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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Paradox of Ukrainian Power

"It is early April 2017 and the world is watching events in the Russian city of Kazan with grave concern. Initial protests against the decline of Tatar language education and financial neglect of the region in the capital of the Tatarstan Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation barely gained attention. But central authorities struggling with economic problems and tensions with Ukraine overreacted, using special forces units brought in from across Russia against peaceful protesters. Marginalised by Moscow and experiencing a serious decline in illicit revenues, local security officials distanced themselves from the actions of OMON riot police, in some places even siding openly with protesters.Yet it was a sudden escalation in mid-February 2017 that overwhelmed central authorities and shocked observers. Where protesters had  previously confronted external riot police with stones and makeshift clubs, trained militiamen emerged with automatic weapons to storm local state buildings and engage in clashes with military units. As conflict watchers on social media identified weapons sourced from Ukraine's Donbass region in Tatar insurgent hands, the Russian community in Kazan split between Moscow loyalists and those alienated by the brutality of Russian units and their proxies. With defections from local police increasing by the day and insurgents moving to seize the Tatarstan Republic's administration, by early April large parts of Kazan were no go areas for Moscow loyalists. Meanwhile, polite people with Ukrainian-sounding accents quietly checked out of Kazan's Palace Hotel as chaos unfolded around them." 

At a time when Russian-backed forces occupy parts of East Ukraine and the Kremlin piles pressure on Kyiv and its shattered intelligence service, a scenario where Ukrainian operatives take advantage of regional unrest to destabilize the Russian Federation seems quite far-fetched. But it is worth recalling that two years ago the creation of separatist quasi-states in Donetsk and Luhansk backed by Russian forces may have seemed equally implausible to even the most pessimistic observer of Ukrainian politics. In an environment in which economic crisis, growing tensions with the West and a conflict in Ukraine that has become a strategic quagmire are beginning to erode the stability of the Russian state, what once may have seemed improbable may quickly come to fruition as the unintended consequences of Kremlin actions and Western or Ukrainian responses come to the surface.

While scholars, journalists and diplomats spent much of 2014 preoccupied with anticipating the moves the Kremlin was about make, I would like to suggest that we now need to start focussing on what Ukraine's rapidly changing security services may do to protect what they define as the strategic interests of the Ukrainian nation. Just as misperceptions over the FSB, GRU and their pro-Kremlin proxies' willingness to escalate in 2014 slowed Western responses to their actions, so an underestimation of the lengths to which Ukrainians could go to exacerbate Russian weaknesses may lead to equally destabilising developments in 2015.

There are two aspects two the post-Maidan transformation of the Ukrainian military and security services which those hoping to deescalate the Russo-Ukrainian conflict need to keep a particular eye on. First, attention needs to be paid to debates within a National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) that has become central to Kyiv's strategic planning process. Secondly, policy makers and analysts need to keep track of the specific security institutions that come to dominate intelligence work and the turf battles between them. Though the SBU (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy) remains Ukraine's primary security service, the institutional devastation it suffered at the hands of Russian operatives in March 2014, recently described in an excellent piece by Mashable's Christopher Miller, has opened up opportunities for other institutions, special forces and paramilitary units to get involved in intelligence operations. How these pressures play out will shape the operational procedure and personnel that emerge within the SBU and its rivals as frantic reconstruction efforts after the collapse of spring 2014 reshape the Ukrainian security sector.

1. The NSDC and the Strategic Goals of Post-Maidan Ukraine

As with so many other parts of Ukraine's security and defence infrastructure, since its establishment by President Leonid Kravchuk the NSDC has led something of a shadow existence. In the two decades after independence, the heads of the NSDC have had to occasionally co-ordinate difficult security challenges such as nuclear disarmament, secessionist sentiment in Crimea and the accidental shooting down of a passenger jet in 2001. In general though, few Ukrainian governments seriously prioritised security matters, allowing corruption and a lack of investment to undermine Ukraine's defence and intelligence capabilities. With the army organising its involvement in UN peacekeeping operations and the Iraq War the NSDC's role gradually went into decline. In the last few years control of the NSDC has largely become a means through which presidents used appointments to reward supporters and punish opponents. This culminated during the ill-fated presidency of Viktor Yanukovich with the head of the NSDC, Andriy Kluyev, coordinating the hollowing out of Ukraine's democratic institutions and suppression of opposition activists.

