Russia Is an Arsonist, Pretending to Be a Fire Safety Inspector

The Moscow playbook: predict chaos in Ukraine, then unleash it.

For Yuriy Sergeyev, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, the last 72 hours of Russia's stage-managed separatist ferment in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions don't remind him of Moscow's invasion and annexation of Crimea in March. That's because the diplomat's memory goes back much further than that. "The Soviet Union organized separatist movements, and these movements organized pseudo-referenda and immediately demanded military support," Sergeyev said. "It happened in all three Baltic states in the 1930s. The Soviets also tried to do the same in Finland. They failed. It's why they launched a war and tried to occupy all of Finland."

War and occupation are very much on Sergeyev's mind today. In a wide-ranging 90-minute interview with Foreign Policy conducted at the Ukrainian mission in midtown Manhattan, he addressed what he sees as Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest conspicuous efforts to destabilize a nascent, wobbly government in Kiev and to determine Ukraine's national destiny -- with or without the consent of the Ukrainian people. "Russia is pressuring us, involving external partners, to demand from the Ukrainian government constitutional reforms and to have a federalized state," Sergeyev said. "Well, Russia has a federalized state, but the problems in Russia itself demonstrate that this solves nothing. You like such a federal status as Chechnya has? You want the federal status of any of the Caucasian republics?"

But it's unlikely that Russia is interested in a good-faith discussion about Ukraine's future. As Sergeyev readily concedes, Putin is once again marshaling the same semitransparent tradecraft of provokatsiya (which is exactly what it sounds like) that the KGB and Communist Party used to justify their domination of half of Europe in the 20th century. All the markers of forthcoming "fraternal" assistance to the supposedly embattled ethnic Russian population of Ukraine are on display now. 

On Sunday, April 6, approximately 2,000 pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk turned out on the streets, occupying and burning regional government buildings. The administrative building in Kharkiv was set alight by burning tires, and Ukrainian police later arrested 70 people. In Luhansk, separatists consisting of former members of the disbanded Berkut riot police raided the armory of the local Ukrainian State Security (SBU) headquarters, allegedly planted explosives in the building, and detained 56 hostages -- who were only released Wednesday. In Donetsk, the region where former President Viktor Yanukovych hails from, 120 or so members of the self-styled "Republican People's Soviet of Donetsk" stormed the regional assembly and declared the establishment of the "People's Republic of Donetsk" in a kind of absurdist and miniature pantomime of Eastern Bloc politicking. The republic's demands? A referendum on May 11 -- two weeks before Ukraine's presidential election (which they also want canceled) are due to take place -- to decide whether the Donetsk region should join the Russian Federation. They also demanded that Putin dispatch a "peacekeeping" force into the region posthaste -- which he may well end up doing before long, despite his demurrals.

Whatever does happen in Ukraine, nobody is pretending that any of what's going on is a grassroots or spontaneous expression of civic discontent. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov blamed the mayhem on "separatist groups coordinated by Russian special services." White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "There is strong evidence suggesting some of these demonstrators were paid and were not local residents." And Secretary of State John Kerry pretty much confirmed Russia's infiltration of Ukraine as a prelude to a possible invasion of the mainland: "It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours," Kerry said on April 8. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has given pro-Russian crowds occupying government buildings 48 hours to disperse or face "a forceful answer" from state authorities. That deadline expired April 10.

To Sergeyev, it's obvious what's being done to his country. "The fact that the administration offices [in Luhansk] were attacked and surrounded by people with Kalashnikovs, and in uniforms, unidentified, without insignias, makes this resemble the takeover of Crimean parliament by a group of some dozens of people who forced the parliamentarians to vote for a referendum. They're trying to replicate this scenario again, but the local people -- and this is very important -- the local and city government councils in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk do not support the separatists." 

New poll data does tend to agree with the ambassador's assessment of popular will. The Institute for Social Research and Policy Analysis, acting as a consortium of a host of Donetsk-based NGOs, found that 65.7 percent of residents in that region want to remain a part of Ukraine, while only 18.2 percent want to join Russia. But even among the separatists, there's by no means agreement as to what should follow, an autonomous republic or wholesale incorporation into the Russian Federation.

Sergeyev admits that there is indeed genuine separatist sentiment in Ukraine's eastern regions, owing to poverty and so-called "economic migration," whereby cities such as Luhansk send their tax money to Kiev. "The region is very depressed, despite the fact that it has a lot of industry and coal mines. That's why it's easy to play on these negative sentiments, to encourage people and remind them: ‘Look how lucky you were in the Soviet Union.' Because it's true. They were seriously subsidized [then]: The salary of the coal miners was equal to or higher than that of engineers or professors in universities."

