Russia Reinforces Black Sea Navy with Caspian Warships

On April 6, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that the Russian Federation would hold 4,018 military exercises in all military districts during the month of April. The Southern Military District (SMD) which is responsible for the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Caspian regions of Russia, announced the drills would involve around 15,000 military personnel. The actual deployment has reached 80,000 troops, including artillery and tanks, with 40,000 stationed in Crimea and the other 40,000 along the northern and eastern Ukrainian border. 

The Kremlin then announced on April 8 artillery boats and amphibious landing craft from the Caspian Flotilla would join the Black Sea Fleet for naval exercises. Fifteen ships have been dispatched with marines, and are sailing through the deteriorating Volga-Don Canal which connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. Russia has also engaged in GPS jamming of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring mission.

This has prompted extreme concern in Kyiv, Washington, and other Western and NATO capitals. Washington has so far dispatched two ships to the Black Sea to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine. While the Kremlin maintains the troops are deployed for exercises only, March has seen mass violations of the ceasefire by the Russian-backed separatists, with 28 Ukrainian casualties since January.

Russian media has also ramped up its propaganda against Ukraine, warning that if Moscow sees human rights violationslike the Srebrenica Massacre (referring to the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1995 Bosnian War), Russia would have no choice but to intervene to save Russian citizens. Russian President Putin’s point man for Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said that if such an escalation occurs, Russia would shoot Ukraine “not…in the leg, but in the face.”

The ships from the Caspian Flotilla being deployed are precisely the ships Russia would use for an amphibious invasion of Ukraine. The convoy, according to videos of the ships, seems to comprise of Serna-class amphibious landing craft and Smel-class artillery boats.

The Serna-class amphibious vessel is 84-feet long and displaces 100 tons with a full combat load. The Serna can either carry one T-72/T-90 or T-80 main battle tank, two BTR-80 wheeled armored carriers, or up to 92 troops. The Shmel, which displaces about 71 tons, has a primary armament of a 76mm D-56TS gun on its bow, and two 25mm cannons on the stern. The Shmel is designed especially for coastal bombardment and is capable of laying sea mines.

While the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet both fall within the jurisdiction of the SMD, troops have been deployed to the region from well without its jurisdiction. Convoys of troops and hardware have journeyed to the Ukrainian border from Siberia  and the 76th Air Assault Division based in Pskov was deployed to Feodosia in Crimea. The last time the 76th Air Assault Division was deployed to the SMD, they took part in the amphibious assault on Abkhazia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.  

As always, it is difficult to ascertain the true intentions of the Kremlin. This is because the Russian leadership makes sure never to reveal their true objectives. This policy brings Moscow two primary benefits: it prevents a coherent response from its adversaries who have to spend time preparing for numerous contingencies, and it lets Russia select the least costly option without losing face. 

Russia could simply be sending a message as Ukraine continues to call for NATO membership, demonstrating what Russia is capable of doing to Ukraine. The very lack of secrecy behind these troop deployments gives credence to the idea that this is a shakedown. However, the current troop deployments are even larger than those used to invade Crimea in 2014. Russia could be preparing to seize Mariupol, finalizing its total control of the Sea of Azov and establish a land bridge to Crimea. This would also allow Russia to restore the freshwater flow to Crimea; Ukraine has dammed the North Crimean Canal that provided the peninsula with between 85-90 percent of its freshwater. Alternatively, Russia might attempt to seize all of Ukraine’s Black Sea littoral. This would also connect Transnistria, occupied by Russia and effectively detached from Moldova since 1992, to the Russian mainland.

If Russia believes that the West will not respond to a Russian invasion, then the invasion will come. The United States must rally its allies around Kyiv and show Russia that not only does Ukraine have the firm support of the West and NATO, but that real, actionable consequences would follow an invasion. The principles of freedom and self-determination are being tested. The West must decide whether these principles are something we wish to keep. 

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Do Russian Military “Drills” Invite a War in Ukraine?

The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has been steadily rising in stakes and intensity in March and April, 2021. Russian-led insurgent forces broke the ceasefire hundreds of times in March, resulting in numerous Ukrainian casualties. In April, Russian self-described routine military drills might portend a second Crimean annexation, this time in the Donbas. While one American official quoted by the New York Times estimated  4,000 Russian troops, Ukraine’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Ruslan Komchak said the number is likely between 20-25,000. These troops are being deployed in Crimea and along the northern and eastern Russian-Ukrainian border. 

This move comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to consolidate control, both over his sphere of influence and internally.  President Putin’s personal rule was threatened by protests, unprecedented in scale, over the arrest of the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. The protests themselves were inspired by the similarly extraordinary nation-wide protests that racked Belarus as the people decried the reelection of six-term Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Meanwhile, Russian primacy in the post-Soviet states has weakened with the October 2020 Kyrgyz street revolution and 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani war that saw Turkey gain a role in the ceasefire settlement. Russia’s influence is being challenged further in Moldova by the pro-Western agenda of the recently elected pro-EU Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who defeated the pro-Russian incumbent President Igor Dodon.

Ukraine has become increasingly vocal about its desire to join NATO, a foreign policy (and cultural) nightmare for the Kremlin, which sees Ukraine as a natural part of Russia. On January 28, Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today’s English-language channel, went to Donetsk and in a speech demanded Russia annex the Donbas. While the Kremlin denied that Simonyan’s call for annexation reflected official policy, it fits within Russia’s foreign policy approach of coopting non-official agents to advance its international goals.

Simonyan’s speech comes after continued Russian subsidization of the breakaway Donbas regions, including mass distribution of Russian passports. These actions typically represent the initial Kremlin groundwork for eventual annexation. Meanwhile, the mass protests over Navalny reveal faltering support for President Putin. Annexing the Donbas, and saving the Russians there from the supposed junta ruling in Kyiv, would help shore up his nationalist popularity.