The institutional framework Andriy Parubiy, the co-ordinator of the Maidan self-defence units, took on immediately after the Maidan Revolution was largely inadequate for the task of organising the defence of the country. Moreover, little help could be expected from the fractured leadership of a military whose core units were either stripped of equipment through corruption or involved in peacekeeping operations in Africa. The security services were so deeply penetrated by Russia's FSB that many operatives defected to pro-Russian forces, taking hard drives containing key information with them. It is perhaps a sign of the measure of success Parubiy had in helping pull Ukraine back from the brink in the wake of the loss of Crimea and the collapse of state authority in the East that while the leadership of the Ministry of Defence experienced significant turnover, his reputation has survived largely intact. Now Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), Parubiy played a key role in helping integrate the volunteer battalions that together with airborne regiments have  become the professional core of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Throughout Parubiy's tenure, his team primarily struggled to craft short term responses to acts of Russian aggression, often scrambling to pull together whatever assets they could fine to hold ground that had not yet been lost.

Only with the lessening of combat intensity in the Donbass region after the Minsk Accords of 5 September 2014 has the NSDC leadership had the space to engage in long-term planning. With the former post-Maidan Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and Acting President Olexander Turchynov taking over, the NSDC has a political heavyweight in charge with the robustness to retain a high degree of authority over planning processes in the SBU and the military. It is therefore under Turchynov that the NSDC will come to a set of conclusions about Ukraine's national interests that may either lead it to prioritise defensive stabilising measures or take on a more aggressive stance that could have destabilising effects. At core lies the question of whether this emerging Ukrainian security elite sees a stable and influential Russia as a neighbour that can be managed or whether figures such as Turchynov come to the conclusion that an independent Ukraine can only survive if Russia remains politically and economically weak.

Here the signals coming from Kyiv have been decidedly mixed. Senior figures around President Poroshenko have emphasised that a restoration of some kind of working relationship is in the interest of both nations. With Turchynov's Narodniy Front, the other key party in the governing coalition, employing more robust rhetoric towards pro-Russian forces Turchynov has already developed a reputation for being something of a hawk. How these various debates within the cabinet and NSDC over long term strategy for dealing with the Russian threat are resolved will then set the tone for measures taken lower down the security hierarchy. 

If the NSDC decides that the international community is willing to maintain a level of pressure that deters the Kremlin from further undermining Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, it is likely to set out a doctrine focussed on simply holding territory and shoring up the nation's defences against covert infiltration. Yet if Western resolve is seen as shaky, then there is a distinct possibility that the NSDC will evolve a security doctrine based on the understanding that Ukraine can only be safe if Russia is too weak to exert influence on neighbouring states. If such a view hardens across the new Ukrainian security establishment, then a tacit acceptance of more aggressive tactics across a range of economic, political and security targets designed to keep Russia permanently under pressure may become entrenched.  

Already there are signs that the current Ukrainian government feels secure enough to use its control over infrastructure in Crimea and the Donbass in a way that puts the Kremlin on the back foot. At a time at which Russia is facing economic turmoil, moves by the Ukrainian government to cut off occupied Donetsk and Luhansk from the financial system and shut down Crimea's access to transport, electricity and water are driving up the costs of this conflict for the Kremlin. By effectively crippling the economy of both regions, such a Ukrainian blockade is stoking local discontent as well as divisions between pro-Russian groups that have seized power, making the zones under Russian occupation increasingly difficult to govern. That these forms of quite blunt pressure seem to have forced the Kremlin to come to a compromise when it comes to Ukrainian energy and coal imports may strengthen those within the NSDC who believe hardball tactics that take advantage of Russian weakness will keep the Kremlin at bay.

Without reliable support from Western allies, there is therefore a strong chance the NSDC will evolve a long term security doctrine with strong parallels to the Iron Wall paradigm that has shaped Israeli strategy for eighty years. Based on the writings of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a prominent Zionist in the 1920s, the Iron Wall model assumes that national survival can only be secured through strong military and security services with the ability to keep opponents off balance and divided. For Jabotinsky, an Iron Wall strategy needs to be pursued relentlessly until opponents are forced to accept the legitimacy and territorial integrity of a contested state. Evolving far beyond Jabotinsky's original goals, strategic doctrine based on the Iron Wall model has been used by various Israeli governments to justify actions such as invasions of Lebanon or assassinations of potential opponents that arguably go well beyond the security needs of the Israeli state. 

Strong engagement by NATO and the EU with the NSDC is therefore imperative to avoid a sense of permanent insecurity fostering such an aggressive approach. Beyond long term support for the NSDC's capacity-building efforts, strong engagement by EU and NATO institutions with a small but growing band of security analysts in Kyiv such as Dmytro Tymchuk or Yuri Butusov could also help influence debate in a way that emphasises the advantages of a more defensive strategy. Extensive support from Western institutions and strong relationships with scholars and officials in Kyiv could do much to ensure the NSDC does not encourage institutions it is coordinating from engaging in preemptive moves that could close the door to rebuilding relations with any Russian regime that emerges after the fall of President Putin.

