Historical analogies with the outbreak of the Second World War are rife. Which way they run looks quite different in Moscow from the way the appear to most other countries. (And the closer one gets to the Russian border, the more those analogies seem to tell against Moscow.)
Deep fakes as a bogus casus belli.
Russian President Putin is in Beijing for discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping. One purpose of the visit is to secure Chinese support for Russia's stance with respect to Ukraine. Both leaders called for an end to NATO expansion.
While troops remain poised in Russia and Belarus, staged near the Ukrainian border, those hoping to avoid a war see hopeful signs in Russia's apparent continuing openness to diplomacy. But tensions remain high, and the US warns that Russia is preparing deep fake provocations to supply a casus belli.
Primitive Bear active against an unnamed Western government organization in Ukraine.
Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 reports that Gamaredon, also known as Primitive Bear, a threat actor associated with Russia's FSB, has been active against a Western government "entity" in Ukraine. Which government and which organization Unit 42 hasn't said, but it does say it's been monitoring three clusters of Gamaredon infrastructure (collecting over a hundred malware samples and finding seven-hundred malicious domains and two-hundred-fifteen IP addresses) and found the activity in the course of that monitoring. "Monitoring these clusters," Unit 42 writes, "we observed an attempt to compromise a Western government entity in Ukraine on Jan. 19, 2022. We have also identified potential malware testing activity and reuse of historical techniques involving open-source virtual network computing (VNC) software."
The campaign they observed relied on phishing for its initial access (and the phishbait was the familiar and surprisingly anodyne bogus job ad). The three infrastructure clusters Unit 42 observed it characterizes as "Gamaredon Downloader Infrastructure (Cluster 1)," "File Stealer (Cluster 2)," and "Pteranodon (Cluster 3)," and it cautions that there are probably other, so far undiscovered, clusters in use.
The FSB's attentions to Ukraine are nothing new, and are likely to continue. "Gamaredon has been targeting Ukrainian victims for almost a decade," Unit 42 concludes. "As international tensions surrounding Ukraine remain unresolved, Gamaredon’s operations are likely to continue to focus on Russian interests in the region." For further background on Gamaredon's recent activity, Unit 42 recommends the study Estonia's CERT-EE published early last week.
The US says Russia is preparing to fake evidence of Ukrainian atrocities.
The United States yesterday said that Russia had begun to prepare the production of imagery, including video, that would present faked evidence of either a Ukrainian attack on Russian forces or Ukrainian atrocities committed against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. “We believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western-supplied,” Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said Thursday during a Pentagon press briefing.
This is the third announcement by either the United States or the United Kingdom alleging Russian plans for provocations or deniable false flag operations. These announcements have been warnings, and preemptive in intent. The Washington Post lists the earlier allegations. On January 14th the US said that Russia had staged covert operators into Ukraine, where they were positioned to conduct false-flag attacks against the nominally irregular, allegedly separatist forces Russia supports in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy-forces,” a US official explained. On January 23rd the British Foreign Office announced that Russia was advancing plans to install a pro-Russian government in Kyiv. “The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
In none of these three cases did either the US or UK provide details on the intelligence that supported their accusations, which, of course, Russia dismissed as nonsense. As preemptive announcements, however, the three accusations clearly have some utility. Should the Russian provocations occur, there's a chance they'd be recognized as such. Or, better yet, if Moscow concluded the gaffe had been blown, the provocations might not take place at all.
Russia has employed deception around violent events before, and it's often had a principally domestic audience in mind. The Post cites a good recent example: "The disinformation is often designed to muddy the waters for Russia’s domestic audience rather than make a convincing case worldwide. After Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine by a Russian surface-to-air missile, for instance, Russian state news initially suggested the Ukrainian air force had been trying to shoot down Putin’s plane but accidentally hit the Boeing aircraft."
More recently, late in 2021, a website appeared with pictures that it represented as showing mass graves containing the victims of Ukrainian massacres of ethnic Russians. The site represented itself as the work of a human rights organization in the Donbas. That group was quickly determined to be a GRU front by Western analysts, but not before its claims were repeated and amplified by Russian media, prominently including RT and Tass.
Historical analogies in the Donbas of 2022: who's playing the role of Germany in 1938?
If you listen to Moscow, Kyiv is playing the role of Berlin. Its government amounts, Russia's line says, to a restored Nazi regime, and it's got ethnic Russians in its sights. To NATO, and especially to its more recently admitted members who were formerly part of either the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact, it seems that the Donbas in 2022 is playing the role the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia played in 1938. Germany extracted concessions from Britain and France on the grounds that Germany needed to come to the rescue of Germans resident in the northwestern part of Bohemia; the Sudetenländer were, Germany claimed, facing intolerable persecution at the hands of the Czechs. That Anglo-French policy was called "appeasement" at the time, and was presented as a wise compromise designed to avoid another general European war.