President Putin, however, is a pragmatist and opportunist, and would likely proceed with annexation only in a low-risk environment; in recent years, general Western support for Ukraine has been lukewarm.

For example,  French President Emmanuel Macron, in his drive for restoring France’s global influence, has tried to court President Putin so French power could be directed in theaters away from Eastern Europe. This approach is in contrast to the  French political and military establishment that still sees Russia as a major security and political. Nevertheless,  the balance could shift  should the increasingly popular far-right populist Marine le Pen (whose National Rally Party has received funds from the Kremlin) win the upcoming French presidential election. Moreover, in Germany, plans for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline delivering Russian gas to Europe continue. The cheap source of gas not only strengthen Russia’s economy and foreign policy options, but send signals of weakness to a Kremlin that historically only respects strength.

As for the United States, the Biden administration has begun to rouse European Union and other Western governments—including Paris and Berlin—to consider a more robust  defense of Ukraine. If the Russian troop deployment along the border is meant to test this resolve, the United States will have to take the lead, and so far, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised such leadership. Indeed, between March 31 and April 6, Western leaders have assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba of their commitment to Ukraine’s defense. European Union Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have stated their serious concern over the Russian troop movements and their ‘unwavering support’ for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Seven joint exercises are scheduled to be held in Ukraine, starting with the British-Ukrainian Cossack Mace 2021 exercise to be held in the summer, which will host 1,000 troops from five NATO states. And the U.S. European Command raised its alert status to the highest level. Perhaps Russia has not yet maneuvered itself into a situation where a withdrawal would risk losing face, but the current ‘drills’ do not, based on the evidence and past practice, avail themselves to something routine or ministerial. Over the past week, paratroopers from Pskov and troop convoys from Siberia are being deployed to Crimea and the Ukrainian border respectively, and on April 8 ten warships from the Caspian Flotilla were deployed to the Black Sea. These deployments are provocations. Responses this Spring and likely Summer of 2021 in the West, Moscow, Washington, and Kyiv will dictate whether this ‘frozen conflict’ will become a hot war.

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Slovak PM’s Sputnik Procurement Erodes Solidarity with Ukraine and EU

Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic offered the Ukrainian Transcarpathian region in return for Russian vaccines prompting conversations about warming relations between Bratislava and Moscow. Matovic is considering resignation amidst coalition criticisms.

In a radio interview on March 4th, Matovic said in return for the Sputnik V vaccine he would give Kremlin the Ukrainian Zakarpatiia region, which has a 95-kilometer-border with Slovakia. Matovic disregarded the security and EU concerns associated with Russian jab, purchasing two million doses to be delivered by June.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba condemned Matovic’s insensitive comment, reinforcing that no external power can determine Ukrainian territorial integrity under international law. In turn, Matovic issued a Twitter apology for “undermining” Ukrainian efforts in the international community to regain control of Donbas and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

The Slovak prime minister kept the deal a secret until the first shipment with 200,000 doses arrived at the Kosice Airport on March 1st. Matovic disregarded any disagreements voiced by his coalition and refused to wait for the EU approval by the European Medicines Agency. Matovic’s coalition originally rejected the procurement of Russian jabs in late February.

On March 23, Matovic announced that he would resign amidst a lack of communication criticisms relating to secret Sputnik V procurement. Earlier last week, Slovak Minister of Health Marek Krajci resigned after Slovakia’s four-party governing coalition condemned his management of the pandemic and Sputnik V crisis.

Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok criticized the vaccine purchase, labeling it as a “political tool” aimed to divide the society and distance them from full European integration. Ukrainian officials voiced a similar concern, banning the jab to prevent Russian state propaganda against the West. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, a company responsible for Sputnik V distribution abroad, immediately announced their growing cooperation with Slovakia, Hungary, SanMarino, Serbia, Montenegro, Republika Srpska, and Belarus.

Slovak-Ukrainian relations developed in the late 1990s after Bratislava turned towards Western integration in 1998. In the early 2000s, the Dzurinda governments continued to neglect relations with Eastern Europe, focusing on NATO and EU negotiations. In 2006, Robert Fico’s government, like most of the West, underwent the period of “Partnership” supporting Viktor Yushchenko’s Orange Revolution. By 2010, Slovakia joined the “Ukraine fatigue” period due to disillusionment with Ukrainian political instability between Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych.

Slovakia began to slow trade relations with Russia before the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Although blaming Ukraine for the gas crisis in 2009, Slovakia limited the dependence on Russian gas by cutting all supplies by 40% to 50%. Despite economic disaffiliation from Russia, 2018 polling showed that 41% supported Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. Only 10% of surveyed Slovaks noted the importance of building relations with other Eastern European nations. In 2019, Ukrainian think tanks expressed concern with Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini who remained silent on the Ukrainian issue.

Slovakia continues to be an important trade partner to Ukraine constituting 65% of gas imports to Ukraine especially after Ukraine launched an independent gas transportation company in 2020. However, compared to

Matovic’s recent comment mirrors Fico’s flirtatious relations with Russia. In 2014, Fico criticized the EU sanctions, announcing that they will be harmful to the Slovak economy and gas supply to Europe. Defending his argument, Fico critiqued France for continuing to sell military vessels to Russia and the construction of South Stream. France and other EU states shortly postponed these agreements. Two years later, Fico augmented his argument by suggesting that Russian implements more of Minsk Agreements than Ukraine.

