Molly K. McKew consults for governments and political parties on foreign policy and strategic communications. She advised former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s government from 2009-2013 and former Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat in 2014-2015.
Tuesday morning, Col. Maksym Shapoval, a top Ukrainian military intelligence officer who spent much of the past three years leading special operations close to the front in Ukraine’s eastern war, was killed by a car bomb in Kiev. This is part of a series of attacks, widely assumed by experts to be directed by Russian intelligence, against Ukrainian military, security and intelligence officials. The campaign appears to be aimed at weakening the country’s counterintelligence capabilities as well as intimidating soldiers and volunteers.
Ukraine has been fighting a war to defend the borders of Europe. It has fueled this effort largely with patriotism and little else, relying heavily on volunteers and crowdsourced resources, and often struggling against unstable political leadership in the capital.
Before he fled Kiev after the Euromaidan uprising in 2014, President Viktor Yanukovych spent years gutting Ukraine’s defense and security capacity. The vacuum that was left following the revolution was filled by Ukrainians such as Shapoval, who understood what Moscow would do, as well as the devastating but essential lesson of fighting Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space: Nobody’s coming, so there’s only us.
Shapoval, who was in charge of Ukrainian special forces (his position is roughly equivalent to the top U.S. commander of Special Operations forces), made an outsized contribution to his country’s security capabilities. Like all special operators, Shapoval filled the space that needed to be filled, developing capacity that was needed — human intelligence, defense of the occupied territories, planning to prevent attempted coups — to defend Ukraine from the many threats it faced from its hostile neighbor. Shapoval focused as well on the challenges posed by Russia’s new approach to hybrid warfare — including elements of informational, economic, political and cultural power projection — and how to protect Ukrainian society and democracy from such attacks. This required nimble, rapid, creative thinking, and the ability to build and lead force capacity. The results have repeatedly shown that Ukraine is at the cutting edge of rethinking the response to modern irregular warfare.
Shapoval did what needed to be done. Much of it is still too secret to be shared. But his loss will be profoundly felt by a team already carrying a heavy load. Their work may be under-resourced, but it should not to be underestimated. For more than three years, Ukraine has fought a war against Russian forces — and hasn’t lost.
Ukrainian is the only modern army to have fought a land war against the revamped Russian military. Even as Moscow has used Eastern Ukraine as a laboratory to test new tools for electronic and special warfare, so too has Ukraine risen to the challenge to learn from these attacks and come up with scrappy ways to disrupt them. Special operators from the West have been in Ukraine as observers and advisers, trying to learn from the experience of their Ukrainian colleagues. Yes, they are there as much to learn as anything else.
Russia has succeeded in making the debate almost entirely about the useless, unobserved Minsk accords and about the maintenance (or not) of sanctions. None of this has anything to do with defending Ukraine, nor with penalizing Russia for its escalating aggression against Ukraine (and other countries).
Meanwhile, there has been relatively little discussion about bolstering Ukraine’s defensive, offensive and intelligence capabilities. Why is it that the United States is willing to support police reform but not counterintelligence, at a moment when increasingly bold Russian intelligence operations inside Ukraine are significantly disrupting the internal-security environment? The Ukrainian system is new, and highly dependent on individuals. The Russians understand exactly how demoralizing it is to slaughter them in the streets of the capital.
Even as Shapoval was assassinated, Ukraine was again targeted by a sweeping cyberattack. These are becoming steadily more intrusive. Ukraine needs to develop capabilities to counter hybrid threats. It needs more effective anti-corruption efforts that can expose Russian financial influence and better cyberdefense capabilities to protect critical infrastructure. It needs revamped counterintelligence services free of Moscow’s interference and the ability not only to expose but also to counter Russian information warfare. And we should all be invested in this, because while Ukraine may be the testing ground, the target is all of us.
Shapoval’s death is a painful loss for Ukraine. The Ukrainian identity that has emerged from the fires of the Maidan and the trenches in the East will remember these men and women who stepped into the void and did what everyone had always told them would be impossible: to fight Russia, and maybe even win. To reinvigorate our own understanding of what is possible in the face of a broad and shadowy Russian threat, we would do well to stand beside them and help them develop the capabilities we all need to defend our people and societies from new kinds of warfare.