Putin’s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.
The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.
Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.
Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.
Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.
In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.
This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.