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Is Russia a state sponsor of terrorism?

As France and Europe mourned and condemned the senseless terrorism in Paris, the European Parliament only a few days later, in a tough resolution on Ukraine, refused to describe the Russian-sponsored separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine as “terrorist.” Why the double standards?

January 22, 2015 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Promoting terrorism

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s proposal to the EU to return to business with Russia and not only ignore its state-backed terrorist campaign but even its hybrid war was rejected by member states. US Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey has declared that the threat of Russian aggression and terrorism in Europe are growing. After all, the arrest of five Russian citizens in France on January 20th on terrorism charges showed how futile it is to try and sanitise developments in one part of Europe and separate them from those in another.

Europe’s focus on Russia’s hybrid war has ignored Russia’s second front of promoting terrorism in Ukraine. While the hybrid war in the Donbas seems far away for most Ukrainians, the terrorist campaign, which is spreading and becoming more deadly as seen in explosions in Kharkiv, which injured 20 people, and Zaporizhzhya which derailed a train, are very much closer to home. On January 20th the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council introduced heightened security measures throughout the country because of the growing number of terrorist attacks.

Intelligence reports point to these terrorist attacks as not being the work of “lone wolves”, as in Boston, Ottawa, and Paris, but a well-coordinated campaign orchestrated by Moscow. Coordinating centres ‘Novaya Rus’ (New Russia) are training groups of 3-5 Ukrainian and Russian citizens in Russia (Belgorod, Tambov, Taganrog, and Rostov), Crimea and Moldova’s frozen conflict zone of Transnistria.

Training is provided by Russian military intelligence (GRU), which controls the “little green men” that led to the annexation of Crimea and capture of state buildings in Donetsk in the spring, and are known as such because of the absence of country insignia on their uniforms. The Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service that is tasked with operating not only in Russia but also throughout the former USSR, is also involved in providing intelligence and training.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and military intelligence have captured terrorist groups Svat, Dzygit, Staryy, Pryzrak, Kharkov Partyzany, Kulykove Pole, and Koban. Captured terrorists from the Svat group who were active in the Mariupol region have testified to attending training camps in Sevastopol where they were taught how to build bombs and undertake urban guerrilla warfare, reconnaissance, and intelligence operations behind enemy lines.

Russian weapons and explosives have been intercepted while being sent using private postal services. Roadblock checkpoints have also discovered explosives and weapons hidden in cars and trucks travelling to Kyiv from Eastern Ukraine. In one incident near Kyiv last month terrorists travelling in a car that was randomly checked threw hand grenades at traffic police.

The greatest concentration of terrorist attacks have taken place in four key areas – the capitol city of Kyiv, the two swing regions of Odesa and Kharkiv, where in the spring of 2014 pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces battled for control, and the port city of Mykolayiv which was temporarily occupied by separatists and is key to any Russian attempt at establishing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea. Security expert Oleksiy Melnyk from Kyiv’s Razumkov Centre believes these four cities are “where Russian-backed forces feel there’s still a possibility to destabilise the situation.”

In spring of 2014, Russia invested enormous resources in destabilising Kharkiv and Odesa, which after the failure of these operations have borne the brunt of terrorist attacks.

The battle for Ukraine

In May, the PBS Frontline documentary “The Battle for Ukraine” reported how pro-Russian vigilantes were trained and paid 40 US dollars per hour by Russian intelligence to beat up “Ukrainian fascists” (i.e. EuroMaidan supporters). Ultimately their plans were foiled by the mobilisation of Russian-speaking Ukrainian patriots and in Kharkiv patriotic football fans coined the well-known chant “Putin hhuilo!”, which translates as “Putin is a dickhead!”. Kharkiv-born Interior Minister Arsen Avakov assisted local patriots in defeating the pro-Russian Oplot (Bulwark) vigilantes who moved to Donetsk to form Donetsk People’s Republic Prime Minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko’s elite forces. Oplot was one of a number of separatist organisations sanctioned by the US government last month.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) believes that Oplot members now operating underground in Kharkiv have undertaken these terrorist attacks. In Kharkiv, terrorists have targeted the city’s prosecutor’s office, a military hospital, a furniture factory owned by a Euromaidan activist, and a rock pub called Stina (“Wall” in English) where EuroMaidan activists gathered. An underground explosives and printing factory in Kharkiv was closed down in October and a number of separatist organisations were banned. In an ongoing anti-terrorist operation in Kharkiv, members of the Iskhod terrorist organisation were captured.