In many ways, the Ukrainian crisis represents the unfinished business of the post-Soviet reordering of Europe. Except Putin doesn't need an all-encompassing ideology to carve up the continent; he only needs a carefully directed shadow play that reminds a Red Army veteran or the pensioner grandmother how good life used to be during the bad old days when Russia ran everything.

"For the last 23 years, nothing happened to make these people's lives better. There were no reforms, either under the democratic Yushchenko regime or under Yanukovych," said Sergeyev. That's why the country is now so vulnerable to Russian machinations. "This is the old Soviet trick: what Russia did in Crimea, its accumulation of forces around the [Ukraine-Russia] border. Even if Russia has no plans to continue an invasion, they have started to use this threatening buildup as a tool in their negotiations with the West. ‘Look,' they say, ‘you are to agree with us that Ukraine should not be aligned, not only with NATO but also with the European Union, because otherwise separatism will continue. It will divide and destroy Ukraine.' This is the Russian argument."

In his extraordinary poem "Child of Europe," Polish poet laureate Czeslaw Milosz defined this "argument" as follows: "Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision/ Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction." Now consider the evidence of Russia's latest incarnation as both fire safety inspector and arsonist.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement on Monday that read very much like a threat commingled with an ominous self-fulfilling prophecy: "If an irresponsible attitude to the fate of the country, to the fate of its own people, on the part of political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government continues, then Ukraine will inevitably encounter ever new difficulties and crises."

Moscow is doing its best to ensure there is no lack of new difficulties and crises. The Daily Beast reported that Yanukovych's cronies, such as former Presidential Chief of Staff Andrei Klyuyev, have been meeting with local ethnic Russians and have "offered laid-off factory workers money, if they joined pro-Russian protests and manned checkpoints set up to hinder Ukrainian military movements and preparation for any Russian military incursion." It also reported a new U.S. intelligence estimate of Russia's military buildup at the border with Ukraine: Now there are thought to be 80,000 troops -- almost a 50 percent increase from the estimate given to the Wall Street Journal a little over a week ago, and in marked contrast to what German officials were claiming just days ago, namely that Russia was decreasing its troop presence in military bivouacs close to Ukraine's territory.

In fact, Russian military personnel may already be in Donetsk. Journalists posted photographs taken this week of separatists wearing insignia-less apparel, carrying AK-47s and wearing the striped T-shirts of the VDV -- Russian Naval and Airborne troops who helped seize Crimea. The Ukrainian SBU has also put forward claims that it has captured Russian spies.

One man, Roman Sergeyevich Bannykh, was apparently caught trying to infiltrate the country via the Krasnaya Talovka border crossing into Luhansk. Ukraine's state security says that Bannykh is an agent of the GRU -- Russian military intelligence -- and that he actually tried to enter Ukraine once before for the purposes of "sabotage" in Luhansk.

Meanwhile, newspaper Ukrainska Pravda has noted a second arrest of one Maria Koleda, another Russian citizen said to be working for Russian intelligence. According to the website prestupnosti.net, a media outlet for the Nikolaev region of Ukraine, she's also a member of Rosmol, a Komsomol-like Putinist youth movement. "Between the 5th and 6th of April, the foreigner held several meetings with leaders and activists from the pro-Russian movements in Kherson, and then visited some regional centers in the oblast to monitor the situation on the ground," the SBU claimed in a report quoted by the Ukrainska Pravda. Koleda was said to be reconnoitering the feasibility of entry of Russian forces from Crimea into southern Ukraine, and she was arrested with a traumatic pistol modified to fire live ammo -- which she apparently admitted to using to injure people in Mykolaiv -- and with "guidelines for preparing diversionary groups."

To make matters worse, Ukraine's police force and its own security services are widely believed to be riddled with Russian spies. Sergeyev says this is an ongoing problem and a holdover from the Yanukovych period. "We know that acting agents from the FSB [Russia's successor apparatus to the KGB] and other secret services of Russia were in the government of Yanukovych as advisors, particularly around the former Prime Minister [Mykola] Azarov." Russian intelligence was definitely working cheek by jowl with both the SBU and the Berkut on the streets of Maidan before Yanukovych's departure. The former head of the SBU, Igor Smeshko, claimed in late March that "hundreds" of Russian spooks were running around Ukraine: "Even after the new government addressed Russia about this group of FSB officers and demanded to know what they were doing to Maidan and to Ukraine, Moscow sent us a strange message in reply that they were only protecting the Russian Embassy!"