If the West fails to provide extensive aid and advice, an NSDC inclined to believe Ukraine can only be safe if Russia remains off balance is more likely to tolerate, perhaps even encourage, covert operations to sustain an Iron Wall strategy. Why various institutions and networks jostling for prominence in Ukraine's post-Maidan security landscape may be tempted to engage in such operations is what we will look at next.

2. Competition Between Security Networks in Post-Maidan Ukraine  

Since the fall of Yanukovich and the unfolding acts of Kremlin aggression that followed,  the Ukrainian security institutions the NSDC has tried to coordinate have been in a state of flux. Whether any reformed successor organization to Ukraine's bloated and infiltrated Foreign Intelligence Service can provide reliable intelligence about developments in Russia, Belarus and Moldova is an open question. This intelligence vacuum along with the moribund nature of the army and the sudden collapse of the SBU during the annexation of Crimea have opened up opportunities for new actors to take a leading role in Ukraine's security sector. 

The establishment of volunteer battalions to counter the growing momentum of pro-Russian forces in May and June 2014 has added new, in many cases brigade-sized, units that will be part of the professional core of the Ukrainian military for some time to come. Together with troops from airborne and mechanized brigades that have taken the brunt of the fighting, veterans from these volunteer units are now the core recruitment pool for the military's intelligence directorate (HUR), which is being reconstructed from the ground up. The incorporation of many volunteer units into a reformed National Guard has revived a second force structure under the control of the Ministry of Interior that had largely been eliminated by the Yanukovich administration. With its own nascent intelligence gathering capabilities, the National Guard gives ambitious figures around Interior Minister Avakov the opportunity to pursue their own anti-Russian operations. That people as disparate as business oligarchs, civic volunteer networks and radical political movements have become so essential to the fight against Russian aggression further complicates the challenge the NSDC faces in ensuring that everyone involved in the defence of Ukraine is working in harmony. 

Understanding how potential institutional competition between these various actors will play out, and whether the NSDC can ultimately bring them into line, is complicated by the relative dearth of research about the Ukrainian security sector before the Maidan Revolution. Some researchers such as Taras Kuzio  or Joseph Albini have provided interesting insights into the internal development of the SBU. Yet there has been very little work on Ukraine that provides the kind of comprehensive analysis connecting the evolution of the policing and intelligence worlds with wider social trends that Mark Galeotti has pioneered in his research on the Russian security sector. Though in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution and Crimea many scholars are working to close this gap, the scarcity of detailed research in this area makes it more difficult to establish how interaction between loyal veterans of the pre-Maidan security services and new 'revolutionary' recruits may influence the tactics they will use to fulfil the NSDC's strategic goals.

But there are some indications of the directions in which this institutional framework could evolve. In particular, the massive turnover in personnel experienced by all major Ukrainian security institutions in the last six months is a development that needs to be watched closely. With so many policemen, military officers and intelligence officials proving unreliable, thousands of new opportunities have opened up for Ukrainians who had no previous experience of combat or cover operations. Beyond institutional bureaucracies, a network of civic volunteers working together with patriotic oligarchs, best described by David Patrikarakoshas bypassed established structures to supply front line troops with much-needed equipment and support police in detecting pro-Russian sympathizers trying to destabilise regions outside the area of combat operations. 

While this massive infusion of fresh and loyal personnel has bogged down pro-Russian offensives and may ultimately help deter further Russian aggression, it could have a more problematic impact if the NSDC decides to focus on covert operations against various targets. With many of these new recruits still linked to their old volunteer battalions and in some cases even radical political movements, external actors may be in the position to use units within the SBU or other agencies to pursue their own agendas against Russian or pro-Russian targets. Such continued weakness in command and control could also make it tempting for operatives to run their own 'cowboy' operations, designed to destabilize Russian occupied territory or even parts of Russia itself without the knowledge of the NSDC leadership

The key role played by civic and oligarchic networks in helping reconstruct Ukraine's security sector could actually compound this problem. Military officers and security officials frustrated with the SBU's bureaucracy or desperate to show results can now draw on a wide range of activists and cash rich businessmen outside the security services to help fund and organize covert operations which may have unpredictable consequences. That such operations could be distorted by personal grudges, financial interests or a desire to enhance the reputation of a particular political movement is also a potential risk that arises if volunteer efforts that proved priceless in helping restore military strength become integrated in intelligence and infiltration work. 

