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A hybrid war, an armed conflict, Russia’s aggressive policy towards internal socio-economic and political processes in Ukraine, attempts by Kremlin authorities to undermine support for our state at the international level – these are the main threats Ukraine is facing, according to an assessment by the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine.
Russian political regime’s strategic goals, despite all cosmetic statements by the authorities in Moscow, remain unchanged: bringing Ukraine back into the orbit of total influence, eliminating its national identity and independence, establishing external control over the ongoing processes in the country, and ultimately terminating Ukraine as a sovereign state.
Applying multi-vector hybrid tools and methods, Russian government is trying to achieve gains in the military, political, economic, information, and cybersecurity domains, contributing to the emergence of social conflicts based on the issues of language and religion.
Let’s dwell on each dimension of external threats.
Direct armed aggression against Ukraine has resulted in the temporary occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Among subjective factors were the weakness of the collective security systems and the favorable environment created in Ukraine for the operations of the “fifth column” of Russia supporters since the time Ukraine gained independence. Putin’s regime went for the destruction of the entire system of international security and international law, which had been in place for decades.
At the present stage of hybrid war, Russia has deployed a military grouping close to Ukraine borders, which includes two new armies and an army corps: the 20th Army has already been practically formed. It consists of a 24,000-strong pair of divisions. There’s also a 45,000-strong 8th Army, including the 1st and 2nd army corps deployed in the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas; and the 22nd Army Corps as part of Russian navy’s coastal forces consisting of 9,000 servicemen. These units will become fully operational in the near future.
The Kremlin views its own army as a tool to satisfy foreign policy ambitions, so the order to invade another state is only a matter of time and opportunity for Moscow.
Russia’s strategic nuclear forces has been armed with the latest weapons by 83%, aerospace forces – by 75%, airborne troops and naval forces – by over 63%, and land forces – by 50%. Availability of modern command and control facilities in the army stands at about 67%.
Moscow is creating long-term threats, including through developing a new military base near the Ukraine borders (in Rostov, 60 km away from the border) to permanently host units of the newly formed 150th motorized rifle division.
For the aims of political pressure on Ukraine and the West, the Kremlin intends to use the strategic military exercises Kavkaz-2020, where the scenario will be worked out of an offensive on the neighboring countries. The total number of troops involved in maneuvers scheduled for September this year will amount to at least 120,000, along with 3,000 armored combat vehicles, nearly 300 aircraft, 250 helicopters, 50 warships, and up to five submarines.
A possible scenario for the exercise is also the use of troops to resolve the issue of freshwater supply to the temporarily occupied Crimea. Prior to annexation, mainland Ukraine covered up to 85% of Crimea’s freshwater demand, so Russia’s armed forces could potentially, under a far-fetched pretext, deploy deep into the territory of Ukraine’s Kherson region in order to seize control over the dam of the North Crimean Canal.
In general, Russia has already turned the peninsula into a solid military base with infrastructure capable of storing nuclear weapons. Since 2016, Soviet infrastructure to store and operate nuclear weapons has been actively restored near Feodosia (the Feodosia-13 facility) and Balaklava (Sopka). The development transport infrastructure across the peninsula, as well as its integration into Russia’s unified transport grid, is also aimed to achieve military goals.
The adoption of a strategic decision to conduct in one form or another an offensive military operation against Ukraine (in particular in the area of the North Crimean Canal) is limited by the following factors:
- Falling prices on global oil and gas markets and decreasing revenues to the Russian budget;
- Moscow’s hopes of exploiting COVID-19 to reset relations with the West;
- The upcoming local elections in Ukraine amid Moscow’s hopes to strengthen the presence of pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian politics;
- The shifting of military resources toward the Turkish-Russian confrontation in Syria and Libya, as well as indirectly – within the framework of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict; and
- Russia’s local elections in September 2020, against the backdrop of Vladimir Putin’s popular rating dropping to 23% and a heightened protest potential.
The Kremlin is also being held back from ordering an offensive by the vicissitudes of the U.S. presidential campaign and the developments in the Donbas settlement talks in the Minsk and Normandy formats. At the same time, the United States shifting focus solely on own internal problems along with the turns in the negotiation process which are “not in line with the Russian scenario” significantly increase Moscow’s readiness to cross the “red line”, yet another time.
According to our estimates, the complex influence of these factors makes the scenario of military aggression against Ukraine in the fall of 2020 untimely for the Kremlin.
However, the lessons of history prove that Russia has never respected sovereign rights of other countries, and to them a state border is merely a line on the map. We can recall the year of 1918, when Russia with its one hand signed a preliminary peace treaty with the Ukrainian State, and with its other hand unleashed a “civil” war in Ukraine through Bolshevik detachments who Russia falsely claimed were beyond its control.
