KYIV— The arrest in Kyiv this week of an ethnic Russian pan-nationalist accused of recruiting dozens of paid recruits to storm the Ukrainian parliament is fuelling allegations here that Russia is preparing so-called “provocations” designed to destabilize Ukraine.
The country’s new leaders have accused the Kremlin for weeks of instigating and encouraging pro-Russian political unrest along the eastern border. They say Kremlin-encouraged provocateurs have been stirring up opposition to the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych and fomenting protests by groups of ethnic Russians campaigning to follow Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia absorbed after last month’s disputed referendum.
The clandestine “active measures” are reminiscent of Russian intelligence activity in the Republic of Georgia following that country’s 2005 Rose Revolution, they claim, and could be a prelude of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov to discuss ways to defuse tensions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, a move following the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president Yanukovych. Kerry raised “strong concerns” with Mr. Lavrov about the presence of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, arguing they were inducing a climate of fear and intimidation.
Lavrov insisted Russia isn’t planning to invade or divide Ukraine and said he wants a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Crimea. And Moscow says it has withdrawn a battalion of its troops from the border, although NATO officials say they have seen no evidence of that withdrawal so far.
But while the diplomats negotiate, Ukrainian officials remain jittery and the plot they maintain they have uncovered to storm the country’s parliament is adding to the nervousness.
Officials with Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, say Oleg Bakhtiyarov, head of the pan-nationalist Eurasian Youth Union of Russia, was planning to force his way into the country’s parliament and the Cabinet building. “Bahtiyarov promised participants of the assault a cash reward up to $500 each,” according to an SBU statement released to the media.
Intelligence officials allege Bakhtiyarov, who was arrested on March 31, had stockpiled Molotov cocktails and was aiming to mount the assault in a bid to disrupt presidential election scheduled for May 25.
Also on March 31 Ukrainian authorities arrested an intelligence officer from Transnistria, a pro-Russian region that broke away with Moscow’s help from Moldova in 1992, on charges of smuggling arms into Ukraine, according to the SBU.
Last week, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Andriy Parubiy told a press conference in Kyiv that between 500 and 700 suspected Russian provocateurs are being blocked daily from entering Ukraine.
Parubiy said Kiev authorities had “arrested separatist leaders in the east” and he accused Moscow of “attempts to provoke street demonstrations in the eastern Ukrainian towns of Donestk and Kharkiv” ahead of a possible Russian intervention. But Western officials have privately criticized Parubiy for exaggerating the estimates of the number of Russian troops currently on the border. He says 100,000 while US and European officials have talked in terms of about 30,000 to 45,000.
“His figure is high,” a Kyiv-based European defense official told VOA.
Crackdown on Extremists
The Eurasian Youth Union led by Bakhtiyarov is a Russian political organization and affiliated with the pan-nationalist Eurasia Party. Both have been proscribed in Ukraine as extremist organizations and members in the past have been convicted charges of vandalism and fighting. The Eurasia Party leader Aleksandr Dugin, whose writings Russian President Vladimir Putin has quoted from, advocates the creation of a Eurasian Empire centered on Russia.
Russian officials deny the Kremlin is involved in fomenting unrest in Ukraine.
But a former senior adviser to President Putin argues clandestine Russian agencies, including the intelligence service the FSB, are already fomenting trouble in order to provoke political violence allowing Moscow to intervene and to argue it is doing so to protect ethnic Russians. Andrei Illarionov claims Moscow is using similar techniques employed ahead of the 2008 invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia region.
“The aim is to provoke civil conflict in Ukraine,” he says.
Former Ukrainian defense minister Yevhen Marchuk also maintains Russia is seeking to sow discord in Ukraine, and points to the alleged Bakhtiyarov plot as evidence, arguing Moscow wants to “undermine the presidential election and not by the Russian armed forces, but by Ukrainians.”
Ukraine’s interim leaders are actively seeking to reduce post-Yanukovych internal conflicts and today (April 1) members of the Ukrainian ultranationalist group Right Sector were persuaded to disarm and leave their hotel headquarters in Kyiv after police surrounded the building. The police action came a day after a Right Sector activist opened fire in central Kyiv injuring three people.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has mounted a string of arrests against the Right Sector after ultranationalist activists said they intended to take revenge for the slaying of one of their leaders by Ukrainian police. The police say they shot him when he resisted arrest.