It Is Not the Time to Relax
The hybrid war, the armed conflict, Russia’s aggressive policy towards the internal socio-economic and political processes in Ukraine, the Kremlin authorities attempts to undermine the basis of support provided to our state at the international level—those are the major threats Ukraine is facing, according to the assessment of Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine.
The strategic goals of the Russian political regime—despite any cosmetic statements by Moscow authorities—remain unchanged: to return Ukraine back into the zone of the Russia’s total influence, to eliminate Ukrainian national identity and independence, to establish external control over the processes taking place in our country, to terminate the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state.
By applying the multidimensional nature of hybrid forms and methods, Russian political regime seeks to attain superiority in the military, political, economic, information and cybersecurity spheres, and incites social conflicts based on issues of language and religion.
Let's take a closer look at each dimension of those external threats separately.
The direct armed aggression against Ukraine resulted in the temporary occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (ORDLO). The subjective factors were the weakness of the collective security systems and the favorable environment created in Ukraine for the activities of the “fifth column” of the Russian Federation supporters since the Independence was gained. The Putin regime destroyed the entire system of international security and international law that had been in place for decades.
At the current stage of the hybrid warfare, Russia deployed a grouping of its military forces along the border of Ukraine that includes two new armies and one army corps: the 20th Army—has already been practically formed and consists of two divisions with a total number of about 24 thousand troops; the 8th Army counts about 45 thousand troops—including the 1st and the 2nd Army Corps deployed in the temporarily occupied territories of Donbas; the 22nd Army Corps—a formation within the Coastal Troops of the Russian Navy with 9 thousand servicemen. These units will become fully operational in the nearest future.
The Kremlin views its own Army as a tool for attaining its foreign policy ambitions, hence the order to invade another state is only a matter of time and opportunity for Moscow.
The level of armament with the newest combat systems in the Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation reached 83%, in the Aerospace Forces – 75%, in the Airborne Forces and the Navy – has exceeded 63%, and in the Ground Forces – 50%. The level of equipment with modern command and control systems in troops has reached 67%.
Moscow is creating long-term threats, including via the construction of a new military base in close proximity to Ukraine's borders (in Rostov, 60 km from the border) to permanently deploy units of the newly created 150th Motorized Rifle Division of the Russian Armed Forces.
To exert political pressure on Ukraine and the West, the Kremlin intends to use the strategic military exercises “Caucasus-2020”, which will work out a scenario of an offensive against neighboring countries. The total number of troops involved in the maneuvers, scheduled for September of this year, will amount to 120 thousand troops, 3 thousand armored combat vehicles, about 300 aircraft, 250 helicopters, 50 warships, and up to 5 submarines.
A probable scenario of the exercises is also the use of troops to address the issue of freshwater supply to the temporarily occupied Crimea. Prior to the annexation, mainland Ukraine covered up to 85 percent of Crimea’s freshwater demand, so the Russian Armed Forces could potentially use a contrived pretext to march deep into the territory of the Kherson region 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, measures have been taken to restore Soviet infrastructure for the storage and operation of nuclear weapons near Feodosia (“Feodosia-13” facility) and Balaklava (“Sopka”). The development of the peninsula transport infrastructure, as well as its integration into the unified transport system of the Russian Federation, is also oriented towards military goals.
The adoption of a strategic decision to conduct some form of an offensive military operation against Ukraine (particularly in the North Crimean Canal) is limited by the following factors:
- fall in prices at the global oil and gas markets and decline in revenues to the Russian budget;
- Moscow aspirations to use COVID-19 to reset relations with the West;
- the upcoming local elections in Ukraine and Moscow intentions to strengthen the presence of pro-Russian forces in Ukrainian politics;
- diversion of resources to the Turkish-Russian confrontation in Syria and Libya, and—indirectly—in the framework of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict;
- Russian local September 2020 elections, amidst the drop in Putin’s trust ratings to 23% and an increase in protest activity.
The Kremlin is also deterred from ordering an offensive by the pre-election situation in the United States and by the development of the negotiation process to resolve the situation in Eastern Ukraine in the Minsk and Normandy formats. However, the combination of such factors as the United States focusing exclusively on its internal issues and the negotiation process taking the “non-Russian scenario” course significantly increase Moscow’s readiness to cross the “red line” yet again.
However, according to our assessment, the complex influence of these factors makes the Kremlin scenario of military aggression against Ukraine in the fall of 2020 untimely.
