Friday, August 4, 2017

Ukraine Update: Russia’s Aggressive Subversion of Ukraine

                                                  Catherine Harris, Franklin Holcomb, Charlie Bacsik, and Charles Frattini III

Key Takeaway: Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West yielded important progress in the past two months. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s overall pro-Western reformist movement grew more vulnerable to internal destabilization and Russian subversion. Stalling reforms, a poor economy, and an increased focus on the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine provide momentum to populists and pro-Russian political elements, as well as additional opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit as it aims to return Ukraine to its sphere of influence. The Kremlin continued its military aggression in the east and expanded its subversion campaign throughout the country, focusing on low-visibility methods, such as paying individuals to conduct protests. The Kremlin will intensify these efforts in order to destabilize the Ukrainian government as Kyiv prepares for elections in 2019. The U.S. implemented a package of sanctions on August 02 that may restrain the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. However, the U.S. must also provide full support to Ukrainian reform efforts or risk creating a permissive environment for Kremlin subversion in Ukraine.

Ukraine achieved noteworthy successes in deepening its integration with Western political, economic, and military structures, while the U.S. signaled a more active stance. The E.U. officially implemented a visa-free travel agreement with Ukraine on June 11, and the E.U, ratified an economic association agreement with Ukraine on July 11. Both steps will help Ukraine shift away from Russia’s economic and social spheres in the long term. The U.S. also signaled an interest in playing a larger role in resolving the Russia-backed war in Ukraine following a meeting between Ukrainian President Poroshenko and President Trump on June 21 and through the appointment of former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for the Ukraine . Volker indicated that the U.S. may supply lethal defensive arms to the Ukrainian Armed Forces following a visit to the Donbas frontline on July 24. Volker’s statement was reinforced on August 1 when the Pentagon announced a draft plan to provide defensive aid to Kyiv. Ukraine took important steps toward potentially integrating its military with Western military structures. President Poroshenko signed a bill on June 8 to articulate Ukraine’s intent to apply for NATO membership in 2020. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and the U.S. also conducted large-scale naval exercises in the Black Sea on July 10-22 with numerous NATO member-states.

The reform progress inside of Ukraine began to stall while political actors increasingly focus on positioning for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. The Ukrainian parliament adjourned for the summer without passing many expected reforms, including healthcare reform, a new law on national security, the creation of an anti-corruption court, and others. Meanwhile, President Poroshenko revoked the Ukrainian citizenship of his political opponent Mikheil Saakashvili on July 26. Many Ukrainian reformists condemned Poroshenko’s move as one that undermines the democratic ideals of the Euromaidan Revolution. Other political players in Ukraine are also beginning to prepare for the upcoming elections. Populists, including pro-Russian elements, are likely to gain traction while Ukraine’s political reforms and economy stagnate. The combination of these factors makes the government and the reform movement in Ukraine vulnerable to internal destabilization and the Kremlin’s subversion, which will remain true until the Poroshenko administration takes decisive steps to reinvigorate the reform process and economy.

Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine through a variety of low- visibility subversive methods designed not to trigger a major international reaction. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) asserted that Russia conducted a major cyber attack against state and private entities via the malware “NotPetya” on June 27. The attack effectively destabilized many Ukrainian government networks marking the largest cyber attack in Ukraine’s history. The SBU also implicated Russian-backed elements in the assassinations of two top Ukrainian intelligence officers on June 27 and 28. Russia continued its attempts to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its EU allies. Protest participants claimed that Russia-backed elements paid them to instigate anti-Polish Ukrainian nationalist protests at the Polish embassy in Kyiv on July 7. Ukrainian and Polish officials recently accused Russia of conducting additional similar schemes in an effort to inflame nationalist tensions between Poland and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s proxies in Eastern Ukraine continued to conduct offensive operations against Ukraine’s Armed Forces in violation of the Minsk II ceasefire agreements.  The Kremlin’s extensive collection of low-visibility tools, designed to conceal its ongoing campaign to destabilize and eventually remove Ukraine’s pro-Western government, will continue to pose a serious threat Ukraine’s stability and sovereignty if Kyiv’s Western partners do not support efforts to counter them.