Our analysis shows that in the long term, Russian efforts in relation to Ukraine may transform into a large-scale military operation with the seizure of more Ukrainian territories. The following factors may contribute to this:
– The need to divert public attention from a number of internal problems (a plunging popular rating of the Russian government due to the deteriorating standards of life, a rapid economic decline, a weakening of the power vertical, and the opposition of regional elites);
– The need to address socio-economic problems in the temporarily occupied Crimea (water supply, failure of the tourist season); and
– Our leading international partners focusing exclusively on their internal problems (complex electoral processes, radical escalation of social, demographic and economic issues, refugees, or terrorism).
Another important dimension of Russia’s hybrid aggression against Ukraine involves political threats
We spot the attempts by Russian intelligence to carry out special operations to sow discord in the Ukrainian society and undermine foundations of the Ukrainian statehood. The bet is on systemically compromising the Ukrainian national idea and Western civilizational choice, demonstrating the “artificial nature of Ukrainian identity and state” (this discourse is being imposed on us both from the outside and from within). Moscow is actively manipulating the factor of the temporarily occupied territories, trying to portray as opposing parties the people of Ukraine and the “Kyiv authorities”, who allegedly betrayed their election promises toward the long-sought peace in Donbas.
Russia’s political goal is to destabilize social and political life to such an extent that the Kremlin could raise the issue of the need for providing “humanitarian aid” and then cut off oxygen to Ukraine with its “fraternal” embrace. In fact, this is about attempts to incite a “war of all against all” on the territory of our state and, against this background, carrying out an act of political sabotage and/or military operation to topple the Ukrainian government in the medium term.
The tools and methods applied by Russia widely vary, being of different shapes and beyond standard rules. Most often, Russian signature tools include provocations, the use of agents of influence, terror and political assassinations, which have taken place repeatedly both in Ukraine (assassinations of intelligence operative M. Shapoval and Russian politician D. Voronenkov in Kyiv, counterintelligence operative A. Kharaberyush in Mariupol, and others), and beyond. The latest examples were reported in Germany and Austria (the murders of Russian political fugitives Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin and Mamikhan Umarov – on the outskirts of Vienna), which once again makes the civilized world consider if Russia has turned into a state sponsor of terrorism.
The intelligence pays special attention to analyzing processes that are underway involving the self-styled authorities in the occupied Donbas. Recently, great shifts have taken place, primarily in the system of Russian supervision of certain territories. Following resignation of Vladislav Surkov, “Russian world” ideologist K. Zatulin got access to the closest entourage of the “USSR 2.0” project’s new handler Dmitry Kozak, whispering to his ear the idea to use the “Georgian or Moldovan model” as the core of the Russian strategy in the Ukrainian issue:
“… to keep conducting long negotiations, to create such a model, if possible, similar to the Minsk agreements, so that Donbas would become in fact independent, formally part of Ukraine, and could influence the Ukrainian government policies.
I hope that by this time the Americans will have grown weary of dealing with it, tired of throwing resources into this furnace, give up and overthrow some nationalist, and a more or less moderate regime will come. Wait for its evolution and build relations with it.”
The Russian Federation seizes every opportunity to wage its trade and economic war against Ukraine. This is about financial pressure, energy blackmail, transit and transport blockade, ousting Ukrainian producers from traditional sales markets, compromising our enterprises on international markets, and penetrating Ukrainian markets with investment through front firms. Our intelligence says the Russian Federation has already prepared a “register” of the so-called weak points of Ukraine, through which they intend to inflict major damage on the country’s economy. Domestic industry flagships, Ukrainian ports and transport infrastructure, enterprises of the fuel and energy complex and, of course, and defense enterprises occupy central spots in the lists.
The Russian Federation is trying to disrupt Ukraine’s dialogue with international financial institutions, conducting information campaigns in the EU, imposing on European audiences an opinion about the unreliability of our energy transmission system. Russian propaganda pays special attention to preventing the rise of foreign direct investment in our state, channeling to our partners distorted information about corruption risks and threats.
So, on the eve of the next round of talks between Ukraine and the IMF, Russia through its diplomatic and other channels conveys to the high-ranking representatives of foreign banking and business circles information on the alleged misuse by Ukraine of credit funds, as well as technical and humanitarian aid. During official contacts of Russia’s top leadership with Western leaders they also resort to spreading disinformation about the “economic decline” of our state “due to corruption”
Russia is actively promoting the idea of an energy embargo on Ukraine through launching bypass gas routes, seeing as a final stage the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline construction and termination of gas supply routes from Russia via Ukraine.
