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Putin’s nuclear chaos

A Russian serviceman guards in an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, Sunday, May 1, 2022. (AP Photo)

“Fauda” is the name of the gripping Israeli television series about to launch its fourth season on Netflix. Fauda means “chaos” in Arabic and is the word Israeli special forces use when they lose control of an operation. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now creating chaos to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Putin’s fauda is managed. It is centered on Ukraine but threatens the West. The idea goes back to a paper written by Putin’s chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, who said in 2013 that chaos would be the new strategy.

Start with Ukraine. There’s fauda in the east, as Russian forces kill civilians and rape women, men and children. We witness a prisoner of war gagged, castrated, shot dead and dragged through the street. A detention center where Ukrainian POWs are held is destroyed, with dozens dead and injured. As we speak, Russian forces are using the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant as a shield to attack Ukrainians without Ukrainians being able to fire back. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has described the situation as “completely out of control.” This is all fauda.

In western Ukraine, missile terrorism wreaks havoc. Recently, at least 23 civilians were killed and more than 100 injured after a Russian missile strike on the center of Vinnytsia, a provincial town 175 miles southwest of Kyiv. Minutes before the attack, a mother was walking her young daughter with Down syndrome through the park to meet a speech therapist. (See the youtube that went viral here.)

The Gerasimov Doctrine advocates for a permanent state of unrest. Every couple of weeks, Russia launches missiles in the direction of Lviv, close to the Polish border. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently ordered his forces to intensify attacks across Ukraine. In Vinnytsia, the death of four-year-old Liza in that park was a stark reminder that no one in Ukraine is safe, even the most vulnerable.

Now comes fauda beyond Ukraine. Too many of us have viewed Kremlin sabotage, disinformation, espionage and assassination in silos. Vladimir Putin has been using all these things to create his Russian fauda.

In NATO member Bulgaria, an ammunition depot exploded last week. The depot’s owner, Emilian Gebrev, has been shipping munitions to Ukraine. Russian agents have been blowing up depots owned by Gebrev and others in Bulgaria and in the Czech Republic. These two allies are leading ammunition producers in the region. In April 2021, Bulgaria expelled a Russian diplomat connected to a number of depot explosions.

In the Czech case, officials in Prague believe that officers from the Russian military intelligence (GRU) have been involved in sabotage. According to a joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, Respekt and The Insider, six GRU officers took part in an operation to blow up two munition warehouses in October and December 2014. Two of the GRU agents were apparently responsible for the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018.

In Italy, Anatoly Chubais was suddenly hospitalized at the end of July for a rare neurological illness. Chubais was the senior official who resigned and left Moscow in March – presumably in protest – after the invasion of Ukraine. Specialists in “chemical protection suits” inspected his room.

Russian fauda has patterns. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko ran in Kyiv against Kremlin favorite Viktor Yanukovych and was poisoned (but still became Ukraine’s president later on); in 2006, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko died after being poisoned in a London hospital. Bulgarian businessman Gebrev himself was a victim of poisoning in 2015.

Since Feb. 24, Europe has expelled roughly 200 Russian intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover. According to M16, that leaves just as many still operating across Europe. In Berlin estimates of Russian agents of influence run to more than 100. The United States is not exempted. In Tampa, a Russian national was indicted on July 29 for involvement in what the FBI calls “a brazen influence campaign turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government.”

Aleksandr Ionov is accused of running operations in at least three states. Russian agent Maria Butina was undertaking similar work. After 15 months in U.S. prisons, she returned to Russia in October 2019 to assume a seat in the Russian Duma.

What does Putin want with his chaos? Fatigue and confusion, fissures and division. In a word, those things that help him achieve victory in Ukraine, even when his battlefield options seem to be dwindling.

Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown University and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”

Tags chaos FBI Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war Russian GRU Russian spy poisoning Sergei Shoigu skripal poisoning Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

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