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Russia’s Hybrid War against Ukraine intensifies while military conflict remains low-intensity

Sections of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline laid from the German shore and Danish waters were connected in an above water tie-in, September 2021 © Nord Stream 2 / Axel Schmidt
Russia’s Hybrid War against Ukraine intensifies while military conflict remains low-intensity
Article by: Hans Petter Midttun
Recent reports about the concentration of Russian troops in the vicinity of Ukraine’s borders have aroused speculation as to whether Russia would stage an invasion.

While it is understandable that such a perspective summons attention, the hype about an impending (or not) invasion has overshadowed the real deal: that Russia’s war against Ukraine is a hybrid one, meaning Russia is synchronically using both military and non-military means to destabilize Ukraine from within, thus bringing it to its knees.

Therefore, making sense of the supposed concentration of military forces is pointless if not viewed together with the other directions of pressure Russia exerts on a day-to-day basis. This article aims to do exactly that: provide an update from the hybrid war battlefield to assess Russia’s current chances of winning the real battle for Ukraine.

In a hybrid war, the main battlespace is the cognitive spaces of populations and key decision- and policy makers, making them, and not the military, the main target of the operation. Thus, Russia aims to destabilize Ukraine from within by inducing economic hardship, corrupting institutions, undermining trust in government and parliament, and not at least, creating fear and fostering inaction.

To conceal its real aims, Russia aims to confuse and manipulate both the international audiences as well as its domestic population. Using disinformation, cyber-attacks, blackmail, provocations, fabrications, military deceptions, and other active measures, it creates a virtual reality that prompts not only its victims but also their partners into making the political decisions Russia wants without suspecting (or acknowledging) they are being manipulated.

These are only some of the features of the Hybrid War one needs to bear in mind when assessing the present international security situation. This has become more relevant than ever as the security situation around Ukraine seems to be deteriorating.

Several recent events have increased Russian confidence.
  • The Russian election has taken place with the predicted outcome. United Russia, the ruling party retained its majority in the Duma, ensuring control of the legislature until the 2024 presidential election. Any opposition or critical voices has been neutralized in the process.
  • President Biden abandoned the Trump administration and congressional sanctions on Nord Stream 2 in May and committed to refrain from hindering its completion (while Germany undertook to impose sanctions on Russia in case of further Russian aggressions against Ukraine). The highly disputed pipeline puts both Ukrainian and European security at risk.
  • Europe is for various reasons suffering from extremely high energy prices. Being more dependent upon Russian energy than ever the EU has become increasingly susceptible to Russian blackmail.
  • Belarus is slowly falling in line with the Russian plans for the Union State allowing for increased Russian military presence, as well as the unity of hybrid efforts. The ongoing migration crisis along the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and the threat to cut gas supplies to Europe are two examples of the latter. Russia has successfully introduced another proxy that acts according to its interests, allowing Russia to take the role once again as a “meditator” to its own induced conflicts and crises. More importantly, the West fails to hold Russia accountable for its involvement.
  • Both NATO and the USA suffered a loss of credibility after Afghanistan. The exit is just the last of several high cost and high-visible operations that have had international repercussions, and which has effectively reduced the political will for new military engagements outside the NATO area of responsibility.
  • In September Russia decided not to renew the mandate of the Observer Mission at the Russian checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, an important component of the OSCE’s response to the crisis in and around Ukraine. Since OSCE decisions are adopted by consensus by the participating States the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is itself at mercy of Russian “goodwill.” The mission will only remain in Ukraine as long as it serves Russian interests. The decision not to renew the mandate is a reminder (or rather, a poorly concealed threat) of the fact.
Even more importantly, Ukraine is evolving.

The Bayraktar drone strike on October 26 reminded Russia that Ukraine is striving to close its critical vulnerabilities. This comes weeks after President Zelensky presented a Transformation Plan of Ukraine at a cost of $277 billion of which the international community was asked to foot most of the bill (86. 5%). This included more than $25 billion to the armed forces, including $4.3 billion for boosting Ukraine’s naval power and $14 billion to purchase new jets, drones, and helicopters to the Air Force.

