Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Publication:  N3

Review period:  February 16-29, 2020

Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.

Main Events:  

  • The President of Russia makes a different interpretation of the history of Ukraine.
  • Russia, detaining Ukrainian fishermen, is trying to turn the Sea of Azov into an inland Russian sea.
  • Ukraine spotted another Russian cyber-attack.
  • The President of Ukraine declared February 26 as the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol.
  • Following the resignation of the Assistant to the Russian President, Vladislav Surkov, changes are anticipated in the Kremlin’s policy towards Ukraine.
  • A meeting between representatives of pro-Russian churches was held in Jordan with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • The Kyrgyz President’s visit to Russia will increase Russia’s influence in Central Asia.


The History of Ukraine – Putin’s Vision

Main Event:  In an interview with the Russian state news agency TASS on February 21, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people which is proven with the facts that there was no difference in their languages until the XIII century and the Eastern Slavs called themselves Russians until the XV century.

Event in Details: During the interview, Putin made several interesting remarks regarding the Ukrainian people:

  • We had no difference in our languages until the XI, XII, XIII centuries. The first language differences appeared around the XVI century as a result of Polonization.
  • Ukrainians were the people who lived on the frontiers of the Russian state. They were in Pskov, in the Urals, Ukrainians were the people who defended the southern frontiers from attacks by the Crimean khan. Ukrainians were everywhere.
  • Before the XIV-XV centuries, those people who lived on the territory of Russia, Poland and the Rzeczpospolita (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) were called Russians.
  • The Ukrainian factor was specifically played out on the eve of World War I by the Austrian special services.
  • Some forces are interested that Ukraine separated from Russia.
  • Separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate will destroy the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church.

How Putin’s Vision is Assessed:  Some experts believe that Putin’s vision is a mixture of pseudo-historical, paranoid and conspiracy theories that has nothing to do with the real history. They consider that the Soviet vision of history was prevalent in Russia until 2012. According to this vision, Ukrainians were separate people united with Russians. After 2012, the Kremlin returned to the old imperial vision according to which the Velikorusians, Malorusians and Belarusians are part of one Russian people.

Why is the Event Important for Putin:  For Putin, Ukraine as a state does not exist. It is widely believed that in 2008, Putin told the US President, George W. Bush, that “Ukraine is not even a state.” For Putin, Ukraine is acceptable only formally independent and part of the Russian world. Putin believes that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and that their separation is part of the Western strategy aimed at turning Russia into a secondary state.


Russia Detained Ukrainian Fishermen in the Sea of Azov

Main Event:  On February 16 2020, a Russia-administered court in the annexed Crimea sentenced four Ukrainian fishermen to ten days of imprisonment for “illegal fishing” in the Sea of Azov.

Event in Details:  According to the Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service, four Ukrainians were detained on February 15 for “illegal fishing” off the coast of Crimea. According to the Ukrainian side, at the time of the detention the fishing boat was 50 kilometers off the coast of Crimea.

The Russian Border Guard Service attacked and seized three Ukrainian ships on November 25, 2018, arresting 24 crew members. Later, Russia returned the damaged ships to Ukraine and released the crew members when Ukraine and Russia swapped prisoners in September 2019.

The treaty of 2003 between Russia and Ukraine stipulates the unimpeded navigation in the Kerch Strait and the Sea of ​​Azov for the coastal states. However, after the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, navigation for Ukrainian ships is no longer safe.

Why the Fishermen Were Detained:  After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia is trying to turn the Sea of Azov into an inland Russian sea. Restricting the navigation of Ukrainian military or civilian ships is also part of Russian policy aimed at establishing full control over the Sea of Azov.

The Sea of Azov. Source:  Wikipedia

Ukraine Spotted Russian “Bot Farms”

Main Event:  On February 17 2020, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) disrupted the activity of a network of “bot farms” in five cities of Ukraine.  The technical equipment used by the operators of these “bot farms” was supported by Russian online services. 