Russia’s attempts to dominate the Ukrainian information space we see among the prerequisites for building up aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin plans to intensify its information and psychological warfare. To this end, social networks, targeted information operations, fake news, and disinformation campaigns are being actively employed. It is worth recalling manipulation of versions regarding flight MH17 downed by Russian invaders, allegations about Ukraine ‘training terrorists for ISIS’, and false information spins about the alleged use of Ukrainian territory to set up secret biological weapons research labs. We should also keep in mind the norm laid down in the updated version of Russia’s constitution on the impossibility of alienating territories, as well as criminal liability for public calls to this end. From now on, anyone who says Crimea belongs to Ukraine could be prosecuted in Russia.
The main element of destabilizing the Ukrainian society from within is manipulation of protest sentiments, built including on patriotic sentiments (among the most actively used ones are language and religious issues, claims of external control over Ukraine, including due to dependence on the IMF and other Western institutions and governments). The Kremlin spares no financial or human resources in this regard. Provocations are being inspired and widely covered in media involving attacks by alleged “nationalists” on “opposition” pro-Russian forces. False information is being spread internationally about Ukrainian mercenaries in conflict regions, participation of Ukrainians in mass unrest on foreign soil. The latest example of such a special information operation was related to protests in Serbia. The Kremlin has spread fake news about the involvement of “mercenaries from Ukraine” in protests in Belgrade sparked over people’s discontent with new COVID-19 curfew rules.
The activities of pro-Russian TV channels in Ukraine also require comprehensive assessment and response on the part of Ukrainian government.
Threats emerging on religious grounds
One of the forms of Kremlin pressure on our state is through promoting the idea of a “Russian Orthodox Church”. While in possession of levers on the religious sphere, Russian special services use the ROC both as “hard” power (to inspire rallies that could easily turn into show-off clashes with law enforcement or provocateurs) and as “soft” power (influencing the minds of worshipers). To this end, Russia uses all techniques available to hinder the process of formation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, manipulating the feelings of Ukrainian believers and trying in every possible way to preserve its influence on them.
Another special project pursued by the Kremlin involves its attempts to create and legalize paramilitary groups in Ukrainian regions within the framework of religious communities, taking up law enforcement functions. This is about the revival of the pro-Russian “Cossack” organizations, attempting to duplicate police functions on protecting public order at the local level. Such cases have already been recorded in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, and Zaporizhia regions.
Escalation of regional tensions
Russia has been trying to exploit Ukraine’s historical conflicts with its neighbors to sow enmity between nations and benefit off consequences. The attempts to rewrite history the way it is seen in Moscow is one of the prerequisites for legitimizing the invasion of Ukraine.
All threats arising around Ukraine at the regional level are in one way or another related to the destructive efforts on the part of Russia.
A typical example is the historical legacy in relations with Hungary and Poland. On these issues, our countries managed to come to terms, but Russia is still out there, feeding chauvinism targeting Ukraine. At the same time, it’s not only about clandestine efforts anymore – they’ve been acting arrogantly in the open recently. The attempt by pranksters Vovan and Lexus to fool Polish President A. Duda and provoke him into speaking out on sensitive issues of Ukrainian-Polish relations (they offered that he “return Ukrainian territories … Lviv and many others”) is indicative. A few more examples: in 2016, the Polish Internal Security Agency detained Mateusz Piskorski, leader of the pro-Russian Smena party, over his cooperation with the Russian special services; in 2018, Polish law enforcement nabbed their own citizens – members of the radical pro-Russian organization Falanga – on charges of committing an arson attack on the office of the Hungarian Culture Society in Uzhgorod.
The situation with Belarus is of a slightly different nature: the Kremlin has never abandoned its idea to absorb Belarus under the pretext of “unification”. This poses a threat of the country being transformed it into a springboard for Russia to implement their aggressive policies against Ukraine. Employing all its levers, Moscow is trying to weaken Belarus as much as possible, remaining for Minsk a partner with no alternative. This poses a threat of the Belarus leadership changing its stance on the ‘Ukrainian issue’. The latest example – Belarusian security officials detained 32 militants with the Russian PMC Wagner, who arrived in Minsk to destabilize the country during the presidential election campaign in Belarus.
Intelligence also analyzes the ongoing processes in Moldova (including in Transnistria) and Georgia (including in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region), which the Kremlin uses as a testing ground for bringing pro-Russian forces to power and bringing Chisinau and Tbilisi back to its orbit of influence. In Georgia, Russia has been using all hybrid tools available (ranging from the “fifth column” and pro-Russian media to economic blackmail) to block attempts by Georgian government to reintegrate territories, and also to prevent the emergence of NATO infrastructure on the Georgian Black Sea coast.
In general, the developments in the South Caucasus, including recent events at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border point at Russia’s continued efforts to manipulate regional conflicts, while hypocritically offering its peacemaking services.
