If we learned anything from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine in 2014, it is that he is a tricky old KBG spymaster, who places a premium on feints and deceit–and deniability.
Beginning in late February, 2014, Russia was not invading the Crimea–Putin and Lavrov’s denials sounded just like they do now, but mysteriously “little green men” wearing no insignia began popping up all over the place and taking control of key facilities, and local government bodies.
While Russian irregulars and other forces began moving into Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (together, the “Donbas”) in the Eastern Ukraine as early as Aptil, large-scale troop movements did not take place until August, as Putin was distracting the world’s attention with long convoys of trucks painted whie. The trucks were on a purported “humanitarian mission” to provide “aid” to the region, which with Moscow’s help had come under the control of so-called “separatists”.
Deceit and distraction, and delight at fooling the West, were at the heart of Putin’s strategy in 2014, and they may be now.
Another key dimension of Putin’s strategy and tactics is desensitization. By playing with the West, e.g., “Are the white trucks in the “humanitarian aid” convoy carrying military supplies or food and water?”, or “Are they going to cross the Ukrainian border without inspection or authorization?”, for example, Putin desensitized his opponents to his norm violations.
Well, they crossed the border. Later, the realization that regular Russian forces crossed the border doesn’t seem like such a big deal. His earlier desensitization tactics seem to drain the emption from the reactions to later grave violations of international law.
He has played with the West to such an extent in the present crisis, threatening a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, that this desensitization tactic may lead to a milder reaction if e.g., he only seizes a strip of land linking the Donbas to the Crimea.
It is somewhat striking how Putin has made a very obvious display of a massive troop build-up along and near the Ukrainian border. This he also did in 2014 and 2015, creating tensions that were only eased by the Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014 and the Minsk II agreement on February 12, 2015.
We should all bear in mind that Putin is a judo master who is highly skilled at throwing his opponent off balance, and grabbing a lunging opponent and throwing him across the mat.
Recent cyber attacks on oil shipping terminals and facilities in Northwest Europe could well foreshadow a move in the kind of hybrid warfare Putin could use in the present confrontation between Russia, on the one hand, and NATO, Ukraine, and other democracies, on the other.
1) Charles Kennedy, “Major Northwest Europe Oil Terminals Disrupted By Cyberattack,” Oil Price, February 3, 2022 (11:00 AM CST).
“Operations at the oil terminals of some of northwest Europe’s biggest ports have been disrupted by a large-scale cyberattack, brokers and authorities told AFP on Thursday.
Antwerp in Belgium—Europe’s second-largest port after Rotterdam—and the major German port Hamburg were among those targeted in the cyberattack.
“Their software is being hijacked and they can’t process barges. Basically, the operational system is down,” Vreeman added.
With the systems down, the oil terminals are unable to process tankers and barges unloading oil and oil products.
Germany’s Hamburg and at least six other oil terminals in the Netherlands and Belgium seem to be affected by the cyberattack, Euronews and AFP report.
2) An op-ed in the New York Times, by an expert in Vienna, points to the possibility that Putin may have something much bigger in mind than an attack on Ukraine with conventional forces.
“Ivan Krastev, “Europe Thinks Putin Is Planning Something Even Worse Than War,” New York Times, February 3, 2022.
Mr. Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on international politics.
We may soon be looking at a conflict bween Russia and NATO which involves a significant cyber component for the first time.
If this occurs, a key question will be how nimble the U.S. and its allies will be in responding to attacks of probable but less than certain origin.
The Trenchant Observer