Russian President Vladimir Putin held a press conference at the Moscow Centre for International Trade in December on Ukrainian-Russian relations. It clearly showed the huge interest of the Russian audience on Ukrainian issues, in particular their president's position. In his particular manner, the Russian president said that the sanctions imposed against Russia for aggression against Ukraine forced Russians to "switch on their brains".
But, the tone and content of Putin's remarks confirmed that the Kremlin will continue to consistently apply their tools in order to destabilise Ukraine.
He referred to the incident in the Kerch Strait where Russia seized Ukrainian ships and took Ukrainian sailors prisoner; he talked of the situation in Donbass, where Russian terrorists have allegedly been protecting the local population, and of his resentment towards the newly-created Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The Russian leadership continues the course launched right after the signing of the Minsk-I agreements. It is a combination of a wide range of internal and external means for dismantling the Ukrainian government, branded as "Russophobic" because of its unwillingness to surrender to Russian aggression, which seeks to eradicate everything that is Ukrainian and bring pro-Moscow puppets back to power in Ukraine.
Russia continues to combine non-military destabilisation methods alongside other hybrid forms of aggression to ensure a favourable "electoral base" in the presidential elections in March and the parliamentary elections in October.
Trying to destabilise Ukraine's defence, Moscow is set to further strengthen the combat capabilities of its military deployment along the Russian-Ukrainian border and in the Sea of Azov. Together with strengthening their military presence, a disinformation campaign with a view to concealing the actual number of missile systems deployed and their location across the temporarily-occupied Crimean territory.
To destabilise Ukrainian foreign trade, the Kremlin is putting pressure on financial and industrial groups in the CIS member states. They have been threatened with a boycott by the Russian market if they continue cooperating with Kyiv. The Kremlin is also applying pressure on Belarus to stop supplying petroleum products from Belarusian refineries to Ukraine. The Kremlin believes that this should contribute to a sharp jump in fuel prices in Ukraine, hurting the economy on the eve of the election, thus playing into the hands of the populists.
Ukrainian sugar producers, pharmacists, and oil producers are being squeezed out from the CIS market. In November 2018, the Uzbek government started introducing restrictive measures against Ukrainian confectionery producers, manufacturers of oil and fat products, as well as producers of sugar and pharmaceuticals. The government of Uzbekistan then offered that the Ukrainian goods be replaced by local or Russian ones.
In politics Russia continues employing its agents of influence to destabilise Ukraine. This is about reviving the Kremlin’s "Shatun Plan" (based on a pun from a Russian verb “shatat”, or shake, and “shatun”, an insomniac bear), which was proposed by the Kremlin’s chief strategist for Ukraine Mr Surkov.
The presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 present a new opportunity to establish a regime in Ukraine more loyal to today’s Kremlin. To destabilise the situation in Ukraine and wreak political chaos, the Kremlin has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars. All links of the electoral process are expected to be the targets for massive interference, such as public opinion bombarded by propaganda, disinformation, cyber attacks and the blatant bribery of voters.
The Kremlin’s goal for the parliamentary elections is to establish a strong pro-Russian faction. To this end the whole arsenal of dirty tricks are expected, including smear campaigns, use of the "kompromat," spreading local hype-driving rumours, exaggerating internal issues and the use of internet trolls. Experts of the European watchdog "EU vs. Disinformation" estimate that in 2018, out of 1,000 reported cases of disinformation spreading through the Russian media, 461 cases were related to Ukraine.
Closer to the elections the situation is worsening exponentially. Pro-Russian agents are insisting on peace at any cost and claiming that all the issues in Ukraine would be solved once political and economic ties with Russia are restored. The Kremlin is investing heavily in creating and aggravating religious, social and ethnic tensions in Ukrainian regions using combat tested methods.
In the Trans-Carpathian region the Kremlin seeks to play on the pro-Hungarian feelings of the local population of the Rusyns. They try to worsen relations between Ukraine and Hungary, and create a picture within the EU that Ukraine violates the rights of Hungarian minority. They are keen to switch international attention and specifically that of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission from violation of human rights in Donbass to other regions of Ukraine, such as Odessa and Kherson oblasts.
Today Russia is paying dearly for its aggression – international sanctions remain in place, Kremlin diplomacy is experiencing constant defeats, and international courts of law are rule against Russian companies. The prevailing sentiment in the USA is Anti-Russian, the EU and the majority of the EU Member States condemn Russian aggression. In the current environment of international isolation, sanctions, and rejection the Kremlin has high hopes for a change in the leadership in Ukraine, and this is a key priority for their foreign policy.
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