In Odesa there has been calm since early May, when street battles between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces led to over fifty deaths, mainly of pro-separatist activists who died in the Trade Union building. But, since the Minsk peace accords the number of terrorist attacks have markedly risen, and after seven recent attacks Kyiv dispatched National Guard units to Odesa to assist the local police forces.

A group of five terrorists were detained in Odesa in September of last year who had been trained in Russia. A second detained terrorist group had planned to copy the violent seizure of state buildings undertaken in the Donbas in the spring. One terrorist accidentally blew himself up last month while planting a bomb at a military academy. Other terrorist targets have included Euromaidan civil society support groups who collect supplies for Ukraine’s military, shops owned by these activists, train lines, and freight cars transporting oil. On January 20th, three were shot in Odesa, including a volunteer who had been collecting supplies for the Ukrainian army.

Besides these four strategic targets, terrorist groups planning to commit acts of terror have been captured by Ukraine’s security forces throughout the country from Trans-Carpathia and Lviv in the West, to Zhitomir, Khmelnytskyy and Vynnytsya in Central Ukraine, and in the Kyiv metro and near Kyiv’s Borispil airport. In eastern and southern Ukraine, terrorist groups have been captured in Zaporizhzhya, Odessa, Kherson, Mylolayiv, and Dnipropetrovsk. Two terrorist attacks targeted the private home of the popular Mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyy, whose new Samopomych (Self Reliance) party came in third in the October 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections. Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes survived an April assassination attempt by Oplot.

The Dnipropetrovsk region, led by Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch and Governor Igor Kolomoyskyy, is on the frontline of the Donbas conflict and is key to supplying Ukrainian army and National Guard units and treating wounded casualties. Last month the SBU detained a group backed by the Communist Party planning to launch a series of terrorist attacks in Dnipropetrovsk against banks and military bases. Pryvat Bank, owned by Kolomoyskyy and his business partners, has been nationalized in Crimea and has been extensively targeted by terrorists in Ukrainian cities.

Five goals of Russian-backed terrorists

Generally speaking, terrorist groups have been trained by Russia with five strategic goals.

First, blow up train lines (as in Zaporizhhya this week) and key government buildings, launch small-scale hit-and-run attacks on offices at military-industrial plants, bomb anniversaries of World War Two victory and Ukrainian Independence Day rallies, military recruiting centres and National Guard training facilities.

Second, destabilise and terrorise the population and provoke panic in the different regions, according to a SBU communiqué.

Third, collect intelligence on movements of Ukrainian armed forces and National Guard battalions. Terrorists mingle with the civilian population operating as spotters for separatist artillery and grad missile attacks against Ukrainian security forces. Terrorists have been captured with intelligence on key economic targets such as the Mariupol port, with the purpose of planning future terrorist attacks.

Fourth, establish underground print shops to publish pro-Russian separatist leaflets and newspapers propagating the ideology of “New Russia” as well as hostility to pro-European Ukrainians, who are collectively referred to as “fascists”.

Fifth, infiltrate Ukrainian National Guard battalions to collect intelligence about their locations, strengths and weaknesses, and military plans. Russian and separatist forces absolutely loathe volunteers fighting in the National Guard, and when they are captured they have been summarily executed.

