At least one agency in the Ukrainian government seems to be functioning well these days – the Ukrainian counter-espionage unit. Or at the very least they employ some great hackers.
( I was corrected on this point yesterday by Devin Ackles, who argued that the SBU are infiltrated by Russian agents. I still believe that among all other security-related government agencies, counter-espionage has so far given the government the most to work with)
The troves of totally incriminating phone calls that they have tapped (and in some cases Skype video conversations – hey, how dumb of a spy-handler you have to be to VIDEO-CHAT with your recruits?), have been mind-boggling. And the Ukrainians have done a great job posting them online as soon as they get them. Unfortunately, Western media (let alone Russian media – with the notable exceptions of Echo of Moscow and Dozhd) – have been largely oblivious of the leaks that show – beyond the shadow of doubt – the Russian hand in all that goes on in Eastern Ukraine. Until today, the most incredible “catch” was the phone call between GRU colonel Girkin, head of the armed resistence in Slavyansk, and Putin’s special envoy Lukin, where the two were clearly chatting about a “higher order” that had been given to Girkin to release the OSCE captives, and one could conclude that the original order to capture them would have come from the same higher place.
Today’s catch may have more than entertainment consequences, though. The newly released call took place two days ago, on May 5th, and is between Alexander Barkashov, using a Moscow phone number (+79151328336, I tried calling him, it’s switched off), and Dmytro Boytsov, using a Ukrainian number (also switched off, try later). In a nut-shell (we will go over it in detail later) – the call shows Barkashov instructing the Donetsk ring-leader to fabricate the results of the referendum, showing a 99% victory for pro-separatists.
Now, Alexander Barkashov – if that is indeed the person on the line from Moscow – is one of the most odious figures in Russian politics. (I must assume it is Barkashov, as a voice comparison with a few other audio samples from Barkashov – from his own official Youtube channel – shows the voices, accent and intonation are remarkably similar). Barkashov is the ultimate modern-day Nazi, if there was one. He started his political career in mid-80’s in the underground e extremist nationalist organization Pamyat (Memory, remember that one?), where he quickly rose to the ranks of a #2. In early 90’s however, he led the most bellicose part of the Pamyat members into a new organization, called Russian National Unity (RNU). The RNU was in fact a paramilitary organization, and it looked like this:
Yep, what you see is as close to Hitler’s symbolism as you’d ever get.
During the constitutional crisis in 1993, Barkashov led his army to the defense of the Moscow White House, and fought against Yeltsin. He was later imprisoned for his role in the military intervention, but amnestied by the Duma in 1994. His tracks were kind of lost for years after that, and other than occasional scuffles the police, I hadn’t heard about him until 2006, when he showed up with a new revisionist nationalist movement bearing his own name. Multiple Russian publications claimed that his movement was financed by the FSB (former KGB), and put in the context of today’s phone call, that makes more and more sense.
So back to the phone call. On the call, Dmitry Boytsov, one of the local paramilitaries who is apparently in charge of organizing a Crimea-style referendum on May 11th in Donetsk, complains to “Alexander Petrovich” (Barkashov) that the Ukrainian army is making steadfast progress onto Donetsk, with over 300 pieces of military vehicles only 150 km away from the city. In short, he says he fears that the Donetsk separatists won’t be able to hold out too much longer without Russian military intervention, and begs Barkashov to accelarate it.
You can watch the whole video with English captions below, but I will focus on two interesting points.
First, the Donetsk paramilitary are dead scared, and convinced that without Russian help the Kiev army will take over the city. No comment needed here, it’s just a new angle that differs from the public statements by separatists, and also from the doomsday prophecies around the world (and often in Kiev) that “the East is lost” and we should just hand it over to Russia.
Second, it becomes clear that the direct instructions on engineering the referendum (including the specific question to be asked, up to instructions on what might seem a believable outcome in favor or separation from Ukraine (“89%, don’t do it 99%…fuck it…do it at 99%”), are coming from Moscow. Now, we knew that already, because some of us had paid attention. In a number of videos posted by Duma member and head of the parliamentary economics committee Evgeny Federov, he was seen instructing Eastern Ukrainian leaders on how to hold a referendum “Crimea-style”, and stressing the importance of holding that *before* the parliamentary elections on May 25, “or it will be too late after that”. What we heard today was more enlightening on the breadth of the political coalition in Moscow that is doing the actual groundwork. Which includes, apparently, everyone from Communists to outright fascists.
Third, and most importantly, it transpires – if we are to believe Barkashov – that Putin is under extreme pressure to invade Ukraine – militarily – immediately. Not only are the “people” pressing him to invade, but (Communist party leader) Zyuganov, (clown-nationalist leader) Zhirinovsky, out-of-law nazi Barkashov and “women are men’s property, so men can kill them” Chezhen leader Kadyrov have all joined in coalition to urge Putin to invade immediately. Kadyrov has even provided his army of Chechens who are, so Barkashov says, “keyed up and on hold”. But – he goes on – this fucking president, Putin, is waiting for something, and we have no fucking idea what for. But I can’t call him up and call him names, so we have to be patient, Barkashov’s narrative goes.
So, what becomes clear is that of all the nationalist, bellicose, imperialist nutcases in Moscow, Putin may be the most cold-headed one. He knows that actual invasion will be a costly exercise, and that he – and none of these clowns – will be paying the price. Yet, he is not saying no, as he will be pilloried – both by the clowns and by the “people”.
So what’s next then? My guess after hearing the call was that Putin might want to use this as a turn-back-the-clock pretext; pretending that he is utterly surprised by the fact that Russians (shocking!) are actually involved in orchestrating the Eastern Ukraine events. After all, he has managed to retain a degree of “implausible deniability” of Russian government involvement all across – having the fall back explanation that it’s Russian volunteers ( the wacko former GRU colonel Girkin, wanted-for-murder criminal mercenaries, ex-spetznaz friends of friends, and let’s not forget the 300 over-zelous journalists) who are fighting this war, but no, the Kremlin is not involved in any way).
So now he has a chance, I was thinking, to blame it all on these extremist circles in Moscow, such as the Barkashov group, and disown them, as the CIA disowns disclosed field agents in spy movies. This would give him a chance to pull back of the costly brink with at least another, again implausible, denial of involvement. Furthermore, why not waste someone who calls you “fucking idiot” in front of the whole world. And arrest him for criminal meddling in foreign countries affairs. (or, better yet, for using the F word a day after the Duma introduced a ban on it in public settings).
As I was thinking this, I heard the news that Putin apparently appealed to Eastern Ukrainians to postpone the referendum as “it is impossible to hold a legitimate one in the current situation”, and a little later that he announced that Russian troops are moving away from the border. Not sure if this is just another tactical lie, but it may well be that my reading of the most likely reaction to this devastating phone call may have been right.
And that would be great for everyone.
Except for the guy who called Putin a sissy.
UPDATE: After the posting of this blog, it became known that the Donetsk rebels have ignored Putin’s call for a postponing of the referendum. In this context, what do you think is happening? Check out some of the hypotheses in the poll below – and feel free to add other ones.