Ukraine dismantles disinformation botnet; UK warns of Russian invasion risk.
N2K logoFeb 10, 2022

Russia's hybrid war includes influence operations, complete with bot-farming and media amplification. And an Olympic meeting suggests the outlines of a joint Sino-Russian view of international relations.

Ukraine dismantles disinformation botnet; UK warns of Russian invasion risk.

The Minsk Accords, under negotiation since shortly after Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea, continue to serve as the centerpiece of Russian diplomacy with respect to its claims against Ukraine. The AP has a useful review of their history and implications. In general, the Accords give support to Russian ambitions for nominally separatist Ukrainian provinces to be treated as autonomous regions, their ultimate fate to be determined by plebiscite. Negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO have continued, slowly, and the Telegraph sees the slow-rolling as entirely to Russia's advantage, with its opponents likely to concede incremental gains over the course of protracted diplomatic engagement. And amid concerns about a Russian threat to its electrical supply system, Ukraine has continued to prepare its separation from the Russian power grid. Such separation would be a contingency to be exercised upon invasion.

Ukraine's SBU takes down Lviv bot-farms.

The SBU announced its liquidation of two bot farms in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, which the SBU says were operating under Russian direction. Three arrests were made. Two of the suspects are accused of lending their apartments to bot-farming; the third maintained the equipment and software. The two farms controlled some 18,000 bots, and were largely engaged in disruptive influence operations, spreading rumors of bombings and the placement of "mines" in critical infrastructure. The Record describes the bot-farm's goal as "spreading panic." The bomb threats may be connected to a wave of such threats Euromaidan reported near the end of January. The SBU at that time characterized the campaign as a preparatory operation in a Russian hybrid war.

Moscú habla español.

Foreign Policy cites a study by Omelas that found Russian-run Spanish language outlets outperforming their American counterparts in pushing a narrative on the crisis in Ukraine. The Russian media outpace US services by three-to-one as measured by audience engagement in the Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere.

The UK issues a warning.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been unusually direct at mid-week about the risks and consequences of any further Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Guardian reports that the Prime Minister said, during meetings with NATO leaders, that intelligence remained "grim," and that the situation was approaching its crisis: "This is probably the most dangerous moment. I would say that in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades, we’ve got to get it right,” The Telegraph quotes him on Britain's commitment to its allies:

"The first point of unity among the UK, the US and our allies is that we are not going back to the days when a handful of great powers decided smaller nations’ fates over their heads. If I may adapt some famous words: All nations are created equal, they are endowed by international law with certain inalienable rights, and first among these is the right not to have their territory seized, or their foreign policy dictated at gunpoint, by a powerful neighbour."

The Ministry of Defence earlier this week announced the deployment of a small commando force to Poland in a further response to Russian staging of conventional forces along the Ukrainian border.

Hybrid war and the correlation of forces.

An essay in the New Atlanticist argues that adversaries, Russia in particular, have stolen a march on the US with respect to hybrid warfare. Russian hybrid warfare isn't confined to the current situation in Ukraine, and the essay in fact emphasizes other, earlier operations as varied as election influence and nerve agent assassination attempts. The essay sees five areas where the US needs to improve its capabilities, doctrine, and policies:

  • "Timely attribution," and its timely public release.
  • "Pain points," the clear-eyed assessment of what the adversaries value and how those values may be vulnerable.
  • "Tempo and sequencing." US responses must be effective, and close enough in time to the original offense to be correctly viewed as retaliatory.
  • "Strategic coordination" That's in the first instance internal coordination with national strategy--the US Government has had some difficulty staying on message.
  • Finally, "Effects-based messaging." The goal is to shape the adversary's behavior, and the messaging (in both word and action) should be designed to do so in a way consistent with overall strategy.

The private sector is also inevitably affected by hybrid war. Saket Modi, Co-Founder and CEO of SAFE Security, wrote to say that cyber warfare, conducted by states, represents an expanding threat not just to governments, but to businesses, individuals, and civil society. Financial services organizations are at particular risk, as recent warnings from government security agencies and central banks have indicated:

“Nation-state cyberattacks are the next frontier of warfare, and we have seen some highly sophisticated nation-state attacks in the recent past. This has a direct impact on the economy, and more often than not, is targeted at critical infrastructure including financial services, healthcare, and more. Businesses in the financial services sector store, manage, and analyze a lot of individuals, business, and government data and as a result of this, has been one of the most targeted by cybercriminals. 

"Cyber attacks are continually on the rise in frequency, sophistication, and expense; it’s not a matter of if, but when, a cyber-attack will impact your company. Traditional methods of managing cyber risk, however, are siloed and reactive: a firewall tells you only about network security, antivirus products tell you only about endpoint security, and a SOC alerts you to a cyber incident only after it has occurred. 

