It is difficult for someone not on site to know what is going on in a region as volatile and chaotic as Ukraine is today (although it is also true that being on site has its own information and bias problems). It is particularly difficult when the contending forces are as determined to frame events to their advantage as they are in the current crisis. Nevertheless, having followed the reporting coming out of Ukraine as closely as I could since last October, I have the following take on some of the disputed fact claims.
The Known Knowns
1. Russia’s Information War. In my view, Russia’s most important contribution to the destabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine has been its relentless media campaign to paint the post-Yanukovich government in Kyiv as a junta dominated by the far-right and neo-Nazis. The Russian media, particularly television, has been the main source of information for Russian speakers in the east and south. It has managed to convince a very large portion of that population there that Svoboda (the political party that now holds three positions in the twenty seat cabinet) and Pravy Sektor (the neo-fascist umbrella organization that played a key role in the Maidan drama in February) are fascist organizations in control of the streets of Kyiv that are driving public policy. In my view, while Pravy Sektor can be reasonably described as “fascist” or neo-fascist, Svoboda is a more-or-less typical illiberal European far-right party. But most importantly, Svoboda is only a minority partner in the government, and Pravy Sektor, while a major problem for Kyiv, has only a very limited influence over government policy (the government has had to be very careful in its efforts to disarm Pravy Sektor militants and get them off the streets of the capital). Nevertheless, a large majority of Russophones in the east and, to a lesser extent, the south is clearly convinced that the government in Kyiv is controlled by “Banderites” who are determined to humiliate, marginalize, and impoverish Russians and Russian speakers. Some go so far as to claim that the government intends to ethnically cleansing them from the country or launch a campaign of genocide. Even those who tell reporters that they do not want the Donbas to join Russia usually add that they hate the current government and refuse to accept its legitimacy or the legitimacy of the presidential elections on May 25. They hold these beliefs despite assurances from Yatseniuk and other Ukrainian leaders that Kyiv is open to decentralization and to the institutionalization of language rights for Russian speakers. That so few Russian speakers seem to even be aware of these reassurances, and that so many remain convinced that Kyiv is in the hands of fascists, is in my view almost entirely a result of Russia’s enormously successful propaganda campaign. The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign is why Putin’s call for the postponement of the March 11 referendum, and his claim that Russian troops were returning to their bases, were largely irrelevant (even if sincere, which I doubt). If Moscow really wanted to contribute to a stabilization of the east, it would have to change its propaganda narrative, and that strikes me as extremely unlikely. My own view is that Western leaders should be clearer that evidence of a commitment to de-escalation requires not just pulling back troops from the border but instructing Russia’s state-owned media to pull back on the hyperbolic language in its coverage of the crisis.
2. Most of the armed separatists are local Russophones. It seems clear that the great bulk of the armed and unarmed separatists in the east and south are locals – that is, they are Ukrainian citizens, almost all of whom speak to reporters in Russian and who tell them (and sometimes show papers confirming) that they come from the region. It is particularly clear that the great bulk of the unarmed civilians who have been blocking the Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” are locals. When interviewed, most assert that they are on the streets to resist the “fascists” in Kyiv, although some express ambivalence about joining Russia. My impression, however, is that these are in a minority – most of those interviewed say they want to join Russia, but first we need to let “the people” assert their right to chose through a referendum.
3. Significant role of Russian and Russian-supported military tourists. It is also clear that there are a large number of “military tourists” among the militants in eastern Ukraine – that is, civilians from Russia, Transnistria, Crimea (assuming we count Crimea as foreign territory at this point, de facto if not de jure) and elsewhere who have come to Ukraine to support their “compatriots.” Most appear to be well versed in the art of war – almost all are veterans and many seem to have considerable combat experience – and they constitute an important part of the professional element among the insurgents (although there are also locals with significant military expertise). Finally, it is clear that many military tourists are mobilized through a network of organizers and internet sites, mostly based in Russia, that encourages them to go to Ukraine to defend their compatriots from fascists while experiencing the pleasures of spreading mayhem in an increasingly lawless area. The network is thus not unlike the network that has been mobilizing jihadists since the mujahedeen war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
4. As of yet, no Little Green Men of the Crimean type. As soon as the Russian operation to seize control of Crimea began, it was clear that the Little Green Men spreading out across the peninsula were well-trained professional Russian military in full kit, including sophisticated communication devices and night vision goggles. There were countless photos and videos of scores of men, mostly in identical uniforms, some with heavy caliber weapons, moving in disciplined formations to secure critical facilities. Many were being delivered to their missions in columns of trucks. All of this added up to a professional military operation that could not possibly have emerged spontaneously from “Crimean self-defense forces,” as Moscow claimed. That has not been the case to date in eastern Ukraine. While many militants are in military gear of one sort or another, the uniforms and weapons are hodge-podge and appear to have been mostly if not entirely captured (and perhaps sometimes purchased) from Ukrainian police, SBU, and military facilities. So far I have seen no evidence of what are clearly Russian military servicemen in uniform, and certainly there is nothing underway on the scale of what took place in Crimea.
5. Extensive involvement of undercover Russian operatives. While the evidence is mostly circumstantial, Russian intelligence operatives have almost certainly penetrated Ukrainian society and its security services, and I have no doubt that they have been making every effort to encourage and, at least to some extent, coordinate the uprisings. Russia has been quite open in recent years about its commitment to covert warfare in general and in the “near abroad” in particular, and there has been no region of post-Soviet space more important to the Russian geopolitical project than Ukraine.
