By Franklin Holcomb, Emily Markee, and ISW’s Russia-Ukraine Team
Russia is intensifying its multifaceted campaign to destabilize Ukraine ahead of Ukraine’s 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. The Kremlin is leveraging various political and economic tools to complement its ongoing military operations in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has recently expanded its operations to spread ethnic tensions in Western Ukraine in order to drive wedges between Ukraine and its partners in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin also engineered the Russian energy company Gazprom’s vindictive and abrupt disruption in natural gas supply to Ukraine.
Ukraine simultaneously faces its own internal challenges amidst stalling efforts to establish an independent anti-corruption court and other government reforms. The Kremlin will exploit the resultant domestic and international frustrations over the pace of reforms. Russia will escalate its subversive activities over the next year in order to remove the pro-Western government led by President Petro Poroshenko and empower populists and pro-Russia factions. The U.S. must take a clear stance supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and partner more closely with Kyiv to support the passage of key reforms and counter Russian subversion.
The Kremlin intensified its destabilization campaign in Western Ukraine in an effort to undermine Ukraine’s partnerships in Eastern Europe. Ukrainian officials accused Kremlin-backed groups of attacking the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Center in Uzhgorod, Zakharpatiya Oblast on February 4 and 27 to inflame local and regional tensions. Zakharpatiya Oblast Governor Hennadiy Moskal accused the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of recruiting nationalists to conduct the attacks in Uzhgorod in coordination with intelligence operatives based in Russian-occupied Transnistria in Moldova. Poland detained two suspects connected to the attack on February 4. The suspects are reportedly tied to the far-right Polish ‘Falanga’ movement, and had fought alongside the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics in Eastern Ukraine. These attacks against minorities are part of a wider campaign by Russia to undermine Ukraine’s relationships with Poland and Hungary. Ukrainian authorities previously arrested individuals reportedly connected to the defunct pro-Russia Party of Regions in Ukraine who attempted to destroy a Hungarian monument in Zakharpatiya Oblast in October 2017. Ukrainian and Polish government sources have also accused Russia of attempting to drive a wedge between the two nations by orchestrating anti-Polish protests in Ukraine as well as attacks against Polish monuments and government buildings. The Kremlin will further enflame ethnic tensions over the coming year to fracture Ukraine and drive wedges between Kyiv and its neighbors in Eastern Europe.
Nationalist Hungarian President Viktor Orban has exploited the Kremlin’s subversion campaign in Western Ukraine to strengthen his own domestic support ahead of Hungary’s April 8 general elections. Orban – who holds a close relationship with Russia – has boosted his nationalist credentials by deliberately escalating tensions with Ukraine. Hungary revived its narrative that Hungarians in Ukraine are under attack from Ukrainian nationalists on March 1. Hungarian organizations in Western Ukraine initially agreed with official statements accusing non-Ukrainians of conducting the attack in Zakharpatiya Oblast on February 27 before switching their narrative to accusing Kyiv of allowing “extremists to strengthen their positions” amidst an alleged “anti-Hungarian campaign” in Ukrainian media. These statements mirror similar narratives peddled by the Kremlin. Hungarian groups further escalated tensions by calling for the OSCE to establish a monitoring office in Western Ukraine on March 7. Orban has sustained a belligerent stance against Kyiv’s decision to require schoolchildren in Ukraine to learn both Ukrainian and their native language since September 2017. Hungary has also attempted to stall Ukraine’s cooperation with Western institutions such as NATO and the EU. Orban’s efforts support Russia’s ongoing campaign in Western Ukraine to drive social cleavages that prevent Ukraine’s integration with the West. Orban likely assesses that this escalation will help him gain electoral support. Orban’s Fidesz Party lost the mayoral race in traditionally pro-Fidesz Homdezovasarhely in Southern Hungary on February 25. Orban will thus continue to fuel this crisis for political gain unless his international partners encourage him to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine.
The Kremlin continued its tradition of leveraging energy as a foreign policy weapon against Ukraine. Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom abruptly disrupted the delivery of natural gas to Ukraine on 01 March in response to a February 28 judicial ruling against Gazprom in favor of Ukrainian energy corporation Naftogaz. Gazprom had been found to owe $2.56 billion to Naftogaz in a dispute over supply disruptions to Ukraine by the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. Ukraine immediately signed an agreement with Polish energy corporation PNGiG, stabilizing its energy supply after a week of turmoil. Naftogaz CEO Andriy Kobolyev emphasized that “yet another attempt to use gas as a weapon” failed and warned the EU to “consider this case when making their final decision” on Russia’s NordStream 2 Pipeline. Polish and Latvian officials have repeatedly warned against the threats posed to Europe by the NordStream 2 Pipeline. Gazprom’s decision to cut the natural gas supply to Ukraine reinforces Russia’s long-standing strategy to use energy as a weapon against other countries. The U.S. should encourage its European partners to consider Gazprom’s actions against Ukraine before deciding to expand energy ties to Russia through the NordStream 2 and TurkStream pipelines.
The Government of Ukraine’s commitment to reform is simultaneously wavering at the time when it is most required. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government is at risk of failing to approve the creation of an independent anti-corruption court in line with standards set by the IMF and EU. The IMF, EU, and Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) have repeatedly stressed the importance of choosing independent judges for the court via the Public Council of International Experts. The Ukrainian Parliament has nonetheless relegated the council to a de-facto advisory role, undermining the court’s ability to maintain its independence from the Government of Ukraine. Poroshenko asserted that “Ukraine did not do reforms for the IMF [but rather] for the Ukrainian people” and emphasized his government’s success in enacting other important reforms on March 6. The U.S. and its partners must recognize the important progress achieved thus far on reform in Ukraine but sustain pressure on Kyiv to establish an independent anti-corruption court in line with EU, IMF, and NABU recommendations. If Kyiv fails to do so, it will likely fuel public frustration, lose a much-needed tranche of financial support from the IMF, frustrate its international partners, and empower pro-Russia and populist factions in the 2019 elections.
The U.S. and its partners must be willing to both support Ukraine against Russian subversion and simultaneously challenge Kyiv to meet its own reform obligations. The U.S. has taken key steps to support Ukraine, including most recently authorizing the sale of Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile Systems to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. U.S. military support will help Ukraine defend itself from the Armed Forces of Russia and its proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. also extended sanctions on Russia for its ongoing invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. nonetheless must recognize the multi-faceted nature of Moscow’s campaign against Kyiv, which includes many political and economic, in addition to military, components. The Kremlin will intensify this subversion campaign over the next twelve months before Ukraine’s March 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. must focus its efforts over the next year on enabling effective counter-intelligence operations and tangible reforms in Kyiv lest the coming elections result in a windfall for populist and pro-Russia forces in Ukraine.
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