Democracy Lab

'Strike Him with an Axe'

A pro-Russian separatist's how-to guide for terrorizing eastern Ukraine includes advice on robbing banks, sabotage, and staging drive-by shootings.

With each passing hour it looks increasingly likely that pro-Putin militants are responsible for shooting down the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine. (President Obama said today that the missle that destroyed the plane came from "territory controlled by the Russian separatists.") This really shouldn't come as a surprise. The pro-Russian fighters have already shown that they're utterly ruthless in their efforts to subvert the Ukrainian state.

A recently released report by Amnesty International charges the rebels with "savage beatings and other torture meted out against activists, protesters and journalists in eastern Ukraine over the last three months." Ukrainian officials accuse the separatists of using local civilians as "human shields" and of shelling apartment buildings. Pro-Russian militants have also firebombed vehicles as well as blown up bridges, mines, and refineries.

Such tactics are not random excesses. To the contrary, they are entirely premeditated -- as one can see from a handbook for insurgents recently published by one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, as the leading separatist group in eastern Ukraine refers to itself. Pavel Gubarev, the self-styled "governor" of Donetsk and the leader of the Novorossiya (New Russia) movement, recently posted the manual, entitled "Methodological Guide for Struggle Against the Junta," on his personal website. (The "junta" is the separatists' name for the Ukrainian government in Kiev.) There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the document.

Gubarev begins the manual by admonishing those who take up the fight against the government in Kiev to maintain maximum operational security. He then outlines how to form a group, train, and obtain weapons and cash.

"Cops have always had a lot of informers, and you won't be able to just go and recruit volunteers," Gubarev warns, urging his followers to recruit no more than four supporters. "These should be people you know and believe or those who have bloody debts to the junta." He cautions would-be recruiters against ubiquitous "informers," and to remember that they themselves will be regarded as such by potential volunteers for the cause. "Winning people's confidence will not be easy."

The next step is to find money, transport, reliable communications, and weapons. Robbing banks is dangerous, says Gubarev, so smashing ATM machines is the way to go. Access to a large number of used cars and throwaway cell phones is also advisable. As for weapons, "the best way is to acquire them from criminal acquaintances." He bemoans the fact that "idealists well-disposed toward the partisan movement are not likely to have such acquaintances." And he warns that "there are many informers among the criminals, even at the top levels of the criminal hierarchy."

Attacking and disarming Ukraianian police forces is risky, he observes, as is buying weapons from Ukrainian soldiers. The most practical approach is to "rob weapons depots. This is also a risky and serious operation, but at least the chances of success are higher."

Of critical importance, according to Gubarev, is that all this be done under the strictest secrecy. "The stable forces of the regime are all around," he counsels. "Your group is in danger." So he offers a series of prescriptions, incuding use of pseudonyms, abstinence from alcohol, and the concealment of identifying marks, including tattoos: "Attract no attention to yourselves; wear gray." Home computers and personal cellphones should never be used for operational purposes. Identifying documents should never be carried. Details of military operations should never be discussed on phones or in front of family members. Gubarev also advises that fellow partisans should wear gloves to hide their fingerprints. "If time permits," he adds, "read books and watch films for tips about self-concealment. In the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1940s-1960s these things were well illustrated in films."

Gubarev then recommends three primary forms of action: Liquidating individual enemy fighters, shooting at cars, and random acts of terror.

As for the first, these are, in essence, "simple killings." A rebel who happens to see one or two government soldiers leaving their base should shoot them, then "get in your car and run." One particularly effective way of killing soldiers is to target them as they're tending to their natural needs in the bushes: "Many people have been killed, captured, or robbed in this manner. You don't have to shoot the man; you can strike him with an axe, with almost no resistance on his part. But it's better not to use cold steel until you've killed a few men: it could be risky if you're not morally prepared for such an action and your hand hesitates."

Gubarev devotes a brief paragraph to the topic of "shooting at cars," by which he means, essentially, "ambushes" against enemy forces. Acts of terror, meanwhile, are of far greater interest to him. They should, he emphasizes, be directed against "bands of nationalists," "little Nazis," and sundry other civilian supporters of the Maidan uprising and the central government in Kiev. "Use your car to approach these people quickly and suddenly, and open fire on them through the windows of your car. Crush those who try to hide and those who are wounded." Indeed, he advises, "shoot without hesitation, even minors and girls. They aren't dealing with you in the same manner only because they're stupid; remember that they wouldn't spare you." (This section of Gubarev's manifesto earned him a rebuke from United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay. "Such blatant incitement to violence is utterly reprehensible and a clear violation of international human rights law," she said in a statement issued earlier this month.)

