Russia’s Hybrid War Against Ukraine: The Latest Developments and Trends


Roman Rukomeda


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the Center for Integrity in the Defence Sector (CIDS Norway) or the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.


Ukraine is facing growing internal and external risks in the second half of 2018. Inside the country, the political elite and oligarchs have already launched the electoral campaign for the presidential election scheduled in March 2019, as well as the election to the Parliament in October 2019. The country and society are deeply sinking into an atmosphere of total distrust. Politicians are competing in killing reputations of each other, rather than proposing to the society new ways and strategies of development. The most trustworthy candidate does not even have 20% of support. Further political developments in Ukraine will center on the logic of electoral campaigns until the end of 2019. It could be a period of growing populism and political disturbance with unknown consequences for a country in which the state’s institutions are still weak.

On the external front Russia has finished its presidential elections with a predictable victory for Vladimir Putin. There is no change in his government with regard to the defence and security sectors. That implies that the old (geo)political, military and economic course of Kremlin, with exporting as much hybrid war around the globe as they can, will continue. The primary goals (targets) are Ukraine, EU countries and the Middle East. President Trump is so far not a serious obstacle to Russia’s aggressive strategy of ruining the West and its values from the inside, using corruption, propaganda, disinformation, hackers’ groups under the supervision of intelligence, direct military force and other instruments.

Russia’s struggle to redraw the map of world influences in the beginning of the 21st century will continue. Moscow will be the most aggressive participant in the new geopolitical game, as it is considerably weaker in the field of economical, technological and human resources compared to other competitors. Moreover, Putin’s goal is to break the existing rules, institutions and the fragile balance of peace and security in Europe and the rest of the World in such a way that Russia has a possibility to regain some of its global influence, at least in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. So, the slogan “The worse is better” will stay with Russia.

In that battle for a new global leadership and survival in the 21st century, Ukraine is a very convenient testing ground for Russia in testing out hybrid war methods, technologies, informational influences and military equipment. Old working methods are used in combination with new ones which are splitting the Ukrainian society from the inside, weakening its reforms process, state-building and the development of modern and effective armed forces. Moscow is preparing the ground for revenge in Ukraine, and the hybrid war is the way it may happen. Thorough research of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine will let Western countries better defend themselves from such complex forms of aggression in the 21st century.    

Developing character of hybrid war

Ukraine will be interesting for the Western countries as a testing ground for hybrid warfare. In Ukraine, Russia is testing old and new methods of hybrid war. If Western capitals want to know what Moscow will do towards them in next month or year from this perspective, they should attentively look to Ukraine. The range of methods is very wide: open military operations without any identification signs like in Donbass; economic diversions, attempts to block out electric stations, use of cyber viruses to stop operations of banks and financial companies, information campaigns with the goal to raise Russia’s support from local population which strongly influences electoral results and attempts on ruining the network of external alliances and consensus-based values (e.g. blocking actions in NATO of some of the Eastern European member countries).

Year by year, Russia is upgrading its old system of hybrid warfare, which was used at least from the beginning of the 20th century or even earlier.

One of the current primary goals in Ukraine in this hybrid war is raising internal chaos. This means to provoke panic among the population by showing the government’s incapability to protect the society from technological, biological or any other threats that may appear. The intention is to paint a picture of the government’s collapse in case of urgent and dangerous situation, and that this shall destroy the basis of the citizen’s loyalty to the state, their trust to state representatives on different levels, ruin any possible resistance to external influences.

Case of spraying of unknown substance in schools of Ukraine in May 2018. In the last month of spring 2018 there were 4 registered and known cases of somebody spraying an unknown substance in schools which led to the sending to hospital about 200 of pupils, among whom 13 were placed in resuscitation. According to the police, pupils did this in order to block the educational process, stopping classes etc. Later on, the police analyzed social networks and found that groups in the Russian network VKontakte – where teenagers from different Ukrainian schools (who had accounts and were united in groups in that social network) – were provoked to spray different chemical substances in schools . It is not proven that these cases in Ukrainian schools were the job of Russian specialists, but the results were precisely in the logic of hybrid war: to kill the trust in the government and its ability to handle any security threats directed towards the population. Many parents were disturbed and worried about the situation in schools. Most of them accused central authorities for the lack of protection of their children. The level of fear for children and criticism of the government was very high.

