Change Putin’s calculations: Put force back on the table, and begin active cyber-warfare measures to defend Ukraine



1) Helene Cooper, “U.S. Considers Backing an Insurgency if Russia Invades Ukraine; Conversations about how far the United States would go to subvert Russia in the event of an invasion have revived the specter of a new Cold War,” New ayork Times, January 14, 2022 (Updated 2:45 p.m. ET);

2) David E. Sanger, “U.S. Charges Russia Sent Saboteurs Into Ukraine to Create Pretext for Invasion; The intelligence said the operatives were “trained in urban warfare and in using explosives,” and could try to stage an incident,” New York Times, January 14, 2022 (Updated 4:25 p.m. ET):

3) “The fatal flaws in U.S. thinking about responses to Russian aggression against Ukraine–UPDATED January 14, 2022,” The Trenchant Observer, January 10, 2022;

4) “OSCE President after Thursday meeting: ‘The risk of war in the region is now greater than at any other moment in the last 30 years,'” The Trenchant Observer, January 13, 2022;

5) FROM 2014: “Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev claims direct threat to Russian citizens, laying basis for Russian military intervention in Ukraine,” The Trenchant Observer, February 24, 2014.

6) Danielle Sheridan, “Drop your Tsarist ambition to invade Ukraine or face sanctions, Ben Wallace warns Vladimir Putin; Defence Secretary threatens to impose ‘severe’ economic penalties if Russian president orders troops to attack neighbouring country, The Telegraph, January 14, 2022 (9:00pm).

Vladimir Putin has reminded NATO members and others like Sweden and Finland of the importance of the U.N. Charter prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers, in maintaining international peace and security, which means any security, including European security;

Russia’s invasions of the Crimea and the Donbas in 2014

Putin seems to be operating on information from 2014. He would be well-advised to update his files.

The West was flummoxed when he invaded the Crimea, at first with “little green men” who Russia swore had no connection to the Russian Federation, followed by regular troops, acting initially in purported response to calls for intervention by pro-Russian Crimean “separatists”. The U.S. and the EU adopted only slap-on-the-wrist sanctions in response.

Purin interpreted this meek response as a green light, and proceeded to invade the Eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (a region known as the “Donbas”) through initially disguised means of “hybrid warfare”.

He drew international media attention away from what was actually happening on the ground in the Donbas, and the actual facts regarding pro-Russian “separatists” calling for intervention to protect them and their rights. He achieved this diversion by putting on a dramatic show of convoys of white-painted trucks purportedly bearing “humanitarian assistance” for the residents of the Donbas. The trucks crossed into Ukraine without any authorization from the International Red Cross, or the permission of Ukrainian authorities for the trucks to enter the country.

The “white trucks” convoy demonstrated how adept Putin was at desensitizing Western officials and preventing strong reactions to what were blatant violations of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and international law.

Seeing the lack of response to his “white truck” convoys, Putin sent regular army units into he Donbas, in August 2014, in great numbers.

Sanctions and the Minsk Accords

The Europeans and the U.S. finally reacted by adopting serious, sectorial sanctions on September 5, 2014.

Putin had tried to avoid these sanctions, or at least their severity, by entering into what came to be called the Minsk process to establish a ceasefire and peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Donbas. These negotiations led to the adoption of the Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014, and then after its collapse the Minsk II Protocol on February 12, 2015. The process was led by Germany and France with the participation of Russia and Ukraine, within the framework of the OSCE, in what became known as the “Normandy format”.

EU and NATO solidarity

Unity among NATO members in 2014 was not a given. Even after the adoption of the sanctions against Russia on September 5, 2014, French President Nicholas Sakozy continued with his contractual commitment to deliver two Mistral-class French-built amphibious, helicopter- carrying attack warships to Russia.

The situation is radically different today.

Solidarity among EU and NATO members is quite strong. Putin’s interlocutor, CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, with whom he could converse in fluent Russian, has left the scene, and a new coalition of the SPD, the Green Party, and the FDP has replaced the CDU. The new German government is  led by Olaf Scholz of the SPD, with the co-leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, having assumed the position of foreign minister.

Baerbock appears to be much less “understanding” of Putin than was Merkel, and has in the past been a strong opponent of the Nordstream II gas pipeline project.

Moreover, NATO and the EU have a much clearer understanding of Putin’s strategy and tactics, and are much better prepared to respond to them in a united fashion than they were in 2014.

Joe Biden, for all his disastrous decisions in the foreign policy arena, particularly in Afghanistan but also in failing to respond in any way to Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan, has fielded an appropriate initiative in consulting with EU and NATO allies on how to respond to Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine.

In a word, NATO and the EU are not confused about what Putin is up to, as they were in 2014, or about the firm  steps they will take, at a minimum, to sanction him and Russia if the latter invades Ukraine.

It appears that Russia is moving toward launching an invasion of Ukraine. In addition to moving troops and equipment near the Ukrainian border, Russia appears to have begun cyber attacks on key Ukrainian computer networks and infrastructure. These cyber attacks, together with massive propaganda to support an invasion, appear to be straight out of the Russian playbook for launching an invasion.

What can be done now to change Putin’s calculations, or to respond to an invasion?

The U.S. and NATO countries should begin active cyber-warfare counter-measures to help defend Ukraine from ongoing Russian attacks on its computer networks and infrastructure. In this realm, the  U.S. may have the most advanced capabilities, and should begin using them now. Above all, U.S. decision makers should avoid undue hesitance by  demanding absolute proof of attribution of the attacks. In a wartime setting, officials and nations may need to act in the absence of perfect information.

If Russia is not behind the attacks, who do U.S. analysts and policymakers think is? Nigeria? Lesotho? Fiji? It is immaterial whether the operators are Russian officials or others acting under their control.

Finally, in order to influence Putin’s calculations at this late stage in the game, NATO members should leave open the possibility of coming to Ukraine’s defense through the use of military force and active cyber-warfare measures, in exercise of the right of collective self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, if Russia invades Ukraine and a major war develops.

The Trenchant Observer