Slovakia’s foreign policy is “self-promoting” and seeks to maintain beneficial economic relations between the EU and Russia. Some Slovak officials seek to reestablish “self-confidence and regain the respect of international players.” Ukrainian foreign policy falls short of recognizing the importance of Bratislava in the West, often relying on Brussels, Berlin, and Warsaw. Russia, in turn, offers international recognition and shows appeals to pan-Slavism.

Earlier in the pandemic, Matovic’s government finally expelled three Russian diplomats from Slovak territories. In August, Russian authorities were linked to submitting fake IDs for Schengen visa consideration at the Slovak Consulate in St Petersburg, prompting Slovak diplomatic response. Unlike other EU member states, Slovakia did not banish diplomats in solidarity with the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergey Skripal investigation in 2018. Former Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak announced that Slovakia will wait for “reactions from the Russian Federation” to take further action.

EU states of Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary often pursuit a multi-vector foreign policy to benefit both from the West and Russia. Sputnik V procurement disrupts EU solidarity regarding Russia’s power in Europe as five central European and Baltic countries condemn the EU for unequal vaccine distribution. Matovic’s distasteful remark toward Ukrainian territorial integrity is only the beginning of Russia’s destabilization of Western institutions.

Image Source: DW

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The Normandy Format Has Failed – For Ukraine and For Europe, Biden Should Administer the Coup de Grace

One week into March, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky called to convene the Normandy Format. The purpose of the Normandy Format, which consists of the heads of states of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, is to arrange for a peaceful, negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The last Normandy Group summit was in 2019 in Paris; the 2020 summit, despite support from Berlin, Kyiv, and Paris, was not held due to Moscow’s opposition. President Zelensky has vowed to pursue the Normandy Format. However, he noted that if no 2021 summit occurs in the next few months, he will speak with the Normandy Format’s members in individual bilateral talks with the aim to discuss a new forum altogether.

The Normandy Format, however, holds no value but to assist the Kremlin’s aim in prolonging the conflict to create maximum instability within Ukraine. Moscow insists that the Minsk Group (itself a derivative of the Normandy Format) should be the main forum for negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the conflict. Russia has in effect three chairs in the Minsk Group given the representation of the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, and there is no direct Western participation other than the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russian President Putin has long insisted that federalization of Ukraine should be amended into the Ukrainian Constitution to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians. And Russia’s Normandy Format representative Dmitry Kozak has insisted in 2020 to include the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics into the Normandy Format; Berlin and Paris then conceded to his demand to allow the Minsk Group’s moderator to participate in future Normandy meetings.

Within this multilateral grouping, Kyiv is disadvantaged. In France, Ukraine is seen as expendable. French President Macron is willing to sacrifice Ukraine in order to incorporate Russia into a common European security structure to rebuild France’s international clout. And Macron’s rival for the presidency, French ultranationalist Marine le Pen, has close ties to the Kremlin. Germany, in its pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, has already shrugged off Ukraine. The only country in the Normandy Group interested in Ukraine is Russia, and not in the way Kyiv would like. As it is, the Normandy Group cannot achieve a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Ukraine.

The United States should take advantage of the Normandy Group’s failure to insert itself into the ongoing negotiations. Washington has long been Ukraine’s staunchest defender against Russian aggression, and U.S. President Joseph Biden has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a sovereign Ukraine. The Biden Administration should thus encourage the dissolution of the Normandy Format in favor a new multilateral negotiation process that includes the United States. This new grouping should include the United States, Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany, and Turkey; the new forum should also specifically exclude the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

This new forum would benefit Ukraine, the United States, and Europe. With the United States involved in the negotiations, Washington can prevent Moscow from strongarming Kyiv into disadvantageous terms. Additionally, participating in such a multilateral forum, beyond demonstrating firm U.S. commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, would help the Biden administration restore confidence in the world of a United States committed to its alliances and a rules-based world order.

Bringing Turkey into the discussion would also be beneficial to the region. Relations between Turkey and the West have deteriorated since Turkey’s air force downed a Russian fighter in 2015, and exacerbated by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and its naval gas exploration expeditions in Cypriot waters. However, Turkey is an important member of NATO and partner of the West, its value going beyond its control of the Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits. Ankara has successfully balanced Moscow in the South Caucasus, and is contributing to Ukraine’s defense. Involving Turkey in a new forum would not only benefit the negotiations by bringing in a genuinely neutral mediator to the conflict, but also as a step to restoring relations with a strategically important partner. Should Russia reject a new multilateral format as described, then Moscow should be excluded until it agrees to join. Such exclusion would show the Western resolve needed to convince the Kremlin to curtail its aggressive acts and pursue reasonable negotiation. It is time for President Biden to end the failed Normandy format and show to Ukraine and the world that Washington stands with Kyiv.

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Should Georgia and Ukraine Join NATO? Yes, Just Not Now

In a late January interview, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said he would like to ask U.S. President Joseph Biden one question: Why is Ukraine still not part of NATO? It is a fair question, since at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest the Alliance endorsed granting Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans. Almost thirteen years later, both countries are still waiting to join. 

Both Ukraine and Georgia have in-depth experience in dealing with Russian conventional and hybrid warfare. And the two countries are strong partners with NATO. Georgia has regularly hosted military exercises with the United States and other Western partners. Tbilisi also contributed troops to NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile Ukraine has contributed to NATO operations and helped deploy medical supplies to NATO members. 

In Georgia and Ukraine, the majority of the population supports NATO membership. The countries have demonstrated their resilience to Russian aggression, contributed to NATO operations, and are on course to achieve interoperability with NATO on political and military levels. The question remains: Why have these countries not acceded to NATO?

