Although the Russian war machine is performing badly, disrupting civil authority, inducing anarchy and enabling a pro-Russian government takeover remains Putin’s ultimate goal. A long-term strategy to protect Ukraine’s democracy will sustain the progress of its military.
Even as the focus of Russian ground troops shifts to southern and eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin seeks to establish “parallel authorities” according to a March 27 statement from Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence. Supporting Ukraine’s government is a sound investment the Biden Administration now recognizes. During a March 30 call with President Zelenskyy, Biden pledged $500 million in direct budgetary aid to Ukraine’s government. Part of this funding should be used to further advance internal security for Ukraine’s public sector personnel.
The United Nations Human Rights Office, on March 25, documented 22 cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance of local officials in regions under the control of Russian forces.
“Putin can’t take Ukraine, so he’s taking its people,” according to the ZMINA human rights center, a Kyiv-based non-government organization which released its own list of missing civilians on March 28. ZMINA claims the number grows daily and numerous reports back that up.
Like the larger Russian war effort, sloppy implementation has achieved limited results. The failure of Russian forces and mercenaries to assassinate or capture President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has exposed further weakness. But Russian forces and mercenaries have easier targets to choose from.
As widely reported in the media, the mayors of Dniprorudne, Melitopol, Skadovsk, and Slavuych have been abducted. Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, who was abducted and subsequently freed in a Ukrainian military operation, refused to meet Russian demands. He was marched out the door with a bag on his head.
Less reported on is the detention of others in local government. Dmytro Vasylyev, Secretary of the Nova Kakhovka Town Council, is reportedly detained and subject to torture until he meets demands to instill pro-Russian sentiment among his constituents. He has been kept in the basement of a Russian-controlled local police station.
In addition to Vasylev, ZMINA’s list includes local officials in southern and eastern Ukraine. A member of the Kupiansk town council, the chairman of the Melitopol district council, and the heads of the Ivankivka, Tsyrkuny and Stara Zburyivka villages have all been abducted. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Illustrating the viciousness of Russian targeting of local officials, Primorsk mayor Oleksandr Koshelevych eluded his would be captors. That is, until they found his father, at which point the mayor was said “to trade himself for him.” This account was cited in a Euromaidan Press twitter post.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the press March 17 to expect additional “systematic” abductions of local officials and attempts to replace them with Russian puppets. That is what happened in Melitopol where a Russian plant stood ready to do the Kremlin’s bidding as “acting” mayor.
When it comes to Zelenskyy, Russian failure to take Kyiv and peace talks should not create a false sense of security. The 1981 assassination attempt of US President Ronald Reagan took place in broad daylight in Washington D.C. The bullet struck less than an inch from his heart. It only takes one committed individual and one well-aimed gun to kill a head of state.
Moreover, the Russian practice of poisoning its opponents is legendary. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko fell ill in 2004 with dioxin blood levels said to be 1000 times normal. Yushchenko believes he was poisoned by Russian agents as he tried to maneuver Ukraine closer to Europe.
Ukraine’s own intelligence assessment cites Putin’s “personal involvement” in ordering attacks on Zelenskyy and top officials by one of his proxies.
These proxy-mercenaries, including the Wagner Group and a unit of Chechen special forces, are easier for Putin to manage than the blundering Russian military.
Ukrainians should be commended for keeping a majority of government leaders, if not workers, safe thus far but also for maintaining operations. Still, it is essential to include a wide array of security strategies with Putin’s mercenaries on the prowl in Ukraine.
Executing exfiltration plans to quickly evacuate key personnel to safe locations in and out of Ukraine is one strategy. As a last resort planning for a “government in absentia” should continue. These options should remain viable for the foreseeable future.
Protecting government personnel will ensure a free and independent Ukraine that stands the test of time.
Stephen Phillip Monteiro is an expert in law enforcement, security, forensics, intelligence and bioterrorism. He spent over 20 years as a Special Agent with the US Secret Service and served in the US Navy where he was trained in cryptology.
Steve was a member of the elite Presential Protective Division at the White House and served as the Special Agent in Charge and director of the Forensic Crime Laboratory. Later, he became a Senior Advisor to the Director of Weapons of Mass Destruction Intelligence for the DHS focusing on bioterrorism and received the Director of National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation for his work on Iraqi scientists. His expertise in the area of law enforcement, security, intelligence and forensics led to appearances on episodes of The Forensic Files, the National Geographic Channel, America’s Book of Secrets” on the History Channel as well as local newscasts.
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