What the Kharkiv Attack Means

As Ukraine remembered the anniversary of Maidan’s sacrifices, tragedy struck in the city of Kharkiv. As a march in the eastern city of Kharkiv took to the streets in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and peace, the detonation of a bomb scattered the crowd, and killing three marchers and one police officer. While an investigation into the attack is underway, public scrutiny and government accusations have already pin-pointed several pro-Russian groups in the city as likely culprits. The Ukrainian government has already detained several individuals in the wake of the bombing, accusing the group of receiving training and arms from Russia’s security services.

While the Kharkiv tragedy is the latest and most deadly terrorist attack in contemporary Ukraine, it is hardly the first. Starting last summer and continuing until the present day, a series of attacks and attempted attacks have rattled Kharkiv and the coastal city of Odessa. Grenade and rocket attacks against pro-Western politicians have occurred as far west as Lviv. The bombings have hit both important infrastructure and targeted pro-Ukrainian volunteer centers and soldiers. Until the bombing of the Kharkiv peace march, the most serious attack to date was the bombing of the Stina rock club, a well-known patriotic hang out for volunteers and soldiers. While the explosion injured eleven, it was probably detonated to cause fatalities.

Kyiv has admitted that there is a high possibility that the attacks will continue, potentially even deeper into the country. With Ukraine’s economy reeling, the value of the hrvynia plummeting, and general malaise among citizens, terrorism is a new potent tool in the arsenal of Kremlin-backed groups. The attack in Kharkiv serves several Kremlin objectives simultaneously. As the most immediate effect, bombings that target pro-Ukrainian activists and volunteers have a dampening effect on speech and assembly in Ukraine. This is especially pronounced in the strategically important cities of Odessa and Kharkiv, which previously avoided the fate of Luhansk of Donetsk largely because of the efforts of pro-Ukrainian activism in these cities. If local activists are cowed by the threat of violence, this leaves both cities vulnerable to Russian pressure and de-stabilization, giving Moscow further pressure on Ukraine in the conflict in Donbas.

The attacks are also designed to engender the sense that the situation has spun out of the control of the Ukrainian government. Small, sporadic bombings throughout the country can achieve a sense of hopelessness and undermine faith in Ukraine’s elected officials and their ability to bring stability and security far from the frontlines.  Russia and its proxies in Ukraine apparently hope that a broad sense of insecurity can wear down Ukrainians’ resilience and make the population more likely to capitulate to Russia’s demands for their country.

The bombings also reveal a good deal about the nature of the attackers themselves. Any individual or organization that targets peaceful protest, particularly a march in support of peace, is nihilistic and predatory to the highest degree. Russia’s proxies in Ukraine have no intention of seriously adhering to peace agreements or mending a broken country. They want nothing less than to destroy Ukraine, rooting out Ukrainians’ desires for a fair society unburdened by corruption and abuse of power.  The most recent violence in Kharkiv and in Donbas must serve as a wake-up call for Ukraine’s international partners and supporters. Russia has no interest in faithfully implementing the second Minsk peace agreement unless it can be twisted to serve Russian interests. The Kremlin does not want peace, but would rather see its neighbor poor and desperate. Unless Europe and Ukraine’s other partners understand and respond to Moscow’s intentions in Ukraine, the violence will continue and Ukraine’s aspirations of a more prosperous future will flounder.

Ukraine Crisis Media Center

Editorial Board