The answer is equal parts Russia and a lack of consensus among Western powers on how to deal with Russia. One of the most popular narratives explaining Russian aggression is that it’s a response to Western expansion; the West provoked Russia by bringing NATO up to Russia’s borders. Russia perceives itself as a besieged power nobly fighting a West whose values are a threat to everything Russian. But peace could be reached if the West respects what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls Russia’s “exclusive sphere of interest;” such a sphere covers all of the former Soviet countries.

This narrative is only partly true. Russia does see itself as a besieged nation. But that is not because of NATO (or EU) expansion. Russia’s collective memory, stemming from numerous invasions, has led to a permanent belief that Russia is surrounded by hostile forces. And so even as the West seeks to accommodate Russian security concerns, Russia continues to fight like any encircled power would. If Russia will always claim its surrounded, why bother reach accommodation, why not grant NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine? Because the Alliance is at odds on how to respond.

Europe’s leading powers, France and Germany, have so far treated Moscow with kid gloves. Despite pressure from the United States and European allies, Berlin continues to press forward with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russian gas to Europe through the Baltic, bypassing Ukraine. French President Macron has also indicated that Pariswould sacrifice Ukraine and Georgia to bring Russia into a new common European security framework. 

Meanwhile, European allies are still concerned that the United States could return to the NATO-bashing, isolationist stance of the past four years. All of these factors lead Russia to conclude that NATO and the West are in disarray. Moscow can, in the Kremlin’s analysis, can continue attacking the Alliance without any repercussions.

And Russia does seek the destruction of NATO. Moscow has sought to test NATO, running exercises in the Baltic, launching cyber-attacks on NATO members, violating Turkey’s airspace; the list goes on. This is because Russia respects strength, and the Kremlin has not seen any strong responses to its violations of international norms beyond sanctions.

Russia will always seek to test the credibility of NATO, hoping that the Alliance will collapse. With troops already in Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s tests of NATO resolve would be even more dangerous. In one scenario, NATO does not respond to further Russian aggression in its new member states. Disintegration would likely follow. NATO’s demise, a Kremlin policy objective since its foundation, would be achieved. War between nuclear powers is the other scenario. 

Before admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO, Russia must realize NATO’s strength has returned. The United States needs to first demonstrate that, no matter what administration or party is in the White House, U.S. support to NATO is unyielding. A consensus must be reached between Berlin, Paris, and Washington on defending Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty, as well as develop strong responses to Russian violations of international norms. One possible step could be, as former commander of U.S. Armed Forces Europe Lt. General (ret.) Ben Hodges suggested, to label any Russian ships coming from occupied Crimea as contraband. Russia needs to understand that there is strong resistance in the West to its actions, and that Ukraine and Georgia will be protected. Once this is achieved, NATO membership should be extended to the two countries. 

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Russian Passportization Poses Long-term Threat to Ukrainian Sovereignty

A major component of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is ‘passportization.’ Passportization is Russia’s policy of offering passports (and citizenship) to residents of occupied territories. In conjunction with the Kremlin’s tactics of sustained disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks, passportization allows Moscow to wage war without risking its own soldiers.

This policy, in combination with Russian disinformation and cyber-attacks fits within an old Soviet strategy of ‘reflexive control.’ Reflexive control is a method in which a (typically weaker) party can influence a partner or opponent into unwittingly choosing bad options by influencing perceptions. From the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin has hidden its true goals from the public; this follows a strategy of reflexive control as Moscow can portray the attainment of actual goals as victory, deny failures, and above all prevent a coherent response from its adversaries.

Thus, in the first year of the conflict, President Putin began speaking of ‘Novorossiya,’ a Russian imperial inventioncomprising the southern third of Ukraine’s territory which holds 45 percent of its population. At the time, the Kremlin likely desired to use the illegitimate Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in the Donbas as a launching pad to create a puppet Russian state across the widely Russian-speaking ‘Novorossiya’ which would link Russian-occupied Transnistria and Crimea with Russia proper. This plan failed when Ukraine secured the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov from Russian-backed separatist forces in mid-2014. Following this defeat, the Kremlin quietly dropped the notion of ‘Novorossiya’ and it was as if the plan never existed.

As President Putin’s dreams of Novorossiya vanished, the Kremlin quietly transformed the crisis into another frozen conflict. Russia’s overall objective, like its policies elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, is to prevent these countries from pursuing integrative policies with the West, or at least separation from Russia. Passportization allows Russia to effectively disrupt integration under the guise of humanitarian assistance. It also provides Russia an opportunity to address its demographic woes as well as provide means of influence in target countries.

In 2019, Russian deaths exceeded births by 316,000. According to some estimates by the United Nations, the Russian population may well contract from a 2020 population of 146.7 million to between 135.8 and 124.6 million by 2050. For Moscow, Ukrainians provide a fellow Slavic population with close historic, linguistic, and religious links that can easily integrate into Russian society and revitalize Russia’s declining population. In part, passportization helps ameliorate Russia’s ongoing demographic crisis by siphoning off other countries’ citizenry.

This passportization policy also enables the Kremlin to meddle with the internal affairs of a country. The most obvious form this takes is by providing the Kremlin a casus belli. Prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia had flooded Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Russian passports. When Georgian Prime Minister Mikheil Saakashvili moved to reassert government control over the renegade South Ossetia, Russia responded with invasion, claiming it was defending Russian citizens. 

Moscow has, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, provided over 441,000 Russian passports in the occupied Donbas territories, and facilitated the issuance of over 1.2 million Luhansk and Donetsk passports. And in 2019, President Putin fast-tracked naturalization for any Ukrainian who lived or lives in Ukraine’s east, who works in Russia, and any Ukrainian who was born in Crimea but left prior to the annexation, as well as their families. In the spring of 2020, Russia passed an amendment nullifying restrictions on dual citizenship for Moldovan, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakhstani citizens applying for a Russian passport. 

