Moscow Shifting from Direct Aggression to Building a Fifth Column in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 17

(Source: Reuters)

Given Moscow’s desire to get out from under the sanctions regime and the almost equal desire of some Western governments to declare victory and lift it, the Kremlin appears likely to do just enough to claim that it has fulfilled the Minsk Accords and the West to accept that as sufficient to end the Ukrainian crisis. In that event, it is a near certainty the West will again focus on Moscow and look away from Ukraine even though Crimea will remain under Russian occupation. And as a result, Ukraine will be left largely on its own against what has always been part of the Kremlin’s strategy against it, and what seems certain to be the center of that strategy in the future: the use of a Russian-organized fifth column to subvert Ukraine and prevent it from making the kind of reforms that will allow it to integrate into Europe.

Such a strategy will be especially useful to Moscow because it will seek to promote the idea that Ukraine’s problems are entirely of Ukraine’s own making, and that the West should view Kyiv as a poor partner, because whatever Vladimir Putin promises, he will take back whenever it suits him, counting on the West’s short memory and on its desire to have good relations with Russia. Further, the strategy is likely to work especially well in the short-term because of the enormous problems Kyiv will face in re-integrating the Donbas; problems that Moscow propagandists and their friends in the West can count on trumpeting to the world and exploiting to heighten other regional tensions in Ukraine (, January 25).

What is perhaps most remarkable is not that Moscow is making this shift—it is fully consistent with Russian doctrine and the Russian practice of “hybrid war”—but rather that its agents are so brazen as to declare that this is exactly what they intend to do. Last week, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk separatists, made a statement that deserves the closest attention. One Ukrainian commentator, Yury Uvarov, has done so; and his analysis points to why both Ukrainians and Western governments should be concerned (, January 20).

Typically, Uvarov says, Zakharchenko’s remarks are so over the top that they can safely be ignored; but this time around, his words appear to have been crafted for him in Moscow and point to a major change. This is evident as Zakharchenko says that whatever happens in the Donbas, “protest movements could be salvation for Ukraine.” He goes on to state: “The present authorities of Ukraine obviously are leading the country into the abyss. A loss of sovereignty, de facto foreign rule, economic degradation, and a growth in poverty and unemployment are all leading Ukraine toward economic collapse and political catastrophe. And in the final analysis, to disintegration.”

Zakharchenko adds that he and his regime “will welcome the appearance in Ukraine of such movements” but will not take the lead in promoting them. In addition, he states, “We very much hope that the Ukrainian people will wake up from their apathy and will be able to begin through protests the process of changing Ukraine and returning it into the family of civilized peoples from the Banderite dead end it finds itself in now. If that doesn’t happen, everything will be very bad. I can confidently say that Ukraine must be changed or otherwise it will disappear!”

The “key words” here, Uvarov points out, are “will greet, will not show initiative… into the family of civilized peoples or disappear.” Translated into the language of practical politics, this means that “Russia will do everything to support the rise of a fifth column in Ukraine,” because in its view, the only way for Ukraine to return to the family of civilized nations is “under the control of Russia.” Otherwise, “it will disappear.” And that means that Moscow’s puppets in Ukraine must “fulfill their main task—to broaden their electoral base,” something for which there are “objective preconditions” in Ukraine itself.

“The Kremlin’s actions are logical,” Uvarov says. But they are based on a fundamental mistake, an underrating of the level of Ukrainian patriotism. He concludes by saying “today, the Ukrainian nation as never before is united and strong, and a united people cannot be defeated.”

At least three reasons exist why Uvarov is quite possibly too optimistic, especially if the West turns its attention away from Ukraine just as Moscow is increasing its involvement. First of all, the idea of a fifth column works even if it doesn’t exist. If people begin to suspect that their opponents are part of it, that in and of itself poisons politics and makes cooperation almost impossible. Second, Uvarov is too dismissive of Russia’s opportunities to stir up trouble in this way in the political sphere. Ukraine is united in some ways, but it is also divided in many others—and Russia can and will exploit this.

And third, Uvarov is wrong to limit the idea of a fifth column to political activism. The Russian version this time around is likely to include both Russian-organized false flag operations to discredit Ukrainian nationalists by promoting extremist ideas, and Russian-organized but nominally Ukrainian paramilitary units that can be deployed to challenge Kyiv’s authority (For a discussion of these possibilities and others, see Paul W. Blackstock’s classic work, The Strategy of Subversion, Chicago, 1964).

Those inclined to accept as legitimate Moscow’s “fulfillment” of the Minsk Accords should reflect on these realities.