propaganda and provide honest analysis of what is actually happening. Another factor is the fact that in recent months, the Kremlin has begun tightening control over Russian-language Internet media in order to keep the home front from wavering, with Kremlin-aligned youth organizations assisting the government in posting blogs and attacking Moscow’s critics.

Most broadcasters and newspapers are already under the Kremlin’s control. Some 94 percent of Russians obtain their information primarily from state television, which has no qualms about fabricating the news. Recently, the evening news showed video allegedly depicting the murder of a pro-Russian fighter in eastern Ukraine by nationalists. In fact, the video used was actually one and a half years old and showed fighters in the north Caucasus.

According to media experts, the successful propaganda campaign surrounding the Ukraine crisis is unique and highly sophisticated, even compared to Soviet standards, with the Kremlin succeeding in stirring up sentiments deeply rooted in the Russian psyche: the yearning for an imperial grandness, a sense of anti-Americanism and pride over Russia’s victory over Hitler’s Germany.

Consequently, it is not surprising to find that among the first individuals decorated by the Kremlin following the Crimea operation, were several Russian journalists who were at the forefront of Moscow’s 21st century information operations.


Beyond Ukraine


A more worrying effect of the competition between the West and Russia over Ukraine extends beyond Ukrainian borders. Georgia and Moldova, two former Soviet countries that have sought stronger ties with the West, have accelerated their attempts to further integrate with the European Union, and in Georgia’s case, with NATO. On the other hand, countries such as Belarus and Armenia have sought to strengthen their economic and security ties with Russia. Countries already strongly integrated with the West like the Baltics are glad to see Western powers stand up to Russia, but they know that they could be the next in line in the struggle between Russia and the West.

The major question is how committed Russia and the West are to backing and reinforcing their positions in these rival blocs. Russia has made clear that it is willing to act militarily to defend its interests in Ukraine. Russia acted strongly to prevent Georgia from turning to NATO in 2008 and made no secret that it is willing to use a mixture of economic pressure, energy manipulation and, if need be, military force to prevent countries at its border to escape its control. Russia also acted in order to intensify integration efforts in its own blocs, including the Customs Union on the economic side and the Collective Security Treaty Organization on the military side.

The signing of the Association Agreements with the EU by the three countries was immediately followed by more or less veiled threats from Moscow, pointing that the deals will have minimal impact on the Russian economy but will further broaden the political schism between Russia and its neighbors. According to Russian economists, Russia should not lose more than 1 billion Euros in the next few years as a result of Ukraine’s signing of the EU deal, but the agreements’ real impact on Russia is their erosion of Russia’s informal influence in former Soviet republics. However, the long-term effects of the EU association agreements will depend on how Russia chooses to impose trade barriers on the former Soviet republics and whether its Customs Union partners are able to influence its decisions.

An ambitious project: Novorossiya

Analysts see Russia’s next moves as intending to consolidate and extend its control over Eastern Ukraine, mainly by creating groups and supporting new separatist activities in the region.

The historical and ideological base for these moves is “Novorossyia”, an entity that was first mentioned by Vladimir Putin on April 14, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March. Putin stressed that “what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then… The center of that territory was Novorossiysk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained”.

Historically, Novorossiya was won by Russia from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century, hence its name, which means “New Russia”. The term was coined in 1764 when the first Novorossiysk Governorate was created in the territories of New Serbia and New Sloboda, in what is today the Kirovohrad Oblast. As a military district, the governorate played a key role in the Russo-Turkish war, which allowed Russia to expand southwards by annexing the Northern Black Sea coast and the Caucasus, as well as turning the Crimean Khanate into a Russian satellite state. The eventual colonization of the lands conquered from the Ottomans by the Russians turned Novorossiya into a majority Russophone region stretching from the Donets to the Dniester rivers.

After the Russian revolution, Novorossiya ceased to exist as an administrative component of the Russian Empire, becoming one of the most contested regions during the civil war. It finally became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the early years of the Soviet Union, and remained a part of Ukraine after the collapse of communism.

Currently, “Novorossiya” covers eight Ukrainian provinces that Russia aims to carve out of Ukraine, whether through “federalization” or some form of Russian protectorate. If successful, this project could turn Moldova and Romania into de facto neighbors of Russia.

During the Ukraine crisis, “Novorossiya” was one of the themes often brought up by the pro-Russian activists, frequently invoked as an argument against staying with Kiev. Someone has even set up a website that appears devoted to bringing the historical region back.

