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Recognising the Russian threat

Five years after Russia used information and lies, special forces, dark money, propaganda, military invasions, and the manipulation of disadvantaged locals to attempt to seize all of southern and eastern Ukraine – succeeding in the Donbas and Crimea – one regional Ukrainian leader from those chaotic and uncertain days has important, and possibly even optimistic, lessons from his innovative approach to defend Ukraine and its European path against Russian aggression and its retrograde plan for the region.

March 11, 2019 - Yury Lobunov - Articles and Commentary

Derzhprom building in Kharkiv Photo: Viktor O. Ledenyov (cc) wikimedia.org

Analysts argue whether Russia is dangerous for Europe, and what kind of actions pose a threat. But in Ukraine, there are people who faced aggressive pro-Russian activity and were able to successfully resist it. One of them, ex-head of the Kharkiv region Igor Baluta, shared experience which may prove useful for Europeans.

The doctor who put out a fire

Very few remember this today, but Kharkiv, a large industrial centre of Ukraine that stands near the border with Russia, was where the “Russian spring” began before Moscow’s later attempt to spread it across the entire south-east of the country. Active aggression started on March 1st 2014. But even before that, on February 22nd, the Congress of pro-Russian deputies of all levels of the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine, the city of Sevastopol, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea had already taken place in Kharkiv. The governors of the Russian border regions and representatives of the Russian parliament were also present.

On March 1st, pro-Russian militants and Russian special forces seized the building of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration and hoisted a Russian flag over it. And on March 2nd, the acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov appointed as Kharkiv State Administration governor Dr. Baluta, a doctor who, after retiring from his medical career, had worked both in business and in power structures.

Igor Baluta took over a region on fire. But a year later, on February 3rd 2015, he handed over a peaceful, happy region to his successor. He managed to keep the Kharkiv region under Ukraine’s complete control. He learned by experience which pro-Russian actions were dangerous and how they could be resisted.

Two main markers

“Russia began to actively interfere with Ukrainian political processes in the early 2000s,” said Baluta,. “And for some time, even patriotically minded political forces and leaders did not see any danger in this. After 2004, when this interference became apparent, patriotic elites and the electorate started forming a consolidation, while pro-Russian influence kept focusing in the ‘basic’ regions of the east and south of Ukraine.”

Baluta believes that the moment when movements and parties who contrasted in their political views united in the cause of their shared pro-Russian sentiments marked the “point of no return”. Once the contradictions in their programs and courses did not prevent them from uniting, the danger of decisive action on their part inevitably increased.

However, a threat can be stopped in advance. “As we can see, in Europe, pro-Russian organisations may have very different views – from far-right to far-left,” says Baluta. “But there are signs by which one can determine that they are dangerous as organisations pursuing Russian politics in their own countries. These are regular visits and participation of these organisations’ leaders in events organised by Russia, or on the territory of Russia.” Another criterion is that such organisations receive financing, loans and grants from companies, and funds that have a connection to the Russian government. The persistent rhetoric aimed at easing the sanctions, at splitting the unity of the EU, NATO and the Western community as a whole, should also be alarming.

The immediate threat marker is the participation of “political tourists” in extremist activities. “When on March 1st 2014 organised groups of ‘guest performers’ from Russia took part in storming the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, I realised that this was not a small disturbance, but a real threat to our statehood,” Baluta admits.

It is important to note that the preliminary preparation of the attacks was rather covert. “Analysing the situation later, I had not seen the signs that would have helped me predict the escalation. Everything happened very quickly and the signs of threats surfaced almost immediately.”

Risk factors

Igor Baluta is sure that reliance on Russia, even when it seems like mere friendship and cooperation, as the Kremlin likes to portray it, can become toxic. The economic dependence of a large part of critical or expansive enterprises on contracts with Russia determines the corresponding sympathies of a significant part of the population. “The desire to trade, to do business with Russia, to make profit, changes not only the views of businessmen. This also causes certain electoral sentiments that certain politicians try to catch, since a successful business creates additional jobs and revives the economy.” Baluta also suspects direct bribery of European elites by Russia – the “Putin-understanding” – secures contracts on particularly favorable terms.

There is another unexpected aspect of such collaborations. According to Baluta, the high-tech enterprises in Kharkiv, on which the military and nuclear industries of Russia critically depended, had been the reason for the city to have been chosen as the center and the capital of the “Russian spring”. That is, Russia’s technological dependence may be its weak spot rather than its trump card.

Baluta believes that Russian media, including social networks, can become a destabilizing factor among certain segments of the population. At the same time, he specifies a criterion that allows the determination of what actually is a real danger: going offline. If a media begins to call for action outside the network, if they not only inform, but also try to organize actions on the street, it is time to take countermeasures.

However, Baluta does not find a large presence of Russian-speaking population alarming. He uses Ukraine as an example of a population that is for the most part bilingual, multicultural, yet also politically, nationally, and culturally united. Anti-Ukrainian groups emerged on completely different grounds, he says. The danger only comes from isolated Russian-speaking communities that did not fully integrate into the European cultural environment which Ukraine has been steadily joining. “They are quite closed, they consume Russian information products and can turn into strongholds for Russian intervention.”

Soft and hard force

In March 2014, Baluta was forced to take very tough and quick measures – the situation was not in favor of a sluggish response. But aside from direct and decisive actions to curb violence and attempted coups from the joint pro-Russian and Russian state forces, Baluta mentions two more tools that helped bring the situation under control: “I did my best to coordinate the operation of legislative bodies and bring in new staff, including from other regions, as much as it was possible for me to influence these processes within my scope. Negotiations in the form of explanatory work with pro-Russian activists proved effective as well. Not all of them are malicious, not all realised that their actions could entail grievous consequences – some were simply deceived, or spontaneously involved in illegal activities.”

But the most important weapon that enables him to help protect his country is soft rather than hard measures. “The main instrument to oppose the pro-Russian activity and the danger that it entails is, first and foremost, in realizing this danger as such,” Baluta is convinced. “If national elites and society will in their mind have an assurance of the threat coming from Russia embodied in organisations it finances and directs, the risk level will drop significantly.”

Yury Lobunov is a journalist and analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

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