Sanctions, support, and prospects for diplomacy.
N2K logoFeb 18, 2022

Cyber operations seem likely to form an enduring part of Russia's hybrid campaign against Ukraine as Moscow continues a campaign of disinformation and provocation.

Sanctions, support, and prospects for diplomacy.

False flags, information operations, and cyberattacks continue to mark Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine. Whether Moscow will escalate the conflict with a large conventional campaign remains to be seen but both the US and UK have continued to warn that a large-scale invasion could be imminent, perhaps days away.

Academic conference on "the unfolding situation in Ukraine."

The University of Chicago last night hosted a discussion of "the unfolding situation in Ukraine." Panelists from the Pearson Institute, the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES), and the Kyiv School of Economics participated. The session was moderated by Scott Gehlbach (Pearson Faculty Affiliate, Professor at Department of Political Science and Harris School of Public Policy, at the University of Chicago). Panelists included Jesse Driscoll (Pearson Faculty Affiliate, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Global Leadership Institute at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California San Diego), Andrew Mac (Formal Advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a partner at the Asters law firm in Washington, DC), Roger Myerson (David L. Pearson Distinguished Service Professor of Global Conflict Studies in the Harris School of Public Policy, the Griffin Department of Economics, and the College, and Nobel Laureate in Economics) and Tymofiy Mylovanov (President of the Kyiv School of Economics, Associate Professor of the University of Pittsburgh, and the former Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture of Ukraine).

We'll have occasion to refer to the discussion in the sections below, but some of the panelists' general observations are worth summarizing. Mylovanov argued that the economic dimensions of Russian policy are being overlooked. Russia is not an economic power in the way that it's a military power, and Russian leadership is acutely aware of this. Access to ports is particularly important to the country's economic future, and Russia still doesn't have such access. There are also internal economic problems. While per capita GDP has risen in the country, real wages have fallen dramatically, and this disparity is difficult for the regime to explain. The panelists in general discounted the effect of threatened US sanctions (one of them characterized the hopes some repose in a US Treasury Department array of targeted sanctions as "magical thinking"). In particular, they thought that Russia had done enough to merit severe sanctions already, and that Western failure to apply crippling sanctions is being received as a sign, in Ukraine, of soft American support for Kyiv. And they also regarded Russian behavior as representing a long-term strategy to secure its aims in Ukraine, one that could be expected to continue for decades. The panelists also pointed out the sheer difficulty of an invasion that would conquer, subjugate, and control Ukraine. The difficulty of controlling, physically, Kyiv alone would be so daunting as to render an occupation impractical.

Correlation of forces in Ukraine.

Ukraine would not be a pushover. It doesn't dispose of the same military power as does Russia, but its forces aren't negligible, either. A rough comparison of the two country's military personnel (active duty general purpose ground forces only) drawn from the CIA World Factbook puts Ukrainian army end strength at approximately 150,000. The Russian equivalents total roughly 375,000. (Should an American reference point prove useful in putting these into perspective, the World Factbook reports US Army end strength as 480,000. In addition to these soldiers, there are also 180,000 Marines.) So Russia enjoys a numerical advantage, but not necessarily a decisive one.

"False flags" and disinformation.

Reports of shelling in Eastern Ukraine continue. Russian media has accused Ukrainian forces of hitting a kindergarten and blaming it on Russian-led separatists in an attempt at provocation. (Tymofiy Mylovanov observed during last night's session in Chicago that artillery fire in the Donbas isn't new; that it's been going on at a low level since Russia's 2014 incursion into Ukraine.) Separatist leaders in Donetsk, however, acknowledge that their guns were the ones that hit the school, but say it's Ukraine's fault anyway, since Ukrainian forces used "mortars and grenades" against them first. Most observers see the ongoing artillery fire as part of a Russian attempt to frame Ukraine as an aggressor against ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the shelling and other "abnormal military activity" “a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion.” The US embassy to Ukraine was equally unambiguous, tweeting: "Russia's shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in Donbas hit a kindergarten, injured two teachers, and knocked out power in the village. The aggressor in Donbas is clear - Russia. This attack, as with so many others, is a heinous Russian violation of the Minsk Agreements and again demonstrates Russia’s disregard for Ukrainian civilians on both sides of the line of contact."

