Poster depicting Ukrainian oligarchs and Russian President Vladimir Putin during “#StopRevenge” protest near the Verkhovna Rada - Viktor Medvedchuk, Dmytro Firtash, Serhiy Liovochkin, Rinat Akhmetov and Vadym Novynsky. January 16, 2018
The Ukrainian state has taken two independent actions which have obliged Russia to accelerate its preparations for intervening in Ukraine and fomenting internal conflicts – first, Ukraine has asked Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant the Tomos on Autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and secondly, President Poroshenko has submitted to Parliament several amendments to Ukraine’s Constitution in order to consolidate Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO.
The key features of the Kremlin’s strategy are very clear.
First, destroying trust and faith in the Ukrainian government
Today, the information war conducted by the Kremlin is not about making Ukrainians believe in something else – for example, the attractiveness of the Russian vector or the values of the “Russian world”. Moreover, nobody is talking about Putin any more, saying or even hinting that “Putin is a really good guy!” The main emphasis is on sabotaging the situation inside Ukraine and destroying trust, spreading doubt and depression instead.
The now familiar slogans, such as “Kyiv junta”, “карателі” (special hit squads), “failed state”, etc., have disappeared from the media and more common vocabulary is used to transmit the idea that the Ukrainian government is “treacherous and untrustworthy”. Thus, the Kremlin has turned its full attention to pro-Russian politicians and “experts” who are invited to speak on different television channels and are constantly cited by pro-Russian Internet publications, as well as on social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.
One of the main narratives spread by Moscow is that “the greatest threat to Ukraine is Poroshenko, not Russia”. Moreover, this idea is conveyed through conflicting messages, such as “Poroshenko is the president of war”, raking in millions, and he is also a dangerous “banderite”, as the top Russian propagandist and TV host Vladimir Soloviov recently called him. At the same time, the Kremlin slyly suggests that Poroshenko has already handed the country over to the Russians and has actually capitulated to Moscow, pointing to the “Boiko Towers” scandal, the Administration’s cooperation with the odious Mayor of Odesa Trukhanov, and, more recently, the judicial closure of the Kernes affair*.
*Kyiv District Court in Poltava ordered the closure of criminal proceedings against Kharkiv mayor Hennadiy Kernes and his bodyguards Vitaliy Blinnyk and Yevhen Smitsky. They were accused of kidnapping, threatening, and torturing Kharkiv Euromaidan activists Oleksandr Kutianin and Serhiy Riapolov.
Other examples – “raising gas tariffs is a crime against the people”, “the educational reforms are turning us into a backward country”, “the police is a bloody mess!”, “decentralization – money granted and then stolen”, “the economy is on the brink of default”, “Ukrainian officers are deserting the army”, “health care reforms are killing Ukrainians”, etc.
Moreover, the Kremlin is intent on building mistrust, trying to convince Ukrainians that both the Ukrainian authorities and their Western partners should be regarded suspiciously. For example, twisted interpretations of Donald Trump’s statements regarding Russia’s return to the G-7 and rumours about Crimea, as well as gross exaggerations and speculations on Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki. And, of course, the fact that some European leaders visited Russia during the FIFA World Cup and that the construction of North Stream 2 is still under discussion are presented as Europe’s obvious neglect of Ukraine’s interests and the EU’s friendly ties with Russia.
Secondly, Russian mass media has turned its attention to the situation in Ukraine’s south-eastern regions and the territories bordering Russia.
The analysis of the Russian media in July 2018 revealed that, besides the Donbas and Crimea, the following regions of Ukraine are most frequently mentioned: Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Chernihiv and Kharkiv Oblasts. The least referred to are Khmelnytsky, Ternopil and Chernivtsi Oblasts, which are of little or no interest to Russia.
Thirdly, rehearsing for large-scale destabilization
The recent assassinations of war veterans and simultaneous attacks on activists in Ukraine’s southern regions are masked as simple business affairs or opposition activities. In fact, Moscow is hinting that “the state is killing its own patriots”. The inevitable consequences – people start feeling afraid and insecure; social tension grows as activists and organizations demand prompt investigations and names of the attackers.
We should also pay particular attention to the recent attacks on suburban trains perpetrated by a group of people in balaclavas, who sprayed paint over the wagons, threw stones and sprinkled poison gas over the windows. And, recent attacks on supermarkets carried out by masked teenagers, who not only stole goods and products, but also deliberately provoked the security guards. Whether or not Russia is involved in these petty incidents is not the issue, but there is no doubt that the Kremlin will be able to manipulate many organized groups that might be ready to instigate mass riots in Ukraine.
Fourth, pro-Russian politicians are alluding to possible civil unrest in Ukraine.
Let’s take a close look at what Opposition Bloc MP Vadym Novynsky (ex-Party of Regions) recently declared:
“If the Tomos on Autocephaly is legitimized, it’s more than likely that a civil war based on religious grounds will break out in Ukraine.”
There are no reasons for a civil war, but such statements form the basis for artificially creating provocations and clashes. “We warned you!” – they will say, while the Kremlin proceeds to organize social chaos in Ukraine.
Taking into account all the signs pointing to the Kremlin’s preparations to create deep internal conflicts in Ukraine, we can describe two scenarios for the further development of events.
The “soft scenario” – the Kremlin provokes internal conflicts, using both information and psychological means, as well as sabotage and terrorist actions… in order to disorient Ukrainian society and help “their candidate” win in the presidential election, and then bring “their majority” into the Ukrainian parliament.
The “tough scenario” – provocation and intimidation lead to a real civil war so that Russia is “obliged to introduce Russian peacekeepers” in order to “prevent bloodshed”.
Will Ukrainian society be able to counter the Kremlin’s plans, which still include the conquest and taming of Ukraine? In 2014, Ukraine partly succeeded as pro-Ukrainian activists rallied, mobilized and did not allow Putin to implement his plan for “Novorossiya”. However, will Ukraine be able to survive another major social upheaval?
Ukrainian law enforcement agencies should definitely work towards preventing Kremlin activities in the country, while citizens and organizations must unite around the national idea and the European future of Ukraine, and not be guided by attractive, but dangerous slogans about peace at all costs. Only then will Ukraine be able to withstand the challenges of destabilization.