Neither side gives much ground in Geneva, but a heightened tempo of cyber operations is widely expected in the near term.
Crisis over Ukraine: sanctions and solidarity; deterrence and clarity.
Both sides in the dispute over Russian preparation for (and already the limited conduct of) hybrid warfare against Ukraine bring firm lines with them to the talks now underway in Geneva, where US Secretary of State Blinken is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Guardian reports that Secretary Blinken told his counterpart that the US would reply formally to Russian proposals (that is, the soft ultimatum issued last week) sometime next week, but that certain NATO positions, in particular the right to offer membership to Ukraine and other countries, were not up for negotiation. The Secretary also said that the US was open to a summit between Presidents Biden and Putin.
Foreign Minister Lavrov (who characterized the talks in Geneva as “constructive and useful” where Secretary Blinken had used "frank," "candid," and "substantive") said “I can’t say whether we are on the right track or not. We will understand that when we receive the US written response to all of our proposals."
Those Russian proposals hardened on the eve of the Geneva talks, with the Russian side specifying that they wanted NATO forces out of both Bulgaria and Romania. The AP says the Russians know these are "nonstarters." Russia has also increased its military build-up near Ukraine, according to the Military Times, with satellite imagery showing additional forces now positioned between eight and eighteen miles of the border. TASS is authorized to disclose that the Russian navy has also stepped up its readiness, deploying more than a hundred-forty warships for exercises in "all zones of responsibility, including the Black Sea. The exercises will continue into February.
And, finally, the Duma announced that it's considering recognizing the independence of two regions in Eastern Ukraine, styled the "Donetsk People's Republic" and the "Luhansk People's Republic." Nominal separatists, deniable proxies for Russian forces, have been fighting for control of the Donbass region. The Presidential administration in the Kremlin seemed today to distance itself from the State Duma's discussion, saying that negotiations were at a delicate stage, and that inflammatory statements were better avoided.
What the President meant to say...
US President Biden's remarks Wednesday, delivered as he flew solo through a media availability, appeared to suggest that minor incursions into Ukraine might not lead the US to exact as "serious and dear" a price as major incursions would. Observers saw this (the Wall Street Journal's coverage was representative) as a slip that would probably lead governments to misread American intentions, inducing allies and adversaries to believe the President intended to signal a nuanced degree of toleration for smaller, perhaps more ambiguous, forms of Russian aggression.
Observers were right. TheHill summarizes reactions from a variety of sources, none of whom seem to think that the President's statements were either well-considered or helpful. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was quick to respond, tweeting, "We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power."
The US has since then devoted some effort to clearing the matter up. White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement clarifying the US position and seeking to resolve any dangerous ambiguity. It's brief and clear enough to warrant quoting, again, in full, especially since they do seem to represent US policy with greater accuracy and precision than did the President's musing Wednesday excursus on graduated response:
"President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies. President Biden also knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response."
Bloomberg reports that there have also been some Allied efforts to clarify the US position. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock issued a joint warning after talks in Berlin that also included their French and British counterparts. Secretary Blinken said, “We’re at a decisive juncture. We have been very clear throughout if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our partners.” That is, Russia shouldn't misinterpret President Biden's remarks about NATO allies to suggest that the other members of the Atlantic Alliance are softening on Russian aggression. He also offered an explanatory gloss on President Biden's press conference: “What I heard President Biden say yesterday is that he doesn’t believe President Putin has yet made up his mind. Our task is together through all of the work we have been doing to make clear the different options that President Putin has before him.”
Western nations move to higher cyber alert.
The Wall Street Journal sees last week's cyberattacks against Ukrainian targets as pointing to a broader risk of more general cyberwar. WhisperGate was, like NotPetya a few years ago, a pseudo-ransomware attack that delivered a wiper behind defacements and spurious ransom demands. It was, however, less sophisticated than its predecessor, and in particular it lacked the self-propagating worm features that made NotPetya a general danger.
Governments continue to take the threat of Russian cyberwar seriously. Canada's Communications Security Establishment (CSE) Wednesday warned critical infrastructure operators "to bolster their awareness of and protection against Russian state-sponsored cyber threats." The CSE cites earlier warnings by Britain's National Cyber Security Centre and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), indeed the specific recommendations all three organizations offer track one another closely.
Ukraine has asked another one of the Five Eyes, Australia, for technical assistance to help defend it against cyberattack, the ABC reports, and Australia has said that it stands in solidarity with NATO in support of Ukrainian security.
Security firm Mandiant has outlined the form it expects Russian cyber operations to assume. 'Russia and its allies will conduct cyber espionage, information operations, and disruptive cyber attacks during this crisis. Though cyber espionage is already a regular facet of global activity, as the situation deteriorates, we are likely to see more aggressive information operations and disruptive cyber attacks within and outside of Ukraine." Russia's allies in this case are Belarus and the occupied Ukrainian provinces in Crimea and the Donbass. The company thinks that both information operations and cyberattacks proper are a high risk. "Cyber capabilities are a means for states to compete for political, economic, and military advantage without the violence and irreversible damage that is likely to escalate to open conflict. While information operations and cyber attacks such as the 2016 US election operations and the NotPetya incident can have serious political and economic consequences, Russia may favor them because they can reasonably expect that these operations will not lead to a major escalation in conflict."
US imposes sanctions on four former Ukrainian officials it holds to have acted under Russian control.
The US Treasury Department yesterday announced that it was bringing sanctions against four individuals for their role in advancing Russia's influence operations with the objective of "destabilizing" Ukraine. Treasury explained its rationale as follows:
"Today’s action is intended to target, undermine, and expose Russia’s ongoing destabilization effort in Ukraine. This action is separate and distinct from the broad range of high impact measures the United States and its Allies and partners are prepared to impose in order to inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and financial system if it were to further invade Ukraine.
"The individuals designated today act at the direction of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), an intelligence service sanctioned by the United States, and support Russia-directed influence operations against the United States and its allies and partners."
The individuals sanctioned include Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, two current Members of Ukraine's Parliament, Volodymyr Oliynyk, "a former Ukrainian official who fled Ukraine to seek refuge in Russia," and Vladimir Sivkovich, former Deputy Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. The connection with the FSB is important, since that Russian agency is itself under sanction. Treasury describes the consequences for the four individuals sanctioned:
"As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of the designated persons described above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons. The prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any blocked person, or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person."