Russia isn't pleased with the response it received yesterday from the US, and sees a bleak future, but disclaims any intention to invade Ukraine. Offensive cyber operations, however, continue.
Russia proposes; NATO responds.
Russia continues to claim that tension over Ukraine is driven by NATO and (especially) US aggression, but this view finds few takers internationally.
Russia's soft ultimatum isn't met.
Russia closed the January 21st talks in Geneva with a set of "proposals" that amounted to a soft ultimatum for NATO: that the Atlantic Alliance would agree to rule out eventual Ukrainian (or Georgian) membership, that it would roll back troop deployments and infrastructure in the Near Abroad and the former Warsaw Pact, and that it would agree not to deploy certain classes of long-range strike weapons. It asked for a US response in writing.
The US delivered that response yesterday, and it unambiguously rejected all the Russian demands, the AP reports. This was entirely foreseeable, as the Russian proposals were in NATO eyes simply "non-starters." The response, which the US explained had been thoroughly coordinated with other members of NATO, offered no concessions, but sought to offer, as the BBC quotes US Secretary of State Blinken, "a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it." The challenge will be to arrive, if US and NATO diplomacy should prove successful, at a face-saving way for Russia to back away from its pressure on Ukraine. NATO delivered a response on behalf of the Atlantic Alliance as a whole that was consistent with the US position. Both responses offered additional confidence-building measures, in particular the disclosure of information about certain kinds of short-notice military exercises that have hitherto been exempt from transparency agreements. The US also proposed an extension and expansion of the New START treaty that would further reduce nuclear weapon inventories and alert levels, the Washington Post said.
Russia said it is "not optimistic," as the Guardian and others report. “If the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures,” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said. And, while it will continue to engage NATO diplomatically, there are limits to Russian patience. “We won’t allow our proposals to be drowned in endless discussions,” Lavrov said.
The US and China have undertaken talks on the crisis and jointly urged relaxation of tension, "de-escalation and calm," according to Reuters. France is also seeking to engage Russia diplomatically: the AP reports that President Macron also seeks "de-escalation," and intends to “push Russia to clarify its position and the aim of (military) maneuvering.”
Preparations for an invasion, and potential responses to an invasion.
Russian authorities are being widely quoted as saying there are "no plans" to invade Ukraine, which is manifest nonsense: one doesn't deploy large combat formations to assembly areas near a disputed border without a plan of some sort. Whether there are any intentions to invade Ukraine is a different matter. The Russian preparations are certainly consistent with an intent to invade, but they're also consistent with bluff, and with lower-level staging of support for deniable proxies in the form of nominal insurgents in the Donbass. Russian forces have been at an elevated alert for some weeks now, deployed not only in Russia near the border with Ukraine, but also in neighboring Belarus, which has been a reliable junior partner of Russia's throughout the crisis, and should be viewed as a "full combatant," as the Atlantic Council puts it, in the event of escalation to a conventional war. (Minsk says Moscow's troops will return to Russia once current joint exercises conclude next month, but it's worth noting that the current high state of alert will be difficult to maintain much beyond the middle of February.)
How capable the Russian forces actually are is under discussion, with both the Washington Post and the New York Times sending mash notes to the Russian army, which their reporters and analysts regard as being much improved, far more effective and lethal than it was during the 2014 seizure of Crimea. For its part Ukraine also disposes of a considerable conventional military force, but its capabilities are less well known than are those of Russia. Ukraine has recently organized some 130,000 reserves into defensive units that Kyiv hopes, Foreign Policy reports, will "bleed" any Russian invasion to the point where casualties exceed acceptable limits.
The US has increased reconnaissance flights, the Air Force Times reports, and NATO has shipped quantities of materiel to Ukraine. NATO has also increased the readiness of its own forces in Eastern Europe, but this probably is a precaution, Reuters explains, against the possibility that Russian operations against Ukraine would spill over into NATO members like the Baltic states, Poland, and Slovakia. Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO, although it was effectively given a pathway to membership as far back as 2008, and so NATO's Article 5, Collective Defense, wouldn't require a direct conventional military response. But NATO has promised full cooperation with Ukraine to meet Russian cyber attacks.
In the event of a Russian invasion, NATO's immediate response would probably be imposition of sanctions designed to cripple the Russian economy.
Russian influence operations meet with indifferent success.
Russian attempts to portray itself as a victim, as the object of unprovoked aggression and as a bulwark against an incipient Ukrainian genocide against ethnic Russians, seem to have largely fallen flat, at least insofar as international audiences are concerned. The Atlantic Council reports that a recent survey undertaken to sample international opinion on the crisis shows widespread sympathy with and support for Ukraine, including support for giving Kyiv aid in the current crisis and for extending the country NATO membership.
Cyber action in the grey zone.
As Ukraine continues to investigate the data-wiping attack that hit government websites two weeks ago, the State Service of Special Communication and Information Protection of Ukraine says it's found signs of false-flag evidence planted to mislead investigators into suspecting a Ukrainian hacktivist group as opposed to Russian intelligence services. Ukraine has called that campaign "Bleeding Bear," and Deep Instinct has a useful account of what's presently known about the attacks. Zero Day reports that the wiper used in the Bleeding Bear attacks was code repurposed from the WhiteBlackCrypt ransomware strain.
Other low-grade hacking continues. Reuters reports that a "promotional" website belonging to the Ukrainian foreign ministry was knocked offline yesterday for several hours by unidentified threat actors.
Russian cyber operations against Ukrainian targets are widely expected to continue. Tech Monitor has an overview of the form such attacks are likely to assume. Fox Business discusses the ways in which cyberspace has become a contested domain in contemporary warfare.
There are concerns that any cyber operations that accompany the crisis in Ukraine will extend, by accident or by design, to civilian targets in many countries. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has urged infrastructure operators in particular to be on the alert, and to look to their defenses. Bill Bernard, Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at deepwatch, offered some perspective from the security industry: “At this point, you could assume that there would be two different sets of hackers during this time of unrest: One operating at the direction of the state and working to forward their goals, and the other the opportunists looking to make money in the midst of the chaos. Expect the unexpected. Don’t be complacent that you’re not a “priority target” for Russian attackers.”
Electrical power grids would be attractive targets to cyber warriors on both sides. Concern about the grid's vulnerability has led the US over the past three years to conduct a series of exercises on Plum Island, New York, an isolated and closed island in Long Island Sound that formerly served as a livestock quarantine and zoonotic disease research center. Plum Island is a useful site for such tests because its isolated power grid replicates in miniature most of the features of a regional grid. Bloomberg has an account of the drills and what the US learned from them. Nor, according to sources talking to Fox Business, does the threat run in only one direction: the US knows how to turn the lights off in Russia, too. (They say.)