False flags and cyber prep.
N2K logoFeb 14, 2022

Diplomacy continues, but tensions rise around Ukraine as the US warns a Russian invasion might be imminent, and Russia calls Western "hysteria" a dangerous provocation likely to lead to war.

False flags and cyber prep.

Newsweek reads the Russo-American conversation Saturday as marking a shift toward NATO moving in the direction of a war footing, even as both sides continue to express a commitment to further negotiation.

No results from Putin-Biden conversations.

Presidents Biden and Putin spoke Saturday in negotiations aimed at reducing tensions over Ukraine, but without result, the Washington Post wrote, and US sources subsequently said the risk of a Russian invasion remained high. The White House published a brief "readout" of their conversation:

"President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Vladimir Putin of Russia about Russia’s escalating military buildup on the borders of Ukraine. President Biden was clear that, if Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States together with our Allies and partners will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia. President Biden reiterated that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing. President Biden was clear with President Putin that while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our Allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios."

A White House representative, speaking on background, summarized the outcome of the conversation:

"Over time, if Russia invades, this list will also include a severe economic cost that I’ve already described and irrevocable reputational damage caused by taking innocent lives for a bloody war choice. The two presidents agreed that our teams will stay engaged in the days ahead. Russia may decide to proceed with military action anyway. Indeed, that is a distinct possibility."

The US says it hasn't abandoned diplomacy, but that it's also working on deterrence and preparing to impose costs should deterrence fail. The Russian ambassador to the United States commented on American war warnings. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov told Newsweek:

"[National Security Advisor] Jake Sullivan's remarks sound alarmistic. We see such statements only as a desire of the U.S. administration to maximize the magnitude of the propaganda campaign against our country and foster the impression among the public that 'aggression' is imminent. Claims by politicians of Russia's plans to 'attack' Ukraine during or after the Olympics are not substantiated by any evidence. Washington continues just to splurge by invoking some kind of intelligence and not providing its details."

Biden spoke with President Zelenskyy, his Ukrainian counterpart, on Sunday. The White House "readout" of the conversation is also short enough to quote in full:

"President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke today with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine. President Biden reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Biden made clear that the United States would respond swiftly and decisively, together with its Allies and partners, to any further Russian aggression against Ukraine. The two leaders agreed on the importance of continuing to pursue diplomacy and deterrence in response to Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders."

Other high-level diplomatic efforts continue. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is Kyiv today; he'll arrive in Moscow tomorrow, Reuters reports. Reuters also reports that Ukraine's ambassador to the United Kingdom has signaled that, given Russian pressure, Ukraine was willing to be "flexible," and might concede a willingness to postpone application for NATO membership. Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko said Ukraine might be "flexible" over plans to join NATO. "We might - especially being threatened like that, blackmailed by that, and pushed to it."

Shortly before his conversation with the US President, President Putin spoke with French President Macron. The Russian President used the occasion to denounce reports that Russia was preparing an invasion as "provocative speculation," the Moscow Times reports, and to warn that such speculation could itself provoke war. That is, the real danger is Western transparency as opposed to 130,000 troops poised in assembly areas near Russia's and Belarus's borders with Ukraine.

Is a Russian offensive imminent, unlikely, or already in progress?

US officials have declined to confirm, on the record, reports that intelligence indicates a Russian invasion of Ukraine might occur Wednesday, but they are on the record as saying the risk of an expanded war in Ukraine is high.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Russian influence operations, ranging from disinformation to bomb threats, have continued unabated, and that many Ukrainians feel themselves already fully on the receiving end of a hybrid war. The Ukrainian armed forces have also warned that Russia deployments amount to encirclement, the Telegraph reports. An analysis in the New Atlanticist looks at Russian exercises in Belarus and assesses that an invasion of Ukraine would concentrate on "air superiority, close air support, long-range fires, intelligence collection, and combat sustainment."

Preparing for the risk of war.

Citing concerns about security, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has told its members that a number of countries were withdrawing their staff from the OSCE cease-fire monitoring mission in Ukraine. The OSCE has for some time been a burr under the Kremlin's saddle, and the Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to denounce the announcement as a ploy intended to inflame tension in the region. The Washington Post quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova that various states were seeking to “manipulate” the monitoring mission through “filthy political games.”