Russia’s passportization of the Donbas allows it to prepare for two contingencies. The first is to engage openly in war on behalf of its newly minted citizens should Ukraine launch a fresh, Western-backed offensive. The second is to give up the provinces back to Kyiv as poison pills. While Russia’s campaign has bolstered anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, Moscow’s information campaign in the Donbas has painted Ukraine as a gang of fascists. A reincorporated Donbas will thus function as a Ukrainian pressure point for Russia.

By inserting a pro-Russian population into Ukraine, Russia can create a time bomb that could provide Russia a dishonest justification to seize ‘Novorossiya,’ or at least keep Ukraine within Moscow’s orbit. One way that Kyiv can nullify this issue is by providing comprehensive services and assistance to the people in the occupied territories if and when they are recovered. Such assistance would combat Russia’s plans in two ways – it would diminish incentives for Ukrainians to work in Russia as well as show them that Kyiv is not the fascist junta portrayed by the Kremlin. However, for this to work, the West must provide both political and economic support to Kyiv, even after territorial reunification.  

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The Vaccine Waiting Game: Why Ukraine Banned Sputnik V

The Ukrainian government bans the Russian Sputnik V vaccine in hopes to limit Russian geopolitical leverage over the region. Meanwhile, the EU’s slow vaccine roll-out, disinformation, and internal challenges leave Ukraine without a concrete vaccine supply. 

Ukrainian authorities prohibited the registration and production of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine on February 10th. Officials expressed concern that Russian jabs are a form of “hybrid weapon against Ukraine.” Ukraine enforced the official ban shortly after approving the special vaccine registration law, which can inhibit approval of an individual vaccine, on January 29th. 

The Russian vaccine, controversially the first success in the vaccination race, has the highest percent of skepticism among Russians. The Levada Center, a polling organization, concluded that only 38 percent of surveyed Russians claimed they will be vaccinated. Russia also has a disproportionally low vaccination rate of 2 percent of the 146 million population. 

However, the Kremlin began an intense international vaccination campaign, planning to administer its version to Mexico, Hungary, Belarus, and others. Russian importers offered the African Union up to 300,000 doses. The New York Times reported that over 50 countries in Asia and Latin America ordered more than a billion Russian doses. Despite high demand, Russia is incapable of high-volume production of vaccines for export even if it ignores domestic vaccination needs. The European Union officials frequently express their distrust for Russia’s readiness to distribute the vaccine while Russian COVID-19 infection numbers surpass 4.1 million.  

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a TV interview on January 12th that Ukraine will not obtain Sputnik V even if the vaccine is internationally approved, calling it a “propaganda factor.” Kuleba said by accepting vaccines from an aggressor-state, Ukraine will contribute to the Russian narrative that Western states did not provide adequate assistance to Ukraine in a time of need.  

In the evaluation of Russian donorship, the charitable organization Oxfam reported that Russia often overestimates the scale of their humanitarian help abroad, providing only 51.6 million dollars in 2012 compared to U.S.’s 3,922.1 million. Oxfam noted that the Russian humanitarian agenda is motivated by a goal of becoming a ‘great power,’ erasing the history of receiving humanitarian help from the West and forming a forced relationship with the aid recipients. The organization highlights that Russia seeks to publicly demean countries accepting their offer. 

Alliance for Securing Democracy researcher Thomas Morley wrote that since last spring, Russia was no stranger to “mask diplomacy” or donation of medical goods for combatting COVID-19. On March 22, Russia sent military ‘specialists’ and supplies to Italy to portray the EU’s response to the outbreak as weak in the media. Reportedly only 20 percent of medical goods were effective. 

Last April, Russia also sent an AN-124 Russian military plane to New York full of protective equipment and ventilators. The Kremlin’s propaganda deemed Russian humanitarian help as an act of kindness until the Foreign Ministry in Moscow announced that the U.S. paid for the supplies. The U.S. sent back the Russian ventilators due to reports of the machines catching on fire in Russia. The U.S. also sent over 200 ventilators to Russia in May when the country’s COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.  

Pavil Kovtoniuk, head of the Health Economics Center in Kyiv warns that accepting Russian vaccines will further define the geopolitical vector towards Russia or the West. Kovtoniuk said although Ukraine only secured eight million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, opting for a Russian vaccine could inhibit any other Western vaccine supply. Currently, 13 EU member-states in Central Europe and the Baltics urged for immediate allocation of vaccines to Ukraine. Similarly, Moldova was able to procure Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines via Romania.  

By banning Russian vaccines, Ukraine retains leverage to petition the EU for vaccinations. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on the EU to supply Ukraine with Western jabs to combat Russian political influence in the region. Although many publications claim that Ukraine will be left without Russian and EU vaccines, there is no guarantee that Ukraine would receive Sputnik V faster given its slow production and distribution rates. Furthermore, Russia’s COVID-19 humanitarian campaigns to Italy and the U.S. confirm propaganda and espionage objectives alongside poor medical quality records.  

Sputnik V already inherently violates Ukrainian nationhood as it is allegedly administered in non-government-controlled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Although the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a Sputnik V vaccine sponsor abroad, claims that Donbas did not receive any dosages, self-proclaimed leader of Donetsk Denis Pushilin said the region receives new supplies daily. Russian occupation officials did confirm that residents of Crimea will be vaccinated. Ukrainians in Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk as well as Moldovans in Transnistria are deprived of an opportunity to attain European vaccinations. 

