Call it Terrorism: The Unacknowledged Tactic of the Russian-Led Insurgency in Ukraine’s East

Once the Kremlin  seized and “annexed” Crimea in late March, it began a campaign designed at a minimum to destabilize Eastern Ukraine.  While we cannot know for sure what Mr. Putin’s maximalist goal is, it includes, at least, establishing an autonomous southeastern Ukraine sensitive to Moscow’s interests.

The Kremlin, however, badly miscalculated.  It acted as if it believed its own propaganda, pumped out by Russia’s state-dominated media, that the ethnic Russians and “cultural Russians” in Ukraine’s east and south were seriously unhappy about the departure of former President Viktor Yanukovych, and were under some kind of danger from nationalist Ukrainians running the country from Kyiv.

Had that been true, it would have been relatively easy for the Kremlin to send in some operatives and help the locals organize their own resistance to the interim government in Kyiv that Moscow absurdly labeled a fascist junta. 

Since the people of the east failed to rise against Ukraine’s government, Moscow initiated an operation, led by its intelligence agencies and special forces, to spark an insurrection.  Whatever label we use for it – insurgency, irregular warfare or other – its clear features include the following:

  • money, leadership and arms from Russia;
  • the hiring of locals to bulk up anti-government demonstrations and to create paramilitary units to take over key cities,  economic assets and military/police installations;
  • a massive propaganda campaign via the Russian media – which blankets east and south Ukraine – about the supposed threats posed by the government in Kyiv;
  • economic measures against Ukraine to sap support for its government by impoverishing the citizenry;
  • the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border to intimidate Kyiv into not using sufficient force to put down the insurgency; and 
  • the use of terror to silence pro-Kyiv voices in the southeast and to cow the population into refusing any support for Ukrainian officials and security forces in the southeast that continue to defend Ukraine’s unity.

Before going any further, we need to step back and talk about terrorism in general.  Starting at some point with the emergence of terrorism in the Middle East in the mid-to-late 1960’s, we have come to associate terrorism with groups that target entire peoples as a way to garner publicity for a specific cause and to express unhappiness with the policies of specific governments.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this definition.  This is a specific type of terrorism and, you might say the most spectacular kind, especially after September 11.  But it is not the whole field of terrorism.

The use of much more discriminate terror – aimed to achieve more limited objectives than to publicize a cause or to impose some sort of presumed tribal vengeance – has been a feature of many insurgencies.

It was a common feature of the communist insurgencies that plagued the Third World in the 1950s and ’60s.  To take one example, the communist insurgency in Malaya.  It began with the murder of several estate managers.  Exemplary terror included the “execution” of Malays – in front of their families and fellow villagers – whom the insurgents accused of  providing support (often by simply performing  their economic functions) for the government.

By this standard, the Russian-led insurgency is practicing terror.  Let me provide some examples:

  • Insurgents abducted a local Donetsk-province politician, Volodomyr Rybak, in May after he tried to hoist a Ukrainian, rather than rebel flag. They tortured and killed him;
  • Militiamen at the village of Sergeyevka, outside Kramatorsk, executed an elderly pensioner in front of his family because he had sold vegetables to Ukrainian soldiers at a nearby checkpoint; 
  • Rebels arrested three young girls in Kramatorsk for selling food to Ukrainian troops;
  • lnsurgents have attacked the homes of many pro-unity Ukrainians in the region with gunfire and Molotov cocktails;
  • Insurgents have abducted hundreds of civilian Ukrainians in the southeast, according to Russian journalist Kateryna Serhatskova and other independent investigators. Serhatskova tells the Atlantic Council she has confirmed a list of at least 80 “disappearance,” and says she has the names of scores more whose families do want them publicized.

What is the purpose of this selective terror?

  • To drive out local elites who do not oppose to the central government. This has been successful, as evidenced by the departure from Donetsk province of the government’s governor there, Serhiy Taruta.
  • To scare the local population into not cooperating with any arm of the Kyiv government. It is not clear how successful this has been. For instance, in May, 3,000 students marched at Luhansk University in support of the government in Kyiv.
  • To disrupt the presidential elections May 25. This was partly successful; only 25 percent of the polling places in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were open.  So the vote in these areas was effectively blocked, but everywhere else there was a large turnout.  The elections were recognized as legitimate in Ukraine and abroad.
  • To provoke the government in Kyiv to use force massively, and thus to produce major civilian casualties and alienate people in the east.  This has not worked; Ukrainian forces have thus far been skillful at directing their fire.

This is not the large-scale terrorism characteristic of Al Qaeda or Boko Haram or the Tamil Tigers. But it is terrorism.  Civilians are being arrested, “disappeared,” tortured, and murdered for political ends.

Why do we not see and hear these realities in the media coverage of Ukraine’s crisis?

First, while the Ukraine story has been a major one since the crisis began, most news media have set a standard of evidentiary rigor that makes common-sense reporting very difficult. 

That’s why nearly all international media describe the insurgents in southeast Ukraine as “pro-Russian” forces or “separatists,” rather than “Russian-led”  forces. This persists to this day despite the following facts:

  • Scores, if not more, Chechen fighters, who perform official security roles in Chechnya, have joined the fight in Donetsk and confirmed their origins openly to Ukrainian and foreign journalists in Donetsk province.
  • The repatriation to Russia of the bodies of at least 31 Russian citizens among the insurgent fighters was documented by journalists at the end of May. Other funerals for Russians killed in Ukraine have been reported but not documented, and the number of Russian fighters killed in Ukraine ere formally repatriated to Russia at the end of May.
  • The T64 tanks and the sophisticated anti-aircraft equipment that appeared in the southeast in recent weeks came across the Russian border;
  • Russia has efficient border control mechanisms.

The reluctance of the media to tell the plain truth about the insurgency – instead offering a Russian version of events and then a Ukrainian or Western one – leads to even greater caution in connecting the dots on terror.

To be fair to Moscow, I am not saying that the Kremlin is micromanaging the insurgency.  There are some tragicomic, not quite accountable actors in this mix.  For example, it was surely not in Moscow’s interest to have forces from the Donetsk People’s Republic fighting with forces from the Luhansk People’s Republic.

Still, this is overall a Kremlin project, including the use of directed terror. If the Russian government shut down the supply of fighters, equipment and money, this conflict would be over in a fortnight.

John  E. Herbst is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: John E. Herbst

Image: Relatives of Volodymyr Rybak, a city councilor in Horlivka, carry his picture at his funeral April 24, after he was abducted and killed in Ukraine’s Donetsk province. The Ukrainian state security agency said Russian military officers directing separatist uprisings in Donetsk had ordered Rybak’s killing after he opposed a separatist takeover in Horlivka. REUTERS/Marko Djurica