Our analysis shows that in a more distant future, Russia’s activities towards Ukraine may transform into a large-scale military operation with the seizure of new Ukrainian territories. The following factors may contribute to this:
- the need to divert attention from a number of internal issues in Russia (drop in the Russian government’s approval ratings because of the deteriorating standards of life, sharp economic decline, weakening of the vertical of power, the increasing opposition of regional elites);
- the need to address the socio-economic issues in the temporarily occupied Crimea (water supply, decline in holiday travel);
- the focusing of our major international partners exclusively on their own internal issues (complex electoral processes, radical aggravation of social, demographic and economic issues, refugees, terrorism).
Another important dimension of Russia’s hybrid aggression against Ukraine are political threats. We register the Russian Special Services attempts to conduct special operations to bring discord into Ukrainian society and to undermine the foundations of Ukrainian statehood. Stakes are placed on systemic discrediting the Ukrainian national idea and the Western civilizational choice, and demonstration the “artificial nature of Ukrainian identity and state” (recently, this discourse has been imposed on us from outside as well as from within). Moscow is actively manipulating the factor of the temporarily occupied territories, trying to oppose the people of Ukraine and the “Kyiv Government”—which allegedly betrayed their election promises regarding the long-awaited peace in Donbas.
Russia’s political goals are to destabilize the social and political life to such an extent that would allow the Kremlin to raise the question of the need for “humanitarian aid” and to cut off Ukraine’s oxygen in a “fraternal embrace”. In fact, these are attempts to incite a “war of all against all” on the territory of our state and, utilizing the situation, to conduct a political-sabotage and/or a military operation to change the leadership of the State in the medium-term.
The forms and methods employed by Russia are very diverse, multivariate, and non-standard. Provocations, the use of agents of influence, terror and political assassinations are the most frequent so-called “signature tools”, which have occurred repeatedly in Ukraine (assassinations of an intelligence officer M. Shapoval and Russian politician D. Voronenkov in Kyiv, a counterintelligence officer O. Haraberyush in Mariupol, etc.), and abroad. The latest example are the events in Germany and Austria (the assassinations of Russian political immigrants Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin and Mamikhan Umarov on the outskirts of Vienna), which forces the civilized world to wonder once again whether Russia has become a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Foreign Intelligence Service places special emphasis on analyzing the processes taking place within the occupation structures in ORDLO. There have been major changes recently, foremost in Russia’s supervision system over the territories. Following the resignation of V. Surkov, K. Zatulin (a “Russian World” ideologist) gained access to the new curator of the “USSR 2.0” project—D. Kozak and urging him to apply the “Georgian or Moldovan model” as the basis for Russia’s strategy on the Ukrainian issue:
“…to hold lengthy negotiations, if possible to create a model like the Minsk Agreements, so that Donbas would be virtually independent, formally part of Ukraine, and could influence the policy of the Ukrainian Government.
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 on the whole idea and overthrow some nationalist, and a more or less moderate regime will come. Wait for it to evolve and build a relationship with it. "
The Russian Federation leverages every opportunity to wage its trade and economic war against Ukraine. We are talking about financial pressure, energy blackmail, transit and transport blockade, ousting Ukrainian producers from traditional markets, discrediting our companies on international markets, investment penetration into Ukrainian markets via front firms. There is data that the Russian Federation has developed a “register” of Ukraine’s so-called weak points, the main purpose of which is to inflict the greatest possible damage to the economy of our country. The central place in the lists is occupied by the flagships of domestic industry, Ukrainian ports and transport infrastructure, fuel and energy companies, and of course the defense industry.
The Russian Federation is trying to disrupt Ukraine’s dialogue with the international financial institutions and conducts information campaigns in EU countries imposing the view about the unreliability of our energy transport system. Russian propaganda pays special attention to preventing the growth of foreign direct investment in our country, providing our partners with distorted information about corruption risks and threats.
Accordingly, ahead of the regular talks between Ukraine and the IMF, Russia (via diplomatic and other channels) conveys information to high-ranking representatives of foreign banking and business circles on the alleged misuse of credit funds as well as technical and humanitarian aid by Ukraine. It also resorts to spreading disinformation about the “economic decline of our State because of corruption” during the official contacts of Russia’s top leadership with Western leaders.
Russia is actively promoting the idea of an energy embargo on Ukraine through the implementation of bypass gas routes, the final stage of which should be the completion of the “Nord Stream-2” project and the shutdown of the Russian natural gas supply routes via Ukraine.
We consider Russia’s attempts to dominate the Ukrainian information space as one of the preconditions for preparing an aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin plans to intensify its information and psychological warfare. Social networks, targeted information operations, fake news, and misinformation are being actively used for this purpose. It is worth recalling the manipulation of versions in MH-17 flight case which was shot down by the Russian militants, allegations about Ukraine training terrorists for ISIS, and spreading false information about the alleged use of Ukrainian territory for secret biological weapons laboratory research. In addition, one should not forget about the norm enshrined in Russia’s amended Constitution banning the alienation of territories, as well as criminal liability for such appeals. From now on, anyone talking about Crimea belonging to Ukraine can become the subject of criminal prosecution in Russia.