Event in Details:  According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), telecommunication platforms were used to create and popularize 8,000 fake accounts and groups on social media. The purpose of the fake accounts was to “spread false information about the situation in Ukraine, instigate street protests, intimidate the public, dispatch fake bomb threats to critical infrastructure facilities and attack the online accounts of top Ukrainian politicians with disinformation. The SSU conducted disruptive operations in five Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv and Kharkov.

The internet registration of these accounts was made via Russian online services. The scheme involved two “unlawfully established” telecommunications companies operating out of the separatist-controlled territories of Ukraine. The SSU uncovered computer equipment and related hardware as well as more than 22,000 SIM cards of Ukrainian mobile operators in five cities of Ukraine.

The involvement of the Russian Special Services in organizing the “bot farm” has not yet been confirmed.

Ukraine has been a target of Russian cyber-attacks before. An attack on the country’s energy system in 2015 left 230 thousand people without electricity. A computer virus disrupted power supply in Kyiv in 2016. Targets for cyberattacks became state, financial and energy organizations in 2017.

Other Targets:  On February 20, 2020, Georgia also accused Russia of carrying out cyber-attacks against more than 2,000 state-owned, private and media websites as well as two private TV stations. The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation was named as the organizer and implementer of the cyber-attack of October 28, 2019. The United States and Britain, involved in the investigation of October 28 cyber-attack, have also accused Russia of the attack. The US Secretary of State named a specific military unit – N74455 – as the main culprit. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Andrey Rudenko, who oversees the directions of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, has denied Russia’s involvement.

Why the Event is Important:  In recent years, cyber-attacks have become an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy and have become part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics. In addition to Western countries, Ukraine and Georgia which appear much less “friendly” towards Moscow in the post-Soviet space, have become Russia’s special targets. The Kremlin aims at influencing the domestic policies of Ukraine and Georgia. Recent cyber-attacks have confirmed that Ukraine and Georgia are vulnerable to similar cyber-attacks which may derail the vital infrastructure of these countries. Their cyber security will not develop without support from international partners.


The President of Ukraine declared February 26 as the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol

Main Event:  The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared February 26 as the Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol.

Event in Details:  Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. It first dispatched troops to the peninsula and then annexed the region following an illegitimate referendum.

February 26 was declared as the Day of Resistance against the Occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol. On this day in 2014, Ukrainians held the largest protest rally against the Russian intervention in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. According to the Kremlin, Zelensky’s decision “does not correspond to the real situation in Crimea.”

A day before the declaration on February 25, the United States extended sanctions on Russia by a year. The sanctions were first imposed on March 6, 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. On February 27, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, reiterated the  unbending support of the US for Ukraine.

Why was the Decision Made:  The decision of the President of Ukraine has a symbolic significance and is aimed at keeping the issue (annexation of Crimea by Russia) as a key topic on the domestic and international agenda.


Surkov Resigned – What Will Change in the Direction of Ukraine

Main Event:  After a long period of uncertainty, Vladislav Surkov, the Russian Presidential Aide, resigned on February 18, 2020.

Event in Details:  Rumors about Surkov’s resignation have circulated several times in recent years. Surkov’s resignation was unofficially announced after the formation of a new government on January 21, 2020; however, it was only confirmed on February 18.

Surkov was supervising separatist activities in eastern Ukraine and was Russia’s main representative in the peace talks to settle the ongoing conflict in the region. Surkov’s area of responsibility covered the post-Soviet space, including Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. He has been the Presidential Aide since 2013.

What Will Change following Surkov’s Resignation:  As believed, the main reason for Surkov’s resignation from the Kremlin is the change of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Surkov advocated a tough policy toward Ukraine which has worsened Russia’s relations with the West. Surkov will be replaced by Dmitry Kozak, the new Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, who has good business relations with the new Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak. With the replacement of Surkov, who has been promoting Russia’s anti-Ukrainian policy, the Kremlin hopes to reduce pressure from the West.


The Amman Meeting and the Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church

Main Event:  Amman, the capital of Jordan, hosted a meeting between the Russian Patriarch Kirill and representatives of several Orthodox Churches on February 26, 2020. The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church was one of the main topics at the meeting.