Exploiting of old Soviet holidays for supporting Soviet identity and ruining Ukrainian identity. The most popular Soviet holiday (which was not celebrated in USSR until the 1960s) is the Victory day on 9th of May. Russia demonstrates its direct legacy from Soviet Union in state, historical and other aspects and supports the Soviet myth of the Great patriotic war. According to this, the Soviet Union was the victim of Nazi Germany aggression in 1941, but was not an aggressor itself,attacking its own neighbors. Kremlin perverts its own and global history in order to breed in people’s mind the cult of force, violence, victory and fear.

In Ukraine, which was divided in WWII among two sides, there were and still are veterans of the Ukrainian Rebellion Army (which fought against both Germans and Soviets for independent Ukraine) and the Soviet army. They have different believes and positions.The Soviet Union killed more Ukrainians before, during and after WWII than any other state in the world.

In this context, exploitation of the 9th of May (contrary to the 8th of May in rest of Europe) is still being a very cheap and effective way to increase the level of internal conflict in the Ukrainian society. Russia informally organizes marches in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities of so called “veterans” (they are fake veterans wearing old uniform, as more than 90% of the real veterans have died) with Soviet symbols, communist songs, etc. At the same time, they inspire different radical Ukrainian nationalist movements (most of them are under control of Kremlin) to attack those marches. In this way, Russia underlines and feeds the international community and own population with the thesis that Ukraine is captured by radical nationalists, that they are violent, aggressive and chaotic, so that only Moscow can restore order in Ukraine in order to make it predictable and stable. Besides, there are still millions of pensioners in Ukraine who identify themselves as Soviets and not Ukrainian people. For them, such performances on 9th of May become an additional argument for hating the current Ukrainian authorities and their Western choice of lifestyle, criticizing it and protesting against it when possible.

Ruining trust to authorities. As far as trust is concerned, it is necessary to say that Ukrainian politicians are the worst enemies of their own country even without any Russian interferences. However, Kremlin tries by all possible means to discredit the current Ukrainian president, government, parliament, showing their inability to create a civilized state, basic security and a social environment for its population. For these purposes they use a wide range of Ukrainian media. Through the influence on Ukrainian oligarchs (who are the master of more than 90% of all the media in the country), Russia still has an almost unlimited access and influence on different Ukrainian TV-holdings, newspapers, magazines and electronic media.

Moreover, Kremlin continues to get under its control (by bribes, intimidation, blackmailing or other means) the big amount of opinion-makers in Ukraine. As a result, Russian propaganda is still present in Ukrainian media (in spite of license cancellations of many Russian media in Ukraine) and has a wide network of opinion-makers who support it, especially in the South and East of Ukraine. This “information army” is playing against Ukraine, helping to kill the trust of Ukrainians in their authorities, state and Armed Forces. By helping ruining trust of the population in the authorities, Russia is preparing for new protests with the aim of strengthening the position of politicians more loyal to Kremlin.

According to the sociological surveys of Razumkov Centre (made in October 2017), Ukrainians have most trust in volunteers, the church and the army. Volunteer organizations have the greatest confidence (66.7% of the respondents trust them), the Church (64.4%), the Armed Forces (57.3%). These are followed by volunteer battalions (53.9%), the National Guard of Ukraine (52.6%), the State emergency situations service (50.5%), public organizations (48.0%) and the State Border Guard Service (46.4 %). The Ukrainian media are trusted by a smaller share of Ukrainians surveyed – 48.3%. It is noted that the number of respondents who trust these institutions, at a statistically significant level, exceeds the number of those who do not trust them.

At the same time, the president of Ukraine is trusted by 24.8% of the respondents, 68.2% – do not trust him, the government – 19.8% and 73.1% respectively, the National Bank – 15.3% and 75.2%, the Verkhovna Rada -13, 8% and 80.7%. 11.2% of the polled expressed confidence in the state apparatus (officials), 80.7% did not trust them.

This survey as many others brightly shows the problem of trust when about 70-80% of Ukrainians do not trust the authorities and do not support their policy. It can be argued that this situation is created with purpose from Moscow in order to reduce level of resistance to Russia’s influence in Ukraine.

Ukraine as a failed state. This thesis is a precondition underpinning the informational campaign against Ukraine, in order to justify that Ukraine is located in Russia’s zone of geopolitical interests. Russia wants to demonstrate to Europe, especially to Germany and France, that Ukraine is not capable of building its own safe and prosperous state. Instead, the country is constantly generating risks to EU which can be handled by limiting Ukraine’s sovereignty under Russian influence. At the same time, Kremlin is silent of the fact that the biggest source of chaos in Ukraine is Russian policy directed to eliminating the Ukrainian state even by military means, including direct and open war (which happened in 2014 and continues until now).