The actions touted by Gubarev have three goals. Fighters should "weaken the rear of the Ukrainian armed forces, the National Guard, and the paramilitary formations, all of which will help the fighters in the East." (Interestingly, elsewhere in the document he advises fellow rebels to abstain from attacking police or Interior Ministry troops, since these are "potential allies in the future" -- perhaps alluding to groups such as the Berkut paramilitary police, who were accused of killing pro-democracy demonstrators during the uprising against former President Viktor Yanukovych.)  Next, the rebels should conduct operations "aimed at destabilizing political conditions in the region." And finally, they should aim at "the physical destruction of the fighters of the junta and its leading personnel." In pursuing these goals, fighters are encouraged to engage in outright provocations: "Don't pass up any opportunity to engage in some atrocity that can be blamed on the junta's fighters."

Gubarev ends his manual with an upbeat epilogue. Fighting, he notes, has already broken out in cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa. "The process has begun. The former Ukraine is bankrupt. It won't survive for long: within a year, or possibly until the New Year, it definitely won't exist in its current boundaries."

Is compromise possible with the likes of Gubarev? Probably not. He detests Ukraine and Ukrainians, and his agenda consists of little more than terrorism. Can Russian President Vladimir Putin control him? That, too, is by no means clear: fanatics such as Gubarev are by definition uncontrollable.

If so, the Poroshenko government may have no choice but to attempt to crush Gubarev and his militant groups. The bad news, for Kiev, is that Gubarev is implacable and is willing to die. The good news is that his manual clearly, if unintentionally, reveals that the militant groups are isolated, on the run, and in constant fear of exposure. His open admission that "[w]inning people's confidence will not be easy" hardly reflects deep popular support. As the document stresses, the terrorists cannot trust the local population, not even the local criminals who in the early days of the insurgency actually comprised a significant portion of the fighters. Nor can they rely on their own comrades to remain silent, if captured, for more than a "few hours."

Moreover, their worries about money, arms, transport, and communications are never-ending. Gubarev devotes a large part of the manual to the weary task of replenishing supplies after a terrorist act has been carried out -- and have no easy solutions. Worst of all for Gubarev, the Ukrainian security forces appear to be strong, alert, and relatively immune to corruption: "Your chances are slight, and there's a high probability that the SBU [Ukrainian Security Service] or the cops will eliminate you."

It would be naïve to think that Putin does not know who his proxies in eastern Ukraine are or what sort of means they routinely employ against civilians and soldiers. While the airline shootdown is almost certainly the handiwork of the pro-Russian thugs in eastern Ukraine, ultimate responsibility for the atrocity must lie with Putin.   After all, Russia has been providing the separatists with the very money, arms, transport, and communications they so desperately need. In the week before the shootdown, the Kremlin escalated its intervention in Ukraine to the point that "war" is the more accurate term for Russia's aggressive activities. Given such a context, it's hardly surprising that the rebels have declared war on everything Ukrainian -- or on everything, such as the Malaysian plane, they thought was Ukrainian.




A Pox on All Their Houses

Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the biggest loser is the Palestinian Authority.

With Israel having launched a significant ground operation in Gaza following Hamas's refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is intensifying yet again. To what end and from what beginning, however, is unclear. While both Israel and Hamas have publicly stated and implicit objectives, neither side seems poised to achieve any significant strategic gains.

In the meanwhile, more than 260 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, including children, have been killed -- as well as at least two Israelis -- and the grim tally of death and destruction is only likely to increase as long as the seemingly pointless fighting drags on. 

Israel's stated goals to "restore deterrence" and degrade -- if not eliminate -- Hamas's rocket capabilities are straightforward, but unachievable unless the country were to fully reoccupy Gaza and reverse the "unilateral disengagement" enacted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for such a reoccupation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed these ideas as "background noise." There appears to be no real possibility that Israel's military will once again police the streets of Gaza as an army of direct occupation. Under such circumstances, even given the significant ground operations launched on Thursday, all Israel can really do is single out stores of rockets, secure or demolish launching sites, destroy tunnel infrastructure, and target the homes and offices of Hamas officials and members.

At first glance, such an imperative might seem rational, since Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza have been firing missiles at not only southern Israel but virtually the whole country and even parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, each time invasion has been the response to missile attacks from Gaza, Israel has failed to find a long-term -- or even a mid-term -- remedy. And each time, Hamas has emerged better equipped and more technically capable.

The implausibility of Israel's avowed goal of destroying Hamas's rocket capabilities (some officials even speak in terms of Gaza being "demilitarized") is all the greater given that most of the missiles Hamas is currently using are actually manufactured in the Gaza Strip rather than imported from Iran. Iranian expertise and spare parts are undoubtedly crucial, but since Hamas (and possibly other militant groups in Gaza) is manufacturing its own rockets -- even when Egypt has ensured that smuggling is more difficult than ever -- there's every reason to expect that more can be manufactured locally and in short order.

Israel's conundrum gets even more complicated when one considers that while it wants to degrade Hamas's capabilities and strike a blow at the organization, it does not wish Hamas to fall from power in Gaza. Israel fears the potential for anarchy or more extreme groups emerging in a power vacuum were Hamas to collapse. So, in addition to pursuing a strategy that has proven to be ineffective, Israel has goals in Gaza that are greatly circumscribed by its counterintuitive, but undeniable, preference for a weakened Hamas to remain in power.