Elsewhere, Russia's demands on a government it wishes to destroy border on tragicomic. I asked Sergeyev about the continued reliance of Russia's military industrial complex on his country's manufacturing; critical parts of everything from fighter jets to intercontinental ballistic missiles are built in Ukraine. Does Sergeyev believe this extensive defense cooperation will continue in light of Kiev's pro-Western tilt? "My personal opinion is that, yes, we have to diversify our military technologies because we cannot be so dependent on an aggressor who occupies our territory and is threatening us. Recently, Russia [said] openly that it would not like us to share the technology behind the production of ballistic missiles with any other parties. It sounds very strange to me. They violated our agreement under the Budapest Memorandum [a 1994 protocol which guaranteed Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for its relinquishment of nuclear weapons], and now they're asking us not to violate our military agreements with them."

In other words, Russia is ordering Ukraine not to hawk the secrets about the very weapons with which Russia is now threatening to invade Ukraine.

Sergeyev thinks the only real way to stop the Kremlin is to implement bigger and harder-hitting sanctions -- not against Russian officials or their oligarch cronies, as the United States and European Union have done, but against state institutions that really matter. Which ones? Rosneft and Gazprom, the oil and gas energy behemoths. "This is what Russia is based on," he said. "It's selling gas and oil, investing in its military sphere. It's not investing money in its social sphere or in industry." 

As for the fate of Crimea, the diplomat was fairly resigned. "OK, so it happened. We are in the process of withdrawing our troops. It's a signal that we do not want to have war at all with Russia." He's also not so sure that suing Russia in the International Court of Justice over the annexation of the peninsula will deliver much more than a "moral or political victory." Rather, whether or not Ukraine ever regains Crimea may come down to a grass-is-greener question for those who now find themselves the willing or unwilling citizens of the Russian Federation.

Other Moscow-ruled autonomous republics, Sergeyev said, don't bode well for the peninsula's future. "Compare the situation in Abkhazia today with the situation in Adjara, in Georgia. Abkhazia used to be the best resort in the Soviet Union. And now this is the worst place. Nothing changed from the [2008 Russia-Georgia] war. They have no tourist attraction, no economic incentives. In Adjara, Donald Trump erected several big hotels there. If Russia failed to invest in Abkhazia a single ruble, they could hardly invest in Crimea."

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images


How to Beat a Russian Occupation with Flash Mobs

Why nonviolent resistance might be the best hope for thwarting Putin's adventurism in eastern Ukraine.

As separatists in eastern Ukraine stage demonstrations and occupy government buildings, calling for Russian annexation, there is renewed anxiety about the 40,000 Russian troops massed along the border. The prospect of Russian incursion raises the question of how Ukrainians -- outnumbered, outgunned, and more than likely unsupported by Western militaries -- might be able to resist. Though there have been murmurs of Moscow's troops being met with a guerilla campaign, Ukrainians best hope for challenging Russian aggression might be to follow the same method used to oust Kiev's venally corrupt regime: civil resistance.

When Russian forces swarmed into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula for what became a military occupation and then an annexation, some opponents responded in ways that might seem unusual. In cities across Ukraine, flash mobs mimicked "dead bodies" on supermarket floors. Compatriots next to them held signs exhorting shoppers not to buy Russian products so as not to finance occupation and war. In Odessa, a flash-mob orchestra played "Ode to Joy," the European anthem, to the surprised onlookers at the city market in a melodic message supporting an alliance with the European Union rather than Russia. The videos went viral.

It may seem counterintuitive that such nonviolent resistance could successfully repel a militarily superior opponent, or that this would be Ukraine's most promising defense against having its east carved up by Russia. But evidence shows that nonviolent resistance is roughly twice as effective as armed struggle in ousting dictators and ending foreign occupations. A 2011 study [co-written by one of the authors, Maria Stephan] examined 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and found that the nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 27 percent for armed struggles, even against similarly repressive opponents.

The case for civil resistance, then, is a practical one: Not only has it been proven more effective at ousting occupying armies, it is much more likely than its violent counterpart to help consolidate democracy and peace. What's more, it does so at far lower cost than even "successful" armed resistance. Coalition building, persuasion, and negotiation, abilities that are vital for successful political engagement once transition begins, are all critically honed during civil resistance campaigns.