The key element for undermining the Ukrainian society from within is the manipulation of protest sentiments, including patriotic sentiments (language and religion issues are actively used, the issue of Ukraine’s external governance, including dependence on the IMF and other Western Institutions and Governments). The Kremlin does not spare resources for this purpose—either financial or human. Provocations with attacks by alleged “nationalists” on representatives of pro-Russian “opposition” forces are instigated and inflated in the news. False information is being spread about Ukrainian mercenaries in conflict regions and the participation of Ukrainians in mass riots abroad. The protests in Serbia is the latest example of such special information operation. The Kremlin has spread fake news about the involvement of “mercenaries from Ukraine” in the protests in Belgrade over discontent with the introduction of curfews due to the growing number of coronavirus cases.
The activities of pro-Russian television channels in Ukraine also require a comprehensive assessment and response of the Ukrainian State to deter Russian information aggression.
Threats Emerging on Religious Grounds
One of the forms of the Kremlin’s pressure on our State is via the promotion of the “Russian Orthodox Church” (ROC) idea. Russian Special Services, which have levers of pressure on the religious sphere, exploit the ROC either as a “hard” (inciting protests that can easily escalate into demonstrative clashes with law enforcement or provocateurs) or as a “soft” power (influence the minds of believers). In this regard, Russia uses all available technologies to counteract the formation process of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, manipulating the feelings of Ukrainian believers and trying to maintain its influence on them in every possible way.
Another special project of the Kremlin is an attempt to form and legalize paramilitary units with law enforcement functions within religious communities in the regions of Ukraine. We are talking about the revival in the activities of pro-Russian “Cossack” organizations, which are trying to duplicate the functions of the police in the protection of public order at the local level. In particular, such cases were recorded in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, and Zaporizhia oblasts.
Tensions Escalation at the Regional Level
The Russian Federation has been trying to exploit the historical conflicts between Ukraine and its neighbors to sow enmity between nations and exploit its consequences. Attempts to rewrite history as seen in Moscow is one of the preconditions for legitimizing the invasion of Ukraine.
All the threats arising around Ukraine at the regional level are, in one way or another, related to the destructive activities on the part of Russia.
A typical example—the historical heritage in relations with Hungary and Poland. Our States have come to an understanding on these issues in spite of Russia’s interference, which fuels chauvinism directed against Ukraine. That said, Russia has resorted to either “clandestine” or “audacious and overt” methods. There has been a demonstrative attempt by pranksters “Vovan” and “Lexus” to play the President of Poland A. Duda and provoke him to speak out on sensitive issues of Ukrainian-Polish relations (they suggested “to reclaim Ukrainian territories ... Lviv and many others”). Other examples include: in 2016, Poland’s Internal Security Agency detained Mateusz Piskorski, the leader of the pro-Russian party “Zmina”, for cooperating with the Russian secret services; in 2018, Polish law enforcement officers detained their own citizens – members of the radical pro-Russian organization “Phalanga”, on suspicion of setting fire to the office of the Hungarian Culture Society in Uzhhorod.
The situation with Belarus is of somewhat different nature: the Kremlin has never abandoned its desire to absorb Belarus under the guise of “unification”. This creates the danger of the country turning into a foothold for Russia to implement its aggressive policy against Ukraine. Applying all its levers, Moscow is trying to weaken Belarus to the greatest extent possible and become Minsk’s sole partner. This threatens to change the sentiment of Belarusian leadership on the “Ukrainian issue”. The latest example – law enforcement officers of Belarus detained 32 militants from the Russian PMC ‘Wagner’ in Minsk on charges of involvement in the preparation of mass riots.
The intelligence community also analyze the processes taking place in Moldova (Transnistria) and Georgia (Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region), which are used by the Kremlin as “testing grounds” to bring pro-Russian forces to power and return Chisinau and Tbilisi to their orbit of influence. In Georgia, for example, Russia is employing all available hybrid tools (from the “fifth column” and pro-Russian media to economic blackmail) to block all attempts of the Georgian government to reintegrate territories and to prevent, at any cost, the construction of NATO infrastructure along Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
In general, the latest developments in the South Caucasus—including the recent events on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border—indicate that Russia continues to manipulate the existing conflicts in the region, while hypocritically offering its services as a peacemaker.