Whether veterans of the pre-Maidan security services that have remained loyal will be willing or able to restrain their revolutionary colleagues remains questionable. As Christopher Miller, Taras Kuzio and others have pointed out, the risk that the FSB still has a network of informers within the security services remains high, making it more difficult for veteran operatives to exert authority over new recruits. Moreover, among the many genuine Ukrainian patriots within the SBU and the military there are indications that a desire for revenge against Russian opponents is barely lurking beneath the surface. The adoption of jingoistic rhetoric by ex-Berkut and SBU veterans in new security structures is certainly an act of expediency for those trying to distance themselves from the old regime. But I would contend that as it becomes internalized it may also encourage such figures to back impulsive plans. In the last six months Ukrainian 'siloviki' have lived through the greatest humiliation experienced by security services since the Second World War at the hands of an openly triumphalist FSB and GRU. For many old hands loyal to Kyiv, a desire to wipe this mark of shame from their records mixed with the need to prove their loyalty to the Ukrainian state increases the likelihood that they would willingly involve themselves in aggressive operations against Russian targets if they are encouraged to do so.

Such a dynamic may be exacerbated by attempts by senior political figures within the current Ukrainian government to maximise their influence over the security sector. The institutional empire-building of Interior Minister Avakov is especially significant in this regard. Drawing on his own wide-ranging network of contacts, which includes former civil society activists as well as members of the radical right, Avakov has put loyalists in place throughout the security services and done as much as possible to expand the remit of agencies under his control. While his ruthless approach ensured the loyalty of the police and the National Guard,  it is also helping to enhance the position of the Ministry of Interior to the extent that it may become a rival power structure to that of the NSDC. As a consequence, Avakov is coming into a position to launch his own alternative initiatives in ways that can bypass Turchynov and other NSDC officials responsible for coordinating intelligence work. A security sector split into a 'Turchynov vertical' and an 'Avakov vertical' would further increase the risks of potentially counter-productive actions, with covert operations against Russian targets becoming a means with which rival factions will try to enhance their influence.

Such covert operations would not necessarily have to take place in Russia to cause Moscow serious difficulties. With so much Kremlin prestige on the line and borders between occupied territories and Russia wide open, actions that help turn Crimea and the 'People's Republics' in East Ukraine into ungovernable spaces will have knock-on effects on the Russian Federation itself. Not only is economic collapse in these areas driving up the financial costs of occupation for the Kremlin, continuing political chaos in the Donbass region has already led to conflict between pro-Russian factions that has culminated in skirmishing and assassinations. The fragmentation of occupied territories into rival criminal fiefdoms increases the risk for the Kremlin that militia battles in Donetsk and Luhansk could spread to neighbouring Russian oblasts. In Crimea, there are enough disgruntled Ukrainians and Tatars around to provide the basis efforts toward destabilizing the peninsula if the SBU or another agency decided that this was a priority. However much the Crimean Tatar leadership and pro-Kyiv activists have emphasised non-violent resistance, if Russian authorities continue with a needlessly provocative approach, Ukrainian operatives who wish to use covert violence to pressure their rivals in the FSB are likely to find willing local recruits.

As Russia begins to experience serious economic turbulence over the course of 2015, new opportunities will arise for Ukrainian operatives who want to extend payback into the Russian Federation itself. Recent audacious attacks by Chechen insurgents in Grozny and continuing fighting across the North Caucasus region provide a ready platform for any intelligence team tasked with putting the Kremlin under pressure. In the 1990s, several radical Ukrainian nationalists joined Chechen rebel groups to fight the Russian Army. These links have been renewed, with a number of anti-Kremlin Chechens fighting with Ukrainian forces in East Ukraine. Such existing links would give a starting point for any operatives who decide to fuel anti-Kremlin insurgencies with an infusion of lethal aid with or without the knowledge of the NSDC. Further moves by the Kremlin to complete the centralisation of power which are putting ethnic minorities across the Russian Federation under greater pressure to undergo russification will also open up possibilities for initiatives designed to weaken the Russian state. Discontented minorities that no longer feel safe within the 'Russian World', regional elites whose income streams are being plundered by Moscow and even criminal gangs struggling to survive as profits decline could all provide useful levers for any destabilisation operations. 

