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6 March, 2019  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

The anatomy of provocations

How Russia is using foreigners to spark conflict in Zakarpattia

At the beginning of 2018, Zakarpattia Oblast suddenly began to make the headlines in Ukraine’s press. One incident after another pointed to a sudden rise in tensions between the Ukrainian community and the Hungarian minority. Unknown individuals attacked the office of the Hungarian Cultural Society in Uzhhorod twice, on February 4 and 27, setting the premises on fire and leaving Nazi-style insults on the walls. On March 16, nine cars with Hungarian plates were damaged in Berehove, a town some 30 km south of Mukachevo. This was clearly intended to coincide with March 15, the anniversary of the 1939 declaration of a short-lived autonomous Carpatho-Ukraine within Czechoslovakia.

Needless to say, these incidents triggered a reaction from Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which summoned the Ukrainian ambassador after the Hungarian cultural center was set on fire. Hungary’s ambassador to Ukraine also called on the OSCE to open a mission in Zakarpattia. The incident in Berehove only seemed to reinforce the rhetoric.

“This action is an open provocation against Hungarians in Zakarpattia,” said Hungarian officials. “ It is part and parcel with anti-Hungarian actions in recent weeks.” Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó complained that Hungarians had to “live with a permanent sense of fear in their Zakarpattian homeland.” Russia happily rode on the wave of negative news, blaming everything on Ukrainian radicals and nationalists.

It did not take long to find and detain the men behind the arson. They turned out to be Poles and are now on trial for their actions. The court files make clear that what happened a provocation carried out by foreigners on Russia’s behalf. A Polish website covering the trial, tvp.info, reported that the arsonists were paid 1,000 zloty – nearly UAH 7,000 or about US $250 – for the attack on the Hungarian cultural center.

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The two men belong to Falanga and Zmiana, two Polish ultra-right parties known to be Putin and Russia sympathizers. Zmiana’s leader Mateusz Piskorski has been on trial for several years now, for cooperating with Russia’s secret service. Official files from Polish prosecutors do not provide the names of those charged with arson in Zakarpattia, but Zakarpattia Governor Hennadiy Moskal disclosed them shortly after the attack: Adrian Marglewski, 22, from Krakow, and Tomasz Rafał Szymkowiak, 25, from Bydgoszcz. The press later mentioned a third provocateur, Michał Prokopowicz, a 28-year old member of Zmiana.

Like the two GRU men in the Salisbury attack, the arsonists were not too smart. They stayed at a hostel in Uzhhorod where they registered in their real names. And they bought the gasoline they used to set fire to the cultural center at a local gas station where CCTV captured them on tape.

“This provocation was to further damage Ukrainian-Hungarian relations,” the Polish Internal Security Agency (ABW) officer in charge of the case told tvp.info. “It was done in the interest of Russia, which wants to destabilize a western neighbor that is already facing a hybrid war. Hiring Polish radicals worked, because this would also ramp up tensions between Poles and Ukrainians, even if the action failed.”

The case then took a new twist. In court, the frightened arsonists broke their silence and named the person who had paid them for the sabotage: Manuel Ochsenreiter, a notorious German journalist and a well-known Russia sympathizer. A supporter of the Donetsk and Luhansk pseudo-republics, Ochsenreiter is a frequent guest on Russian television. Moreover, he is an advisor to Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD MP who is openly pro-Russian, just like the Polish radical right parties. 

“Our actions were carried out with clear instructions from Ochsenreiter,” Prokopowicz told the court. “I had no initiative in this. The main goal was to compromise ‘Ukrainian Banderites,’ not to stir up ethnic hostilities.”

This removed any doubts that Russia was behind the Zakarpattia incidents. While the adventures of Polish radicals could be interpreted as their personal initiative over grievances with Ukraine, the involvement of German politicians and journalists linked to Russia made it clear whose fingerprints it was.

Whose interests Ochsenreiter was working for when he gave instructions to burn down the Hungarian cultural center in Uzhhorod is no secret, nor has he tried hard to hide this. Ochsenreiter regularly visits Donetsk and Luhansk, supports “L/DNR” militants and Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and propagandizes in anti-Ukrainian media. A search of his name in Google will show him speaking at Novorossiya and Oplot TV, both broadcasters in occupied Donetsk. His most recent visit to the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts was in November 2018, as an “observer” in the illegal election of the new DNR leader. Whenever he visits the occupied territories, Ochsenreiter makes a point of insisting that Ukraine is in violation of the Minsk accords, that it shells civilians, and that it oppresses its Russian-speaking population. While lamenting about “the victims of the bloody junta” on camera, he is simultaneously stoking hostility and violence at the other end of Ukraine, all while perfectly aware that his actions could lead to the same result in western Ukraine.

The AfD MP he advises, is also a friend of Russia. Frohnmaier has a Russian wife, Daria Tsoi, and has visited occupied Crimea several times. He has been pushing to have Russia sanctions lifted and for Crimea to be recognized as part of Russia.

Berlin – Donetsk – Zakarpattia. Attacks against Hungarian cultural institutions in Ukraine were organized by an aide to a German ultra-right MP

 

 

Ochsenreiter has denied his involvement in the arson when speaking to various journalists, but Polish prosecutors are certain that he organized the attack and have proof of his engagement. However this story ends, it is obvious that people linked to Russia have been caught out committing crimes. Supporting Russia and Donbas militants while acting like a naive fool who is clueless about what’s going on is one thing. Deliberately organizing arson attacks and stoking a conflict on the EU’s borders is something completely different.

The arson attack at the Hungarian cultural center was not just random hooliganism, nor was the burning of nine cars. Many a bloody ethnic clash has started with such seemingly “minor” events and provocations that snowballed into a full-out war with countless victims in the end. It is obvious that the intention here was to spark a clash among ethnic groups in Zakarpattia with the hope of provoking Hungarians into similar radical actions, and start an ethnic conflict that could potentially lead to an insurgency, killings and even military action.

While insisting that it is working for peace in Ukraine, Moscow is clearly interested in continuing the bloodshed and killing of Ukrainians. The incident in Zakarpattia is a perfect reflection of what has been going on in Eastern Ukraine for years, where Russia is now running a full-scale war.

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Interestingly, foreigners have committed crimes that Moscow and its agents tried to pin on Ukrainian nationalists. The “bloodthirsty banderites” are evidently not bloodthirsty enough, so Poles had to stand in for them this time. What about other incidents that have been blamed on “banderites”? How many were actually committed by agents from abroad?

An obvious historic comparison is the 1940s, when NKVD officers operated in Volyn and Halychyna, disguising themselves as banderites and engaged in brutal incidents to discredit “nationalist gangs.” More recently, there was the shelling of civilian districts in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014 and 2015. These, too, were blamed on “elusive banderite subversives” who supposedly moved freely around the city in garbage trucks and went out of their way to murder Donbas civilians. Yet not a single diversionary group has ever been caught or shown to the public in more than four years since the war began. Eventually, some witnesses were able to confirm that the “republic” mercenaries from the Yuriy Safonenko and Ihor Plotnistskiy gangs were behind the shelling.

The Zakarpattia arson story is far from over. Most likely more facts will come to light to reveal the nature of Russia’s “brotherly love” and “help.” For now, Ukraine should use this as a strong case in international organizations and courts, provided that the country’s leaders want to and can do it properly. 

 

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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