If EU and NATO countries accept the “failed state” concept sticked to Ukraine, Moscow will start using such technology very widely in Eastern Europe and in other regions.     

New trends

Corruption as a tool of hybrid war. Export of influence through corruption and subsequent corruptive erosion of society is the key element of a new type of hybrid war, developed by Russia. Exports of corrupt businessmen with their “dirty” money is one of the most important components in thispicture. They bring with them not only their money, but their mindset and mentality as well. That affects both business practices and policies in the societies of those countries that host them. Even worse – they eradicate them. That is the very precise case of Ukraine where a group of Russian businessmen is controlling a part of Ukraine’s energy sector, as well as other important strategic assets.

Since the main goal of Russia’s hybrid war is to return Ukraine and its resources under Moscow’s control, all tools are used in order to reach this end state. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin said that without destroying the independent Ukrainian state, no strong Russia (Soviet Union in later version) was possible. At the end of the 20th century Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor to former president Jimmy Carter, repeated the argument with a different angle – “Without Ukraine no reviving of the Soviet Union is possible”. President Putin, in trying to revive Russia as a global superpower, is following the same path.

Corruption is used as one of the main instruments in the decomposition of the Ukrainian state. Corruption is the main tool for Russia to make the Ukrainian state weak, to destabilize its society and to ruin Ukraine’s sovereignty through capturing the control of its resources.

There is the opinion by many experts that Russia intended to ruin Ukraine as a state later than in 2014 (possibly around 2017-2018 when the end of Russia’s army reorganization was planned), but started doing it in that time because of the “Revolution of dignity and its consequences”.

The use of corruption as a tool of hybrid war against Ukraine was a creation of the very wide net of journalists loyal to Russia, opinion-makers in social media, politicians, NGO activists, famous figures, including singers, scientists and athletes. They were disorienting Ukrainian society by the messages that Russia is a friendly state, and that there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea and Donbas. The message was that the Ukrainian people should not resist and oppose Russian actions in Crimea and Donbass, and that it was the Ukrainian authorities that initiated the war and etc. Actually, Russia got control of the information channels, sending messages highlighting “Russia’s friendship” with Ukraine, while at the same time killing Ukrainians in Donbas and Crimea. Monitoring of the information sphere of the country should be very important in order to prevent hybrid war.

One of the elements and tools of Russian hybrid war against Ukraine before 2014 (on the preparatory stage), was to corrupt the defence sector as much as possible in order to eliminate any possible military resistance at the beginning of the real military conflict (as it happened in Donbas in 2014). This goal was almost reached as only about 5-10 thousand soldiers and officers were able to fight against the Russian invaders in 2014, according to the Secretary of national security and defence Oleksandr Turchynov. At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian Armed forces did not have enough uniforms, special equipment, proper food, weapons or heavy machinery. Now the situation is different, but it costed more than 10 thousands Ukrainian lives defending their country. In the case of Ukraine, corruption has been a very powerful tool with regard to destroying the country’s defence sector, as well as demotivate both the army and the society.

Most operations of a “hybrid war,” would be prepared by sabotage by infiltrating agents or ideological sympathizers. It is necessary to have professional units to deal with mass disturbances that would neutralize such activists and could prevent cases where small groups of such people are capturing administrative agencies, as happened in Donetsk and Slavyansk in April 2014. In this case, corruption in the form of bribes and Russia’s work with the people in the Ministry of interior as well as Security service of Ukraine and Ministry of defence, opened the way for capturing Ukrainian regions by small groups of Russian special forces that pretended to be local habitants. 

The French researcher Ulrich Boone notes that such an element is very important in the case of Ukraine. An example is Admiral Berezovsky who, during the annexation of Crimea joined side with the Russians. This clearly demonstrates that corruption and the weakness of the state system give the enemy the opportunity to penetrate into structures that make important decisions and thus paralyze the state. Therefore, ensuring the rule of law and an effective fight against corruption are very important tools for a successful combating of “hybrid war”.

