What subversive activities and intelligence operations in different spheres of public life and at the highest levels of authorities does the Kremlin run within a hybrid war in Ukraine?

The team of.authors of the book titled “Russian Octopus in Action: Ukrainian Case” tell about the Kremlin’s information influence, systematic propaganda aimed at informal influence groups, non-governmental organisations, and media support in a series of publications by Promote Ukraine. They also tell about the Russian enforcement agencies’ tasks in Ukraine, among which are the organisation of a power “management” hidden system and the public opinion and attitude transformation in favour of Russia.

Thus, since the USSR collapsed and the former Soviet republics became independent, Russia formulated the doctrine of the world division into “zones of influence.” Similarly to the Soviet doctrine of limited sovereignty for the communist camp, the post-Soviet space is seen as “Russia’s natural zone of influence.”

According to this doctrine, Ukraine had to remain in the zone of the Russian Federation impact. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, this doctrine implementation was relatively mild, mainly due to the economic pressure and debt blackmail. Low oil prices and two Chechen campaigns in the North Caucasus have narrowed Russia’s ability to reincarnate Ukraine and other newly independent states in the USSR 2.0, which the CIS was to become. With Putin’s coming to power and the oil prices and revenues from hydrocarbon exports increasing, the activities in this direction have become systematic and harsh.

New projects for the post-Soviet space re-integration

Common Economic Space, Eurasian Economic Union, and Customs Union were only the new wrappers of the USSR 2.0 concept. The attempts by some countries to choose another geopolitical vector – NATO and EU integration – have been torpedoed. Among the cases is Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine starting from 2014.

The high level of the hybrid warfare art is to launch the mechanism of a country’s self-destruction from inside, acting not only through massive propaganda outside but also through agents of influence and subversive activities in-house. The nourishing energy of this is both the actual conflict-generating potential and additionally created one within hybrid aggression.

It stands to mention the external management sectoral outlines, which are created with the involvement of different agencies and lobbyists. Their essence and purpose are to design a mechanism of influence and manipulation of the top state leadership, first of all, of the supreme command. Under such a mechanism, an enemy will have to surrender its positions without fighting.

Today, Russia’s influence on the situation in Ukraine seeks to be comprehensive and monopolistic. So, it does not shy away from any socially significant sphere – not only political, financial or energy, but also sport, cinema, television, and social networks. Though the main strategic goal of this influence is to establish control over the Ukrainian state as a system of Ukrainian society design. And the defence and security subsystem of Ukrainian statehood is the key to such control. After all, if the state does not have the physical capacity to resist aggression both externally and internally, it can be dictated any conditions of its existence: from restrictions on the independent foreign policy implementation to the requirement of internal territorial organisation fragmentation.

The operational task of the current period (which started in 2019 after the presidential election in Ukraine) for the Russian secret services, propaganda and the “fifth column” is false targeted programming of the top government to a “peaceful course,, creation for them an appropriate information field and a “picture of the world” with blocking channels for alternative information access.

Cyber war as it is

In fact, the hybrid war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine began not in 2014, but much earlier. And it has taken the form of a cyber war, i.e. a secret war with the non-military tools use. On 20 February 2014, this war was transformed into a “hot phase” with a force component usage – the occupation of Crimea by “men in green.” Prior to that, a cyber war co-ordinated from a single centre was conducted against Ukraine. Its main tools included:

–  strategic enterprises dependence on Russian raw materials or components for production set up;

–  production technologies with obligatory connection with Russian suppliers’ introduction;

– individual enterprises’ dependence on Russian capital through the loans and other financial instruments provided;

–  Russian capital investment into Ukrainian strategic enterprises with their subsequent purchase;

–   Russian software and/or corporate IT services with cloud technologies;

–  government debt securities purchase and government debts concentration by Russian legal entities;

– commercial and other types of confidential information regarding the enterprises’ activities accumulation;

– purposeful actions to make strategic and budget-forming enterprises to bankrupt;

– imposing of sanctions and restrictions against Ukrainian enterprises in the Russian market;

– infiltration of direct agents and influencers in the governing bodies of strategic state-owned companies and central executive bodies and the national security and defence sector.


