Fatal Bombing Plays to Russia's Favor

5 MINS READFeb 23, 2015 | 23:27 GMT
Fatal Bombing Plays to Russia's Favor
A girl places flowers on a memorial for those who died in the Feb. 22 bombing at a rally in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 23.

A midday explosion during a pro-Ukrainian march in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Feb. 22 led to the deaths of three civilians. This is the 15th bombing in the Kharkiv region since June 2014, but this attack indicates a possible evolution in the capability and intent of the pro-Russian elements conducting terrorist attacks in Kharkiv, as well as in cities such as Odessa and Mariupol. Pro-Russian groups are resorting to terrorist tactics as a means to undermine the government in Kiev because of their own limitations and inability to inspire mass separatist movements outside of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The bombing in Kharkiv over the weekend displayed a clear intent to cause civilian casualties. This element has been absent in all but two of the recent improvised explosive device attacks in Ukraine, particularly in Odessa and other similar locations. Although the latest explosion is the first to incur fatalities, two previous bombings each resulted in about a dozen injuries. This sets these incidents apart from the other IED attacks, which targeted mostly pro-Kiev charities and volunteer battalion offices in Kharkiv and Odessa. The earlier bombings generally took place late at night and were intended to cause superficial damage to buildings rather than kill.

Ukrainian security services said the device used against the Feb. 22 Euromaidan anniversary rally was similar to one used in a Jan. 19 bombing of a courthouse in Kharkiv. This attack took place after the hearing of an activist belonging to the nationalist Svoboda party. The intent to inflict casualties, along with the composition of the device, echoed a Nov. 9 detonation inside a nightclub targeted because it was involved in charity activities supporting refugees from separatist-held areas, as well as the Ukrainian military.

An Evolution of Tactics

The IEDs employed in the three most recent Kharkiv attacks contained nails, nuts and bolts as shrapnel, making the blast more harmful to bystanders. At least two of the IEDs were detonated remotely rather than with timers, as was the case in most of the other recent bomb attacks. By using a remote detonator, the bomber was able to trigger the explosion when the rally reached the location where the IED was concealed by the roadside. In the Jan. 19 bombing, a similar tactic was used to target Svoboda activists who were moving in the area of the courthouse following the hearing.

These incidents show a growing level of sophistication in the attacks in Ukraine, as well as a willingness to kill or maim rather than just causing symbolic damage to structures. The Ukrainian security forces claim to have captured four men responsible for the latest attack, but previous bombings were also followed by arrests, which so far have failed to prevent additional blasts. It is unclear whether these attacks are the work of a larger separatist-supported or pro-Russian organization, or whether Russian intelligence is coordinating or executing these attacks. Regardless, the blasts serve the purpose of spreading insecurity deeper into Ukraine and tying down Ukrainian security forces in their efforts to prevent further attacks.

Regional Significance

The city of Kharkiv has a population of around 1.5 million people, while the broader region totals nearly 3 million people. Kharkiv has always been a divided city, with about one-third of its inhabitants holding pro-Russian sentiments, about one-third adhering to pro-Ukrainian views, and the rest remaining largely neutral. Prior to the conflict, the region had close economic ties to Russia, exporting machinery and other industrial products to Russian markets. With much of Kharkiv's economy tied to Russia, many locals feared that Ukraine's integration into the European Union's trade bloc would harm the region's trade with its eastern neighbor. Indeed, the crisis in eastern Ukraine halted the export of tanks and armored vehicles from Kharkiv's factories to Russia, though other trade ties remain.

During the Maidan protests in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014, militias supporting the government of former President Viktor Yanukovich were established in the city of Kharkiv. In the early days of the separatist movement during the first half of 2014, pro-Russian protests were held in Kharkiv. Groups such as the Oplot "fighting club" — which would evolve into a unit supporting pro-Russian forces at Donetsk airport — originated in the city.

Nevertheless, as seen in the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukrainian authorities have been able to limit the ability of pro-Russian forces to organize effectively in Kharkiv. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who came to office after the fall of Yanukovich, is a native of the city with a widespread support network that he was able to mobilize to help keep the region under the Kiev government's control. While there are some pro-Russian elements in Kharkiv, there are also factions that are strongly pro-Ukrainian.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has referred to Kharkiv as a buffer zone between the Donbas region and the more stable parts of Ukraine. For Poroshenko, maintaining strong influence in Kharkiv is therefore important. On Feb. 3, the president appointed the deputy head of his own administration, a former Kharkiv official named Ihor Rainin, as governor of the region.

While the cease-fire along the contact line in Donbas has yet to be fully implemented, the Kremlin has taken steps to reduce fighting in the region in an attempt to comply with some of the West's demands for de-escalation. Over the long run, Russian decision-makers realize that the lifting of sanctions and an improvement in Russia's economic outlook are partly contingent upon cooperation in Donbas. However, the Kremlin is also committed to maintaining pressure on the government in Kiev. Besides the fighting in Donbas, terrorist attacks in other parts of Ukraine — especially in strategic cities like Kharkiv, Odessa and Kiev — bring the war to Ukrainian citizens who thus far have not been directly impacted by the fighting in the east. This gives the Kremlin an additional lever to use in its ongoing negotiations with Ukraine.

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