Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Russia in Review: Recasting the War in Ukraine

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Author: Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s rhetoric is creating a permissive environment for the Kremlin to push its false narratives about the nature of the War in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is also further contesting the information space in Ukraine and setting conditions to renew the supply of fresh water to the occupied Crimean Peninsula - likely to test the new Zelensky Administration.

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is inadvertently supporting the Kremlin’s false narrative about the War in Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky held a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7 after the death of four Ukrainian Marines in the Donbas.[1] Zelensky called on Putin to “influence the other side so that they stop killing our people” – language that implicitly absolved the Kremlin of its responsibility for the actions of its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine. This language – a departure from the rhetoric used by the previous administration – aids the Kremlin in its attempts to falsely frame the violence as a civil conflict and present itself as a mediator rather than a belligerent in Ukraine.

Putin intends to shift the narrative regarding the War in Eastern Ukraine in order to achieve his preferred political outcome in the Donbas and gain relief from sanctions applied by the West.[2] Ukraine’s ability to maintain an unambiguous international stance in opposition to this narrative is vital to prevent Russia from legitimizing its illegal aggression against Ukraine. Zelensky’s rhetorical mistakes – while likely stemming from inexperience rather than ill intent – disrupt this unity and create a permissive environment for Russia.

Photo: U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet

The Kremlin is further attempting to regain influence in the information space in Ukraine. Echo of Moscow Editor-in-Chief Alexey Venediktov floated the idea of establishing a branch of the radio station in Kyiv on August 8.[3] Venediktov later claimed that he intended to communicate opinions from Ukraine to Russia - rather than the other way around - after his announcement caused public outcry in Ukraine.[4] Venediktov has cast himself as a domestic opponent of Putin yet he largely supports the foreign policy line of the Kremlin. He stated in a recent interview that he remains hopeful about the possibility of Russia and Ukraine finding a solution for the Donbas.[5] He also stated that Ukrainians would ultimately forget the human cost of the War in Eastern Ukraine.[6] Echo of Moscow is unlikely to receive permission to establish a bureau in Ukraine. Sergei Kostinskii – a member of Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting – stated that the council’s doors remained closed to Venediktov and “his friends” in Russia.[7]

The Kremlin is likely using these outreach efforts by Venediktov to test the Zelensky Administration’s tolerance of its agenda in Ukraine.[8] It might also be using his access and connections to gain additional insight into Zelensky. Venediktov claimed to deliver a letter to Zelensky on July 10 from the mother of former RIA Novosti-Ukraine Editor-in-Chief Kirill Vyshynsky, who is detained on charges of high treason in Ukraine.[9] The outreach also parallels similar efforts by the Kremlin to regain influence in the information space of the former Soviet Union. Pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon advocated for the resumption of broadcasts of banned television channels from Russia in Moldova on July 30.[10]

The Kremlin is also likely setting conditions to negotiate access to the supply of fresh water to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Crimean authorities stated on August 12 that they would ask the Kremlin to help start negotiations on resuming the fresh water supply to Crimea, which Ukraine has blocked since 2014.[11] The authorities claimed they held a legal right to water in the Dnieper River given that it “originates” from Russia. Given that most of the rivers of Central and Eastern Ukraine originate in Russia, this statement amounts to a claim over most of the water in Ukraine - a claim at odds with international law.

This issue of water remains critical for the Kremlin, as it can draw upon only a limited number of expensive and suboptimal alternatives to provide water for Crimea.[12] The Kremlin may even have planned a contingency military option to seize the canal supplying fresh water to Crimea if former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had won the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election.[13] It likely perceives an opportunity to negotiate with Zelensky. Russia might use the negotiations over the water supply in Crimea as a bargaining chip in its larger effort to advance its preferred scenario in Eastern Ukraine. It may find some limited support for this goal in the Zelensky Administration. At least one member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party has publically criticized the decision to cut off the water supply to the Crimean Peninsula.[14]

[1] “Zelensky Calls Putin Following Deadly Shelling That Killed Ukrainian Troops in Donbas,” UNIAN, August 7, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10643202-zelensky-calls-putin-following-deadly-shelling-that-killed-ukrainian-troops-in-donbas.html.
[2] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[3] Svetlana Kryukova and Anastasia Tovt, [“Venediktov Plans to Set Up Radio ‘Echo of Moscow’ in Ukraine,”] Strana, August 8, 2019, https://strana(.)ua/news/216003-venediktov-otkryvaet-ekho-moskvy-v-ukraine.html.
[4] Sergei Buntman, [“We Will See: Interview with Alexey Venediktov,”] Echo of Moscow, August 10, 2019, https://echo.msk(.)ru/programs/observation/2479825-echo/.
[5] Dmitry Gordon, [“Alexey Venediktov on ‘Gordon’ (2019),”] YouTube, August 9, 2019,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Sergei Kostinskii, Facebook, August 9, 2019,
[8] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[9] “Ekho Moskvy Editor-In-Chief Gives Zelensky Letter From Mother of Vyshynsky,” Interfax, July 10, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/ekho-moskvy-editor-in-chief-gives-zelensky-letter-from-mother-of-vyshynsky.html.
[10] [“Dodon Will Seek to Restore the Broadcasting of Russian Television Channels,”] Ren, July 31, 2019, http://ren(.)tv/novosti/2019-07-31/dodon-budet-dobivatsya-vosstanovleniya-veshchaniya-rossiyskih-telekanalov.
[11] [“Crimea Intends to Initiate Negotiations with Ukraine on the Passage of the Dnieper to the Peninsula,”] TASS, August 12, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6755544.
[12] Vitali Portnikov, [“Water and Crimea,”] Radio Svoboda, July 30, 2019, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/30081878.html.
[13] Catherine Harris, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, and the ISW Russia Team, “Warning Update: Russian Preparations for Military Operations in Ukraine Continue,” Institute for the Study of War, December 23, 2018,
[14] [“‘These Are Our Citizens’: Zelensky Party Candidate Says Ukraine Harms Crimeans,”] The World News, July 7, 2019, https://twnews(.)at/ua-news/eto-nashi-grazhdane-kandidat-ot-partii-zelenskogo-zaiavil-chto-ukraina-vredit-zhiteliam-kryma.