Since then "appeasement" has acquired uglier associations, and is generally remembered rightly or wrongly as having made a prime contribution to the outbreak of the Second World War. Memories of that experience, and of the years of Soviet domination that followed the war's end in 1945 are painfully vivid in Eastern Europe. Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks posted a long statement on the consequences of appeasement to his Ministry's website, and it's worth reading in full. We'll quote it at some length. It begins:
"The West shares the belief that the latest escalation by the Kremlin is a serious threat to Europe and must be confronted. We are faced with two choices on how to respond to Russia’s aggressive behavior and unprecedented ultimatum. We can choose the approach taken by Winston Churchill in response to Nazi Germany during the Second World War, or we can choose the approach of Neville Chamberlain. Considering our long experience in dealing with Russia, there is no doubt which choice Latvia supports. We are sure that the only way to discourage burglary is to install an intruder defense system instead of relying on mercy. The only way to deter the Kremlin’s current policy of coercion and ultimatums is to take initiative, to implement an enhanced NATO defense and deterrence posture now. In other words, we choose long term peace over short term appeasement, and following humiliation."
The statement (which is, significantly we think presented in English) outlines four principles for NATO's response to Russia as it threatens Ukraine:
"First, we must permanently strengthen the defense posture across EU and NATO’s eastern flank. Our defense must be iron clad with no gaps. Latvia and the Baltic states are ready to defend themselves and we will do it. But our aim is peace and deterrence. Therefore, NATO reinforcement is important right now and not when Russia invades Ukraine.
"Second, we must with great urgency support Ukraine’s defense capabilities. Latvia will supply Ukraine with Stinger missiles and individual equipment. We must remember that Ukraine is fighting for democratic values and is de facto defending all of Europe. I consider military support to Ukraine a moral obligation of Europeans.
"Third, the main objective in the dialog with Russia is confidence and security building measures based on verifiable transparency. We have observed for years that Russia’s strategy is based on breaking legal frameworks, deception and even lies. The current deployment in Belarus is just another example. And, although arms control is important tool in achieving stability, it only works if there is mutual interest and trust. We are not there yet.
"Fourth, we Europeans should invest more in our own defense to avoid finding ourselves with rather limited choices when next crisis comes around."
The statement concludes with another call to emulate Churchill and not Chamberlain:
"Latvia and the Baltic countries have their bitter history of 50 years of occupation and repressions. We still remember what it is like to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This time we will not repeat our mistake of 1940 and will not allow us to be placed behind the Kremlin’s Curtain without a fight. But we also see that this as the last chance for Western community of democratic countries to comprehend the strategic consequences of the current crises. If we will not show our will and determination the consequences of the crises will be more serious than can be imagined. Therefore, we need to follow in the footprints of Winston Churchill and seek strategic peace instead of falling for Nevil Chamberlain’s appeasement. Those who do not learn from mistakes of others have to pay for their own mistakes. Today the consequence of this mistake will be Europe’s security crushed into pieces. We would like to believe that nobody among us is willing to pay such a price."
One more historical analogy is worth mentioning. Germany's invasion of Poland was preceded by a faked attack on a German radio station at Gleiwitz. Convicts were dressed in Polish army uniforms and shot by the SS at the radio station. The pictures of the dead were presented as evidence that Poland was about to attack Germany. That story was as implausible as Moscow's claim that Ukraine presents a military threat to Russia. Today we wouldn't be given still pictures, but rather artfully prepared deep fake videos.
Is there an effective popular peace movement in Russia?
It's difficult to tell. Social control in Russia doesn't approach Stalinist levels, but it's far tighter than most anything in most Westerners' experience. We've seen that this past Sunday some two-thousand members of the Congress of Russian Intellectuals signed an open letter opposing military action against Ukraine and urging peace. Yesterday Al Jazeera described the motives of some of the more prominent signatories, and noted other acts of protest in Russia over Moscow's policy toward Ukraine. How influential these are is unclear, but it seems a short answer would be, "not very." Recent polling indicates that while most Russians fear war (memories of the Second World War remain a vivid, central part of Russia's cultural heritage), most of them don't blame Russia for the current crisis. "According to the independent Russian pollster Levada, half of Russians believe the fault lies with NATO and the United States for the current crisis, 16 percent blame Ukraine, and only 7 percent believe separatist rebels or Russia are responsible."