The leader of the Donetsk separatists, Denis Pushilin, has announced that the danger of Ukrainian military action is now so high that the separatists have begun evacuating the province's population across the border to Russia's Rostov oblast, the Telegraph reports. Ukraine denies that it's engaged in any operations against the provinces Russia is seeking to detach.

Russia continues to disclaim any intention of preparing a further invasion of Ukraine, Bloomberg reports. The US continues to say that the risk of intensified ground combat remains high. “We have reason to believe they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in,” President Biden said yesterday. "False flag" operations are provocations staged as outrages that can be more-or-less plausibly attributed to an adversary. US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post that "there was additional intelligence indicating a false flag by Russia would involve the use of a chemical agent that would immobilize civilians, then use cadavers to make it appear as though the Ukrainians had gassed and killed civilians. One of the officials said the blame might also be pinned on Americans." US Secretary of State Blinken made a similar case yesterday at the United Nations. He enumerated three possible false-flag provocations: “'fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia,' a fake mass grave, a staged drone attack on civilians, or a 'fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons.'”

Russia's Ministry of Defense repeated its claim that units were returning to garrison yesterday, after Western intelligence services said they weren't seeing signs of withdrawal from assembly areas near Ukraine. Western governments aren't in general buying it. Reuters reports that the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Michael Carpenter told a meeting of the OSCE today, "We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30. This is the most significant military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War."

Russian strategic forces prepare to conduct exercises.

And President Putin says he intends to personally oversee them. The AP reports that the exercises, expected to "involve multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles" will be held Saturday.

What should be the diplomatic framework within which Western governments should organize support for Ukraine?

Speaking of nuclear weapons, Ukraine agreed, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union, and to do so in exchange for Western (specifically US) guarantees of its territorial integrity. Roger Myerson argued last night at the University of Chicago roundtable that it's the Budapest Memorandum, not the Minsk Accords, still less Ukrainian admission to NATO that should provide the organizing principle for US diplomacy during the crisis. The principal beneficiary of the Budapest agreement was, after all, Russia, which wanted no nuclear-armed smaller powers in the Near Abroad. Steps to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity would pursue a clear objective, and they wouldn't carry the implicit threat to Russia of NATO encroachment on its borders.

Recent cyberattacks against Ukraine.

Bloomberg quotes Ukrainian authorities as calling the distributed denial-of-service attack that began Tuesday and extended into Wednesday the largest the country had seen. This may be an exaggerated local perspective. Reuters cites Netscout to the contrary. The security firm said that what Ukraine faced was relatively standard and not unusually large. “It’s possible that it was the largest they’d seen against targets,” Netscout's Richard Hummel said. “It is definitely not the largest we’ve seen.” At the Chicago session last night Mylovanov said that, contrary to most reports, the effects of the attack had not been confined to just two banks, but had affected the banking sector as a whole. He assessed the level of interference as comparable to that Estonia sustained when it came under Russian cyberattack. That Ukraine escaped a crippling shutdown he ascribed to the country's improved resiliency.

Warnings that Russian cyber operations could affect countries beyond Ukraine continue. The Voice of America reports US concerns about the possibility of cyberattack, and it cites the often-mentioned case of NotPetya, which spread beyond its Ukrainian targets to affect commerce globally. Media in the UK are retailing similar warnings, although they focus on the possibility of a direct cyberattack against British assets. Online shopping, paycard transactions, and healthcare information are regarded as especially at risk.

Speaking at the Munich Cybersecurity Conference, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said, "Given the very high tensions that we are experiencing, companies of any size and of all sizes would be foolish not to be preparing right now as we speak -- to increase their defenses, to do things like patching, to heighten their alert systems, to be monitoring in real-time their cybersecurity. They need to be as we say, 'shields up' and to be really on the most heightened level of alert that they can be and taking all necessary precautions."