This article was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation and is reprinted here with permission.
On July 9, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) arrested a group of radical pro-Russia separatists promoting the creation of the so-called “Zaporizhian People’s Republic” (ZPR). In 2014, these individuals allegedly tried to seize power in southeastern Ukraine’s Zaporizhia Oblast but had to flee to Luhansk, where they began cooperating with the Moscow-backed separatist authorities of the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” (LPR/DPR). Having secretly returned to Zaporizhia, the perpetrators allegedly planned to carry out various subversive activities and distributed pro-Russia separatist materials that called for the overthrow of the constitutional order in Ukraine and the creation of the ZPR (Ssu.gov.ua, July 9).
The arrested group of subversives was not the first indication of Moscow’s attempts to destabilize Ukrainian Zaporizhia, an important littoral region on the Azov Sea, northwest of occupied Crimea. A week earlier, on July 2, the SSU broke up the activities of a “bot farm” in the port city of Berdyansk that was generating fake/manipulative material for dissemination by 500 “bots” (fake/automated social media accounts) that were part of an extensive inter-regional network operated from Russia. The bot network was created by registering social media accounts using hundreds of SIM-cards of Ukrainian and Russian mobile operators. The SSU specifically uncovered a cache of almost 900 such SIM-cards at an apartment owned by one local resident involved with the bot farm. The information “throw-ins” produced by the Berdyansk bot farm were designed to sow panic during the coronavirus pandemic as well as discredit the actions of Ukrainian authorities (Ssu.gov.ua, July 2). In June, the authorities exposed a massive network of pro-Russian bot farms running 10,000 bots in four Ukrainian regions. According to the SSU, it would be impossible to anonymously (without passports) purchase such a massive number of Russian SIM-cards without the support of Moscow’s special services (Liga.net, June 16).
Also, on June 28, the Zaporizhian Cossacks’ “lower army” (nizovoye kazatstvo) opened an office in nearby Melitopol. This was sponsored by local entrepreneurs and supported by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), with which Zaporizhian Cossacks have cooperated closely since the early 2000s. According to Ihor Lysenko, the head of the Melitopol Kuren (local unit), the main goal of the organization is to protect “public order” by training “people’s police” units to detain “suspects” (Nv.ua, July 1). The Cossacks are planning to patrol the Melitopol region and Ukrainian state borders, particularly the strategically vital Azov Sea coast. Lysenko affirmed that Cossacks are already conducting negotiations with the Berdyansk border outpost. However, according to current Ukrainian legislation, non-state groups can participate in law enforcement activities only after obtaining special registration and strictly under the control of the National Police. As of early July, the Ukrainian police had not received any such request from the Melitopol Kurenregarding joint patrols (Novynarnia.com, July 7). Additionally, the Cossack organization will apparently engage in patriotic education of youth (Ria-m.tv, June 29). This seemingly “patriotic” initiative is quite alarming and threatens Ukraine’s national security.
The Zaporizhian Cossack Army is led by Oleksandr Panchenko, the “chief ataman,” famous for his ties to several Russian-based Cossack organizations that under, the patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church, participated in the “Russian Spring,” which led to the illegal annexation of Crimea (March 2014) and instability in Donbas (UNIAN, July 13, 2020; see Jamestown.org, September 3, 2019). Panchenko, who was present at the opening of the Melitopol office, had also been mentioned in a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin’s advisor, Sergei Glazyev, and the first deputy chair of the State Duma committee for the post-Soviet space, Konstantin Zatulin, as someone who would “assist with the creation of the Zaporizhia People’s Republic.” These records were made public in 2018, during a court hearing on the treason case against Viktor Yanukovych (Censor.net.ua, February 6, 2018). Furthermore, the Zaporizhian Cossack leader has received the highest award of the UOC-MP and the “Ten Years of the Union of Cossacks of Russia” medal (5.ua, June 30, 2020).
In 1994, Panchenko led the creation of the Zaporizhian Cossacks “lower army,” which assembled retired army and navy officers and Afghan War veterans. Among the main priorities of the newly created organization are military-patriotic education of the youth, the preparation of its members for military service, as well as the protection of public order and the state border (with special interest in the Kherson, Zaporizhia and Donetsk oblasts as well as the Sea of Azov). Under Panchenko’s patronage, special para-military Cossack schools (“dzhur”) were opened along with representative offices in the Dnipro, Kharkov, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson regions. In 1999, his Army signed an agreement with the National Academy of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. Former graduates of “dzhur” schools first became students of the University and later officers of the State Border Guard Service; they have since served in elite units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and participated in United Nations peacekeeping operations (Kvzn.zp.ua, December 6, 2016). Panchenko and his pro-Russian Cossacks receive financial support from Vyacheslav Boguslayev, the president of the strategically important industrial giant Motor Sich and a former deputy chairperson of the Ukrainian parliamentary committee on national security and defense (Library.znu.edu.ua, accessed July 8; Rada.gov.ua, accessed July 15).
Importantly, Melitopol and Berdyansk lie along the M14 highway, which forms part of the Black Sea Economic Association transportation corridor. The latter connects Transnistria with the Russian border via Odessa–Kherson–Nova Kahovka–Melitopol–Berdyansk–Mariupol–Novoazovsk (Euro2012highway.blogspot.com, accessed July 15). The road is also the only transport artery physically connecting the LPR/DPR with Crimea. Put another way, the M14 links Russian paramilitary (Cossacks) and military formations in Transnistria, Crimea, Donbas and Russia. Pro-Russian Cossacks have participated in each of the conflicts in these aforementioned regions and they have local chapters all along the M14 (Odesa, Kherson, Melitopol, Mariupol, etc.) (see Jamestown.org, June 25, 2019). Control over this route and Zaporizhia would provide Russia with total access to the Kakhovka Reservoir and enable Moscow to redirect Ukrainian water supplies to occupied Crimea. Moreover, pro-Russian activities in Zaporizhia could play a double role: military support in case of Russian military intervention and pro-Russian agitation ahead of local elections (fall 2020).
Russia’s involvement in Zaporizhia is a clear example of continuity and tradition. The region, which acquired strategic importance under the reign of Catherine the Great (as a part of Novorossiya), remains a priority for Moscow. “Hybrid” threats—information and cyber operations, use of Cossacks and other paramilitary formations, and the Orthodox Church—is the reality Ukraine must not ignore, especially considering the grim experience of Crimea and Donbas.