The Amman Meeting. Source:  The Information and Educational Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).

Event in Details:  Representatives of several Orthodox Churches attended the meeting in Amman, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, Patriarch Irinej of Serbia, Metropolitan Rostislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, and representatives of the Romanian and Polish Orthodox Churches. The Churches of Serbia and the Czech Republic are considered satellites of the Russian Church. Metropolitan Onufriy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) also participated in the meeting.

Formally, the meeting was initiated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem; however, it is believed that the Russian Patriarch was interested in holding the meeting. Theophilus III is sympathetic to Russia. In November 2019, he met with the President of Russia in Moscow from whom he received the International Foundation for the Unity of Orthodox Christian Nations award. The initiative of the Amman meeting was also voiced during this visit.

Most of the Orthodox Churches, including the Georgian Orthodox Church, refused to participate in the meeting.

Why the Amman Meeting was Held:  The Amman meeting is unequivocally considered a project of the Russian Church aimed at mobilizing supporters against the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church and reducing the influence of the Patriarch of Constantinople who, by recognizing the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, dealt a serious blow to the Russian Church and Russian politics in general.

Agreements Reached on:  Several issues were agreed at the Amman meeting, a significant part of which are related to the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church:

  • Granting autocephaly for churches must be a result of a consensus.
  • A common dialogue is needed between the Orthodox to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
  • Another meeting to be held by the end of the year.

The Meeting Impact on the Orthodox World:  Despite Russia’s will, the decisions of the Amman meeting cannot impact the Orthodox world as the majority of the Orthodox Churches did not participate.


Kyrgyz-Russian Friendship is Strengthening  

Main Event:  On February 27-28, 2020, the President of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbay Zheenbekov, paid an official visit to Russia. As part of the visit, the Year of Kyrgyzstan in Russia and the Year of Russia in Kyrgyzstan officially started.

Event in Details:  Throughout 2020, several events will be held in both countries to deepen cultural, educational and economic ties. The initiative belongs to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who visited Bishkek in March 2019.

Since being elected president in 2017, Zheenbekov has done much to deepen relations with Russia and is rightly considered one of the most pro-Russian politicians in the region. During his rule, economic ties with Russia expanded and the Russian energy giant Gazprom enhanced its operation in the energy sector of Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s military influence was further strengthened. As announced two weeks before his visit to Moscow, Russia plans to renovate runways and upgrade air defense systems at the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan. In March last year, the parties also signed a new military cooperation agreement which envisages the transfer of an additional 60 hectares of land to a joint military base of the Russian Federation. Zheenbekov refused to change the alphabet and unlike Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan continues to use Cyrillic which indicates the pro-Russian sentiments.

Why the Meeting is Important for Russia:  Russia considers Central Asia its sphere of influence and deems the promotion of external forces in the political, economic or military fields as a threat to its regional interests. The Kremlin is skeptical of the rise of three major rivals in the Central Asian region:  the United States, the European Union and China:

  • The EU is trying to introduce a cooperation program into Central Asia, disregarding Russia’s interests.
  • At the Munich Security Conference, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, promised allied Ukraine and Georgia, as well as Central Asian countries, to help them defend themselves from the Russian aggression. Pompeo also attended the ministerial meeting in the C5+1 (Central Asia – USA) format in Uzbekistan on February 3 where he introduced a new US strategy.
  • China is emerging as a major economic donor to the region states. Chinese companies and investments are involved in ongoing projects in Kyrgyzstan.

Given the above, Moscow’s policy for the direction of Kyrgyzstan is also aimed at strengthening its influence in one of the pro-Russian countries in the region and preventing the growing influence of rivals.

Why the Meeting is Important for Kyrgyzstan:  Kyrgyzstan, one of the weakest countries in the region, hopes to improve its security environment and reap economic benefits by strengthening its alliance with Russia. Additionally, from the domestic prospective, Zheenbekov hopes that Russia’s support for the October parliamentary elections will contribute to his political success.