Key Takeaway: President Putin and pro-Russia actors within Ukraine aim to trigger snap parliamentary elections to bring pro-Russian and populist parties to power and start rebuilding the client regime. ISW assesses that Russia intends to provoke clashes during a large march of Orthodox Christians to Kyiv on July 27 to cause a crisis, to try to set conditions for snap elections. Russia's military action against Ukraine failed to reverse the political defeat dealt to Russia when the Euromaidan movement came into power in 2014. President Putin seeks to find lower profile methods of regaining control of Ukraine, including exploiting lack of political unity and decreasing public support for the current Ukrainian governing coalition. Bringing Ukraine back to Russia's orbit is a major strategic objective for President Putin in his efforts to reassert Russia's power globally.
Tripwire: The Ukrainian government may face a Russian-provoked political crisis if clashes erupt between Russian Orthodox members and Ukrainian nationalists, as this could be sufficient to undermine the governing coalition's mandate, forcing snap elections and allowing pro-Russia and populist parties to regain political influence. The "All Ukrainian Crusade for Peace," a march of thousands of Orthodox Christian believers, departed from its primary rallying points in Svyatohirs'k in the east and Pochaiv in the west on July 03 headed for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The march, the first of its kind, will move throughout Ukraine, including separatist controlled territory, and will culminate on July 27th in Kyiv with services projected to be attended by 30,000 people. Ukrainian officials claimed on July 16th that Russian intelligence services have infiltrated the march and are preparing provocations to spark clashes. Ukrainian nationalist groups, opposed to the Orthodox march due to its ties to Russia, have blocked roads along the procession and announced their intention to refuse the march entrance to the center of Kyiv. Ukrainian security services are on high alert. The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs formed a "coordination council" to safeguard the Orthodox march and prevent violence.
Pattern: Russia has previously utilized pro-Russia social movements and the narrative of religious and political rights violations to mobilize resistance against state governments. This is a strategy that has been used in separatist areas in Ukraine, in Georgia in 2008, in the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova and with regard to ethnic Russians in the Baltic States. Russia has undertaken a deliberate media campaign since the march began to frame Ukrainian nationalists, who they claim are terrorizing and threatening the Orthodox believers, as likely perpetrators of violence. These accusations are consistent with Russia's efforts to frame Ukraine as a latently fascist society that targets Russian Orthodox believers and Russian speakers in Ukraine. Russia might use women and children participating in the march as human shields as has been done by Russian proxies in Eastern Ukraine, in order to perpetrate this narrative and further undermine Ukraine's image in the international community.
Timing: The march is occurring as opposition parties in Ukraine openly prepare themselves for early parliamentary elections. Although the current Ukrainian government holds a mandate until 2019, snap parliamentary elections can be automatically triggered if the parliament is not able to operate for 30 days or if called by the president at will. While Ukraine is showing some progress towards further integration with the EU and rebuilding the economy, the Ukrainian government remains politically vulnerable. Public approval of parliament's performance and of President Poroshenko is low, the economic situation continues to stagnate, and there is an overall lack of consolidation among pro-western forces. Violent clashes between marchers and Ukrainian nationalists could trigger snap elections by causing political and social chaos that would allow opposition parties to claim that the ruling party no longer holds a mandate. Political players in Ukraine have positioned themselves to increase their presence in parliament in the case that elections are called:
- Pro-Russian former allies of former-President Viktor Yanukovich are preparing for a political comeback. Leaders and members of the Opposition Bloc, the successor to Yanukovich's pro-Russian Party of Regions, were forced to assume a low profile after he was ousted in 2014. However, recently Opposition Bloc members have begun to reemerge and reinsert themselves into Ukrainian politics. The Opposition Bloc attempted to establish a perception of legitimacy when it claimed victory in a number of local elections in eastern and southwestern Ukraine in October 2015. They have openly called for the new parliamentary elections.
- Ukrainian political parties that are not overtly pro-Russia but oppose the Ukrainian government are attempting to gain political influence as support for the governing coalition wanes. Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Fatherland Party and former Ukrainian Prime Minister, called for early elections most recently on July 18th. Tymoshenko has allied herself with the leader of the Opposition Bloc and former close ally of President Victor Yanukovich, Yuri Boyko. Tymoshenko and Boyko blockaded the podium of Ukraine's parliament on July 12th in a protest with highly populist economic overtones. Tymoshenko also aligned herself with the leader of the Radical Party Oleh Lyashko to lead a populist demonstration in Kyiv on July 6 to protest rising gas prices while accusing Ukrainian President Poroshenko and Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman of organizing "tariff genocide."
