Perspectives on the Russian invasion
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February came as a shock to the geopolitical order. NATO and the United States acted swiftly to help Ukraine while avoiding going to war against Russia and deflecting any threat to NATO and the United States. From their early observations of the war, US officials in Congress and the cyber and intelligence communities are looking closely to gain understanding and apply key knowledge to US actions and defenses.
According to Director Avril Haines, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), tracking Russian activities by the Intelligence Community (IC) will remain a major focus. Before the invasion, the intelligence community, now made up of 18 agencies, including the US Space Force, was able to detect Putin’s false flag operations and warn of Russia’s intended actions.
“The IC warned about Putin’s plans, but in this case we all wish we were wrong,” notes the director.
And although the first month of the invasion went consistently with the plan the IC estimated the Russian military would follow, the Ukrainian response was stronger than Putin expected and was combined with his “serious” military-operational shortcomings. Moscow’s underestimation of the strength of Ukraine’s resistance and the scale of Russia’s internal military challenges actually gave allies more time to help Ukraine, notes Haines.
“Russia’s failure to quickly seize Kyiv and overwhelm Ukrainian forces has deprived Moscow of the rapid military victory it probably originally expected. [which] would have prevented NATO and the United States from providing meaningful military aid to Ukraine,” she says.
Putin’s poorly constructed plans, problems with military morale, and significant logistical challenges in that first month made it “unclear” whether Putin would go ahead with his “maximum” plan of conquering more or all of Ukraine, “which, in our estimation, would require even more resources since the Russian military has begun to relax its rules of engagement in order to achieve its military goals,” explains the director. “If they continue to pursue the maximalist approach, we believe that holding and containing Ukrainian territory and installing a sustained pro-Russian regime in Kyiv will be a particular challenge for the Russians, given what we expected it to be.” insurrection will be persistent and significant.”
Alongside Ukraine’s valiant resistance, Haines also stresses that NATO’s response has influenced Russia, alongside the “Western unity” of imposing sanctions, export controls and foreign trade decisions, which she claims have “cascading effects.”
Moreover, NATO’s determined, unified response to the Russian invasion had implications “not only in terms of economic measures, but also in measures long considered off the table, such as the delivery of lethal aid to Ukraine and the closure of airspace planes from the European Union to Russia – all of which almost certainly surprised Moscow,” says the director.
“While Putin likely anticipated many of the sanctions currently to be imposed when weighing the cost of the invasion, we judge that he also failed to anticipate the extent to which the United States and its allies and partners would take steps to undermine his ability to face Western sanctions.” or soften the private-sector-initiated retreat from Russia.”
Still, Haines warns that US intelligence agencies believe Putin “is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks.” He could actually escalate the conflict further, “essentially doubling down to achieve Ukrainian disarmament and neutrality to prevent it from further integrating with the United States and NATO,” says Haines.
In the meantime, the IC will continue to document Russia’s actions across Ukraine to hold Russia accountable, she notes. The human toll of Putin’s war is significant and will continue to grow, Haines points out. The IC estimates that the Russian and Ukrainian military suffered at least 10,000 casualties, in addition to significant civilian deaths.
“In the face of artillery and air strikes by Russia on urban areas, the Russian armed forces have at least ruthlessly disregarded the safety of civilians,” she said.
In addition, well over 1 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, the director reports.
“We understand that Putin is offended that the West is not giving him the credit he deserves and perceives that this is a war he cannot afford to lose, but what he could be willing to see as victory accept may change over time given the significant costs it incurs. ”
On the cyber front, steps taken by the United States prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped digitally strengthen Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, says Gen. Paul Nakasone, US, commander of the US Cyber Command, director of the National Security Agency and Chief of the Central Security Service, in separate testimony before the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), chairman of the committee, had expressed surprise at the relatively low level of cyber warfare early in the invasion, given Russia’s malicious cyber tendencies.
“I don’t think many of us think Russia doesn’t have extraordinarily critical and world-class cyber tools,” Sen. Warner notes. “The fact is they haven’t launched much beyond traditional malware. They didn’t launch the kind of worm-driven NotPetya attacks we saw in 2017. My concern was that one of these types of attacks could literally go beyond the geographic borders of Ukraine and bleed into Poland, where it could hit American troops or close down Polish hospitals and result in the deaths of Polish citizens, potentially putting us in Article 5 territory could bring.”
