In its scale and cost, as well as its broader implications for European and international security, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine constitutes a new low in the foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But below the surface, Russia is also following established playbooks in how it deals with the areas it has taken control of. This has important implications for the war in Ukraine, how it might end and how it might spread.
During the first days of war, Russia occupied the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. The Russian army did not encounter significant military resistance in the cities of Kherson, Skadovsk, Nova Kakhovka and was able to advance in columns through the Zaporizhzhia region – including the cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk, as well as the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – to Mariupol.
Here, Russia encountered fierce resistance and has subjected the city to a brutal siege.
In the Kherson region, however, things played out differently. Once occupied, the Russian military called on local Ukrainian authorities to cooperate with them and announced their intention to hold a “referendum” on the proclamation of the “Kherson People’s Republic.”
Residents of the cities of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdiansk responded with civil disobedience and organized peaceful protests of many thousands through social networks under the slogan “My city is Ukrainian!”
On March 12, 2022, the democratically elected Kherson Regional Council adopted a resolution proclaiming the planned referendum illegal.
In response, the Russian military has targeted elected officials and Ukrainian civil servants in these newly occupied territories. This has included the kidnapping of the mayors of Melitopol and Dniprorudne.
In Melitopol, the Russian occupation forces then appointed a new mayor, Galina Danilchenko, a local deputy from the so-called “Opposition Bloc,” constituted from the remnants of former pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions.
Helped by Russian occupation forces and their local proxies terrorizing the civilian population, Danilchenko and others with similar pro-Russian leanings have now become increasingly vocal in their demands that local authorities either cooperate or be replaced by people willing to do so.
This is an almost exact re-enactment of what happened in the Donbas region in 2014. Here, Russia’s little green men used a combination of intimidation and brutal force to oust incumbent local officials and replace them with representatives of marginal groups willing to cooperate with the occupying power.
Russia’s destabilization playbook
This strategy of societal destabilization initially aims at the physical removal from power of elected local elites. It then targets public servants, liberal intellectuals, journalists and other opinion leaders and the middle class in general.
Russia has a frightening track record of efficiency in this regard, using widely publicized intimidation, torture and execution of local leaders among its tools.
In the context of Donbas in 2014, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights concluded that these tactics “may constitute crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute.”
Writ large, this might also be how Putin imagines Ukraine’s “denazification” – that is, the replacement of the country’s democratically elected government with his own marionettes.
While this does not bode well for civilians in Ukrainian territories newly occupied by Russia, it also has important implications for the further course of the war – both in Ukraine and beyond.
At least a part of the Russian strategy appears to be the establishment of more de facto states according to the 2014 Donbas playbook.
This will give Russia increased leverage over these occupied territories through their proxies. It will simultaneously allow the Kremlin to deny any responsibility for fulfilling its obligations as an occupying power towards the civilian population of these areas and for any war crimes committed there.
As Russia expands its control of territory, the illegally occupied parts of Ukraine are likely to resemble a patchwork of unrecognized self-proclaimed statelets. These will be unstable in themselves while creating instability along the lines of contact with Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Like the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics after 2014, they could also be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations between Moscow and Kiev.
Russia’s societal destabilization playbook also offers a potential blueprint for how and where the war might spread. There has been much discussion about the threats to Moldova.
One scenario here might be the enacting of Russia’s playbook in the autonomous region of Gagauzia in southern Moldova, where Moscow wields some influence.
In the south Caucasus, Georgia’s Adjara region, where Russia used to have a military base in the regional capital Batumi, might be another target. But any Russian move in this direction is risky and not guaranteed to succeed, given, for example, Turkey’s considerable links with both regions.
Success can be measured in different ways, however. From Russia’s perspective, creating more instability in other parts of the post-Soviet region might be enough, for now.
It would be a signal to Moldova and Georgia and their partners in the EU and NATO that Russia has the capacity to be disruptive and can escalate as and when it wants to.
This is also the main danger for the Baltic states – especially Latvia and Estonia, which have large, concentrated ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities.
Russia may not risk a direct intervention there, but the kind of deniable subversive activities that form at least part of the early Russian playbook are important to watch out for, to call out and to counter decisively.