One of the most powerful tools the Kremlin has in its secret arsenal of Special War is provocation, what they call provokatsiya. While Moscow cannot claim to have invented this technique, which has existed as long as there have been secret services, there’s no doubt that Russians have perfected the art and taken it to a whole new level of sophistication and deviousness. At times, it can become a strategy all on its own (not always, mind you, with edifying results).
Provokatsiya simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you. You plant your own agents provocateurs and flip legitimate activists, turning them to your side. When you’re dealing with extremists to start with, getting them to do crazy, self-defeating things isn’t often difficult. In some cases, you simply create extremists and terrorists where they don’t exist. This is causing problems in order to solve them, and since the Tsarist period, Russian intelligence has been known to do just that.
While this isn’t a particularly nice technique, it works surprisingly well, particularly if you don’t care about bloody and messy consequences. Credulous Westerners are a big help. Perhaps the most infamous Kremlin case of provokatsiya was the TRUST operation of the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik control was incomplete and Moscow faced the problem that a large number of Whites, their recent enemies, had gotten sanctuary in Europe, where they plotted the reconquest of Holy Russia.
Soon the White emigration klatched in the cafes of Paris and Berlin was invigorated by tantalizing rumors that there existed a secret anti-Bolshevik movement underground in the USSR, calling itself the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. Before long, prominent Whites gave this shadowy group their political and financial support, as did several Western intelligence services who desired the end – or at least the harassment – of Bolshevism. Intelligence from inside the Soviet Union was a scarce commodity at the time. Some emigres were even prompted to clandestinely return to Russia in the hope of aiding the resistance. Among them was the famous revolutionary Boris Savinkov, who had broken with the Bolsheviks and was one of Moscow’s top public enemies.
But word of Savinkov dried up once he reached Russia, as it did for all the emigres and spies who tried to enter the Soviet Union to establish contact with the underground resistance. They were dead. The TRUST operation was all a mirage; there in fact was no Monarchist Union of Central Russia, it was a front for Soviet intelligence. By 1926, Western intelligence began to suspect the truth, but by that point the Soviet secret police had been running their false-flag operation for five years, during which time it had eliminated or neutralized several of its top enemies while causing them, and several Western spy services, to waste time, money, and energy on a mirage that was actually Soviet-run.
Russians have employed this crafty model countless times since, as have the many intelligence services that have received training in the dark arts from Moscow. Cuban intelligence is notorious for this – it can be reliably assumed that many of the most hard-line anti-Castro exiles are actually on their payroll – while in the 1990s the Algerian military intelligence service, the feared DRS, executed an enormous version of the TRUST operation against its Islamist foes, defeating them in detail, but at the cost of thousands of innocent lives.
This model must be kept in mind during current discussions of Ukraine, where the Kremlin assures us that the government in Kyiv are “fascists” planning a “Nazi” takeover. While there are right-wingers in Ukraine who have troubling views, their numbers are inflated for effect by Moscow, something which too many Westerners accept uncritically. Moreover, some of the most hardline Ukrainian nationalists are secretly under Moscow’s control, and there’s nothing new about this.
The Soviet secret police infiltrated far-right Ukrainian emigre groups in the 1920s and 1930s, provoking them into self-defeating acts and killing off their leaders. Similar provocation was employed after the Second World War by Stalin’s secret police to crush resistance in Western Ukraine, which lasted into the early 1950s, while throughout the Cold War, Ukrainian rightists abroad were targets for surveillance, harassment, and sometimes assassination by the KGB.
Since the Soviet collapse, similar Russian provocations in Ukraine are broadly understood by security circles in Kyiv, which is part of why the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, is now attempting to reign in far-right groups like the Right Sector (Pravyy Sektor): not only are they potentially dangerous to democracy, they may be on Moscow’s payroll too. This has come to a head due to the death this week of the notorious far-right activist Oleksandr Muzychko, AKA Sashko Billy, a vocal hater of Russians and Jews, who fell in a murky shootout with police in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Muzychko was so extreme that he actually fought in Chechnya in the 1990s with the local resistance – Moscow accused him of war crimes there – and his funeral turned into a far-right rally against the government in Kyiv. Predictably, all this got huge coverage in Russian media, which is eager to demonstrate the “fascist” nature of all Ukrainians who do not wish to be ruled by the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, we can expect more provocations as this crisis continues. A directly relevant example of what may happen is a series of events in Croatia in 1991, another country where the position of Jews is politically sensitive due to the Second World War and the Holocaust. As Yugoslavia was collapsing, Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian allies constantly parroted the line that the government in newly independent Croatia was really “fascist” and they planned to resurrect Nazi-era war crimes against minorities, including Jews, and intervention was required from outside the country to prevent “genocide” (if this all sounds to you remarkably like Kremlin propaganda now against Ukraine, it should). As in Ukraine today, there were neo-fascists in Croatia in 1991, but they were politically marginal and considered a threat by the government.
Just like the Soviet Union, Communist Yugoslavia had manipulated, harassed, and killed off Croatian nationalists for decades. In a Balkan version of the TRUST, in the late 1940s, Tito’s secret police lured would-be guerrilla fighters into the country – you knew this was coming - to support a shadowy resistance army: of course it didn’t exist, and it served to get the infiltrators killed. For decades, Yugoslav secret police kept close tabs on Croatian emigres involved in anti-regime activities, employing provocation to discredit them very effectively. Several dozen Croatian exiles in the West were also murdered by Yugoslav assassins. Croatians understood that many of their most radical nationalists were actually under Yugoslav control.
Fears that newly independent Croatia was under threat by “fascists” – just as Belgrade was telling everyone loudly – reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1991 with a series of attacks on Jewish targets in Zagreb. That August, bombs went off at a Jewish community center and the main Jewish cemetery; although there were no casualties, the explosions caused a panic in Croatia’s tiny Jewish community, particularly because there were other bombings at the same time on rail lines in several locations, leading to a sense of anarchy. Soon unverified reports emerged placing blame for the attacks on the government, explicitly fingering President Franjo Tudjman as the figure behind the bombings.
This was all strenuously denied by Tudjman and his government, which moved quickly to reassure Jews they were in no danger. This was all a significant distraction while Croatia was fighting for its life as Yugoslav troops and Serbian irregulars took over one-third of the country that summer and fall. The bombings and accompanying propaganda earned Croatia a black eye internationally when it least needed it, and before long Jewish groups were pondering a mass evacuation from the country, just in case.
It turned out it was all one big provocation engineered by the Yugoslav military’s Counterintelligence Service (KOS), which boasted a substantial agent network in Croatia, including several prominent right-wingers. The Zagreb bombings and accompanying anti-Croatia propaganda were termed Operation LABRADOR by KOS, which considered it to be highly successful. On the heels of the attacks, Zagreb security services worked hard to roll up the KOS networks in the country, but by that point the damage had been done. The false-flag bombings were a reminder to the world that Zagreb was “really” under the control of “fascists,” a lie that the Tudjman government never fully overcame in certain quarters.
Provocation combined with propaganda can be powerfully effective in transmitting Big Lies about people, places, and even whole countries, especially in times of crisis. The Kremlin has been honing this unpleasant skill for more than a century. The next time you hear about violence in Ukraine – and, sadly, you certainly will – it’s good to remember that provokatsiya is real.