Hybrid war across the spectrum of conflict
N2K logoFeb 1, 2022

Diplomacy over the Ukrainian crisis continues, even after an acrimonious session at the UN Security Council. So do cyber operations.

Hybrid war across the spectrum of conflict

Yesterday's UN Security Council meeting over the Russian threat to Ukraine was marked by acrimony and small progress toward any resolution, but negotiations over the crisis continue today on a bilateral basis as US Secretary of State Blinken talks with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Russian President Putin is expected to hold his own news conference today. The New York Times reminds its readers of what Mr. Putin had to say on the topic of tension with NATO and Ukraine back in December. “It was the United States that came with its missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home," he said to a British journalist who asked for some assurance that Russia didn't intend to invade Ukraine. "And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now," which is one way of looking at it. It's thought unlikely that his remarks will deviate much from the current line that Russia is the aggrieved party in the present crisis, pressured by NATO encroachment into its sphere of influence.

US President Biden issued his own statement on the crisis yesterday, after the Security Council meeting. It's more measured but not offering much in the way of compromise:

"Today in the United Nations Security Council, the United States presented in detail the full nature of Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And we made clear to the international community the full implications of that threat — not just for Ukraine, but for core tenets of the UN Charter and the modern international order.  

"If Russia is sincere about addressing our respective security concerns through dialogue, the United States and our Allies and partners will continue to engage in good faith. If instead Russia chooses to walk away from diplomacy and attack Ukraine, Russia will bear the responsibility, and it will face swift and severe consequences.  

"The United States and our Allies and partners continue to prepare for every scenario. The world must be clear-eyed about the actions Russia is threatening and ready to respond to the risks those actions present to all of us. Today’s Security Council meeting is a critical step in rallying the world to speak out in one voice: rejecting the use of force, calling for military de-escalation, supporting diplomacy as the best path forward, and demanding accountability from every member state to refrain from military aggression against its neighbors."

Sharp exchanges at the UN Security Council as diplomacy continues.

At the Security Council yesterday Russian diplomats continued their implausible denial of having massed forces near Ukraine, saying it hasn't happened, and that the widely quoted figure of more than a hundred-thousand troops in assembly areas is a malign American fantasy, born of ill-will, bad-faith, and weak nerves. The Washington Post describes the sharp exchanges, which include a Russian accusation, probably intended more for domestic than international consumption, that NATO was deliberately marshaling actual, literal Nazis (read, Ukrainians unfriendly to Russia) on Russia's borders. Ukraine, Russian representatives argued, is on a path to self-destruction through its alleged abrogation of the Minsk agreements, which Russia sees as having effectively placed areas of the Donbass under Russian protection. “If our western partners push Kyiv to sabotage the Minsk agreements, something that Ukraine is ... willingly doing, then that might end in the absolute worst way for Ukraine,” Russia's permanent representative at the UN Vasily Nebenzya said. “And not because somebody has destroyed it, but because it would have destroyed itself and Russia has absolutely nothing to do with this.”

The US for its part characterized Russia's actions as the attempt of a former imperial power to re-engorge its lost provinces.

The US says it received a written reply to its own note of last week to Russia, the Post reports, but Russia denies having sent one. “There has been some confusion. Those were different considerations on a slightly different subject. Russia has not given an answer to what seems to be the main problem nowadays. The answer is still being prepared,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Secretary of State Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov are expected to talk by phone today. In the meantime, according to Bloomberg, the US State Department has told families of US diplomats in Belarus to leave the country. Belarus has hosted large-scale Russian troop deployments, nominally for joint exercises.

Cyber operations continue as Ukraine and NATO look to their defenses.

US Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger is in Europe for talks with NATO and EU counterparts on a coordinated response to the cyber dimensions of the Russian threat to Ukraine. CNN quotes an unnamed official as saying the purpose of her trip is to discuss "ways to enhance national and Alliance resilience in cyberspace, including deterring, disrupting and responding to further Russian aggression against Ukraine, neighboring states, and in our respective countries."

The Russian messaging has been amplified by state-controlled media. Al Jazeera has a useful review of what's being said, but the comparisons with the run-up to the German invasion of Russia in World War Two are striking.

SecurityWeek and CyberScoop both summarize recent reports of ongoing Russian cyber action against Ukrainian targets. Russia's FSB and GRU have both been implicated in the cyberattacks by Ukrainian intelligence and security services. Computing reports that the FSB's Gameradon group is using eight novel payloads in its operations against Ukraine. The attacks are apparently intended both to influence Ukrainian society, sowing mistrust and exacerbating fissures in civil society, and to destroy data. Sami Knuutinen, Presales Engineer at LogPoint, sees a distinctive focus in state-operated social engineering:

“The state-sponsored Russian cyberattacks currently wreaking havoc across the globe are more dangerous than the typical threats organizations experience. General phishing attacks are easily recognizable, often with disjointed language that has been obviously translated with a free translation app. However, state-sponsored cyberattacks are conducted through highly targeted spearfishing campaigns.

"These cybercriminals terrorize specific individuals and know exactly what information they need to compromise their victims. The instigators behind these attacks are typically organized groups who have the resources, manpower, and experience to do real damage. They perform rigorous research into their targets, allowing them to craft messages that are tailored to manipulate the recipients into clicking a dangerous link, or downloading ransomware.“

Preparations for combat.

Ukraine is, amid general expressions of European support, increasing the size and capability of its army, announcing plans to increase its military end strength by 100,000 troops over the next three years, Reuters reports. In the nearer term, according to the AP, Ukraine's military is constructing field fortifications and organizing irregular formations to prolong resistance and exact a heavy human toll on an invasion force. President Zelensky hopes for peace and urges calm, but, as the Military Times says, the country as a whole seems to be preparing for the worst.

Some see Russia as simply waiting for a hard freeze to undertake a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but while this view shows a commendable attention to the importance of weather in military operations, it's also unrealistic. European Armies are well-accustomed to mud. As Foreign Policy notes, mud is an inconvenience, not a show-stopper.

The New York Times, observing the Ukrainian army's defensive preparations, calls them "low-tech," trench-bound, and not up to NATO standards, with the forces still using infantry weapons from the Soviet era, some fifty years old. This too seems to argue a lack of perspective. All armies in defensive positions dig, and the better disciplined the army, the more digging it tends to do. As far as using weapons going back to the Cold War, the US M1 Abrams main battle tank is also a Cold War veteran, so "Soviet era" cuts little ice. Western armies still use a few weapons that go back to the end of the First World War.