Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Moscow Seeks to Destabilize Increasingly Vulnerable Ukraine

By Franklin Holcomb and Kyle Miller

The Kremlin continued its campaign to destabilize Ukraine while political tensions in Kyiv escalated as major players began to position for 2019 elections. Ukraine took further steps toward NATO and EU integration, but key anti-corruption reforms stalled. The Kremlin’s campaign continued to focus on exploiting political, cultural, and ethnic divisions in Ukrainian society and attempting to legitimize its proxy forces in Donbas while they continued relatively low-level combat operations against Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. signaled broader military support for Ukraine, but it must take a holistic approach to helping Kyiv defend itself from the Kremlin’s multifaceted campaign. 

The Kremlin continued its covert and overt campaign aimed to destabilize Ukraine. Russian proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine conducted daily attacks on the positions of Ukrainian Armed Forces in the East, damaging local infrastructure and killing Ukrainian soldiers. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also reported pro-Russian agents engaged in acts of subversion and sabotage across Ukraine designed to damage Ukrainian infrastructure and spread discontent. The SBU announced on 17 AUG that it obtained information indicating that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) was planning kinetic attacks within Ukraine. The Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff accused Russian special services of destroying a major Ukrainian arms depot in the Western province of Vinnytsia on 27 SEP, the fourth Ukrainian arms depot destroyed since the conflict began. Ukraine has been unable to halt these acts of sabotage and report that they are starting to seriously impact the Armed Forces of Ukraine's (AFU) combat readiness.

The Kremlin attempted to isolate Ukraine by exploiting Eastern European cultural, ethnic, and political tensions with mixed success. The SBU detained members of a group of saboteurs on 02 OCT in Western Ukraine before they could damage a Hungarian monument. The SBU claimed that these men had conducted similar attacks against Polish monuments, government buildings, and diplomatic facilities in Ukraine and were connected to members of the defunct pro-Russia “Party of Regions.” The Kremlin would likely have attempted to frame Ukrainian nationalists as the perpetrators of the sabotage of the Hungarian monument, as it did in the previous incidents against Polish structures. This act of sabotage was likely intended to inflame existing tensions between Hungary and Ukraine. Hungarian leaders condemned a Ukrainian education bill mandating the use of Ukrainian in school, which they argue harms the small ethnic Hungarian population in western Ukraine. Poland, Moldova, and Romania have also expressed concerns about the welfare of their ethnic populations in western Ukraine. The Kremlin will continue to use its operatives in Eastern Europe to drive wedges between European states and decrease regional political, economic, and military cooperation.

The Kremlin made a peace overture designed to allow it to posture as a responsible international actor and frame Ukraine and the West as the drivers of the conflict. The Kremlin submitted a draft resolution to the UN with terms known to be unacceptable to Kyiv calling for the deployment of peacekeepers, including Russian soldiers, to Donbas on 05 SEP. The Kremlin’s proposal limited the role of peacekeepers to protecting international monitors in restricted areas in eastern Ukraine, rather than assisting with the implementation of the Minsk II ceasefire.  The Kremlin also continued to call for Ukraine to negotiate directly with separatist forces, which would help legitimize its proxies. Ukraine and the U.S. rejected the Kremlin’s proposal. Ukraine provided a counter-proposal that called for peacekeepers to be deployed throughout the conflict zone, including the Russian-Ukrainian border, with a broad mandate to help stabilize the region. The Kremlin rejected Ukraine’s proposal and accused Kyiv of delaying the peace process, while continuing its military campaign against Ukraine.

Ukraine advanced its military integration with Western military and economic structures, while it lost momentum in its fight against corruption. The AFU furthered integration with NATO and improved joint interoperability through participation in multinational military exercises such as ‘Platinum Lion 2017’ and NATO exercise ‘Rapid Trident 2017.’  Ukraine also agreed to deepen military cooperation with Poland by expanding the role of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade. Ukraine formally entered into an Association Agreement with the EU, which will accelerate economic, judicial, and government reforms to meet EU standards, on 01 SEP. Ukrainian civil-economic reforms nonetheless showed signs of stagnation despite this progress. Ukraine failed to advance its initiative to establish much-needed independent anti-corruption courts, due to resistance from within the Ukrainian government. The last members of the independent advisory board for Ukraine’s state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz, which had been a flagship of reforms, resigned on 21 SEP and accused the Ukrainian government of “dismantling” reform efforts. All other members of the advisory board had previously resigned and leveled similar accusations against Poroshenko’s government.

Ukraine’s domestic political volatility increased ahead of the 2019 presidential elections. Former Georgian president and former governor of Odessa Oblast, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose citizenship Poroshenko had previously revoked, entered Ukraine on 10 SEP after his supporters helped him break through Ukraine’s western border. Saakashvili condemned the Poroshenko administration for corruption and pledged to lead protests against the current government. He met with Ukrainian opposition politicians, including ‘Fatherland’ opposition party leader Yulia Tymoshenko. He also attempted to court the reformist bloc by supporting many of its policy recommendations including the formation of independent anti-corruption courts. Saakashvili is unlikely to gain enough support to challenge Poroshenko, but his momentum indicates rising discontent with Poroshenko in Ukraine’s reformist coalition. Pro-Russia political players are also setting conditions ahead of the elections. Leader of the pro-Russia political party ‘Ukrainian Choice’ Viktor Medvedchuk and an ally of President Putin held a closed-door meeting Putin in Crimea on 18 AUG, during which they likely refined the Kremlin’s strategy of returning Kyiv to its sphere of influence. The Kremlin will seek to exploit and foster the growing political instability in order to fracture the pro-Western coalition and boost its political proxies in Ukraine. Poroshenko and the reformists must address core governance issues ahead of the 2019 elections, particularly by taking decisive anti-corruption measures, or risk losing control of the government.

The U.S. advanced legislation intended to bolster its military support to Ukraine, although additional efforts will be needed to counteract the Kremlin’s multifaceted subversion campaign. The U.S. Congress passed a bill allocating $500 million to Ukrainian defense on 19 SEP that includes a provision authorizing the supply of lethal defensive aid. This is a critical step in supporting the AFU’s efforts to reform into a modern military force capable of defending Ukraine. The U.S. and its partners must nonetheless take a comprehensive approach to successfully counter the Kremlin’s destabilization of Ukraine, including economic incentives and pressures to encourage Ukraine to pursue reforms. The West should not be distracted by the Kremlin’s disingenuous negotiating proposal, and keep pressure on the Kremlin to remove its forces from Ukraine.