"Organizations in the financial services industry need to adopt a proactive risk management strategy to better understand their cyber risks across people, processes, technology, and third parties, as well as the potential financial value of that risk in case a data breach occurs.”

Sino-Russian cooperation on framing the crisis with Ukraine.

The Olympic Games meeting between Presidents Putin and Xi resulted in a long communiqué, a "Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development." While it's easy to read too much into the meeting, as an essay in Foreign Policy argues (noting that Beijing's account of the session has been more muted than Moscow's), it's worth reading the Joint Statement as a summary of the world view that Russia's government would advance. It's especially relevant in its implicit framing of Russia's ambitions with respect to Ukraine. (The "sides" mentioned throughout the Joint Statement refer to Russia and China.)

Fundamentally, Russia sees the dispute with NATO and Ukraine as an internal Russian matter. As the Joint Statement puts it, "The sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs.... Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas." Thus a recognized sphere of influence is effectively a matter of state sovereignty, and not something other nations may legitimately meddle with. (Looking ahead to other long-running conflicts, the Joint Statement includes a by-the-way warning about Taiwan: "The Russian side reaffirms its support for the One-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.")

The villain is NATO, frozen in the old Cold War:

"The sides believe that certain States, military and political alliances and coalitions seek to obtain, directly or indirectly, unilateral military advantages to the detriment of the security of others, including by employing unfair competition practices, intensify geopolitical rivalry, fuel antagonism and confrontation, and seriously undermine the international security order and global strategic stability. The sides oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States."

And led by an America that's interested in replicating the malign NATO model in Asia and the Pacific, with an assist from the UK and Australia:

"The sides stand against the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States' Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region. Russia and China have made consistent efforts to build an equitable, open and inclusive security system in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) that is not directed against third countries and that promotes peace, stability and prosperity.... The sides are seriously concerned about the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom (AUKUS), which provides for deeper cooperation between its members in areas involving strategic stability, in particular their decision to initiate cooperation in the field of nuclear-powered submarines. Russia and China believe that such actions are contrary to the objectives of security and sustainable development of the Asia-Pacific region, increase the danger of an arms race in the region, and pose serious risks of nuclear proliferation. The sides strongly condemn such moves and call on AUKUS participants to fulfil their nuclear and missile non-proliferation commitments in good faith and to work together to safeguard peace, stability, and development in the region."

Respect for sovereignty is also cited as a core principle with respect to Internet governance and information security. The diplomatic heavy-lifting is bucked up to the United Nations:

"The sides reiterate their readiness to deepen cooperation in the field of international information security and to contribute to building an open, secure, sustainable and accessible ICT environment. The sides emphasize that the principles of the non-use of force, respect for national sovereignty and fundamental human rights and freedoms, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other States, as enshrined in the UN Charter, are applicable to the information space. Russia and China reaffirm the key role of the UN in responding to threats to international information security and express their support for the Organization in developing new norms of conduct of states in this area.

"The sides welcome the implementation of the global negotiation process on international information security within a single mechanism and support in this context the work of the UN Open-ended Working Group on security of and in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) 2021–2025 (OEWG) and express their willingness to speak with one voice within it. The sides consider it necessary to consolidate the efforts of the international community to develop new norms of responsible behaviour of States, including legal ones, as well as a universal international legal instrument regulating the activities of States in the field of ICT. The sides believe that the Global Initiative on Data Security, proposed by the Chinese side and supported, in principle, by the Russian side, provides a basis for the Working Group to discuss and elaborate responses to data security threats and other threats to international information security."

There are some routine avowals about supporting an international convention that would address cybercrime:

"The sides reiterate their support of United Nations General Assembly resolutions 74/247 and 75/282, support the work of the relevant Ad Hoc Committee of Governmental Experts, facilitate the negotiations within the United Nations for the elaboration of an international convention on countering the use of ICTs for criminal purposes. The sides encourage constructive participation of all sides in the negotiations in order to agree as soon as possible on a credible, universal, and comprehensive convention and provide it to the United Nations General Assembly at its 78th session in strict compliance with resolution 75/282. For these purposes, Russia and China have presented a joint draft convention as a basis for negotiations."

And Internet governance is to be "internationalized" in a way that establishes national control over information as a fundamental principle: "The sides support the internationalization of Internet governance, advocate equal rights to its governance, believe that any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security are unacceptable, are interested in greater participation of the International Telecommunication Union in addressing these issues."

There's also a curious statement about the Second World War, an expression of a determination to "uphold" its "outcomes," and to condemn any attempt to deny the responsibility of "Nazi aggressors" and "their accomplices." It's difficult to read this as anything other than a riposte to statements from the Baltic States comparing the present situation between Ukraine and Russia to that which obtained between Germany and its neighbors in 1939.

The Washington Post editorializes that the Joint Statement amounts to "a bid to make the world safe for dictatorship. On this one the Post isn't wrong.