However, such a shift to more aggressive covert operations would contain enormous risks for the Ukrainian state. With FSB infiltration still a huge problem for all major security institutions, chances remain high that plans for any such an operation would leak, damaging Ukraine's international image. In such a situation, some form of Russian escalation would undoubtedly follow that would not necessarily elicit a firm Western response. Any operations that could actually come to fruition would still be difficult to keep secret. As we have seen over the past few years, conflict watchers on social media have become adept at identifying weaponry deployed by insurgents and establishing its source, making it more difficult for intelligence agencies fuelling insurgencies to mask their presence. In the past two decades, the single-minded pursuit of Iron Wall strategies has done enormous damage to both Croatia and Israel's relationships with their core allies. It is unlikely that an NSDC strategy based on the same assumptions would enable Ukraine to escape a similar fate.

Even successful covert destabilisation operations may trigger developments that could cause Ukrainians considerable trouble. Moves to help compound Russian economic difficulties would certainly make it more difficult for the Kremlin to act, but such turmoil could easily have knock-on effects on Ukraine's own fragile economy. Turning occupied territories into ungovernable spaces would also make it far more difficult and costly to reconstruct their institutions if they ever came back under Kyiv's control. Moves to undermine security in vulnerable Russian regions are likely to have the most dangerous impact, with the potential to trigger refugee flows and cross-border violence which could easily draw Kyiv into conflicts in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Russian Federation that are not of direct strategic relevance to the Ukrainian state.

And yet even with all these dangers the risks that the post-Maidan security services could be drawn into aggressive covert operations against Russia remain high. With the probability of Kremlin intervention, a full military offensive against pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk remains out of the question.This leaves few other areas of action for the Ukrainian government if it feels under public pressure to retaliate against terror attacks by pro-Russian groups or Russian intelligence services against targets associated with the Ukrainian war effort. As Nikolai Holmov has pointed out, this low-level terrorist campaign has become a challenge police and intelligence officials across the country are still struggling to cope with. A gradual escalation of such attacks will see a growing likelihood of a serious loss of civilian life leading to public fury at Russian and pro-Russian perpetrators. Coupled with continuing military casualties from skirmishes on the front line in the East and a general deterioration in the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian society, any such Kremlin instigated terrorist blunder will put the NSDC under enormous pressure to 'do something' and 'hit back'. In such a situation, developing an aggressive Iron Wall strategy and backing covert operations against pro-Russians and the Russian Federation will become a tempting path for Ukrainian security services with few other options.


The scenarios and possibilities outlined in this text are not inevitable. There is much NATO, the EU and the wider Western Alliance can do to prevent the kind of covert escalation that has seriously blighted relations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. In any long-term aid packages for Ukraine, extensive engagement with the NSDC must therefore play a central role.

On a strategic level, EU member states need to ensure that a provisional settlement with Russia to deescalate the situation in East Ukraine gives Ukraine solid guarantees that any Russian breach of such a deal will trigger a robust economic and political response. More directly, NATO must provide financial aid and expertise to help Kyiv modernize its extensive arms industry and reform its army to enable it to deter any further escalations by the Kremlin. As long as Ukraine grapples with a sense of permanent national insecurity, the NSDC is likely to base its planning on an Iron Wall strategy. 

This partial integration of Ukraine into Western security and defence structures would also help give EU member states the leverage needed to restrain Kyiv from retaliating in kind to any Kremlin provocations that run out of control. Just as NATO expansion in the late 1990s was more about ensuring that East European states operated in accordance with international law rather than any concerns about Russia, so a similar gradual process of integration for Ukraine will strengthen the voices of those in Kyiv who believe that a national security strategy must remain in harmony with established European norms and values. 

Specific aid packages and transfer of expertise targeted at reforming the SBU and Ministry of Interior on an institutional level are also an essential part of this process. By improving command and control capabilities and providing tactical training designed to enhance the professionalism of operatives and officials, much can be done to prevent individuals or small groups running their own private wars against enemies of the Ukrainian state. Such strong support from EU and NATO member states should also enable the Ukrainian state to develop clearer lines of responsibility in order to avoid a situation where rivalries between strong personalities within the government lead to turf wars between institutions they control. Such intensive cooperation between Western security services and their Ukrainian counterparts is essential not just for the reform of the Ukrainian state, but to securing peace and stability across the region once any agreement with Russia is reached.

This is therefore the central paradox that will confront Ukrainian, European and Russian policy-makers over the next year. Since the beginning of the Maidan Revolution in November 2013, President Putin has taken enormous risks to prevent the integration of Ukraine into European institutions. Yet by providing incentives for a potentially vengeful Ukrainian state to stick to the rules, in the long term this European integration process may prove the best guarantee of Russia's security the Kremlin will get.

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