- Reformist and western-oriented politicians in Ukraine have been preparing to join the political race by posturing as reformist alternatives to the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. Former Georgian President and Governor of Odesa Mikheil Saakashvili indicated in May that he will form his own political party in Ukraine. Pro-Western politicians affiliated with the Euromaidan movement also aim to create their own reformist "Democratic Alliance party."
Assessment: The eruption of clashes on or around July 27th could provide opposition groups and pro-Russian forces with sufficient leverage to trigger early elections in Ukraine. The opposition parties will try to exploit low approval ratings of the current government, a deteriorating economic situation, and the lack of unity in pro-western factions to win more seats in parliament. If pro-western reformist parties maintain political unity heading into elections, however, they could stop the Russian loyalists and populists from making significant gains in the elections.
- Russia's Most Likely Course of Action: Russia is likely to use the Orthodox march to encourage or instigate clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian groups when the march reaches Kyiv. Russia aims to create sufficient political chaos with these clashes that President Poroshenko is pressured to call early elections, or else to disrupt parliament and trigger snap elections according to Ukrainian law. Russia will support Ukrainian political movements that oppose the current government to ensure that they gain power in the case of snap elections and push for representatives from separatist regions to be included. Russia will also exploit the clashes in the march to frame Ukraine as an unstable and violent society in order to discourage further Western support. If Ukrainian security forces manage to prevent violent clashes, Russia will aim to push for early elections in Ukraine by other means, such as increased economic pressure .
- Russia's Most Dangerous Course of Action: Russia could provoke clashes which pro-Russian actors would escalate to the point of major violence or major protests in Kyiv. These clashes could destabilize, and potentially, collapse the Ukrainian government and return a Russian client regime to power. They may tempt separatist forces to escalate militarily in the Donbas region in order to exploit distraction and disunity in Kyiv.
Implications: Opposition parties in Ukraine, including pro-Russian players, have a high likelihood of winning significant political victories in parliament if snap elections are called. Victory of parties loyal to the Russian Kremlin in Ukraine will have far-reaching implications for Ukraine's relationship with the West and for Russia's ability to pursue revanchist policies.
- The return of pro-Russia and populists parties to power in Ukraine would be a major geostrategic victory for President Putin. It would begin the reversal of gains made in the aftermath of Euromaidan Revolution. Ukraine would be pulled further from the EU and the reform path, and closer to Russia. It would also signal to the rest of the former Soviet Union that Moscow will not relinquish control of territory it perceives as within Russia's presumed sphere of influence.
- Political turmoil and nationalist clashes in Ukraine can help Russia build its anti-Ukrainian narrative in the EU to pull Ukraine further away from European integration.
- Russia could potentially succeed in persuading European countries to lift sanctions in December of 2016. EU countries suffer from sanctions on Russia and could be convinced to lift them if Ukraine abandons its pro-Western stance and pursues rapprochement with Russia. The easing of sanctions would indicate to President Putin that he may act with impunity in Eastern Europe due to the absence of punishment mechanisms for Russia's revanchist policies.
- U.S. support for Ukraine might weaken if Ukraine realigns towards Russia. Russia may use the violent clashes in its information warfare campaign to undermine Ukraine's image and cast doubt on its reliability as a partner.
Indicators: The continued propaganda campaign that tracks the Orthodox march indicates that Russia is continuing to prepare the information space in Europe and domestically and believes that clashes are likely. Aggressive or increasingly agitated statements from Ukrainian nationalist organizations such as Right Sector would indicate that Ukrainian nationalists may be preparing to act against what they perceive as Russian provocateurs and infiltrators. Aggressive statements or signs of preparations for rapid escalation by pro-Russia separatist forces in Donbas would indicate that Russia's military proxies are preparing to exploit political uncertainty and civil discontent within Ukraine. Editorials by the Russian press predicting snap elections or government collapse could also reveal Russian intent to trigger these events.