Moscow’s Cold War Against Ukraine Undiminished After the Armistice

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 179

(Source: Reuters)

The ceasefire agreements, signed on September 5 and 19–20, have, in no sense, halted Russia’s multi-dimensional war against Ukraine. This includes a still-“hot” military conflict and a “cold” propaganda war. Nor could these agreements stop Russia from prosecuting the conflict in the absence of effective enforcement mechanisms, while Western powers are minimally involved if at all. In this situation, it is largely up to Russia to decide whether, when or on what conditions to respect the armistice or not (see EDM, September 10, 11, 23, 24, October 1, 3).

The armistice documents also fail to address the non-military dimensions of this war of aggression. Even in a purely military sense, the armistice is not holding up while Russia’s regular and proxy forces continue attacking key Ukrainian positions (see accompanying article). Along with the military operations in Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region including the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk), Russia’s political warfare continues with unabated intensity, seeking to destabilize Ukraine’s central government.

Russia’s hybrid war, after a dazzling debut in Crimea, can be assessed to have failed in mainland Ukraine conclusively. Maximum-intensity propaganda convinced but few locals in Donbas to join secessionist forces, bitterly disappointing their leaders. These had to rely primarily on the manpower that was streaming in from Russia’s interior. Ultimately, it was Russia’s intervention with conventional military forces that turned the hybrid warriors’ defeat into a Ukrainian debacle (see EDM, September 4).

Interrelated to the hybrid war, Russia’s Novorossiya (“New Russia”) project has fallen flat in six out of the eight targeted provinces. It only took off in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, thanks to the early deployment of Russian regular and irregular forces there. However, Moscow can reactivate the Novorossiya project in the event of economic collapse during the coming winter in Ukraine. In that case, the Kremlin will probably try politicizing social protests across Ukraine’s “east and south,” channeling these into centrifugal movements, possibly under Novorossiya banners, to split Ukraine.

Meanwhile Russia has created a smaller, Novorossiya-flagged protectorate of two “people’s republics,” on parts of Ukraine’s Donbas. This enclave’s current status is one of studied ambiguity. Russia occupies it militarily and controls its political leaders; but it disclaims (undoubtedly genuinely at this juncture) any intention to annex the two “people’s republics.” These, for their part, reject Ukraine’s sovereignty and the central government’s jurisdiction, but are not taking any irreversible steps, such as secession.

Moscow wants them to be part of Ukraine’s political arena in a limited sense, possibly to support pro-Russia politicians in Kyiv and to promote Ukraine’s “federalization” after the upcoming elections. Russia also hopes to gain acceptance to an international format that would oversee Ukraine’s constitutional changes (which Moscow understands as federalization). In a significant change of tone, therefore, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Moscow officials profess to wish Donetsk and Luhansk to remain “within Ukraine” (Interfax, October 1–5).

The Kremlin had embarked on this conflict aiming to overturn Ukraine’s sovereign statehood through territorial fragmentation (“Novorossiya,” “federalization” or partition projects) as well as to permanently incapacitate a residual Ukrainian state, thereby precluding Ukraine’s move from Russia’s orbit into that of the West. For the “Russian World’s” consumption, the Kremlin wants to demonstrate that a Ukraine that rejects Russia’s tutelage would be doomed to state failure.

To advance these broad objectives, Moscow currently focuses on exploiting short-term circumstances and opportunities. These arise from Russia’s military supremacy over an exhausted Ukraine, the expected aggravation of Ukraine’s economic situation during winter, and Ukraine’s tense parliamentary election campaign.

In this context, Russian state television channels continue the psychological warfare against Ukraine at an undiminished level of vehemence. This seems uncorrelated to the level of military hostilities, which have peaked and are subsiding in relative terms, despite ceasefire breaches (see accompanying article). Kremlin-controlled TV channels depict Ukrainian forces as war criminals, tell horrific but often unsubstantiated or uncorroborated atrocity stories, focus on Ukrainian “fascism,” and resort to outright insults and hate speech. Such programs seem geared toward uncritical and gullible segments of the mass audience.

Russia’s Duma members, from Chairman Sergei Naryshkin on down, are featured prominently in this television warfare. Russia’s Investigative Service has opened criminal cases against prominent Ukrainian government members, who are being portrayed as Kyiv’s “party of war.” This move can also be understood as an element of psychological warfare.

As Ukraine’s October 26 parliamentary elections draw closer, however, Russian state television channels and government officials can be expected to adjust their tones somewhat, perhaps trying to project some conciliatory messages. But they can also be expected to challenge the fairness and correctness of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, not on outcome but on process. In this sense also, Moscow’s cold war against Ukraine is likely to continue in the aftermath of Ukraine’s elections.