On May 24, 2014, the leaders of the unrecognized republics of Donetsk and Luhansk signed a document on the establishment of a common state, a Union of People’s Republics, significantly named Novorossiya. The new entity had been proclaimed two days before, at the first congress of the New Russia Party, in the presence of representatives from eight Ukrainian regions, namely Odessa, Mykolaiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Novorossiya may have a larger geopolitical significance, since it may offer the historical background for Russia to create a confederation of pro-Russian republics that might include the Moldovan breakaway republic of Transdniestria and the other southern regions with a separatist potential, such as Gagauzia. It is a further challenge to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, already undermined by Crimea’s annexation and the control exerted by the pro-Russian Donbas People’s Militia over large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Ukraine’s Odessa province (contiguous to Moldova/Transdniestria and Romania, on the shores of the Black Sea and the Danube) forms the strategic focus of Russia’s “Novorossiya” project. Russia might seek to open a military supply route, and possibly a civilian transit corridor, across the Odessa province to Transdniestria. Having annexed Crimea, Russia may well attempt to overcome Transdniestria’s exclave situation and connect with it directly by land. Much will depend on the political situation in this province and in Kiev. Former Ukrainian governments had consistently turned down Russia’s requests to deliver military hardware to Transdniestria via Ukrainian territory.

In this context, there was almost no surprise when Russia called for postponing the regular round of consultations on Transdniestria within the 5+2 format (Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and observers of the US and the EU) until autumn, OSCE having proposed to hold the next round of consultations on July 17-18. According to Russian ambassador at large Sergei Gubarev, Russia “does not see any need for holding talks for the sake of talks”, since “we returned to the initial stage when the parties lay claims”, and “if the July round does not yield any result, this will discredit the negotiations”.

Moldova: targeted for “federalization”

Given the geopolitical position of Moldova, and above all the fact that Moldova’s current government signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, analysts anticipate that it might be the next target for the Kremlin’s “fourth generation war”.

If the upcoming parliamentary elections in Moldova lead to a “multi-vector” government with pro-Russia elements, Russia might launch another “federalization” attempt, using Transdniestria to guarantee Russian influence on the rest of Moldova. If not, Moscow might consider using Transdniestria. The Kremlin could abandon even minimal lip service to Moldova’s territorial integrity, strengthen Russia’s civilian and military presence in this part of Moldova, and hypothetically provoke incidents on either bank of the Dniester.

For the moment, the Russian-proposed “federalization” for Moldova is held in suspension, while that regarding Ukraine is operational since March under the threat of Donbas’s secession. Since for Russia, “federalization” aims to empower Russia-oriented authorities in parts of either country, both Moldovan and Ukrainian governments consider it unacceptable. Russia seeks Western support to initiate negotiations toward Ukraine’s “federalization”. If such negotiations start over Ukraine, Russia might push for a parallel process in Moldova.

In the meantime, the covert activities seem to have already started, with the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) announcing at the beginning of June that Mihai Formuzal, the governor of Gagauzia, Markel, a bishop of a Moldovan church subordinated to Moscow and Mihai Garbuz, leader of the Moldova’s Patriots Party had a confidential meeting in Baltsi to develop a plan to destabilize the situation in the wake of Moldova’s signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union.

The announcement came after the Moldovan media disclosed that the Gagauzia governor asked the local mayors to organize “popular guards” that would be trained by the police. In fact, this was accused to be a cover for detachments of Russian and Crimean Cossacks that would foment revolts of the ethnic minorities in Komrat and Baltsi against the central government. The aim would be the creation of two separatist enclaves, the “Gagauz Popular Republic” (with the Bolgrad and Ismail counties from Ukraine and the southern counties of Moldova) and the “Northern Moldovan Republic” (with the Chernivtsi/Cernautsi region of Ukraine and the northern counties of Moldova), with the final goal to create a Moldovan Federation with four parts: Moldova (Chisinau), Transdniestria (Tiraspol), Gagauzia (Komrat) and Northern Moldova (Baltsi).

The Gagauz governor Mihail Formuzal already declared for the Turkish media that if the government of Moldova concludes negotiations with the EU and signs a partnership agreement with it, the Gagauzia Autonomous Republic will declare independence and become closer to Russia. According to Formuzal, in a referendum held in February, a vast majority of Gagauz approved the independence option, but no action has been taken toward it. That will come if Chisinau makes a deal with the EU. Russia will definitely recognize their independence. Formuzal said he was in close contact with many countries on this issue, from Azerbaijan to Belarus.

The meeting in Baltsi was followed by another one after which the participants were then invited to meet at the Russian embassy in the Moldovan capital.

In another development, Svyatoslav Mazur, the leader of a movement called “Federal Moldova”, accused the Chisinau government of acting, together with the CIA, to create a Ukrainian-type “Maidan” and to unleash a civil war in Moldova.

According to Mazur, such activities would begin on 28 June, the day after the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union, with demonstrations on both sides of the Prut River, on the territory of Moldova and Romania, organized to commemorate the annexation of Moldova by Russia but, in fact, to allegedly show the international community that Moldova wants an unification with Romania as well as with the European Union. Another move mentioned by Mazur would be a census supposed to indicate that in Moldova, most people are Romanians and speak Romanian.

Military movements in Kaliningrad

Vladimir Putin’s push for the federalization of Ukraine is also echoing in the exclave of Kaliningrad, where support for independence has declined in recent years from 7 percent to 4 percent. But, at the same time, a poll taken after the annexation of Crimea by Russia showed that the Kaliningrad residents’ wishes for the oblast to be given “special status” (that is what most Russians understand by “federalization”) have increased to 53 percent.

