Why are Russian Banks in Ukraine Being Vandalized and Torched?

Ukrainian riot police stand in front of vandalised Russian bank
Security force members stand guard outside a branch of Russian bank Sberbank in Kiev, Ukraine, February 20. The bank was one of six attacked during protests against Russia at the weekend. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Over the weekend no fewer than six Russian banks across Ukraine were torched or vandalized by mystery attackers, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of Kiev's Maidan protests.

Molotov cocktails were hurled at three different banks in the western city of Lviv during the early hours of Monday morning, according to a report by the city's police. All of the banks were branches of Russian state-owned banks Sberbank or VTB, according to reports by news agency Ukrainsky Novini based on the addresses given by the police.

One of the three Molotov cocktails failed to light, but in the other two incidents fires either partially or entirely destroyed the interiors of the banks. No people were harmed, according to Ukraine's emergency response units on the scene, as the incidents took place at around 1 a.m.

The attacks did take place after similar incidents in daylight in the capital of Kiev on Saturday. Protesters waving Ukrainian flags and symbols alluding to several far-right Ukrainian organizations, hurled rocks at a Sberbank branch in Kiev and Russian Alfa-bank.

Активісти увірвалися в будівлю «Альфа банку» на Хрещатику pic.twitter.com/mKEiWiAnYy

— hromadske (@HromadskeUA) February 20, 2016

Sberbank's branch in the eastern town of Mariupol also got hit by debris and rocks during the early hours of Sunday morning, according to local news site 0629. The police have not been able to identify who the attackers were, however the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists denied its involvement as soon as the first Kiev attacks occurred on Saturday.

According to Daragh McDowell, Russia and Central Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, it is unclear if the attacks were coordinated, but the frustration of Ukrainians with the government and the lack of progress in the conflict with pro-Russian rebels has fueled cynicism.

"It was the anniversary of the Maidan protests over the weekend and the various chicanery that resulted in the failure of the no confidence motion against Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has fueled political turmoil," he says. "There is widespread dissatisfaction with the government and a growing belief that despite getting rid of Viktor Yanukovych there's a new elite that has taken his place."

According to McDowell, it is possible the attacks were covertly organized by Russia, to add to the volatility of the situation. However, it may also be a result of far-right groups growing in conviction.

"It is impossible to know one way or another, however either way the fact that it is not clear shows the level of dissatisfaction in Ukraine with the government," he says. "The Crimea issue is far from being resolved. There has not been a serious push against corruption. Most of the reform has been completely unfinished.

"Even if this notion of Russian provocateur element is correct the conditions under which that can happen have been around for a while and the social sentiment surrounding them is Ukrainian in origin."

During the attacks on banks, the offices of finance firm System Capital Management, owned by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, were also vandalized. Akhmetov was an ally to ousted President Yanukovych, however some Ukrainian MPs pointed to his influence on lawmakers as the reason a vote to oust Yatsenyuk failed.

"Rinat Akhmetov is very well known in Ukraine and it would not take a lot of research or thought for a Ukraine right-wing activist to turn on one of his offices, in the heat of the moment," McDowell says. "He was very closely associated with the Yanukovych regime and was seen as straddling both sides on the separatist issue, seen not only as one of the the oligarchs but on the Russian leaning side of the oligarchy."

"If these acts are locally generated, we can certainly expect more frustration and protests in the future," McDowell adds.