A soft coup and cyber operations are concerns, but the conversation over Russia's threat to Ukraine increasingly centers on the possibility of a conventional invasion.
NATO, the EU, the UK, and the UK respond to Russia.
Tensions remain high as the US prepares its formal response to Russia's proposals.
Agents of influence and an attempt at a soft coup?
The British Government on Saturday accused Moscow of attempting to form a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, Reuters reports. The British Foreign Office identified Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian legislator, as the leader Russia was seeking to install in Kyiv. "We will not tolerate Kremlin plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine," Reuters quotes Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as saying. "The Kremlin knows a military incursion would be a massive strategic mistake & the UK and our partners would impose a severe cost on Russia." Russia's Foreign Ministry responded, "We urge the Foreign Office to cease these provocative activities, stop spreading nonsense and finally concentrate its efforts on studying the history of the Mongol-Tatar yoke," which is indeed quite a historical project. The New York Times sees the announcement as of a piece with a more "muscular" assertion of British interests. Saturday's announcement followed last Thursday's US sanctions against four Ukrainian nationals whom the US Treasury Department identified as working on behalf of Russian intelligence services.
Russian cyber operations arouse concerns beyond Ukraine.
Ukrinform reports that Poland has joined Ukraine in assessing recent cyberattacks against Ukrainian targets as the work of Russian intelligence services. The outlet quotes Ambassador Andrzej Sados, Poland's Permanent Representative to the European Union ,as saying:
"According to the information available to us, the cyber attack on Kyiv last week, January 14-15, was carried out by a group of hackers affiliated with the Russian services. The same group of hackers is responsible for leaking and publishing government correspondence of Polish government officials. Last summer, the same group of hackers ran a cyber attack on the German Bundestag, ahead of the September elections. It was this group that was involved in the recent attacks on Ukraine's government portals."
The attribution is unsurprising, but it also shows that Russia's long-shot influence operation designed to drive a wedge between Poland and Ukraine has probably missed its mark. Whatever internal mistrust may exist among Ukraine's Polish minority is unlikely in the extreme to be exacerbated by Warsaw.
Russia has conducted extensive influence operations in connection with its ambitions in Ukraine. They have tended to represent Ukraine as a threat to Russia, not only in its policy, but also in its growing alignment with NATO and internal ethnic fissures that, Russia argues, render the country dangerously unstable. The US State Department offers a summary and assessment (a negative assessment, it need hardly be noted) of recent Russian influence operations.
MIT Technology Review describes how Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine could have effects that spread to other parts of the world. There is, of course, the likelihood that Russian retaliation against countries that have supported Ukraine in the present conflict would take the form of cyberattacks. But the experience of both NotPetya and WannaCry indicate that cyber effects are difficult to control, whether the Russian services lost control of those attacks or were simply indifferent to the collateral damage they worked, in both cases the effects spread well beyond the immediate Ukrainian targets. The NotPetya attack of 2017 affected shipping and logistics companies worldwide; the US estimated the global costs inflicted by the pseudoransomware incident at more than $10 billion.
Kinetic war is a greater risk than cyber conflict.
Certainly its consequences are graver. The Record has an interview with Dmitri Alperovitch who argues both that a physical invasion is likely and that cyber operations will probably remain combat support, as opposed to combat power. An invasion is likely to be preceded by provocations designed to afford a pretext for war, and influence operations should be watch closely for signs of such moves. Those interested in the history of Russian provocations designed to afford a casus belli will find Alperovitch's tweeted list interesting.
Should Russia invade, the US response, according to the New York Times, would include supporting a Ukrainian insurgency against occupying Russian forces.
NATO preparation for renewed Russian military action against Ukraine.
NATO is increasing the readiness of forward-deployed forces along its Eastern flank. The Guardian notes that a number of members of the alliance have deployed warships (to the Baltic, for the most part), aircraft, and ground forces into the theater. The European Union has promised €1.2 billion in loans and grants to help Ukraine cope with the financial consequences of an invasion.
The Atlantic Alliance has provided advisors and a range of equipment to Ukraine. The Washington Post has a summary of what's been delivered so far: "mall arms and ammunition, secure radios, medical equipment and spare parts. Other lethal equipment, including Javelin antitank missiles and other anti-armor artillery, as well as heavy machine guns." The Javelin is a shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket. Other reports have mentioned shipments of Stinger missiles; the Stinger is a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The equipment and munitions being shipped are the sort that won't pose training or compatibility issues; they're materiel that can used in the near-term.
The US, the New York Times reports, is considering moving between one and five-thousand troops (roughly a brigade equivalent) into Eastern Europe in addition to those already stationed there. The additional deployments don't include placement of troops into Ukraine itself, beyond the small numbers of advisors and trainers previously assigned there, but it would include placing additional forces into the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) where in the recent past US troops have participated in joint exercises. Sources in the US Administration say that such deployments are particularly unwelcome to Russian President Putin. US President Biden said last week, "We’re going to actually increase troop presence in Poland, in Romania, et cetera, if in fact [President Putin] moves. They are part of NATO.”
Sanctions are also under discussion. The US is considering implementing a "novel" set of sanctions (as the Washington Post calls them) intended to cripple Russian strategic industries, including its technology sector. TheHill lists the sectors most likely to be affected: "artificial intelligence, maritime, defense, and civilian aviation sectors." The sanctions would include strict control of exports of "all microelectronics designed with US software or technology or produced using US equipment."
The US State Department has directed the families of American diplomats to leave Ukraine, and has given assigned diplomats permission to leave should they so desire:
"On January 24, the U.S. Department of State authorized the voluntary departure (“authorized departure”) of U.S. government employees and ordered the departure of family members (“ordered departure”) of U.S. government employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, effective immediately.
"Authorized departure gives these employees the option to depart if they wish; their departure is not required. Ordered departure for family members requires that family members leave the country. The U.S. Embassy’s departure status will be reviewed in no later than 30 days.
"The Department of State made the decision to authorize departure from Mission Ukraine out of an abundance of caution due to continued Russian efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the security of Ukrainian citizens and others visiting or residing in Ukraine. We have been in consultation with the Ukrainian government about this step and are coordinating with Allied and partner embassies in Kyiv as they determine their posture."
State is also warning US citizens to avoid travel to Ukraine:
"U.S. citizens in Ukraine should consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options.
"There are reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine. The security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice. Demonstrations, which have turned violent at times, regularly occur throughout Ukraine, including in Kyiv."
Such warnings are not confined to Ukraine. The US Embassy in Minsk has also advised US citizens to to avoid travel to Belarus, and to depart the country if they're already there:
"The U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens to exercise increased awareness and vigilance regarding political and military tensions in the region. Concerning reports of further unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine’s borders, including the border with Belarus, continue. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid public demonstrations and to regularly reevaluate possible departure plans in the event of an emergency."