The Risks of Terrorism in Ukraine—Hype or Reality?

Although the international media have correctly focused on the horror of the terrorist attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, the threat of terrorism throughout Ukraine has been largely ignored. In fact there has been a spree of bombings, attempted attacks, and assaults on elected officials. Since the advent of the broader conflict in Ukraine early in 2014, a handful of politically-motivated terrorist attacks have shaken Ukraine’s security apparatus. While a terrorist threat has existed throughout Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, the spate of recent bombings and assassination attempts have raised the specter of broader instability outside the reach of Russian-backed insurgents.

In July, unknown instigators attacked the house of Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy with a rocket-propelled grenade.  Luckily, the pro-European Mayor and founder of parliament’s third-largest political party, Samopomich [Self-Reliance – En], was not home and no one was injured. On the same day, the pro-Ukrainian mayor of the mid-sized central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, Oleh Babayev, was assassinated in a professional hit while in his car.

Asides from the nearly continuous barrage of false bomb threats to public transport and government and private institutions, the risk of terrorism had been increasing even before the most recent outbreak in political violence. These attacks have mostly targeting key infrastructure in regions controlled by the central government. In August, a rocket attack targeted a military repair factory in the eastern city of Kharkiv.  Later, in mid-November, a bomb attack targeted a popular pro-Ukrainian Kharkiv bar. Ukraine’s state intelligence agency (SBU) also detained a handful of individuals planning to complete attacks in the city using explosives, including mines and assault weapons.

Terrorist activity noticeably escalated in December and has carried over into the new year. Throughout the month of December, a series of more blasts rocked Kharkiv, of which the targets included infrastructure supporting Ukraine’s war effort in southeastern Ukraine. In Lviv, Mayor Sadoviy’s residence was attacked for a second time. The SBU apparently foiled an attempted attack in central Kyiv on December 19. A few days later, members of parliament outside Hotel Ukraine on Maidan Square were attacked by an unknown person armed with stun and fragmentation grenades. Perhaps most alarming has been the string of bombings in the southern city of Odessa. The bombs have targeted railroad infrastructure, a support center for Ukrainian soldiers, and a shop selling pro-Ukrainian paraphernalia. Thus far, the only two fatalities of bombings have been the attackers themselves.

In light of bombings and targeted violence against politicians, is there a real risk of terrorist attacks escalating throughout Ukraine? Terrorism experts have different opinions on the chances of a greater conflagration. However, given the upsurge in violence, it is likely that the country will continue to be afflicted by targeted attacks designed to discredit the Ukrainian government and breed discontent and instability.

The evidence and suspected motivations of the attacks, as well as the statements made by Ukrainian police and intelligence agencies, seem to place the blame on Russian-trained saboteurs. Several of the plotters, who were captured in Kyiv and Kharkiv, have admitted the involvement of the Russian government in training and providing equipment for the attackers. In addition, the targets of the attacks—pro-European politicians, critical infrastructure, and pro-Ukrainian centers—would be natural targets for pro-Russian saboteurs.

The comparatively small numbers of casualties is indicative of a broader strategy that might serve Russian interests in Ukraine. While terrorist attacks with civilian casualties would only further inflame Ukrainian anger toward the Russian government and turn away those otherwise still sympathetic towards Moscow, small and carefully targeted attacks might have the opposite effect. The destruction of critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads, and railways has an obvious deleterious effect. Assaults on Ukrainian politicians undermine the workings of the government and keep leading voices from engaging with the public. Attacks against pro-Ukrainian headquarters, such as distribution centers for donated goods to soldiers, foster fear among those who might otherwise volunteer for the cause. Furthermore, small random attacks in public places that are designed to produce fear more than casualties undermine faith in the central government by citizens, foreign governments, and investors. Bomb attacks such as those that have recently occurred in Odessa and Kharkiv shake locals’ faith in the ability of the central government to protect them, forcing residents to look for other sources of protection.

Pro-Russian groups have much to gain from the further destabilization of Ukraine and little to lose, especially as the front lines in Donbas have solidified in the face of an uneasy, but enduring cease fire. As long as these assaults are narrowly targeted and produce few civilian casualties, there is little risk of backlash from Ukrainian citizens that are otherwise on the fence in their attitudes toward Moscow and Kyiv. The intended effect of the attacks is simply to throw lawmakers and the security services off their feet, reinforcing public perceptions of government weakness. Given that Russian security services have long penetrated the Ukrainian bureaucracy and government apparatus, carrying out these attacks is not particularly difficult from the tactical standpoint. The cease fire lines in southeast Ukraine remain porous, as is the Russia-Ukraine border further north. If the recent attacks throughout Ukraine were indeed conducted by Russian security services, which both the targets and evidence provided by Ukrainian security services seem to corroborate, then Russia has cynically judged that the risks of rallying Ukrainians around their government in the wake of terrorism is lower than the benefits of breeding general instability. So is terrorism in Ukraine hype or reality? The signals indicate that these attacks aren’t going to abate any time soon, and might very well worsen.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center

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