Analysts point out that such an approach might have unpleasant side effects for Moscow, since Kaliningrad has always been considered “one of the most separatist regions in Russia”, and ordinary Russians may feel that, in pursuit of what they believe is Kremlin-approved “federalization”, they might, as in the case of Crimea, choose to seize government buildings, carry weapons, nationalize the property of the oligarchs, and decide the most important questions via referendum. And as Putin and his ruling team have implied in Ukraine, that could open the way for independence or joining a neighboring country at some point in the future.

Consequently, while the face of Kaliningrad is changing under the impact of the Crimean annexation, the challenges that this non-contiguous Baltic region poses for Moscow are likely to grow. This is all the more so because, having taken the position it has pushed in Ukraine, the Putin regime is likely to be far less capable of preventing the growth of this new set of attitudes not only in Kaliningrad but in other predominantly ethnic-Russian regions of the country.

In this context, analysts noted an intensification of military activities, with Russia announcing at the end of June that it has put the Kaliningrad early warning radar station on “experimental combat duty”. The Voronezh-DM missile attack early warning radar station would be first tested during a three months period.

The construction of the Voronezh-DM radar station in Kaliningrad began in February 2010. It covers almost all of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, has a range of 6,000 kilometers and can simultaneously track up to 500 objects. Voronezh-DM class radars can be more quickly deployed to a new site, and require a smaller crew to operate, compared to previous generation stations.

Also in mid-June, a large scale exercise took place in Kaliningrad, involving paratroopers and coastal troops which “successfully eliminated a group of militants”. In the exercise’s scenario, intelligence was received about an illegal military group’s presence in one of the districts of Kaliningrad Region. A motorized infantry regiment was alerted, which had to move 60 kilometers with artillery support to force the surrender of and eliminate the “potential enemy” forces.

During the first stage of the drills, Sukhoi Su-34 bombers engaged land targets, while the exercise involved about 1,000 military personnel and more than 100 pieces of military hardware, including aviation.

The joint exercise of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, Air Force and paratroopers was taking place at the same time as the NATO’s Saber Strike 2014 and Baltops 2014 exercises.




According most analysts, the lack of a national consensus will prevent any Ukrainian government from forming coherent foreign policy, since any government that strikes a major deal with either Russia or the European Union will find it difficult to claim it speaks for the majority of the country.

So far, even if on the surface, the Russians have suffered a reversal in Ukraine, whether this is truly a reversal will depend on whether the authorities in Kiev are able to rule Ukraine, which means not only forming a coherent government but also enforcing its will. The Russian strategy is to use energy, finance and overt and covert relationships to undermine the Ukrainian government and usurp its power.

The Russians are aiming to preserve (an extend) their sphere of influence over their Rimland, that is a sufficient degree of control over Ukraine to guarantee that potentially hostile forces don’t gain control, particularly NATO or any follow-on entities.

In the next decade, Russia is seen by many analysts to continue to act to protect its interests, and create buffer zones to protect it from the rest of the world. Russia’s grand strategy involves the creation of deep buffers along the North European Plain, while it divides and manipulates its neighbors, creating a new regional balance of power in Europe. According to those analysts, Russia’s actions will unfold in three phases. In the first phase, Russia will be concerned with recovering influence and effective control in the former Soviet Union, re-creating the system of buffers that the Soviet Union provided. In the second phase, Russia will seek to create a second tier of buffers beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. It will try to do this without creating a solid wall of opposition, of the kind that choked it during the Cold War. In the third phase, Russia will try to prevent anti-Russian coalitions from forming.

Defining the limits of Russian influence will be controversial. The United States and the countries within the old Soviet sphere of influence will not want Russia to go too far.

While the European Union may yet show stronger resolve as a result of the current Ukrainian crisis, a major shift in the bloc’s approach is unlikely.

As the Ukraine crisis moves into the diplomatic realm, it shapes up as a major test of the West’s willingness and ability to truly stand up to Russia. Concrete action from the United States with sufficient backing from the Europeans will be the true test of how committed the West is to standing up to Moscow. Unfortunately, the European Union is not seen as having demonstrated as serious a commitment to the borderland countries as Russia has.


“Looking at the current situation, some of the attributes that disqualify it from being a Cold War also make it likely that the situation will deteriorate. For crises like Ukraine there is no resolution coming. They just aren’t sufficiently vital to prompt a collaborative solution among major powers. Many players benefit from remaining on the sidelines; others just aren’t threatened enough to act. In a world without global leadership, not even conflicting global leadership from competing U.S.-Russia camps, many conflicts will burn brighter for longer. And new ones will arise” (Ian Bremmer).



[1] Losing commercial and military access to those ports would completely undermine Russia’s influence in the Black Sea and cut off its access to the Mediterranean. Russia’s only remaining ports would be blocked by the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap to the west, by ice to the northeast, by Denmark on the Baltic Sea, and by Japan in the east.

[2] See previous analysis (Geopolitics: a century-old science to assess the future)

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