Russia and Ukraine: avoiding war

As 2021 draws to a close, there are increasing fears around the world that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine in an effort to prevent its former ally from moving further towards the West and possibly even joining the NATO military alliance. The tensions between these two former Soviet states are now at a critical point, with the potential to evolve into further, more widespread conflict between Russia and the West.

As a sovereign, independent nation, Ukraine of course has every right to determine its own security partnerships and defend its territory. Russia admitted as much when it signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act and pledged to uphold “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security”. [1]

However, this Act was concluded in 1997 when Russia was in a dire state politically, militarily and economically. Times have changed. Putin assumed power in 2000 and set about reversing the fall of Russia’s influence in the world, which he saw as a tragedy.

His stance was already clearly articulated in his address to the nation as long ago as 2005 when he said: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” [2]

In 2004 he was unable to prevent the ex-Soviet Baltic Republics from joining both NATO and the EU. These nations were ‘allowed’ to go west because Russia was a lot weaker in both financial and military terms in the early 2000s; it had very serious internal issues to deal with. But it might also be noted that the ties of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to Russia both before and during the Soviet years were always much weaker: the crucial difference here is that there are very close cultural, linguistic and historical bonds between Ukraine and Russia.

While the Baltic states may have been ‘lost’ in 2004, Putin has increasingly been able to take advantage of the fact that other global events have been occupying the attentions of western nations over the last two decades: conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, the 2007-2008 financial crash, the refugee crisis, environmental issues – not to mention China’s increasing economic development and military power. Even in 2008, the Russian president felt confident enough to invade Georgia (another ex-Soviet nation hoping for NATO membership) without fear of western reprisals; and in 2014, in a move roundly condemned in the West, he ordered his troops into Ukrainian territory and annexed the strategically important Crimean Peninsula, an undoubted and easy success. Having met with little opposition, he then moved on to eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region, an area occupied by Russian separatists. To date, this ongoing conflict has led to the loss of over 13,000 lives.

While NATO and Ukraine have worked together on enhancing cooperation since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, this joint activity has developed further since 2014, with the military alliance expanding its presence and activities in the country. Ukraine’s National Security Strategy, updated in 2017, actually requests NATO membership, and it is here that Putin, having built up his country’s military forces over the last 15 years, has drawn the line: he views the possible accession of Ukraine to NATO as a deliberate offensive threat against Russia’s status as the regional (and world) power. There are further tensions over the question of nuclear armaments: the Kremlin claims NATO plans to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the region, and has threatened to do the same.

In October 2021 Russia withdrew its mission from NATO in Brussels, also ordering the closure of the western alliance’s office in Moscow. The move was made after NATO accused 8 Russian officials in Brussels of spying for the Kremlin, allegations that were denied.

In the most recent developments, Putin has spoken with various world leaders and set out proposals for clear legal agreements preventing NATO from advancing further eastwards to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko commented that the proposals were an attempt to avoid military conflict, adding that Moscow was ready to hold talks with the US in an effort “to turn a military or a military-technical scenario of confrontation into a political process which will really strengthen military security”. [3]

150,000 Russian troops are now believed to be stationed close to the Russia-Ukraine border. When it comes to the question of military action, Putin will weigh up the costs and consequences of moving into Ukraine and may well conclude that the benefits of territorial expansion and control are worth the risks of antagonising western nations. He will surely be aware that NATO is extremely unlikely to respond to any military invasion by entering into armed conflict with Russia.

On the other hand, it would seem the Baltic Republics are getting a bit nervous and are possibly taking a far more aggressive stance than NATO currently is. [4] These nations are small; yet they also hold vast stocks of anti-tank missiles, artillery and anti-tank mines in their somewhat dated arsenals – more than enough to inflict serious harm on armoured and mechanised Russian forces. In addition, given that these Baltic troops are trained up to a NATO standard, their capabilities should not be underestimated should they go so far as to offer direct military assistance to Ukraine.

