Increasing Use Of Covert Warfare and Assassinations in Ukraine

On October 26th, 2017, Ukrainian MP Ihor Mosiychuk walked out of a TV studio with his bodyguards and into Kiev’s bustling streets. Passing a scooter, it promptly exploded, killing a bodyguard and an innocent passerby as well as injuring Mosiychuk . Once thought to be a hallmark of Ukraine’s gang wars from the 1990s, vehicle bombs and other methods of urban assassination are back on the streets of the capital, as the young state’s war with separatist Russian proxies is being waged far beyond the front lines.


The Enemy of My Enemy

A car ambush is an unusual method of attacking enemy personnel.​ ​However, that is exactly how Chechen volunteer Amina Okueva died at a railroad crossing. Far from the foreign combatant in Ukraine, there are roughly one hundred Chechen volunteer fighters involved in the war, generally organized into two battalions: Dzhokhar Dudayev and Sheikh Mansur. Both battalions are named after historical nationalist leaders who fought against Russia for Chechen independence. Their reasons for being there are mixed. Adam Osmayev, the leader of battalion Dzhokhar Dudayev, envisioned to the Guardian that, ​“if the Ukrainians made the right conditions they [Chechen fighters who joined al Qaeda and ISIS] would come here [to Ukraine] instead.” Another fighter lamented to the same reporter: “Why are Chechens fighting for Isis, why are they fighting against Kurds who have never done us any wrong? . . . That is not a Chechen war. This, here in Ukraine, is a war for Chechens. If we defeat Russia here, we are closer to freeing our homeland.”

Although Razman Kadyrov’s control of the technically autonomous region of Chechnya may constitute an official end to the conflict between Russia and Chechen separatists, for may Chechens the reality on the ground is that the fighting is simply occurring elsewhere. In an interview with the New York Times, the leader of the Sheikh Mansur battalion, who only refers to himself as “Muslim,” made quite clear that he and his men​ ​“​always fight Russians.​” The Ukrainian military was quickly overwhelmed by Russian forces in Crimea and faces separatists backed by Russian special forces, artillery, and electronic warfare. These experienced fighters are a boon to the Ukrainian cause, and are deployed in the most intense conflict areas. On the communications front, Russian dissidents are fleeing to Ukraine and taking shelter in Kiev, where they can protest against the Russian government in a relatively more safe space (Russia is known for targeting dissidents abroad. The most infamous case is the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litivenko in London by way of Polonium)


“It Begins at Night”

As the war began to reach a stalemate with the Minsk II agreement, a series of bombings and assassinations began occurring in Kiev with a variety of victims. According to Daily Signal, on March 23rd, 2017 Russian parliamentarian and Putin critic Denis Voronenkov was shot outside of a theater.​ ​On June 27th, 2017, Ukrainian commando officer Colonel Maksym Shapilov was killed in a car bombing​. He was not the last to die by car bomb.​ ​A renowned journalist for Ukrainska Pravda, Pavlo Sheremet, also died when his car exploded.​ Timur Makhauri, an elite Chechen fighter sent to Kiev to hunt Russian agents, also met a sudden end when his​ ​Toyota Camry exploded in the Ukrainian capital.

Kiev is not the only city in Ukraine where assassinations occur. Arsen Pavlov, aka “Motorola,” was a brutal Russian commander in Ukraine. A veteran of the Chechen war, he quickly became infamous for his military efficiency and barbaric treatment of prisoners.​ Pavlov died in his apartment building’s elevator by way of remote control bomb. The perpetrator(s) remains unknown. According to the same Foreign Policy article, other commanders have also died, including Yevgeny Zhilin who died in Moscow. Another, Aleksey Mozgovoy, founder of Ghost Brigade, died in an ambush in an area that he​ ​“regarded as his personal fiefdom.”

Although in each case the assassins remain unknown, there is a great deal of speculation as to who they were. The article in question that reported the killings speculates that it was Moscow that organized the killings as a means of pulling out of Ukraine quietly. It also entertains the theory that separatist warlords, eager to seize eastern Ukraine’s lucrative black market and resources, are killing each other. However, another possibility is that Ukrainian special forces (known as Spetsnaz) may be behind the series of covert killings. A Vice News documentary found that Ukrainian Spetsnaz were being trained by 200 Canadian soldiers under​ ​Operation UNIFIER. The areas of western Ukraine in which they trained, far away from the front lines, were designed to look exactly like improvised Russian trenches and shelled out villages. As the journalists interviewed the elite Ukrainian troopers, they were told by some that they had​ ​fought and killed Russian special forces operators.

Not all conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists takes place physically. Much of it occurs through the form of cyber warfare. Ukrainian President Poroshenko​ ​reported that there had been 6,500 cyberattacks on 36 Ukrainian targets,​ including a​ blackout on Kiev and a​ ​major hack of numerous Ukrainian banks.


The Big Picture

The frozen, shadowy conflict in Ukraine is not an anomaly. Fearful of his own people, Putin has been working hard to keep certain reform-minded states in his neighborhood from maintaining their territorial integrity, thus making it impossible for such states to become completely coherent, vibrant democracies. Like most autocrats, Putin depends on his citizens to view his rule as more able to instill and maintain order than democracy. Therefore, he cannot afford for countries that he considers part of Russia’s sphere of influence to be secure democracies. In order to do this,​ he has dragged Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia down into various conflicts concerning their territorial integrity by use of hybrid warfare, known as the​ ​Gerasimov Doctrine​. The Gerasimov Doctrine is a doctrine of war drafted by the current Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. It calls for using asymmetric means to disrupt enemy societies and institutional structure rather than direct attacks. By using special forces, organized crime, cyber-attacks, and assassinations, Russia’s goal is to keep its reform-oriented neighbors that lack strong, well-established democratic institutions in chaos. If possible, it will also try to cause chaos within distant states that it views as its enemies. Two prime examples are the United States and France. With information warfare waged on both nations’ elections, as Russian hackers were found to be responsible for hacks of both the Clinton and Macron campaigns.

Putin’s Russia is waging hybrid warfare is on much of the Western world through various means. The United States, therefore, must respond in multiple ways. One key method is to continue to support Ukraine alongside other NATO countries. In a Politico working paper discussion, one participant stated that​ ​“the key to deter and potentially to change Russia is Ukraine.’’ Given the continuing assassination campaign in Kiev and Operation UNIFIER, the United States should support training Ukrainian special operators alongside Canadian forces. As the territory that Russian-backed separatists hold onto gradually shrinks, Russia will increasingly rely on mobs and assassins to keep its neighbor destabilized. In order to counter that, the United States and other NATO countries such as Estonia must increasingly support Ukrainian intelligence and security services, so that Russia is unable to use cyber-attacks, assassinations, and organized crime to increase its influence. If the United States and its allies succeed in such efforts, Ukraine can rapidly place itself on the path to institutional pride and development, countering Putin’s attempts to claim that only he and his authoritarianism can provide stability to Russia.


Author: Jacob Hollander