Many reforms, bilateral agreements, and support from Ukraine’s international partners are slowly transforming the Armed Forces and the Defence Industry of Ukraine.

The Land Forces, while still lacking critical capabilities, have undergone a tremendous transformation since 2014. A number of game-changing reforms are in process, including a Ukrainian Bayraktar production, British support of Ukraine’s Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme, new naval infrastructure (including a maritime operations centre), new corvettes, new Fast Inshore Attack Crafts (FIAC), minesweepers, US Island-class and Mark-6 patrol boats, coastal anti-ship missile battalions, drones, and more. Additionally, according to the media, the UK is considering selling missiles to Ukraine. Even though some of the new capabilities remain to be introduced in service, they will help limit future Russian military options.

All bad news according to Russia, all of which needs to be discouraged.

Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, recently pointed out that “w hat seems to have changed is Russia’s assessment of where things are going. They seem to have concluded that unless they do something, the trend lines are heading to Russia losing Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s progress evokes sharper Russian rhetoric

The increased self-confidence and evolving situation in and around Ukraine have lately resulted in a significantly sharper Russian rhetoric.

Russia has repeatedly warned the West against crossing the “red line.” According to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Russian red line relates to the scope of its national interests and has bearing on bilateral relations with other countries, including Ukraine. The red line includes NATO’s expansion into Ukraine, such as NATO membership, the opening of NATO military infrastructure, plans for US air defence in Ukraine, and NATO military presence in Ukraine. Russia has introduced an additional layer of uncertainty when it stressed that Russia will determine in each specific case where the red line will be drawn.

In April, President Putin declared that “those behind provocations that threaten the core interests of our security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time.”

Three months later he declared that “the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.”

The newly published National Security Strategy outlines how Russia will respond to threats like the ones outlined above.

A hybrid war offensive ahead of winter

More importantly, the increased self-confidence and evolving situation in and around Ukraine have triggered a Hybrid War offensive at the onset of the winter season. European energy security is being challenged. European security and stability are increasingly volatile because of Russian military build-up in and around Ukraine and Belarus. The EU is facing state-sponsored illegal migration along its borders. The West is not at least facing an unprecedented information campaign.

Nuclear power, gas, oil, and coal remain crucial to Ukraine’s energy security. The following events are, therefore, of interest:

  • Gazprom has not yet achieved an exemption from the EU rules that require the owners of pipelines to be different from the suppliers of the gas that flows in them. While Nord Stream 2 is facing challenges in court, Russia is fighting an Energy War both in and outside courts. In October 2021, Europe has been facing record-high prices for natural gas on the European market (exceeding $1.600 per 1000 cubic meters).
    Gas storage across Europe is well below the 10-year average, with levels currently at about 75% of storage capacity. While European storage levels are low, analysis shows the largest shortfalls are at sites owned or controlled by Gazprom. For months, critics have accused Russia of withholding additional natural-gas shipments to Europe to pressure Brussels to fast-track its new Baltic Sea export pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

    The assessment is supported by Putin’s statement during the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, where he stated that the first Nord Stream-2 line “is filled with gas and if the German regulator issues the permit for shipping tomorrow, it can deliver 17.5 billion cubic metres of gas the day after tomorrow”.