It is also important to note the credibility of Ukrainian officials in procuring the Russian shot. Russia-leaning opposition leader Viktor Medvechuk petitioned the Ukrainian government to approve Sputnik V in January. The Ukrainian government recently sanctioned Medvechuk, who financially supports the pharmaceutical company Biolik, for his role in the proliferation of Russian disinformation through three TV channels. That he allegedly owns. The National Security and Defense Council and Ukraine’s state security service (SBU) is investigating Medvechuk for the alleged illegal sale of coal from non-government-controlled regions in Luhansk and the supposed privatization of the state PrykarpatZakhidtrans oil product pipeline.  

Vaccines are becoming a geopolitical weapon separating countries into regional and economic blocks. For Ukraine, Sputnik V bares no effectiveness despite recent studies proving 91.6 percent success. Instead, it is a way to uphold Ukrainian dignity on the international level and remain consistent in its foreign policy towards aggressor-states.  

Image Source: Pharmaceutical Technology 

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Zelenskyy’s “Boldest Move” Yet: Why Ukraine Banned Three Pro-Russian Channels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a five-year ban on three pro-Russian channels on February 2nd. Although the United States embassy and Ukrainian journalists welcomed this move, the ban carries greater domestic and geopolitical implications.

Zelenskyy sanctioned channels 112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV following a decision made by the National Security and Defense Council. The Council advised the termination of broadcasting licensing for three channels legally belonging to Taras Kozak, a member of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform For Life (OPZZh) party. Kozak, who owns two houses in annexed Crimea, is linked to the alleged owner of the three channels, Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk is a Ukrainian oligarch, the head OPZZh’s political council, and has personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The pro-Kremlin politician denies any media ownership in Ukraine.

The Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko further called on YouTube to remove the joint “Stop Censorship of 112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK TV” channel. Roman Lozinsky, a member of the Holos party pushed for the exclusion of politicians, journalists, and cameramen affiliated with the banned channels. 

112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and ZIK TV continue to have a large online presence, where they equate Zelenskyy’s decision to ban them with the kind of media censorship seen in North Korea. The channels accused the Ukrainian government of restricting freedom of the press and violating journalists’ constitutional rights. Russian Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky criticized Ukrainians and Latvians, the latter banning five Russian channels back on February 1st, for “mass human rights violations.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the Ukrainian decision, and the West’s subsequent support, as hypocritical, and in contradiction with international norms regarding freedom of press.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell expressed concern for Ukraine’s abrupt termination of the channels. He noted that although Ukraine is defending its “territorial integrity and national security” against Russian “manipulation,” the act might have negative repercussions on freedom in Ukrainian media.

In a joint statement, Ukrainian civil society organizations said Ukraine did not violate press rights, citing the Office of the President of Ukraine’s information about the foreign financing of the channels. The press release accused the channels of using anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric, supporting Russian aggression in Donbas, unlawfully firing journalists with different political views, and being a political platform for OPZZh.

Unlike the EU, the U.S. Embassy publicly backed Ukraine stating that those efforts are justified given “Russia’s malign influence” over Ukrainian media.

Starting in 2014, Ukraine has embraced a “cultural revival” trajectory as a form of national security. For example, radio stations adopted a Ukrainian-language quota, which boosted the Ukrainian music industry. In August 2014, Ukraine banned 14 Russian television channels such as Russia Today and Life News. The Russian Foreign Ministry also has issued a statement noting that the West and Ukraine blatantly support censorship. Furthermore, Ukraine terminated the broadcast of Russian opposition channel Dozhd (TV Rain) following their remarks on Russian legal possession of Crimea.

Atlantic Council Nonresident Fellow Taras Kuzio highlights that the ban of three channels was significant for Ukrainian national sovereignty as OPZZh has growing ratings. Kuzio notes that Zelenskyy’s ban came at a perfect time when the U.S. President Joe Biden began to shape his foreign policies. Appealing to the U.S. could secure more financial or military support for Ukraine.  

Moldova is a prime example of why Russian channels pose a political threat in Eastern European countries. Moldova’s ex-President Igor Dodon, like Ukrainian Taras Kozak, was allegedly closely affiliated with Accent TV. The television network allowed for broadcasting Russia’s main channel, Perviy Kanal. Russian channels are preferred among 31 percent of Moldovans, which imposes foreign influence over Moldovan elections.

112 Ukraine, NewsOne, and Zik TV censor anti-Kremlin news making them not a reliable source of information. The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine (IMI) found that alleged Medvedchuk channels refrained from covering Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s investigation into his poisoners. A similar approach was echoed by Kremlin-sponsored channels. 

112 Ukraine could be potentially destabilizing for Ukrainian image in the West. The channel’s website is among the first English-language news outlets that appear when searching for “Ukraine news.” Therefore, their narratives can affect both eastern regions of Ukraine and the public abroad. 

112 Ukraine online publication also has a limited number of ads and no subscriptions. Its ad-free platform may signify that the channel obtains financial support from other sources. Ukraine will have to prove that the channels received Russian funding from abroad to invalidate claims of censorship and violations of freedom of the press.


Many publications claim that the termination of the three channels in addition to Zelenskyy’s recent Axios interview, where he rhetorically asks Biden why Ukraine is still not part of NATO, signifies a bold move towards the West. His traditionally centrist position, interested in normalizing relations with Russia, has won him overwhelming support across the country. However, it is important to note that “nationalist” ex-President Petro Poroshenko did not ban these TV stations, perhaps fearing the damage to his presidential ratings. Presidential elections in 2024 may reflect what Zelensky’s recent switch in alignment might imply for his reelection.