The Ukrainian intelligence community places particular emphasis on countering threats in cyberspace. Hacking attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure facilities, orchestrated by Russia, are yet another tool of hybrid warfare (as is the armed aggression) against our state. We all remember the cyberattacks on Ukrainian energy companies (2015, BlackEnergy Trojan), “Pivnichna” substation of Ukrenergo (2016), an attack via the vulnerabilities of office software (2017, Petya Ransomware), a cyber-attack on the Mission of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (2020).
The cyber-militarization of Moscow poses a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to other countries that Russia considers its adversaries or competitors. We are talking not only about cyberattacks and gaining unauthorized access to information and telecommunications systems, but also about attempts to use social networks to manipulate public opinion, destabilize the social and political situation— the so-called operations of influence.
Unauthorized intrusions into cyberspace were uncovered, in particular, during the last presidential campaign in the United States and elections in European countries (the UK, the Netherlands). Some recent examples: Britain has accused hackers controlled by the Russian External Intelligence Service of interfering in the 2019 parliamentary elections via the Internet and of leaking British government documents. The UK, the US, and Canada have also accused Russia of trying to steal data on the COVID-19 vaccine. Various tools and techniques, including phishing and malware such as WellMess and WellMail, have been used in the hacking attacks on organizations involved in coronavirus vaccine development.
The West’s concerns materialized into the EU’s recent decision to apply its first-ever sanctions over cyberattacks, imposing them on four Russian Military Intelligence officers and companies involved in the NotPetya cyber-attacks as well as the attempted breach of security at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
In this context, Ukraine is indisputably interested in the UK experience, where the Parliament has published a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee entitled “Russia”. The document addresses Russia’s interference in the political process in the Kingdom and contains specific recommendations for the government on countering hostile efforts of the Russian Federation. In particular, granting special services broader powers to monitor Russian assets and activities within the country, creating a register of foreign agents of influence and allowing for a flexible application of sanctions.
We are used to attributing terrorism to ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda. Also, the US State Department, for instance, designated Iran, North Korea, and South Sudan as state sponsors of terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin—which is to blame for over 13 thousand Ukrainian fatalities in Donbas—is a # 1 terrorist for Ukraine, against which Russia is waging hybrid warfare with the use of terrorist methods. Examples of terrorist attacks are: the downing of passenger jet flight MH17 by a Russian missile, shelling of Mariupol and Kramatorsk, terrorist acts against Ukrainian security services.
According to the assessments of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, Russia’s political regime continues to be the main external threat to Ukraine. The incumbent Kremlin government will never accept the existence of an independent, unitary and Western-oriented Ukraine; therefore, it will continue to wage hybrid warfare against the Ukrainian state.
Recent developments testify to the formation of a common Western policy on the use of comprehensive tools for deterring Russia, where sanctions will be among many of the elements employed (these approaches are similar to those of the “Cold War” period).
The issue of timely detection of and adequate response to threats coming from the Russian Federation will increasingly dominate the agenda of both European and Ukrainian Secret Services and politicians.
How Will the Situation Unfold Henceforth?
Russia intends to continue “destabilizing” Ukraine as a mean to achieve its ultimate goal—to return our country to the “zone of the Russian influence”, applying a wide range of levers to this end.
We have data that with the approach of the local elections in Ukraine, Russia will once again resort to active pressure and provocations. Their goal will be not only to “sow chaos” and undermine public confidence in state institutions, but also to create sentiment in the West that Ukraine is a “failed state” and make cooperation with Ukraine toxic to Western leaders.
In this context, one of the elements is to plant the idea that the federalization of Ukraine is the only real possibility of resolving the conflict via peaceful political means. The Kremlin is convinced that, given the “civilizational and national heterogeneity of Ukraine and the limited influence of the central government” (these are the definitions used in Moscow), the transition to a federal form of government will stimulate the disintegration of Ukraine into small parts with, subsequent, seamless reintegration into the “Russian World” (with the exception of one territory, which they refer to as “Galicia”).
The key element in this strategy is the holding of elections in ORDLO. The Russian Federation insists on holding elections in the temporarily occupied territories of the Eastern Ukraine without any preconditions, namely without Ukraine first restoring control over the relevant section of the Ukrainian-Russian border or without the withdrawal of all Moscow-controlled armed units. The Kremlin emissaries are currently trying to lobby this approach 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 assessment—despite Ukraine’s readiness for a peaceful settlement process—a high probability of hostile provocations along the contact line will remain in the short and medium term. Our data indicates that, Russian-controlled armed groups have already received instructions from their Russian curators on the need to use the ceasefire agreement for provocations and to find ways to compromise Ukraine as the party that was the first to violate the truce.
by Valerii Kondratiuk, Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine