Putin Moves on Ukraine. How Will the World Respond?

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. [...] Read more

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OPINION — Is this the future of major power conflicts?

Remember President Joe Biden’s January 19, 2022, press conference response to a question about sanctions when he said, “I think what you’re going to see is that Russia will be held accountable if it invades.  And it depends on what it does.  It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.” 

Minutes later, when asked again about responding to such a “small incursion” by Russia, Biden showed there had been consideration of such a Putin move. He answered, “There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens.”

And Biden back then made it clear, “It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page.  And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences.”

Was that an initial slip of Biden’s tongue mentioning, “a minor incursion,” as some people thought at the time, or had there been earlier discussions based on intelligence that predicted just what’s going on right now?

“We have anticipated a move like this from Russia and are ready to respond immediately,” was the way White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki began her statement yesterday announcing an Executive Order barring new U.S. investment in the so-called DNR and LNR regions of Ukraine. She also added, “To be clear: these measures are separate from, and would be in addition to, the swift and severe economic measures we have been preparing in coordination with Allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.”

Perhaps I am hoping for too much. Putin’s speech to his nation showed his real concerns are not just his Czarist Age view of Ukraine, but the U.S. and NATO.

As has been pointed out by several experts, the separatist enclaves claim all of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions while they control only about one-third of them. Does Putin’s recognition cover their current de facto borders, or will Russia seek to expand them by force? He doesn’t need the firepower he has amassed just to protect the self-proclaimed breakaway republics.

Today, with Russian troops moving forward into the breakaway region as “peacekeepers,” the Putin invasion threat will heat up even more as his forces reach the de facto border where Ukraine forces are within firing range.

Meanwhile, the information war involving Russia, the U.S., NATO, and the E.U. over Ukraine continues, with the Biden administration’s tactic of “deterrence-by-disclosure,” trying at the last minute to hold off the expected full-scale, Russian kinetic invasion of Ukraine.

Release of normally classified U.S. intelligence has been one innovative tactic of the Biden Administration. In early December, an unclassified intelligence report was provided to the media that detailed plans by Russia to deploy up to 175,000 troops near the Ukraine border along with heavy armor, artillery and other equipment. A steady stream of commercial satellite photos showed the Russian buildup as it was taking place.

In January, came the release of U.S. intelligence outlining Russian plans for false flag operations and fake videos, an operation to lay the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine, and even an alleged assassination and arrest list of Ukrainian citizens.

When President Biden last Friday, was asked why he was at that moment, convinced Putin had made a decision to invade Ukraine, Biden responded, “We have a significant intelligence capability.” By Sunday, the possibility of a future summit meeting between Biden and Putin was negotiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, but will it ever happen?

Now is the time to look at two other key aspects of Biden’s deterrence–by-disclosure tactic: openly preparing cyber defenses as well as offensive actions; and arranging with partners for application of economic sanctions on Russia if the invasion takes place.

On Friday, during an Aspen Institute webinar entitled “Russian Aggression Toward Ukraine: Cyber Threats,” Jen Easterly, Department of Homeland Security’s Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said the government wants to move from “being reactive to being pro-active.”

She described how CISA has put out information about the Russian cyber threat including their specific tactics, techniques and procedures. In addition, she described the recent establishment of a long-sought government/private industry partnership called the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC).

Government partners include; Department of Defense, U.S. Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; while some 20 private partners include Amazon Web Services, AT&T, CrowdStrike, FireEye Mandiant, Google Cloud, Lumen, Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, and Verizon.

“These companies have visibility into networks and can help us understand the threat landscape in ways we don’t have,” Easterly said. “We don’t have that visibility.” She went on, “The parties in JCDC come together with the government to help us see the dots, connect the dots, and they collectively drive down risk to the nation at scale.”

Easterly also said that CISA is “also working to prepare for and mitigate foreign influence operations,” adding, “We know that given rising tensions, foreign actions may use influence operations to spread misfit and mal-information to bias the [Biden administration’s] policy and undermine the security of the U.S.”


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Also on Friday, Anne Neuberger, Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology described to reporters, work done since November to prepare for potential Russian cyber attacks against U.S. infrastructure.