Image Source: DW

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Ukraine’s Criminal Investigation into U.S. Election Interference Latest in Russian Disinformation Saga

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office announced on January 28 that Ukraine has begun a criminal investigation into attempts to interfere with the American 2020 presidential election. The announcement comes following the State Department’s January 11 sanctions on Ukrainian individuals and organizations; among them Ukrainian Parliamentarian (and member of President Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People Party) Oleksandr Dubinsky. The targeted individuals and organizations were sanctioned for their roles in interfering with the 2020 U.S. presidential election, especially in attempting to find or create compromising material, kompromat, on Hunter Biden, son of President Biden. While Mr. Dubinsky denies wrongdoing, the Servant of the People Party voted on February 2 to expel Mr. Dubinsky from its ranks.

The investigation launched by Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is the latest chapter of Russia’s disinformation campaign against the United States and Europe; a saga in which Ukraine features prominently. The narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, is responsible for the disinformation campaign and election interference is itself a goal of Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy. 

Former senior White House official Dr. Fiona Hill testified to this in November 2019 during the House Impeachment hearings. The U.S. intelligence community has largely agreed with Dr. Hill’s assessment, stating that Russia has engaged in a years-long attempt to frame Ukraine for its hacking of the 2016 elections and subsequent disinformation and election interference. This strategy of falsely accusing other groups and countries of doing what it itself had done fits within Russia’s history, dating from the earliest days of the Soviet Union. 

While Russia is the primary disinformation peddler, Ukrainians too have been involved in the disinformation campaigns against the West. But those who did, like the Ukrainian-born oligarch Oleg Deripaska, almost always have close ties to Russian President Putin and the Kremlin. Beyond Mr. Deripaska (who held close ties with Paul Manafort) and Mr. Dubinsky, the other major Ukrainian figure involved in U.S. election interference is Andrii Derkach, a close associate of Rudy Giuliani. In September 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Mr. Derkach for attempting to interfere with the 2020 election, describing him as a decade-long Russian agent within Ukraine. Like Mr. Dubinsky, Mr. Derkach also attempted to find kompromat on Hunter Biden.

The majority of Russian social and regular media disinformation comes from Russia in the guise of Moscow-based think tanks such as Katehon and news organizations like RT and Tass. However, Russia has used the conflicts it created in Ukraine to create additional fake news proxies. Among the most prominent organizations was News Front, which according to the U.S. State Department is a Crimea-based disinformation outlet that had ties to the Kremlin and Russian security services. The organization was registered with Roskomnadzor (Russia’s governmental body that oversees mass media) in June 2015. Operating with multiple languages, the organization trafficked disinformation and conspiracy theories ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic being a U.S. bioweapon to Ukraine becoming a colony of the International Monetary Fund. Due to widespread disinformation practices, Twitter banned the organization’s accounts and Facebook took down all but three of its pages. 

Russia only gains from U.S. officials and Western populations seeing Ukraine as the source of the disinformation campaign. The most obvious benefit is that the blame is deflected from Russia onto Ukraine, with Kyiv appearing at best as unable to control nefarious oligarchic forces within its borders and at worst as an enemy of the West. 

Another benefit is cultural. President Putin and other Russian nationalists have long argued that there is no such thing as a Ukrainian (or, for that matter, Belarusian) people distinct from the Russian nation. For the Russian nationalists both in and out of the Russian government, Ukraine belongs to the ‘Russian World.’ From the Kremlin towers, they see the dispute with Kyiv as a domestic, not an international, matter. By clothing Russian disinformation in Ukrainian garb, Moscow subtly influences Western audiences into believing this ‘Russian World’ narrative, where Ukraine aligns with Moscow, instead of pursuing a path towards Euro-Atlantic integration. 

As Kyiv investigates Ukrainian sources of interference in the U.S. 2020 presidential election, it is important to guard against Russian attempts to use this investigation to deflect blame. But even more importantly, the United States needs to bolster its own defenses against misinformation and resecure the election process.

Image Source: NBC News

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Ukrainian-Hungarian Relations Worsen, Implications for Territorial Sovereignty and Minority Rights

Ukrainian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers, Dmytro Kuleba and Peter Szijjarto will meet on February 3rd to normalize the situation in the Transcarpathian region. 

Kuebla and Szijjiarto will discuss the minority and education rights of 150,000 ethnic Hungarians residing in the Ukrainian Zakarpattia oblast. The region formally belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its collapse following the end of World War I. The area on the Ukrainian-Hungarian border inherited Hungarian primary and secondary schools, where Hungarian remains the dominant language of instruction. As a result, the Jamestown Foundation reports that Transcarpathian students perform the lowest on Ukrainian state examinations.  

Szijjarto said Ukrainian “patriots” allegedly threatened Hungarian diplomats aiming to prevent the upcoming diplomatic discussions in Kyiv. Kuebla stated that Ukrainian police are investigating the incident but alleged that foreign actors are responsible for threats against the Hungarian delegation. 

The relationship between Kyiv and Budapest originally soured in 2017 when President Petro Poroshenko’s administration introduced the controversial language law prohibiting school instruction in minority languages such as Russian, Hungarian, Belarusian, and Polish. Although the law was targeted at the widely-used Russian language, Budapest responded by blocking Ukrainian aspirations to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Hungarian officials also extended Hungarian passports to Zakarpattia region, violating the Ukrainian prohibition of dual citizenship. Shortly after, alleged Ukrainian nationalists vandalized the Hungarian Culture Center. Without any proof, Poroshenko claimed Russian involvement in the incident.

In 2020, the Siurte United Territorial Community played the Hungarian national anthem during elections for the Ukrainian local government. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) launched an investigation under suspicion of Hungarian agitation for the Party of Hungarians in the Ukrainian election. On November 30th, SBU raided the Hungarian Cultural Association in Transcarpathia and other foundations investigating foreign sponsorship and potential damage to Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. 

