The bomb exploded during a march celebrating the anniversary of the ousting of pro-Russian ex-President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, and caused the deaths of 4 people. Now the SBU, the Ukrainian security service, says that this was just one of a series of bombings organized with the help of Russian government agencies, writes Maxim Tucker for Newsweek.

Russia Embarks On Hybrid War In Ukraine

Evidence of Russia spreading online propaganda

Vitaliy Naida, head of the SBU department which intercepts online traffic, says that the process begins with information. “It starts with the FSB’s security centers 16 and 18, operating out of Skolkovo, Russia. These centers are in charge of information warfare. They send out propaganda, false information via social media. Re-captioned images from Syria, war crimes from Serbia – they’re used to radicalise and then recruit Ukrainians,” he said.

Evidence has been uncovered of Russian assistance given to a terror cell from Dnipropretovsk, the members of which are currently on trial, and Naida’s unit is responsible for monitoring anti-Ukrainian groups on social media which have hundreds of thousands of members. There is evidence of communications between members of these groups and accounts linked to Russian security services.

The emergence of separatist groups on social media is not confined to Ukraine. The problem has also spread to Armenia, the Baltics, Moldova and Poland, with “People’s Republic” pages springing up on social media.

Campaign of terror by separatist groups

Terror-related incidents have been occurring with increasing regularity in Ukraine, be it a hoax bomb threat at Lviv airport or bomb attacks targeting pro-Ukrainian political groups in Odessa. Infrastructure such as railways and financial institutions are also targeted, as are normal Ukrainians such as the marchers in Kharkiv.

The group responsible for that bombing are known as the “Kharkiv Partisans,” and they maintain that their aim was to hit soldiers and political figures at the head of the column. Four members of the group were arrested just after the bombing, on their way to attack a pro-Ukrainian volunteers’ club using a rocket launcher.

Newsweek has seen a video showing the interrogation of one of the Partisans by the SBU, but his confession apparently sounds strained and somewhat rehearsed. The SBU is not entirely innocent of disseminating propaganda, and it’s hard to trust the agency as a result.

Claim and counter-claim

It is a war in which disinformation rules, but some claims are more outlandish still. Russia says that Ukraine is bombing itself as part of a campaign to discredit its neighbor in the eyes of the people, but it would appear to be a bizarre strategy given the damage caused.

A more plausible theory is that Russia is employing “partisan” groups as part of a wider strategy in Ukraine. Despite official Russian denials of sponsoring terrorists or supporting separatist groups, verified photo, video and anecdotal evidence continues to mount. Naida claims that Russia wants to “destabilize the situation, to create panic, to damage the economy.”

“They target Kiev, Kharkiv, Dnipropretovsk, and Odessa, and all along the potential land corridor [between Russia and] Crimea – Mariupol, Kherson and Mykolaiv. The separatists need these cities. They know there is no chance for them to survive without the land corridor,” he continues, alluding to a coordinated campaign to reinforce the separatists.

Situation set to worsen

Although the motivation for them may remain unclear, the attacks are likely to continue. A railway line in Dnipropretovsk was blown up on March 25, and another bombing occurred in Odessa on March 22 despite an earlier raid which brought in five terror suspects. Ordinary Ukrainians in areas previously unaffected by the conflict in the East are finding that there is no escape from what has become a hybrid war.

Refugees that moved from the East are now becoming aware that the war will reach them wherever they go, and some have stopped family members from attending pro-Ukrainian meetings for fear of attacks. A terror campaign on Ukrainian soil means that the whole population lives in fear, and even if the Russians are not directly involved in it, they will surely benefit from its effects.

The mood in the ground in Ukraine is despondent, with people fearing the need to keep moving in order to out run the rapidly spreading conflict. “It’s horrible but I have a feeling . . . and people here say that soon it will be the same in Kharkiv as in the city we came from. That’s a terrifying thought,” said one man who has already moved his family from the East to the city of Kharkiv.

As the conflict in Ukraine takes on new forms, the population looks set to suffer from increasing insecurity. The battle for Ukraine has only just begun, and it might not be won through traditional warfare.