Hamas, too, has a long list of goals, all of which also seem to be out of reach. A key demand is that Israel release "security prisoners" who had been part of the Gilad Shalit swap but were rearrested in a West Bank crackdown a few weeks ago. It's virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to this.

Most of Hamas's other key demands are aimed at countries other than Israel. For Hamas, this conflict is about trying to break out of an impossible situation in which it has found itself in recent months. It is broke. It is isolated. And internal divisions and its growing unpopularity in Gaza bedevil the group. Hamas may have hoped that the "unity government" agreement with Fatah would strengthen its hand and give it a new foothold in the West Bank. But as it happened, Hamas gained nothing from the agreement.

But to understand the root of Hamas's current frustration, one must look not northeast from Gaza, but west. The epicenter of Hamas's growing desperation lies in the policies of the new Egyptian government. Following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into Sinai and the border area with Gaza. They reportedly killed up to two dozen Hamas operatives in Sinai whom they believed were operating in cahoots with insurgent groups, and virtually shut down Hamas's smuggling tunnel network. In the ensuing weeks, as the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on its opponents, it treated Hamas as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist campaign in Egypt being conducted by the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and, according to the government, the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian government sees itself as being at war with the Egypetian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Brotherhood group in Palestine. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is therefore distinctly unfriendly, if not outright hostile.

In addition to seeking Egyptian and American support for the transfer of promised funding from Qatar to pay its employees, Hamas wants Egypt to permanently open the Rafah crossing and effectively end the blockade of Gaza, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned. But for Egypt the crossing and the whole border area is a major national security issue and its level of trust in Hamas is nil.

However, the question of Rafah has major implications for Ramallah, which has brought the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and the sidelined (and seemingly impotent and irrelevant) President Mahmoud Abbas to the fore. The only real prospect for reopening Rafah on a permanent basis is an old idea now suddenly revived: that PA security forces, along with international monitors, would control the Palestinian side of the crossing rather than Hamas.

Whether Egypt would be willing to agree to this is not clear, although Abbas has expressed interest. In light of Cairo's cold shoulder, Hamas has attempted to bring its current patrons, Turkey and Qatar, into the center of diplomatic activity to help secure a cease-fire, to little avail. The centrality of Egypt to a potential cease-fire is simply unavoidable. It is the only Arab state that borders Gaza, and therefore has a direct influence on what does and does not happen there.

But Egypt's priority is not, as some mistakenly think, to preserve its allegedly coveted role as the go-to mediator and broker of Israeli-Hamas truces. Instead, the Egyptian government is determined to ensure that Hamas is not able to coerce it into modifying what Sisi regards as key national security policies regarding Gaza. Hence its initial proposal, essentially of "calm for calm," offered Hamas no major gains. It was predictably, if not inevitably, rejected.

But now, Cairo has brought Abbas and the PA back into the talks, center stage. The Egyptians have grasped, even if Israel and some others have not, that the long-term political impact of the conflict probably depends more on restoring and enhancing the credibility of the PA than any other factor.

The PA has been badly damaged by the failure of the last round of peace negotiations and the lack of a viable ongoing diplomatic track towards Palestinian independence. Other strategies, such as U.N. recognition initiatives, have demonstrated limited impact and a prohibitive cost. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the improvements in governance, reforms, economic development, and public services achieved by the state- and institution-building program led by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been stagnant, at best. In many cases, the palpable, measurable successes of that program are fraying.

There is no question that Abbas and the PA were suffering a crisis of legitimacy in recent months, at the same time that Hamas was enduring an even greater crisis at virtually every register. But now, at least, Hamas has seized the initiative, albeit at a hideous cost. It alone appears to wave the Palestinian flag, however speciously. It alone claims to have a strategy for national liberation -- armed struggle and "resistance" -- no matter how implausible. 

The danger is that the bloody and reckless hostilities between Israel and Hamas at least constitute something, which a PA armed with nothing may find difficult to counter politically. With each successive flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group has taken more blame from both Palestinian and broader Arab public opinion for the deaths and destruction. Hamas's political "bounce" from nationalist sentiment against Israel has been more fleeting. But if the PA still appears ineffective, marginal, and irrelevant, even the heaping of public blame on Hamas might not stop it from gaining significant ground in the Palestinian political landscape.

If we are, as it appears, looking at a lose-lose scenario between Israel and Hamas, the biggest loser of all could be the PA. That loss of legitimacy will be good for no one -- not Egypt, not Israel, and certainly not for the cause of peace. Thus, even as Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, regional and international powers must move quickly to help the PA restore its diplomatic and political relevance. This means ensuring that Ramallah, not Gaza, remains the primary address for Palestinian issues, and that a clear and credible contrast in both governance and the consequences of their policies can be drawn by each and every Palestinian who compares the PA and Hamas. Otherwise it will be hard for Palestinians and others not to conclude that Hamas is right when it claims that armed struggle and violence yield dividends -- albeit at a high cost -- while negotiations, diplomacy, and security coordination are a pointless dead end.