The Probable Knowns
1. Moscow probably has very limited direct influence at this point over the separatists. As I have suggested in earlier posts, Moscow cannot control the separatists now (if ever), and I suspect Putin was well aware of that when he called for a postponement of the referendum. The separatists are a decentralized collection of varying types (see above) with no clear leadership, which makes negotiating with them, or controlling them, all but impossible. Moreover, it is important to remember that many far-right groups in Russia (albeit not all) have been part of the opposition to Putin in Russia (the anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 included all sorts of political elements, including many from the far-right), or at the least they have been very ambivalent about Putin. That may be changing in the wake of the Sochi success and Putin’s Crimean gambit. But I very much doubt that Putin has enough authority to convince the separatists to reverse course.
2. The separatists are probably receiving some financial support from Yanukovich and other elements of the Donbas political machine/mafia. I have not seen any real evidence of this (although pro-Maidan forces assert that it is the case), but it seems likely that Yanukovich and his Donbas political/financial machine, both inside and outside the country, have been helping to fund the uprisings. They have the money, opportunity, and incentive to do so, so it is probably part of the picture there. It is, however, unclear how important that financing is.
3. Moscow is probably not providing weapons to the separatists. There have been frequent claims by pro-Maidan forces that the pro-Russian militants have been using weapons that only Moscow could have provided – new automatic rifles that are Russian military issue only; MANPADs (shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles that have destroyed three Ukrainian military helicopters); sophisticated shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons; and so on. These weapons were, however, probably obtained from arms caches seized from Ukrainian security services. What appear to be well-informed and balanced analyses explaining that these weapons could all have been obtained from Ukrainian sources have appeared on the internet. Moreover, there is no real need for Moscow to provide arms directly to the rebels, at least for now – the east is awash in light arms thanks to the looting of the arms caches. Nor does Moscow want a full blown civil war in Ukraine (although that is what they may get). Most importantly, Moscow would be very wary of providing sophisticated weapons to insurgents whom they cannot control.
4. Pravy Sektor probably has had a limited involvement in the violence in the east and south. While the Russian media is full of reports of “provocations” by Pravy Sektor in the east and south, and pro-Russian forces regularly detain or “disappear” individuals who they claim are members of the organization, I have seen very limited or dubious evidence that there has been any significant presence of Pravy Sektor types in the east. There was an attack on a checkpoint outside Slavyansk that was supposedly carried about by Pravy Sektor types several weeks ago, but the evidence looked staged. And there may have been Pravy Sektor members among the soccer fans (and soccer toughs) who were attacked in Odesa on the day of the fire. But Pravy Sektor is still a relatively small organization that is confined mostly to western Ukraine, and it would have a hard time infiltrating into the east in any numbers. Moreover, the kinds of isolated attacks it might be able to carry out would in any case be counterproductive to their goals.
The Known Unknowns
1. How much support there is for the separatists in the various parts of the east and south. Most polls show that a majority of the population supports a united Ukraine, but on the other hand pro-Ukrainian demonstrations and other evidence of opposition, armed or otherwise, to the separatists has been limited and has diminished over time. Of course, it may be that this is simply because the pro-Ukraine or pro-Maidan forces have been intimidated by all the violence from the pro-Russians. But it is also true that polls usually don’t get at intensity very well, so it may be that there is majority support for unity but with low intensity, while the intensity of support for sovereignty from Kyiv in one form or another is very high.
2. What Moscow is telling the separatists privately. This is something the public cannot know, although it is possible Western and Ukrainian intelligence services are aware of Moscow’s private communications with the separatists. That there has been at least some private communication has been made clear by the fact that the Kremlin’s special envoy to eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Lukin, has traveled to Donetsk and met with the separatists there, as well as by an intercepted phone conversation between Lukin and a representative of the separatists in Slavyansk (who in my view is probably a military tourist and not an agent of Russian military intelligence, contrary claims by Ukrainian intelligence notwithstanding) arranging for the release of the detained OCSE observers on May 3.
4. Whether Moscow is providing financial support to the separatists. Again, I have seen no clear evidence of this, but it is certainly possible.
5. How deeply penetrated the Ukrainian security services are by Russian agents. Presumably only Russian intelligence knows this. If Western or Ukrainian intelligence knew the answer, they could take measures to get rid of double agents or those with divided loyalties.
6. How loyal the Ukrainian security services are to the interim government. Aside from the issue below (Moscow’s endgame), this is perhaps the most critical question of all. Will Ukrainian security forces hold together and carry out orders to restore order and Kyiv’s writ in the east (hopefully gradually and cautiously), or will they splinter or otherwise refuse to suppress the separatists?
7. What is Moscow’s endgame? As I have argued in earlier posts, I think Moscow has a program minimum (destabilization), program medium (autonomous statelets on the Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia model), and a program maximum (occupation of some part of the east and south, although by maximum I should make clear I mean maximum in terms of ambition, not in terms of preference). However, Putin almost certainly has an expected outcome he is pushing for, but just what that outcome is (other than the very broad one of hegemony in post-Soviet space), and over what time frame, is probably known only to Putin and perhaps his immediate advisors.