Ukrainian intelligence pays special attention to countering threats in cyber domain. Cyber intervention in safe operation of critical infrastructure in Ukraine, inspired by Russia, is yet another instrument of hybrid warfare targeting our country, as is armed aggression. Everyone remembers cyberattacks on Ukrainian energy companies (2015, the BlackEnergy malware), Ukrenergo’s Pivnichna electric substation (2016), the attack exploiting office software vulnerabilities (2017, Petya ransomware), and the cyberattack on the President’s Representative Office for the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (2020).
Moscow’s cybermilitarization threatens both Ukraine and other countries that the Russian Federation sees as its adversaries or competitors. This is not only about cyberattacks and gaining unauthorized access to information and telecommunication systems, but also about attempts to use social networks to manipulate public opinion and destabilize countries – the so-called influence operations.
Unauthorized interference in cyber domain was revealed, in particular, during the previous presidential campaign in the United States and people’s votes across Europe (the Netherlands, UK). Among recent examples, Britain accused hackers controlled by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service of interfering in the 2019 parliamentary elections via the internet and of setting up leaks of British government documents. Also, the UK, the United States, and Canada have accused Russia of trying to steal data on the COVID-19 vaccine research. Cyberattacks on vaccine research companies have employed a variety of tools and techniques, including phishing and malware such as WellMess and WellMail.
Western concerns have materialized into a concrete decision: the EU has for the first time ever introduced cyber-related sanctions, including on four Russian military intelligence operatives and entities, involved in the NotPetya cyberattacks and those on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In this context, the UK experience is undoubtedly of great interest to Ukraine. British Parliament has recently published a Russia report drawn by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The document addresses the facts of Russian interference in the UK’s political processes and contains specific government recommendations on countering Russia’s hostile efforts. These include granting special services broader powers to monitor Russian nationals’ assets and activities within the country, creating a register of foreign agents of influence, and flexibly using sanctions instruments.
We are used to attributing terrorism to ISIS, Taliban, or Al-Qaeda. Also, as the U.S. Department of State puts it, Iran, North Korea, and South Sudan are designated as state sponsors of terrorism.
At the same time, for Ukraine, against which Russia has been waging a hybrid war, including via terrorist tools, the Kremlin is Terrorist No. 1, responsible for over 13,000 Ukrainian deaths in Donbas. Examples of terrorist attacks include the downing by a Russian missile of a passenger jet flight MH17, the shelling of Mariupol and Kramatorsk, and terrorist attacks to assassinate Ukrainian security operatives.
According to SZR assessments, Russia’s political regime remains the main external threat to Ukraine. The incumbent authorities in the Kremlin will never accept an independent, unitary, and western-oriented Ukraine, therefore they will pursue waging their hybrid war against the Ukrainian state.
Meanwhile, recent developments testify to the formation of a common Western policy on the use of complex tools for deterring Russia, where sanctions will be among many elements involved (these approaches are similar to those applied during the Cold War).
The issue of timely identification and adequate response to threats coming from Russia will increasingly dominate the agenda of both European and Ukrainian special services and politicians.
How will the situation unfold?
Russia intends to pursue its efforts to undermine Ukraine in order to achieve its ultimate goal – to return our state to the “zone of Russian influence”, using various levers to this end.
Our intelligence says that with the approach of local elections in Ukraine, Russia will once again return to the practice of pro-active pressure and provocations. Their goal will be not only to wreak havoc and undermine public confidence in state institutions, but also to shape among the Western audiences the opinion about Ukraine being a “failed state”, and, therefore, to make cooperation with Ukraine toxic for Western leaders.
One of the elements in this context is to impose the idea of federalization of Ukraine as the only real possibility of resolving the conflict by peaceful political means. The Kremlin is convinced that, given the “civilizational and national diversity of Ukraine and the limited influence of the central government” (these are the definitions Moscow has been using), the transition to a federal form of government will activate the process of the Ukrainian State’s disintegration into smaller parts, which will be easy to reintegrate into the “Russian world” in the future, with the exception of a single territory, which they refer to as “Galicia”.
The key point in this strategy is the holding of elections in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Russian Federation insists on holding elections in the temporarily occupied territories of eastern Ukraine without any prerequisites in place, namely, without Ukraine first restoring control over the relevant section of the Ukrainian-Russian border and without the withdrawal of all Moscow-controlled armed groups. This is the approach Kremlin emissaries are now trying to lobby at all negotiating platforms. No other options meet Russia’s interests in ensuring total political control over Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the post-conflict period.
According to our forecasts, despite Ukraine’s readiness for the peace process, in the short and medium term, hostile provocations along the contact line are highly likely. Our data indicate that Russia-controlled armed groups have already received instructions from their Russian handlers to use the ceasefire agreements for provocations and search for ways to compromise Ukraine as a party that first violated the truce.