Tapes scandal. In the second half of 2017 – first half of 2018 a new scandal related to corruption and the President of Ukraine appeared. In the center of this scandal was a member of the Parliament, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, who was the mediator of the presidential group in solving many delicate requests of corrupt nature and consequences. Onyshchenko taped many conversations with the President and other top officials from the presidential team who gave him orders to perform corrupt actions. Onyshchenko made public the tapes and conversations. He now lives in the USA.

The main feature of this scandal is president Poroshenko. Tapes prove how deeply he is involved in corruption (if they are true).  The main episodes of the tapes are related to closing some investigations against very rich and influential corrupt ex-officials, as former ministry of natural environment (who is accused in stealing many gas/oil and other licenses regarding the use of energy deposits in Ukraine); investigations of gas schemes that led to the victory of the party “People’s Front” (now the second biggest partner of the ruling coalition); buying top-level positions in General prosecutor’s office and Security service of Ukraine. 

It must be said that Onyshchenko was involved in the gas business which is normally done in very tight cooperation with Russians. He has made loud statements about his tapes through Ukrainian media that are loyal to Russia. Onyshchenko’s statement implies that this was a special operation directed by Russia in order to discredit President Poroshenko. It does not cancel the suspicions of his deep involvement in corruption. Such a special informational operation against the President by Onyshchenko has resemblance with a scandal in 2003 in Ukraine which involved President Leonid Kuchma, organized by Russians. That scandal seriously weakened the position of Kuchma. The current story shows that Russians are trying to repeat the special informational hybrid warfare operations against Ukraine that had good results 15 years ago.

Political impact: influence on elections

One of the obvious goals of Russian hybrid war is to bring to power in Ukraine (or in other EU countries as well,for example France) pro-Russian politicians who by political means would seek to implement Kremlin’s will even without direct military aggression. From this perspective, Russia is preparing for a political return match in the elections scheduled in Ukraine in 2019. 

So far, by splitting the Ukrainian society from the inside and misbalancing it, Moscow is successful in attracting more support to their political proxies. Below are the results of fresh sociological surveys that demonstrate such a situation. The research is conducted by the Kyiv International institute of sociology.

According to the results, more than a quarter of Ukrainians do not know who they would vote for in the presidential election, and the candidates, in which voters are ready to cast their vote, gain from 7-8 to 22%. If the presidential elections were held in mid-June 2018, in the first round most votes would have gone to Yuliya Tymoshenko – who has strong connections with Russia by business and political support (19.5% among those who are going to vote). The second place would go to Anatoliy Gritsenko – pro-Western  (12.6%), Oleg Lyashko – is sponsored by pro-Russian oligarchs Firtash, Akhmetov and Lyovochkin  (10.7%) and Yuriy Boyko – part of old Yanukovych team, totally pro-Russian (10.2%), and the third – Petro Poroshenko – acting President (8.5%), Volodymyr Zelensky – sponsored by oligarch Kolomoyskiy, desire to relaunch business with Russia (8.3% ), Vadim Rabinovich – totally pro-Russian (7,5%) and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk – publically pro-Western but possibly sponsored by the Russian Alpha Group (7,4%).

The electoral support for the Parliamentary race is very similar. Tymoshenko’s party is having 19,5% of voters so far; party “Civic position” of Gritsenko – 14,4%; Oppositional bloc (totally pro-Russian) – 10,5%; party “For life” (created on Russian money) – 10,3%; Radical party (Oleg Lyashko – sponsored by pro-Russian oligarchs) – 9,7%; Bloc of Petro Poroshenko – 7,3%; Bloc of Svyatoslav Vakarchuk – 6,2%; party “Servant of the people” of Volodymyr Zelensky – 5,2%; nationalist party “Freedom” – 3,8%; liberal party “Samopomich” (pro-Western) – 3,5%. 

It can be concluded that the electoral picture in Ukraine is very complicated, which creates ample opportunities for pro-Russian political forces to influence both the presidential and the parliamentary elections. There is a risk of victory of such political forces in 2019 who would be in favor of Russia and destined to soften the Ukrainian policy towards Moscow. 

Hybrid war: on what side are Ukraine’s oligarchs?

As far as Ukraine’s oligarchs are concerned, it is possible to state the following: Money want silence: oligarchs are tired of war and are not ready to resist Russia in the long run.

To prove this, I propose to have a look at the Ukraine – Russia bilateral trade, as Ukraine’s economy is still very monopolistic belonging mainly to oligarchic groups.