The latter point is the most ordinary kind of Russian activity towards Ukraine during the period since the USSR’s collapse. The purpose of such an activity is to transform corporate and state strategies in different sectors of the economy, security and defence in favour of Russia indirectly through the influencers. At present, after the change of power in Ukraine in 2019, Russia mobilises the resistance to Ukraine integration into NATO inside the country, using the influencerlike Viktor Yanukovych in the early 2010s.

According to an expert, Volodymyr Palivoda from the National Institute of Strategic Studies, a network of influencers consists of people who use their position in society, opportunities, power and authority to promote the interests of a foreign state, but without unmasking that state.

It is their actions that determine state reluctance – a victim of aggression – to organize an external defence at a critical moment against direct aggression and to resist systematically different types of hybrid actions, carried out by the aggressor inside the country. The task of the Russian influencers in Ukraine is to create a covert system of power “management” and public opinion and sentiment transformation in favour of Russia.

The Russian special services focused especially on the Armed Forces servicemen and law enforcement agencies of Ukraine. The accumulation of data regarding  Ukrainian Navy servicemen, land arms and air forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine placed in Crimea, began in approximately 1992. The “Address of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine of the Deputy Group ‘Derzhavnist’ in connection with the consideration of the bills related to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Defence and Security of Ukraine” of 1996 stated: “The main method of GRU and FSB intelligence activities is to infiltrate agents into the ranks of officers returning to Ukraine after the Soviet Party collapse, as well as the recruitment of servicemen who have remained to serve on Ukrainian territory.

Crimea as Russian special services’ operations region

The most favourable conditions for the Russian special services operations were created in Crimea. This region turned out to be the only place outside Russia where the GRU got the opportunity to work openly and legally. They could rely on the Black Sea Fleet intelligence structures, which was ostensibly under joint Russian-Ukrainian subordination. In general, Russian special services’ activities in Crimea were greatly facilitated by the presence of the central KGB agents, who, due to the region specifics (presence of a big number of Communist Party’s and Government’s summer residences, hotels, etc), were not subordinated to local state security bodies, which moved further under the jurisdiction of Ukraine.

Simultaneously, a powerful network of influencers was formed at the highest level of government. It reached its peak when Victor Yanukovych became Ukraine’s president. His human resource policies just facilitated Russian influencers coming into power. The mechanism of the “fifth column” creation addresses the preferences granted to high-level politicians through existing or specially initiated business projects. Afterwards, they covertly promoted ideas and patronized projects beneficial for Russia within the context of the crypto war against Ukraine.

As the experience of Ukraine and Europe shows, corruption schemes are the most effective tool for nurturing the influencers’ network. Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov gave an accurate description of the Kremlin’s current policy: “Europe has failed to export democracy to Russia, but Putin has managed to export corruption to Europe. Russia is the biggest exporter of no gas or oil, but corruption.” And this corruption contributes to the influencers’ establishment. In Europe, the project of Russian gas flows, that is “Nord Stream”, “Nord Stream-2”.

Non-transparent corruption schemes such as Eural Trans Gaz and RosUkrEnergo were implemented successfully by the Kremlin in Ukraine in the early 2000s in exchange for Kyiv’s refusal from NATO and EU membership. However, this worked just to a certain extent. The Orange Revolution in 2004 made its adjustments. So, courses towards NATO and EU membership were restored. In 2010 ,after Yanukovych came to power, this was abandoned again. But in 2014, the Revolution of Dignity restored the status quo.

Russian researcher of Russia’s subversive activities abroad, emigrant Dmitry Khmelnitsky, points out that a sharp surge in Russian intelligence activity occurred in 2014 when fictitious public organisations with Moscow roots began to multiply around the world, in addition to existing ones.

“Their goal was absolutely utilitarian: propaganda support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And since then it has been growing and growing,” he said.

After the 2019 elections and V. Zelensky coming to power and his political amorphous populist-servile group, Russia restared attempts to destroy Ukraine by cyber war methods, using both the Russian intelligence agency, which was slightly affected by counterintelligence activities in 2014-2019 and the influencers.


“Russian octopus in action: Ukraine’s case,” team of authors under Mikhail Gonchar’s heading. Based on the research of the expert group of “Strategy XXI” Centre for Global Studies, with the International Renaissance Foundation support. The article photo is the book cover.

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