General Nakasone theorized that the relatively small number of cyberattacks may actually have been part of Russia’s strategic calculations. On the other hand, early work to strengthen Ukraine’s infrastructure also made a difference, including efforts by forward-deployed cyber defenders and private sector contributors.
“An enormous amount of work was done before the actual invasion,” reports the commander. “Work done by my agency, work done by the US Cyber Command, by the Interagency, by a number of private sector partners that have hardened Ukraine’s infrastructure.”
By the time the Russian invasion began, the US Cyber Command had seen “three to four attacks”. General Nakasone stresses that the command “remains vigilant” and that “there is no way we are sitting back and taking this casually. We monitor for unusual activity of any kind every day.”
In general, along with possible malware, the commander identified several potential types of cyber warfare from Russia.
“There are three other scenarios that also come to mind,” he told lawmakers. “One of them could be the widespread use of ransomware. The next scenario would be proxies, those attacks that don’t necessarily have to be part of the Russian government but act as a proxy or as a non-state actor to perform these types of cyber activities to maybe launch malware. The last is this idea of a disruptor or destructive attack on a country in Eastern Europe that could take place.”
The United States will continue to provide cybersecurity support and share information on Russia’s cyber activities. “Not only are we vigilant, we are prepared, and most importantly, we share information and expertise with our partners,” General Nakasone said.
Congressional military budget leaders see the impact that US Cyber Command is having, at least according to Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who also emphasizes that the committee will closely examine aspects of cyber warfare of the Russian invasion, including supporting the command for Ukraine.
“I think we’re going to be very involved in debriefings on cyber operations,” he notes. “In my opinion, our cyber operations were extremely important as they informed Ukrainians about the situation and also prevented Russian cyber hackers from attacking Ukrainian targets. So that’s a lesson we’ll definitely look at.”
As cyber has become “one of the most critical aspects” of the battlefield, Sen. Reed is ensuring the committee will continue to support U.S. cyber operations, particularly by the U.S. Cyber Command led by Gen. Nakasone.
“One of the areas that we need to look at very closely is maintaining and strengthening General Nakasone’s cyber teams,” says Sen. Reed. “Those cyber teams, the actual groups of people that are going out, getting into the systems, developing the tools to do that, we want to make sure he’s got the very best and he’s got a sufficient number of them.”
Given the significant staffing shortages in the larger non-military cyber workforce, the Chairman acknowledges that Congress may need to provide cyber warriors with additional incentives to keep US cyber operations strong. “We compete for people with these skills with very lucrative jobs abroad,” notes Sen. Reed. “If necessary, this will also require incentives to stay on duty and for a long time.”
In addition, Senator Reed believes defending Ukrainians is an important lesson and advised US leaders to pay attention to their skillful use of asymmetric warfare.
“It is [their] Using asymmetric weapons,” he says. “Russia came with tanks and jets and hypersonics [the Kinzahl missile], and what the Ukrainians did with Stinger missiles, with air defense systems and the ability to move, was able to counter what everyone before the battle considered an overwhelming attack and a very rapid attack by the Russians on Kyiv . And again, this notion of asymmetrical combat and dispersed combat is something we’re going to take away from that.”
The extent to which a cyber war waged by Russia or its proxies against the United States or NATO could be considered an act of war – exceeding NATO’s Article 5 obligations – the Chairman hypothesized would depend on the magnitude of such an attack.
“Russia has the ability to conduct cyber operations around the world,” he warns. “They demonstrated that in the United States in 2016. … And 2018 [and since] We conducted operations to disrupt possible interference in our election. [But] One of the problems with cyber is that we don’t have written traffic rules. We had Russian interference in a presidential election. And there was no formal mechanism to report or sanction them. We’re still in the very early stages with cyber so it would be a function of scale and likely human consequences. When it’s a significant cyberattack and there are significant casualties, that’s more than just news. I think then you would have to sit at the table and say that we can and we must do something, but we’re basically in new territory in that respect.”