It seems more likely that the overall western response, initially at least, would be the tightening of existing sanctions on Russia. Further economic sanctions might encompass limiting access to global markets or freezing personal assets. Most importantly. they could also involve the cancellation of the NordStream 2 pipeline. Germany’s new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has already said that the pipeline will not be allowed to operate in the event of any new “escalation” in Ukraine, under an agreement between Berlin and Washington. [5] This would be a huge blow for Moscow. Russia has deeply entrenched economic problems, not least of which relate to a heavy over-reliance on energy exports: it needs those western markets.

From the point of view of western states, one issue of concern with the imposition of further sanctions is that this could result in pushing Russia further towards an alliance with China: the relationship between these two huge countries has historically wavered between warm and cool, but most recently it has focused on enhancing trading links, military cooperation and energy, with the latter aspect highlighted in a recent speech by Putin: “[The two states have] ensured stable operation of cross-border oil and gas pipelines, supplies of coal and electricity from Russia to China are steadily growing, large-scale joint projects in the gas chemical industry, as well as the production of liquefied natural gas in the Arctic are being successfully implemented. The construction of new units of Russian design has begun at two Chinese nuclear power plants.” [6]

Cyber warfare

What is certain is that the means of conducting warfare have changed considerably in the last few years. With satellite imagery available, it is relatively easy to observe troop numbers, military hardware and movements. And yet cyber attacks and misinformation – hybrid warfare – are likely to cause as much, if not more, damage.

Critical infrastructure and communications have always been major targets in warfare and there is no doubting the abilities of Russian threat actors to utilise cyber-attacks and inflict enormous and lasting damage on Ukraine. This was demonstrated in 2014 when the Russian state-sponsored threat group FancyBear launched a BlackMatter malware attack that took Kyiv’s electricity supplies down. 

FancyBear is known by a range of names, including APT28 and Sofacy. Various governments around the world have linked it to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. It poses a serious threat to political, military and security organisations, specifically looking to gather sensitive information of use to the Russian government. Among other things it has attacked organisations connected with NATO in the US and Europe.

CozyBear is another of Russia’s top cyber-espionage groups. Alongside FancyBear, it operates on behalf of the Russian intelligence services and infiltrated the networks of the US Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2016 during the presidential election. CozyBear’s other operations have included attacks against Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs in several EU and NATO member states.

Sandworm, another state-sponsored group, mainly targets Russia’s neighbours such as Ukraine, Estonia and Georgia. Malware attacks including NotPetya, Industroyer/Crash Override, BadRabbit, and Olympic Destroyer have been all attributed to this APT.

Other Russian groups have also focused closely on Ukraine. For example, CyberBerkut, which was particularly active in 2015, regularly compromised Ukrainian government sites, stealing and leaking data. While this group is also suspected to be linked to the Kremlin, it could also simply comprise pro-Russian hacktivists operating independently of the state. It does not appear to have been active in the last couple of years. Whether or not we will see a resurgence in attacks as tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to increase remains to be seen.

What does seem certain is that any military invasion into Ukraine would be accompanied by new offensive cyber operations, resulting in power blackouts, telecommunication outages and very possibly in the internet being taken offline – at least temporarily. It is not only Ukrainian critical infrastructure, communications or military targets that could come under attack from Russian threat actors. UK, EU and NATO organisations, both inside and outside Ukraine, are also at heightened risk.

Avoiding conflict

The current situation on the Russia-Ukraine border is clearly extremely dangerous. Even if it is unlikely that NATO would launch a military operation in response to an invasion, it is in the interests of both Russia and the West to use the NATO-Russia Council as a bridge towards a peaceful outcome to this crisis. Both sides need to save face: Russia, in particular, must be allowed to maintain its dignity. The fall of the Soviet Union was a severe shock in 1991 – and has not been forgotten.

The harsh reality is that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and is unlikely to be invited to join it any time soon. The alliance is under no obligation to defend it.  Dialogue is the only useful way forward.


Note:  Such is the concern over an imminent invasion that the US government has issued an alert advising America citizens to avoid all travel to Ukraine. The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) has not yet gone that far, and continues to caution that UK citizens should not go to Crimea or the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine.

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