Northern Ukraine’s vulnerable Sumy Oblast: covert Russian links and Cossack threats

Pro-Russian Rada deputy Andriy Derkach, from Sumy Oblast (Source: Interfax-Ukraine) 

Hybrid War

Article by: Richard Arnold

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings taking a massive hit as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, resulting economic crisis and his government’s bungled response, the Kremlin is nonetheless going forward with holding a popular vote on new constitutional amendments that will effectively allow him to stay in power for another 12 years (see EDM, June 1, 29). In late May, survey results from the respected sociological polling organization the Levada Center showed the Russian president’s confidence rating to be as low as 25 percent (Levada.ru, May 29). This is Putin’s lowest rating ever recorded and fully 10 points below where he was at the start of 2014—just prior to his rescue by the “Crimean consensus” that broadly boosted Russians’ patriotic fervor (and their opinion of the Kremlin leader) in response to the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea (Theins.ru, June 4). Putin’s current unpopularity notwithstanding, experts widely expect that the constitutional amendments permitting the extension of his rule will pass, though possibly with the help of mass vote falsification by the authorities.

The aftermath of such brazen manipulation may, in turn, spark renewed angry street protests (see EDM, June 15, 29). Given such concerns, the prospects of another land grab on Russia’s borders should not be dismissed easily. Such a venture could conceivably promote another “rally round the leader” effect much like that after the annexation of Crimea and insulate Putin against the threat of a palace coup. Bearing this in mind, one particularly vulnerable territory is the neighboring Sumy Oblast, in Ukraine.

Location of the city of Sumy (pinpointed as the red dot) and the oblast of Sumy (in pink) on the map of Ukraine. Map: Wikimedia Commons

The Ukrainian news outlet Antikor lists four sources of pro-Russian activism in the northern Sumy region, which backed ostensibly “independent” pro-Russian candidates during last year’s parliamentary elections. Those four sources are the Derkach network, an Orthodox Church–Cossack partnership, Afghan veterans’ associations, and the Boyko Platform. The Derkach network is named after Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach, a pro-Moscow deputy in the Verkhovna Rada, who wields extensive business contacts throughout Sumy Oblast. Derkach is a graduate of the Moscow Ministry of Security Academy and included numerous pro-Russia policies in his 2019 election manifesto, including the free movement of border region residents between the two countries. Since Derkach’s recent attention locally has turned to philanthropic ventures, the main agent of policy in the area has been his ally Oleh Boyarintsev, a deputy in the Sumy Oblast Council. Boyarintsev was involved in the appointment of several candidates to head various oblast structural subdivisions and so has a tangible impact on the politics of the region (Antikor, June 2).

In terms of the Orthodox Church and the Cossacks, the central figure in the region is the Sumy Archbishop Evlogiy Hutchenko, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP—the self-governing branch of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine). In 2014, the UOC-MP priest (see EDM, April 16) wrote a letter asking Putin to invade the region and reduce the level of local tensions. His church has also been involved in hosting pro-Russian youth summer camps in the region (Debaty Sumy, June 12, 2018).

Five local Cossack paramilitary groups are connected to the Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy Cathedral, where Archbishop Gutrchenko presides: the Sumy Regiment of Free Cossacks (led by Ataman Nikolai Kondratenko); the Sumy Cossacks of the Savior; the Sumy Hussar Regiment; the Sumy Left Bank Cossacks; and the Sumy division of the Zaporozhian Army.

In 2015, the first four Cossack organizations banded together and declared they would provide law enforcement during ritual celebrations, protection for Orthodox churches, and preparations for patriotic activities and events to popularize the Cossack movement as well as to provide moral and spiritual education to the young. Numerous leaders of these Cossack movements have links to local and Russian pro-Moscow civil society organizations. For example, Kondratenko is a member of the organization “Union of the Russian People” in the Russian Federation. The Cossacks and their associated Orthodox Church parishes also work closely with the Derkach network (Antikor, June 2).

The third group uncovered by the investigation are Afghan veterans’ associations, which cooperate under the Union of Afghan Veterans. Since 2013, this organization has been headed in the Sumy region by Anatoliy Ivanovych Lynnyk, who had been promoted to this position thanks to pressure from the Party of Regions (forerunner of the Opposition Platform–For Life). During the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (EuroMaidan), Lynnyk voted for the conviction of the Maidan protestors and was the leader of the Sumy anti-Maidan movement. He was elected deputy of the Sumy Oblast Council in October 2015. While the organization does not formally take a position on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, an analysis of online evidence shows Lynnyk’s influence in agitating for pro-Russian themes. Lynnyk was also present at a Moscow conference on November 17–18, 2017, which brought together foreign pro-Russian forces (Antikor, June 2).

The final group is the Boyko Platform (alternatively referred to as the “Striker Platform”), which is connected with former deputy prime minister Yuriy Boyko, who served in government during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. The relatively successful election results (12 percent) achieved in the 2019 parliamentary election by the pro-Russian Opposition Platform–For Life party and, specifically, its Boyko-led wing indicate that this political network is capable of harmonizing and coordinating efforts between disparate groups across Sumy (Antikor, June 2).

The growing influence of Russia in Sumy Oblast reflects as much Kyiv’s failure in establishing a presence there as it does Moscow’s reach. These groups have been active in Sumy since the Novorossiya movement began—for example, collecting signatures against the renaming of streets in Sumy as part of Kyiv’s decommunization law in 2016 (Dancor, March 15, 2016). But the unique convergence of factors today suggest Russia may seek to activate its latent resources outside its borders, including perhaps Sumy, to create a new “Crimea.”

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