The indicators of foreign economic activity of Ukraine and the Russian Federation in 2017 have grown for the first time since 2013. This is evidenced by the calculations made by YouControl, based on data from the State Statistics Service. According to estimates of the company’s analysts, between 2013 and 2016, trade turnover between Ukraine and the Russian Federation decreased by 4.4 times.

However, in 2017 there is a revival of trade relations. In particular, in 2017 imports of Russian goods grew by 40% (from $ 5.1 billion to $ 7.2 billion). The largest share of this is oil, fertilizers and ferrous metals. In addition, last year shipments of railway locomotives increased by 161% and led by 191% from Russia. Imports of mineral products increased by 42.9%.

Exports of goods from Ukraine to Russia in 2017 compared to 2016 increased by 10% (from $ 3.5 billion to $ 3.9 billion). Last year, Ukraine sold mostly mineral and chemical products, machinery and equipment.

President Poroshenko, as the biggest Ukrainian oligarch is not interested in stronger Russian influences in Ukraine. A possible new government in 2019 could lead to him being the object of criminal investigations, and his business would strongly suffer. However, besides Poroshenko (who is in contact with Moscow as well), the rest of the oligarchs would like to renew their business directed towards Russia. It seems that they want to make Ukraine again sit “on two chairs” after the annexation of Crimea, ongoing war in Donbass and a radically changed society.

The top four Ukrainian oligarch besides Poroshenko, Akhmetov, Firtash, Kolmoyskiy and Pinchuk,  have a strong wish and intention to renew their economic relations with Russia after the elections in 2019, hoping for new internal rules of the game that will be established with a new president and parliament. On the other side, Moscow will never burn the bridges to Ukrainian oligarchs, understanding how easily they might be manipulated with engaging big moneyAt this point, it is possible to state that the Ukrainian oligarchs are remaining one of the biggest hybrid threats to the country, standing in the way to true independence, sovereignty, democracy and prosperity.


Influence on public opinion

As was mentioned above, the hybrid war is about the people’s hearts and minds. The goal is to make the people of Ukraine do what Moscow desires without direct violence or military intrusion. So far, Russia is partially successful in reaching this goal, since a big part of the society is disoriented and the level of support for membership in NATO and EU is decreasing.

According to sociological surveys conducted by Kyiv international institute of sociology in May-June 2018, only 11,2% of Ukrainians are satisfied with the direction of Ukraine’s development, whilst 83,7% are not satisfied. Another 4.9% of respondents did not define their opinion, and 0.2% refused to answer the question. At the same time, 47.3% of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine should join the European Union, 11.9% are convinced that they should go towards the entry into the Customs Union with Russia (in spite of war). Another 30.1% of Ukrainians believe that Ukraine should not be guided either by joining the EU or joining the Customs Union, 10.1% – not determined by their opinion, and 0.6% – refused to answer. In the referendum on joining NATO, 41.1% of all Ukrainians would vote for, “against” – 30.7%. People who would not take part in the voting – 12.2%, 15.7% of respondents did not define their opinion, and 0,3% refused to answer the question.   


Russia is testing old and new methods of hybrid war in Ukraine. If Western capitals want to know what Moscow will do towards them in the next months or year, they should look to Ukraine.

Export of corruptive influence and corruptive erosion of society is the key element of a new type hybrid war, developed by Russia. Export of corrupt big businessmen with their “dirty” money is one of the most important components of this influence.

One of the current primary goals for Russia in Ukraine is to create internal chaos: to provoke panic among the population; reveal the government’s inability to protect the society from technological, biological or any other threats that may appear.

Corruption is the main tool for Russia to make the Ukrainian state weak, to destabilize the society and to ruin Ukraine’s sovereignty by capturing its resources.

About 70-80% of Ukrainians do not trust the state’s authorities and do not support their actions. This situation is created on purpose by Moscow in order to reduce the level of resistance to Russia’s influence in Ukraine.

Corruption and the weakness of the state system give the enemy the opportunity to penetrate into structures that make important decisions and thus paralyze the state.

The electoral picture in Ukraine now is very complicated and in favor of pro-Russian political forces, both with regard to the presidential and the parliamentarian elections. There is a risk of victory of political forces in 2019 who would be in favor of the Russian Federation. 

Ukrainian oligarchs are remaining one of the biggest hybrid threat to the country on the way to its true independence, sovereignty, democracy and prosperity.

Ukraine’s example is showing that corruption is a very powerful tool for destroying the defence sector and demotivating both the army and society as a whole.