Choose your metaphors and historical analogies with care: 1939? Tak, sure, maybe. Shock and awe? Nyet, nope, not yet, anyway.
Diplomacy continues (as does preparation for hybrid war).
Russia stages more general purpose forces near Ukraine (notably moving amphibious assault ships from the Mediterranean through the Dardanelles and toward Ukraine's Black Sea coast) while diplomatic efforts to reduce tension continue. Belarus continues to emerge as an important staging point for Russian conventional forces. No fresh, large-scale cyber activity, however, is being reported.
The state of diplomacy with respect to Russia and Ukraine.
The New York Times reviews the current state of multilateral negotiations and sees, if not stalemate, at least stasis. Its analysis foresees "a drawn-out and dangerous diplomatic slog toward a difficult settlement."
The Guardian reports that French President Macron said Russia's President Putin gave him a personal assurance that Russia wouldn't be the one to escalate the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. President Macron communicated that assurance to his Ukrainian counterpart, President Zelensky, during talks yesterday in Kyiv. Zelensky, who has taken pains to downplay the imminence of Russia invasion while preparing for the worst, was politely skeptical, saying “I do not really trust words. I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps."
Macron's view is that the Minsk Accords represent the best route out of the conflict, and Russia has indeed stressed that it wants continued Ukrainian acquiescence to that agreement. But the Russian and Ukrainian sides differ on exactly what those Accords mean. Russia insists that they require Kyiv to recognize the separatists in the Donbas, which Ukraine isn't prepared to do. President Putin's remark about the Accords, directed toward Zelensky, is oddly menacing, at least in translation: “Like it or not, you’ll have to tolerate it, my beauty.”
Official Russian comment on French claims that Moscow had agreed not to undertake any new "military initiatives" was also dismissive. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, said, “This is wrong in its essence. Moscow and Paris couldn’t do any deals. It’s simply impossible. France is a leading country in the EU, France is a member of Nato, but Paris is not the leader there. In this bloc, a very different country is in charge. So what deals can we talk about?”
Poland establishes a Cyber Defense Force.
The AP reports that Poland has appointed Brigadier General Karol Molenda to lead the country's new Cyber Defense Force. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak framed the new command as a defensive measure taken in recognition of, especially, cyber threats from Russia. “We are perfectly aware that in the 21st century cyberattacks have become one of the tools of aggressive politics, also used by our neighbour. For that reason these capabilities are of fundamental, key nature to Poland’s Armed Forces.”
Report: European Central Bank prepares banks for Russian cyberattacks.
Reuters cites unnamed sources who say that the European Central Bank (ECB) has raised its level of alert for cyberattack, and has shifted its focus from the common financially motivated cybercrime to the prospect of state-directed attacks originating from Russia. The ECB is said to have queried banks about their readiness to withstand such attacks, and that the individual banks are holding drills to increase their own state of readiness. The measures seem driven more by prudential considerations concerning the continuing Russian threat to Ukraine and by Russia's record of offensive action in cyberspace than they are by specific intelligence of any particular imminent threat.
Preparing for cyberattacks.
The US has been unusually forthcoming with intelligence it's collected on Russia cyber capabilities and operations. The revelations are generally regarded as having undeniable utility as influence operations, but POLITICO says that some in the US Intelligence Community think that too much may have been shared. There's also some concern that the releases may be unduly alarmist, especially when taken collectively, and without other context. POLITICO quotes a former CIA officer: “I am concerned about the long-term credibility of our intelligence with all of these select declassifications. If it turns out to be wrong, or partially wrong, it undermines how much our partners trust the info we give them, or, frankly, how much the public trusts it.”
Other observers think that simple deterrence is likely to restrain Russia from escalating its hybrid war in cyberspace. An op-ed in the Telegraph, for example, argues that Russia understands British (and US) offensive cyber capabilities, and that its calculus will tell them that an expanded cyber war is one Moscow is unlikely to win.
Task and Purpose reviews potential cyber threats from Russia and concludes that none of them amount to "shock and awe." It reviews five major cyber campaigns Russia has mounted against Ukraine (widely regarded as a testing ground as well as a theater of operations) since 2014—Election Interference (2014), Power Grid Sabotage (2015), Power Grid Sabotage (2016), NotPetya Economic Disruption (2017), and BadRabbit Economic Disruption (2017)—and rates the strategic effects of all but NotPetya as "negligible." (NotPetya's effect it rates as "unknown.") These are, of course, all actual attacks. There are other potential threats, especially large-scale and destructive attacks against power grids, whose consequences could be far more devastating than these. But the essay's account of the use of cyberattack as tactical adjuncts to military operations is interesting.
NATO members from the Near Abroad look at the calendar and see 1939.
After Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks posted a long statement presenting Russian pressure on Ukraine as analogous to German pressure on its neighbors in 1939, and strongly urging against appeasement, Lithuania has drawn a similar comparison. The Guardian quotes Lithuania's Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė as saying, “This is a 1938 moment for our generation. Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim.” She's particularly concerned about the role Belarus has assumed in the dispute.
“After the elections and demonstrations in August 2020 in Belarus, Lukashenko is now out of options about what he can do,” she said. “Before he was flirting with the EU, releasing some prisoners for money. He played this dual strategy, but he cannot do that any more. No one regards him as legitimate in Belarus. He needs money and Russia’s help to survive. He is dependent on them.
“This current buildup of Russian forces in Belarus is unscheduled. There was a Russian military exercise in 2021. If these military exercises mean weaponry and troops will remain on Belarus soil indefinitely, that changes the calculations substantially.
“It will mean an increase in Nato presence, and that would not be a provocation, as Moscow claims, but a reaction to what has changed on Nato borders. This is now an area full of weaponry. Russian troops that are in the south of his country can be moved very quickly. There are sorts of hybrid attacks under way. Pipelines falling apart. This is how unfortunately these regimes operate. There are no red lines they will not cross.”