Russia denies that it's meddling in Ukraine. But the pro-Russian forces out there don't always hide their links to Moscow.
Since the current crisis began in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that Moscow has a hand in events there. The Kremlin strives to portray the actions of pro-Russian insurgents as a purely local response to simmering grievances.
Yet, Moscow hasn’t been entirely successful at covering its tracks. When pro-Russian forces declared a "People’s Republic of Donetsk" on April 6 and demanded with it a Crimea-style referendum, several separatists thanked the "National Liberation Movement" (NLM) for supporting their endeavour. This supposedly grassroots movement is led by Putin. (In the photo above, NLM supporters distribute flyers at a rally in Donetsk on March 1.)
Since 2011, the NLM (or RusNOD as it’s commonly known in Russia) has been fomenting pro-Russian sentiments throughout "the Russian world" — the Russky Mir, as Putin has encouraged Russians to say when referring to the lands of the former Russian and Soviet Empires.
During the crisis in Ukraine, the NLM has provoked separatist sentiment in Donetsk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, organized pro-war marches inside Russia, and attacked anyone who opposes Putin’s partition of Ukraine. It provides a telephone helpline for "victims" in Ukraine of aggressions by "German-American interventionists" — alluding to Soviet-era narratives warning of the threat posed by Nazi fascism and U.S. imperialism — and warns these same outside forces to "prepare for a second Nuremberg" (referring to the post-World War II war crimes trials).
Formed in 2011, the NLM has adopted the Ribbon of St. George (a Tsarist-era symbol that today represents loyalty to the Kremlin) and the slogan "Motherland! Freedom! Putin!" — redolent of the World War II-era Soviet call to arms "For the Motherland, For Stalin." The movement combines radical anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism with Russian imperialism and a bizarre cult of personality around Putin. Its militant brand of liberation seeks to avenge Russia’s "humiliation" — its imperial collapse, economic hardship, and political disorder — at the hands of the West during the 1990s and aims to "restore Russian sovereignty" throughout the former Soviet Union. As the Kremlin airs ever more aggressive anti-Western propaganda and marginalizes alternative voices in Russia, the popularity of groups like the NLM is increasing amongst Putin’s traditional supporters.
The NLM’s coordinator is Yevgeny Fedorov, a Duma deputy from St. Petersburg whose public profile has increased since the start of the Ukrainian crisis. Nationalist, xenophobic, and an ardent Putinist, Fedorov is fast becoming one of the most vocal supporters of Russian aggression on its Western borders. He has claimed that Putin is "saving the world from genocide" by amassing Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and that the United States wrote the Russian constitution. Fedorov recently made the headlines by calling for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to be prosecuted for letting the USSR collapse, an event described by Putin as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.
When chaos first broke out in eastern Ukraine in late March, Western leaders voiced concern that the Kremlin was responsible. The chain of events in eastern Ukrainian cities such as Donetsk and Luhansk appeared to be following the same pattern as Russia’s takeover of Crimea four weeks earlier. Just as in Crimea, where so-called "little green men" in unmarked military fatigues patrolled the peninsula and refused to identify themselves, here, too, evidence strongly suggested that the agitators were operating at Moscow’s behest. On April 12, the pro-Russian deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of Crimea announced that Russia’s "liberation of southeast Ukraine has begun."
Over centuries, Russian leaders have demonstrated that they have a warped understanding of the word "liberation." The country has a dark history of providing "brotherly help" in Eastern Europe. The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, alluded to this in February 2014, when he stated: "Russia has never actually invaded Poland — instead, it always ‘came to help’ national and religious minorities." Through groups like the NLM, Putin is creating yet another generation of Kremlin "freedom fighters."
The NLM is not the only pro-Kremlin youth group active in Ukraine. On March 3, a pro-Russian demonstrator planted a Russian flag atop the main administrative building in Kharkiv. The demonstrator was later revealed to be a "journalist" for a pro-Kremlin Moscow-based website financed by the Kremlin’s youth movement, Nashi. On April 7, the pro-Kremlin Eurasian Union of Youth claimed to have agents provocateurs in eastern Ukraine.
So is eastern Ukraine slipping into Russian hands? Events in Donetsk region suggest so, despite the fact that opinion polls show the majority of eastern Ukrainians want to live in a united Ukraine, reject unification with Russia, and oppose Russian military intervention.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month accused "Russian special forces and agents" of stoking pro-Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine. His Russian counterpart rejected the allegation, insisting Moscow has no military or intelligence operatives in Ukraine and blaming the West — and Ukraine’s pro-Western interim government — for the turmoil. Nevertheless, Kiev is conscious that Russia may use such operatives to destabilize eastern Ukraine ahead of the May 25 presidential elections.
Over recent weeks, Ukraine’s security agency has detained over a dozen individuals suspected of collecting intelligence for Moscow. Some were Ukrainian nationals, while others are suspected of being Russian "war tourists." At least one was a Russian "spy" (albeit one apparently unaware that posting a photograph of herself holding an automatic rifle to VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, is not a usual part of espionage). Kiev has begun to limit the access of such individuals to Ukraine; it has ended unrestricted travel for Russians to the country and begun to turn away Russian journalists at the border. The rather farcical way Ukraine has gone about this, however, illustrates just how hard it will be for Kiev to find a workable approach.
But there are other policies that also deserve attention from the government in Kiev. While Russia’s aggression must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, the prevalence of genuine pro-Russian sentiments in eastern Ukraine means that the interim government must do more to reassure eastern Ukrainians that its intentions are benign. Despite numerous ultimatums, Kiev only recently launched military operations against separatists occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine — sending a clear message that it will not abandon its troublesome east, like it did Crimea.
There is much that the United States. and its European allies can do to help. Western intelligence services should work to expose the activities of groups like the NLM who have so far avoided any scrutiny over their links with the Kremlin. The European Union should offer more to Kiev than foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s "I am gravely concerned" statements and Brussels’ half-hearted economic sanctions. U.S. President Barack Obama’s awkward phone calls with the Kremlin are not nearly enough.
Russian tanks may not yet have crossed the Ukrainian border, but the Kremlin has already begun to invade eastern Ukraine. Moscow has infiltrated the Donetsk region with weapons more effective than Kalashnikovs: a new generation of Russian "liberators." These men — convinced that Russia is surrounded by enemies and that only they understand what is needed to save it — are working overtime to restore "stolen" lands to the Kremlin. And they will not stop at Ukraine.