Je suis Volnovakha

At the close of 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “New Russia” project was shelved after pro-Russian support failed to materialise in fourRussian-speaking regions of Eastern-Southern Ukraine while in two others, the swing regions of Kharkiv and Odesa, pro-Ukrainian forces eventually gained the upper hand. Russia controls only a third of Donbas territory and has been unable to dislodge Ukrainian forces from strategic installations such as the Donetsk airport. The current Russian-led offensive is, according to Zakharchenko, aimed at taking control of the whole of the Donbas. This will meet stiff resistance from pro-Ukrainian regions of northern, western and southern Donetsk and northern Luhansk, which have negative experience of separatist control from the Russian occupation of their regions in the spring and summer of 2014.

While the “New Russia” project has been shelved, President Putin’s hybrid war and terrorist campaign continue to operate together. Over the course of the winter months Russia is seeking to establish a more coherent and united separatist military force from a multitude of often warring groups, and towards this end has stationed up to 10,000 soldiers in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russian military equipment continues to cross into Ukraine, including inside so-called “humanitarian convoys,” according to the Moscow representative of the ICRC, and Ukrainians estimate there to be 8, 000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. In the last week, BBC news reports have shown Russian marines—clearly evident from their lapel badges—fighting in the Donetsk airport.

The Donbas conflict has killed 5,000 civilians and upwards of 10,000 Ukrainian, separatist, and Russian combatants. Officially no state of war exists between Ukraine and Russia as Kyiv is undertaking a so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), while Russia continues to deny it is intervening in Ukraine. Nevertheless, 80 per cent of Ukrainians believe their country is at war with Russia and only ten per cent believe relations between both countries are friendly. Meanwhile a high 85 per cent of Ukrainians believe relations with Russia are difficult and hostile and consider President Putin, who is personally blamed by Ukrainians for the stab-in-the-back annexation of Crimea and inflaming of the Donbas conflict, the most negatively-rated foreign leader. A recent Gallup poll found that only five per cent of Ukrainians approved of President Putin, including as low as even 12 per cent in Ukraine’s Eastern and Southern regions.

If the Donbas conflict returns to full-scale hostilities – as looks increasingly likely – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko may have little alternative but to introduce a state of emergency as a prelude to declaring Ukraine to be in a state of war with Russia. Donetsk Airport is already Europe’s first Stalingrad since Second World War.

The Ukrainian government has sent criminal claims to the ICC (International Criminal Court) and the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR), charging Russia with financing and supporting terrorism, annexing Crimea, and corporate raiding Ukrainian-owned businesses and state structures. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk has said that Ukraine is seeking compensation from Russia for its war of aggression and terrorism against Ukraine, and international recognition that Russia has violated the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, adopted by the UN in December 1999.

Russia has long become what the US State Department calls a “state sponsor of terrorism” according to Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code. The US State Department determines countries to have provided support for terrorism pursuant to three laws: section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act.

Donbas separatist groups fit the definition of “international terrorism” and there are multiple sources that point to Russian training and military support for violent separatist and terrorist groups in Ukraine. Russia’s use of special forces in the spring to back the initial separatist campaign, Moscow’s extensive supply of high-tech weapons such as the BUK missile system that shot down the Malaysian civilian airliner, and training of separatist and terrorist groups classify Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Nevertheless, there is still a lack of political will at the highest levels of the EU and US to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. Washington does not want to recognise the DNR and LNR as “terrorist states,” as Ukrainian President Poroshenko requested during his October visit to Washington DC, because to do so would lead to the next step of Russia replacing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism alongside Iran, Sudan, and Syria. If the US defined Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, the EU would be obliged to follow suit and extensive tougher sanctions would follow.

After the murder of 11 civilians on a bus this week by Russian-backed and -supplied terrorists, it is time to also say “Je Suis Volnovakha!” A return to a Yalta-style divided Europe cannot be permitted, with human rights on only one side of the fence, and terrorism should be viewed as terrorism wherever it takes place.

Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and non-resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Relations, Johns Hopkins University.


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