Diplomacy over Ukraine: at an impasse, for now.
N2K logoFeb 2, 2022

Russia continues to position itself as the aggrieved party, Ukraine as dangerous, and NATO as misled by American bad faith. In the meantime Ukraine digs in and NATO prepares for an escalation of hybrid conflict that is expected to prominently feature cyber operations.

Diplomacy over Ukraine: at an impasse, for now.

Russian President Putin held his promised news conference yesterday, the New York Times reports. He was no more irenic than were his ambassadors at the United Nations, although his tone was marginally more moderate than it was when he last spoke publicly about the crisis, back in December. The whole crisis over Ukraine, he said yesterday, is a provocation entirely made in America. “[The Americans'] most important task is to contain Russia’s development. Ukraine is just an instrument of achieving this goal. It can be done in different ways, such as pulling us into some armed conflict and then forcing their allies in Europe to enact those harsh sanctions against us that are being discussed today in the United States.”

In President Putin's view Ukraine’s accession to NATO would constitute not only a threat to Russian interests, but an existential threat to Russia and an imminent threat to world peace. A well-armed Ukraine with NATO behind it would, Mr. Putin said, find the temptation to invade and retake the Crimea irresistible, and that would draw the Atlantic Alliance in, and that in turn would produce a global war.

Where Russia and NATO stand, diplomatically.

Russia has dismissed this week's UN Security Council meeting at which the US accused Russia of threatening Ukraine as a "PR stunt," Newsweek reports. Russian officials, in addition to maintaining that the war scare is manufactured in Washington, and that Kyiv poses a threat not only to ethnic Russians in its eastern provinces, but to Russia itself, have repeatedly expressed concern that the US has positioned offensive weapons both in Eastern Europe and offshore in contiguous waters. "Offensive weapons" in this context means strike weapons, land attack systems like the Tomahawk cruise missile. Bloomberg reports that the US response has been to offer confidence-building mutual inspections of the kind conducted during the Cold War. Russian inspectors would be given sufficient access to NATO bases in Eastern Europe to verify that no such weapons are present, and the US or other NATO members would be given a reciprocal right of inspection in Russian bases. Both Romania and Poland have agreed in principle with the US proposal, although Russia is likely to regard mutual inspection as an infringement of its own sovereignty. For his part President Putin has said that, even though the US didn't respond to Russia's key demands (no NATO expansion and rollback of NATO forces deployed to the Near Abroad and former Warsaw Pact countries) he hopes diplomacy will eventually resolve the present crisis. The US and its NATO allies (especially the recently admitted allies in Eastern Europe) are likely to continue to regard the Russian demands as flatly unacceptable.

The US cyber mission to NATO will address infrastructure cybersecurity.

US Deputy National Security Advisor for Cybersecurity and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger is conferring with NATO policymakers in the North Atlantic Council, after which she'll visit her counterparts in Poland. The Wall Street Journal reports that NATO is working toward a significant package of cybersecurity aid for Ukraine, and the New York Times characterizes Neuberger's mission as "largely focused on how to coordinate a NATO response should Russia again attack parts of the power grid in Ukraine or take out communications in an effort to destabilize the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky." The Times quotes an unnamed senior US official to the effect that the US believes Russia is interested in replacing the government in Kyiv with a friendly one (that is, one more like the regime in Belarus). "If [Putin] could accomplish that without occupying the country and sparking an insurgency, 'that would be his best option.'” And attacks on infrastructure, especially on Ukraine's power grid, could prove to be, from the Russian point of view, agreeably destabilizing.

Ukraine has, for its part, continued to seek close collaboration with NATO on cybersecurity. While NATO turned down Ukraine's request last year for a formal association with the Tallinn-based Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), Defense News reports that Estonia in particular has cooperated closely with Ukraine and continued to advocate for Kyiv with Estonia's NATO partners:

“'The parties discussed the organization and overall state of Ukraine’s national cyber security, including the recent large-scale cyber-attacks against Ukraine and their impact on the current security situation,' the Estonian Ministry of Defence wrote in a statement last week.

“'Estonia is ready to send cyber specialists to Ukraine to further develop this exchange,' added Margus Matt, undersecretary of cyber matters at the ministry. 'By supporting Ukraine, we are also strengthening our own defence posture.'”

It's possible for countries who aren't NATO members to become “contributing participants” in the CCDCOE. Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland presently enjoy that status. The Centre's director, Estonian Air Force Colonel Jaak Tarien, told Defense News that “Right now the CCDCOE is mapping out new possible cooperation areas with Ukraine, since Ukraine has unique experience in combating hybrid threats. Sharing it will help to improve both the knowledge and readiness to face such threats in each Member State of CCDCOE individually and in NATO as a whole.” 

Other cyber risks (and Moscow faces some itself).

There are dissenting voices within Russia itself, although it's not clear how much of the Russian populace they represent. More than two-thousand members of the Congress of Russian Intellectuals, Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports, signed an open letter Sunday in which they decried the threat of military action against Ukraine as immoral, and denounced any such war as tragic and unjustifiable.

The cyber threat doesn't run entirely in one direction, and while the open letter from the Congress of Russian Intellectuals is a protest, there's a possibility that other dissenters could move to hacktivism. In addition to the prospect of NATO retaliatory or preemptive cyber operations, hacktivists could begin to hit Russian targets. The Moscow Times looks at the recent disruption of Belarusian rail transport by the Cyber Partisans and speculates that similar hacktivism might also surface in Russia:

"The BCP have been so spectacular and effective that I could definitely see a few other groups popping up in the region," Gabriella Coleman, professor of Anthropology at Harvard University and author of two books on computer hacking, told The Moscow Times. 

The number of hacktivist groups — activists who use technology to effect social change — has been on the rise across Russia in the last few years, and with brutal crackdowns on public protests sweeping across the post-Soviet region, cyberspace may be the safest place for collective discord. 

'In Russia there is clearly a highly trained technical class of people, and there is disaffection, so you would expect to find at least a small pocket of hacktivism," Coleman added. 

Cyberwar and business risk.

While so far Russian cyber operations against Ukraine have been relatively closely confined to their intended targets—the malware used in the WhisperGate pseudoransomware lacked the worming capabilities that enabled NotPetya to spread so quickly beyond its initial Ukrainian infestations—that could change. CyberDive and others recount the potential threat future operations could pose to Western businesses. And those businesses would do well to inspect their insurance coverage. Exceptions for acts of war and other acts of states made it difficult for many of them to recover damages they sustained from NotPetya in 2017.