Today, the marches, silent demonstrations, and public appeals for unity among both Ukrainian and Russian citizens that comprised the months-long mass civil disobedience that forced Viktor Yanukovych from power in late February could, and probably should, form the basis of a national strategy to resist Russian occupation and military aggression. In Crimea, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers marched without weapons toward Russian military contingents, blocking their base near Sevastopol and successfully forced the Russian commanders to negotiate. Though the base remained blocked, the Ukrainian soldiers and their commander became national heroes and built international sympathy for their struggle. As a result of the economic boycotts in Ukraine, some unconfirmed reports by activists say that the consumption of Russian products in the country dropped 40 percent within the first two weeks after the invasion of Crimea. Acts of resistance like this can be replicated, coordinated, and expanded into a nationwide movement that consistently raises the social, political, and economic costs of Russian presence in Ukraine, until occupation finally becomes untenable.

* * *

Calls for Ukrainians to take up arms are growing louder both internally and from the outside. On March 18, the acting president decreed a partial mobilization of the Ukrainian armed forces, and called up reservists. The Ukrainian National Guard was also reestablished. National defense units are undergoing combat training and developing their own videos warning Russians that further invasions will be met with arms. Young Ukrainians have been circulating a Swiss Army manual that explains how to wage guerrilla warfare. Members of the small extremist Crimean Tatar fringe, now fighting with anti-government rebels in Syria, have announced that they are contemplating a return to Crimea to fight the Russians. Dangerously, some Western pundits are suggesting that the West would be more willing to help when Ukrainians showed the world their willingness to fight with weapons.

The cavalry isn't going to come, though. The United States and other NATO member nations have made it clear that a Western military response against Russia isn't likely, meaning it will largely be up to Ukrainians to defend themselves. Before taking up arms, the Ukrainians would do well to consider how to accomplish this without resorting to guerilla warfare would likely lead to massive casualties.

There are a few different ways options for civilian defense: Ukrainian civilians could completely withhold social, political, economic, and security cooperation with Russian forces in the event of an expanded occupation. The Czechs and Slovaks adopted a similar strategy after Soviet troops invaded then-Czechoslovakia in 1968, and activists even developed "Ten Commandments," in case a Soviet soldier approached: Don't know, don't care, don't tell, don't have, don't know how to, don't give, can't do, don't sell, don't show, and do nothing.

Civil resistance saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while paving the way for Czechs and Slovaks to shake off communism and build democracy. Admittedly, that struggle took years. But armed resistance has historically delivered neither faster nor better results -- research shows that the average civil resistance campaign takes two and a half years, compared to nine years for armed resistance. The relatively quick ouster of Yanukovych, furthermore, suggests that a well-organized, disciplined civil resistance campaign does not necessarily require years to succeed.

A Ukrainian civil defense strategy could be coupled with a campaign for solidarity with ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Independent, Russian-language media could be beamed into Crimea and to southern and eastern Ukraine, with popular Ukrainians, Russians, and international celebrities using humor, music, and messages emphasizing Ukraine for all Ukrainians. They could also broadcast instructions for engaging in mass nonviolent disruption to thwart further Russian military incursions.

A Russian occupation of Ukraine would require hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands more logistics personnel who would be dependent, at least in part, on local cooperation to run the country and keep the lights on. If Ukrainian civil servants walked off their jobs, and if key industries slowed or stopped, the ongoing, frustrating burden could sap the Russian will for adventurism without the incitement of snipers and bombings, which would almost invariably lead to divisive crackdowns and reciprocal violence. Ukrainian society could start building solidarity and mutual-aid funds now to support would-be strikers.

As for external support, international allies -- governmental and non-governmental -- should increase their assistance to nonviolent Ukrainian activists in the form of small grants, technical advice, and media assistance. This is an effort that non-governmental organizations and foundations less encumbered by bureaucratic inertia should lead. Specialized peace organizations could work with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts to interject nonviolent "peace brigades" into volatile regions of Ukraine to help maintain nonviolent posture between unarmed people and violent actors, offer protective accompaniment, and gather evidences of rights violations in case of invasion. Communication should be intensified between Ukrainian activists and those from other countries -- from Central and Eastern Europe and beyond -- who have resisted similarly repressive opponents nonviolently. 

Ukrainians will ultimately be the ones to decide whether and how to fight if Russia invades their country. But the international community should not wait for the crisis to escalate before providing support to the many Ukrainians who remain committed to nonviolent resistance. Their strategy stands the best chance to pull Ukraine back from the brink.