Under the terms of OSCE's Vienna Document (both Russia and Belarus are signatories to the confidence-building agreement) Ukraine and the Baltic States on Friday asked Russia for an explanation of its troop movements in the region. An answer was due yesterday, and Ukraine has now requested direct talks with Russia on the crisis.

Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands have all asked their citizens to leave Ukraine, apparently as a reaction to the US warning that a Russian invasion might come as early as this week. US diplomats remaining in the country are said to be working from the western city of Lviv.

Some international airlines have suspended flights to Ukraine, and Kyiv has, according to the Guardian, allocated $592 million to pay for measures to secure Ukrainian airspace in the hope of encouraging the resumption of flights.

False flag operations.

The US grew newly concerned about a Russian false-flag provocation designed to provide Moscow with a casus belli against Ukraine, bogus, but minimally plausible. The Washington Post says that the US Intelligence Community's warning of that possibility prompted the US to withdraw diplomatic personnel and urge Americans to leave Ukraine. The provocation is believed to be different from the one the US warned against last week. Those earlier reports suggested that Russia was preparing a staged atrocity film showing fictitious Ukrainian outrages against ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country. The GRU was identified as the operator of a website, donbasstragedy[dot]info, that represented itself as a portal run by human rights advocates working in eastern Ukraine. The portal retailed atrocity stories in a disinformation campaign directed against Ukraine.

The British government has also warned of an imminent false flag operation. The Telegraph quotes Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who drew a parallel with the run-up to the ill-starred Munich agreement of 1938, He sees Russian diplomacy as moving some Westerners in the direction of appeasement: "there's “a whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West."

Both the British and US Governments hope that disclosure of intelligence with an unusual degree of public transparency ("most aggressive since the 'Cuban Missile Crisis'," the Telegraph writes) will serve to dissuade Russia from renewing an invasion of Ukraine. The warnings have been explicit: the US CIA is said to have assessed that Russian forces are prepared to move into Ukraine this Wednesday.

"Russia is finding itself on defense in the information space, given our own transparency about its intention," a White House official said on background Saturday.

Governments warn of the threat of Russian cyber operations.

"Shields Up," or so the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) put it in an advisory published Friday evening. Despite the Trekkie-themed framing of the alert, it's a serious advisory. CISA cites a Russian threat, and says the warning represents a shift toward a proactive defensive policy. The agency explains the warning's motivation as follows:

"Notably, the Russian government has used cyber as a key component of their force projection over the last decade, including previously in Ukraine in the 2015 timeframe. The Russian government understands that disabling or destroying critical infrastructure—including power and communications—can augment pressure on a country’s government, military and population and accelerate their acceding to Russian objectives.

"While there are not currently any specific credible threats to the U.S. homeland, we are mindful of the potential for the Russian government to consider escalating its destabilizing actions in ways that may impact others outside of Ukraine. 

"Based on this situation, CISA has been working closely with our critical infrastructure partners over the past several months to ensure awareness of potential threats—part of a paradigm shift from being reactive to being proactive."

The advisory goes on to offer familiar advice that any organization might apply to "reduce the likelihood of a damaging cyber intrusion," "take steps to quickly detect a potential intrusion," "ensure that the organization is prepared to respond if an intrusion occurs, and "maximize the organization's resilience to a destructive cyber incident." CISA closes by urging organizations to study the detailed prescriptions specific to Russian cyber operations that the agency issued last month, Alert (AA22-011A) Understanding and Mitigating Russian State-Sponsored Cyber Threats to U.S. Critical Infrastructure.

Also on Friday, CNN reports, US intelligence agencies met to discuss preparations for a potential Russian cyberattack. For all the well-founded concern about the cyber phases of a hybrid war, the AP notes that international law is still grappling with norms of conflict that might define permissible and impermissible conduct in cyberspace. This is the case even for otherwise relatively well-defined norms of the sort that inform NATO's Article 5.

Estonian authorities say their country has been on the receiving end of Russian cyberattacks, but only at roughly the normal rate: the crisis over Ukraine seems not to have produced an increase in the Russian cyber optempo against Estonia.

There are at least three risks Russian hybrid war against Ukraine poses. The most obvious is the threat of direct cyberattack; the second is the risk of collateral damage (as happened during the NotPetya attacks). The third, pointed out by Coalfire to ComputerWeekly, is that criminals will learn from Russian cyberattacks, even if those should remain well contained and discriminating, and will adapt the tools and techniques to their own operations.