Szijjarto criticized Ukrainian raids, undermining Kyiv’s intentions to join NATO. Hungarian diplomats also requested the immediate presence of the Ukrainian ambassador. On December 12th, Hungary requested expansion of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine to Zakarpatiia. 

Hungarian officials assure that Hungary will not disturb the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine or stain its relations with NATO. They demand a provision for the national minority law under the advisory of the Council of Europe. Additionally, they seek to invest 56.5 million dollars into Transcarpathian infrastructure. In turn, Ukraine reinstates that it will not push assimilation onto ethnic Hungarians but seeks to supplement Hungarian education with the Ukrainian language necessary for college and career development.

However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban contradicts the official state position. In 2014, Orban called for Transcarpathian autonomy while pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk compromised the Ukrainian national sovereignty. Orban opposes EU sanctions against Russia, supporting purchases of Russian gas, oil, and supply of controversial Sputnik V vaccine. He stated that Hungary will join the Russian TurkStream gas pipeline. Russia also assists Orban’s government in developing a nuclear power plant.

Additionally, Hungarian passport distribution to Ukrainian citizens resembles Russia’s “passportization” policy, a term coined by Toru Nagashima. In the early 2000s, Russia administered passports to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As a result, Russians were able to claim that they were defending Russian citizens and intervene in Georgian affairs. A similar “passportization” strategy encompasses residents of Transnistria, Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

Unlike Russia, Hungary does not occupy Ukrainian territory and operates by EU and NATO principles. However, “passportization” could lead to separatism or influence local governance. With the most recent language law requiring all services to be provided in Ukrainian unless otherwise asked, the law was scrutinized by Russian media outlets for “discrimination” against minority languages. Similar disinformation could reach ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. Most importantly, it can lead to brain drain. Ukraine ranks 129 out of 137 countries in its ability to keep talented citizens from leaving the country.

Kuleba noted that both sides must rid themselves of suspicions to achieve a successful discussion next Wednesday. Ukrainian FM said at a press conference, “There is no reason to believe that Ukrainian Hungarians are prone to separatism, just as there is no reason to believe that the Ukrainian state wants to cause any harm to the Ukrainian Hungarians of Zakarpattia.”

Image Source: UNIAN

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Why Ukraine Is Silent on Detention of Vocal Russian Activist

On August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny, known by many as an anti-corruption activist, became violently ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He was taken to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing, put into a coma, and evacuated to a hospital in Berlin, Germany for treatment. Several laboratories, including facilities in Sweden and France, confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. 

After spending several months recovering in Germany, Navalny launched an Internet-expose of his alleged poisoners by calling one of the FSB operatives. Soon after, Navalny returned to Moscow where he was detained upon arrival at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. Navalny was charged in absentia for having broken the terms of a prior suspended prison sentence, which he describes as politically motivated. 

Six days after Navalny’s most recent arrests, thousands of protesters across 11 time zones took to the street to show their support. State media warned of heavy police presence and advised protesters to stay away. Protests were organized in the Far East, across Siberia, and in Russia’s most populous cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. By the end of the day on January 23, more than 3,000 arrests were made in more than 100 cities across Russia, according to OVD-Info activist group, making the demonstrations the largest public display of opposition to authorities in several years. 

Navalny began his political career by joining the liberal opposition party Yabloko. The party dismissed him for his participation in the anti-Putin Russian March in 2007 and for controversial anti-immigration views. Navalny also unexpectedly secured 27 percent of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayor elections against a pro-Kremlin candidate equipt with the backing of state media. He founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation and launched several journalistic investigations on the Russian government. The opposition leader is largely present online as he is deplatformed on all traditional media outlets.

While Navalny is widely referred to as an opposition leader in Russia and hailed by the West for his dedication to anti-corruption efforts against Kremlin authorities, his stance does not equate to a pro-western outlook.

Neighboring Ukrainians are hesitant to take the streets in defense of Navalny. The opposition leader often undermined cultural differences between Russians and Ukrainians, referring to two nations as “one people.” Following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, in an interview where he was asked what he would do as President, Navalny announced that he would not return the peninsula to Ukraine. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church separated from the Russian Orthodox Church, Navalny criticized Putin for not preserving the 300-year-old Russian history, rather than praising Ukraine for exercising its national rights. Beyond Ukraine, Navalny has expressed support for the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 War. 

The Institute of Mass Media in Ukraine (IMI) also found that many large Ukrainian outlets such as 112.ua, 5.ua, and Intefax refrained from reporting on Navalny’s poisoning investigation. IMI alleges that Russia-backed channels in Ukraine were prohibited from airing Putin’s involvement in the attempted murder. IMI interprets the silence on independent and nationalist Ukrainian channels regarding Navalny as news about “just another Kremlin opponent.” In other words, Ukrainians are either too accustomed to bad news about Russian opposition leaders or Navalny’s figure is not as significant to Ukraine’s struggle against Russian interference and occupation of Crimea.

Some Ukrainian officials warn that Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment can distract the international community from his backing of Russian imperialist approach in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. However, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba encouraged the international community to take a harsh stance against Putin’s regimes. 

On January 26th, the U.S. President Joe Biden discussed Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent arrest in his first phone call with the Kremlin. Although no details of the conversation are available to the public, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed Biden’s interest in holding a firm stance against Russia.


Similarly, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the Navalny incident of February 4-6. On top of Navalny’s detainment, Borrell seeks to discuss Russia’s actions against Ukraine. Navalny’s case, alongside the change in the American administration, could bring further exposure to the issue of Ukrainian national sovereignty, despite Ukraine’s silence on the politics of Navalny’s detainment.

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