She described as critical infrastructure “power, communications and water [that] have been a clear focus because of the fact that they touch Americans lives and because of the need to address the fact that these sectors digitized quickly, and we need to catch up from a security and resilience [perspective], which we have made significant progress on in this first year.”

As one example, Neuberger said, “The Department of Energy shared [with American utilities] technical indicators of techniques used by Russian cyber actors to conduct cyber attacks against Ukrainian electricity systems during prior crises in Ukraine.”

Neuberger added that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has issued directives that require oil and gas pipelines to report cyber incidents, conduct vulnerability assessments, and exercise their incident response plans.  She added that TSA is now working to expand that to both the aviation and railroad sectors. 

Neuberger also pointed out that the U.S. has been working with allies and partners when it comes to defending against and disrupting malicious cyber activity.

In particular, she said, “We continue to support Ukraine as it works to shore up its cyber defenses.”

“Earlier this week,” Neuberger said, “we saw a kind of cyber attack known as a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack that overloaded online services at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and state-owned banks.  There were also text messages sent to bank customers telling them that ATM services were unavailable.”

Because Russia counts on a long process of attribution so it can continue its cyber attacks on Ukraine targets, which also allow it to pre-position electronic devices it plans to use in its potential invasion, the U.S. moved quickly to attribute the attack to the Russians.

Neuberger said, “We have technical information that links Russian — the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, as known GRU infrastructure was seen transmitting high volumes of communications to Ukraine-based IP addresses and domains. We’ve shared the underlying intelligence with Ukraine and with our European partners.”

She summed up saying, “This recent spate of cyber attacks in Ukraine are consistent with what a Russian effort could look like in laying the groundwork for more disruptive cyber attacks accompanying a potential further invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”

Promoting the Biden Administration’s deterrence-by-disclosure concept, Neuberger said, “The global community must be prepared to shine a light on malicious cyber activity and hold actors accountable for any and all disruptive or destructive cyber activity.”


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Should Russia invade Ukraine, the proposed economic sanctions and export controls were described to reporters last Friday at the White House by Daleep Singh, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics.

“Financial sanctions deny foreign capital to Russia, and export controls deny critical technological inputs that Russia needs to diversify its economy and to deliver on Putin’s strategic ambitions in aerospace, defense, and high-tech,” Singh said.

He said, “They’ve been calibrated to maximize alignment with our allies and partners.  They’re flexible to allow for further escalation or de-escalation, depending on how Putin responds.  And they’re responsible to avoid targeting the Russian people and to limit unwanted spillovers to the U.S. and global economy.”

Application of these sanctions would cause Putin’s Russia to face “the prospect of intense capital outflows, mounting pressure on its currency, surging inflation, higher borrowing costs, economic contraction, and the erosion of its productive capacity,” said Singh. As a result, Russia “would become a pariah to the international community, it would become isolated from global financial markets, and it would be deprived of the most sophisticated technological inputs,” he added.

Sing also took on the question of what would happen if Russia responded to sanctions by weaponizing its energy supplies and cutting deliveries to European and other customers.

“We’re prepared for anything,” Singh said. “We’ve been taking steps…to coordinate with major energy consumers, major energy producers to ensure that we have steady energy supplies, and we have stable energy markets. On natural gas, we’ve been working with Europe in lockstep to surge natural gas to Europe from North Africa, from the Middle East, from other parts of Europe, from the U.S., and from Asia.  And we’ve succeeded in largely compensating for any shortfall that could unfold if gas that flows to Ukraine is cut.”

Singh did say that one major economic sanction is “not going to be…in the initial rollout package. That is eliminating Russia from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), the global network used by almost all financial institutions worldwide to wire sums of money to each other, and a cornerstone of the international payments system.

Russia is economically vulnerable.

Right now, it has an inflation rate of 8.7 percent.  Singh said, “The Central Bank of Russia has raised interest rates eight times over the past year to 9.5 percent.  The ruble is the worst performer among any emerging market currency.  That’s before — that’s before any sanctions have been imposed.”

As for China helping to bail out Russia economically, Singh said, “I don’t think there is any question that China could not be a substitute for all the West provides.” And remember, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Munich Security Conference last Saturday that, “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded,” he said. “Ukraine is no exception.”

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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