  • Russia remains the largest exporter of thermal coal to Ukraine, accounting for two-thirds of imports by volume. Russia announced on October 29 that it would temporarily halt shipments of anthracite, a cleaner coal used for heating, to Ukraine starting on November 1. The suspension of coal deliveries comes as Ukraine’s stockpiles are already low heading into winter. At the start of November, coal reserves at Ukrainian thermal power plants stood at 578,000 tons, just one-fifth of the government’s plan for 2.9 million tons, according to data from the Energy Ministry and national statistics service.”
  • With its largest foreign supplier now out of the picture, Ukraine has been scrambling to buy more coal from the United States, Kazakhstan, Poland, and South Africa, further stressing Ukraine’s struggling economy. Russia has, however, stopped the transit of coal from Kazakhstan from November 4.
  • Astoundingly, both DTEK (who dominates the power sector) and state-owned coal mines cut production in the summer. According to Yevhen Solonyna and Todd Prince (RFE/RL), the coal shortage is a result of a lack of preparation by the government and energy regulators. The administration recently raised the price cap on the wholesale market, prompting DTEK to increase coal production.
  • “Amid the coal shortage, meanwhile, Ukraine announced in October that it would end a ban on imports of electricity from Russia and northern neighbor Belarus to help balance its power system.” However, both Russia and Belarus decided to cancel their power auctions.
  • Over half of the country’s electricity is produced with nuclear power and Ukraine still receives most of its nuclear services and nuclear fuel from Russia. Ukraine expects that nuclear energy’s share of the energy market (51,2%) will continue to grow. Of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power plants, however, 12 started operating between 1981-89. All of the 12 have undergone lifetime extension programs ensuring safe operations until 2023-2030. The other 3 will reach their End of Design-Basis Life between 2020 and 2035. Ukraine is, consequently, facing huge investments in the energy sector over the next 9-14 years.
  • Russia decided to limit the supply of liquefied gas to Ukraine to 30% starting November 4.
  • “More than two-thirds of 7 million tons of diesel fuel that Ukraine consumes yearly is sourced from Belarus and Russia. Russia’s state-owned Rosneft temporarily stopped supplying diesel fuel on April 1, reminding Ukraine about its continuous energy reliance on the belligerent neighbor and the inherent risks of this dependence.”
  • Moscow is at the same time, systematically trying to discredit Kyiv, such as portraying Ukraine as an unreliable gas transit country; blaming it for “stealing” Russian gas; and spreading the messages about the “disastrous state” of Ukraine’s natural gas transmission system and run-down equipment. During the Russian Energy Week International Forum plenary session on October 13, Putin claimed that it is dangerous to increase supplies even more via Ukraine “because the [Gas Transmission System] has not been repaired for decades in Ukraine. It can burst if you increase the pressure, and Europe will lose this route completely. About 80 percent of the equipment is obsolete, over 80 percent.”
  • The narratives do, however, not match the realities. Instead of increasing (or at the best upholding) the gas transit, Russia has been gradually reducing gas transit through Ukraine. On January 1st the volume was reduced from 186 million cubic meters per day to 124 million cubic meters. On September 1st it was reduced to 109 million cubic meters, and in October to 86 million cubic meters. The volume has been recently increased to the contract volume of 109 million cubic meters after falling to almost 57 million cubic meters in the first days of November. Gazprom is by no means increasing gas supplies to the EU (through Ukraine). When Nord Stream 2 opens, we can expect energy transit through Ukraine to stop altogether for the very simple reason that it serves Russian interests. It supports the present Hybrid War strategy.

Putting the recent military build-up into context

The Energy War offensive must be seen in connection with the military build-up in the east. According to the media , the US is raising the alarm with European Union allies that Russia may be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine as tensions flare between Moscow and the bloc over migrants and energy supplies. Russia does not deny the build-up.

The trends in Donbas are negative, adding to the tension.

The OSCE reported ceasefire violations and explosions in October were substantially higher than in September (36% and 50% respectively). This trend has continued in November, potentially reaching a total of 16500 violations by the end of the month. If the present trend continues, this will be the highest number recorded since July 2020. The use of Russian UAVs in October is up (26 compared to 19 in September). The number of reported weapons dropped from Russian UAVs is higher than ever (13).

Russia’s Strategic Lift capacity and its ability to escalate and de-escalate is a part of its toolkit to pressure both Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington.

During the first years of the war, our ability to detect Russian “offensive formations” had normally a 3-4-day validity. This is due to the Russian Strategic Lift capacity, which allows them to move forces into the theatre in a quantity that fundamentally changes the security situation.

This timeline has shrunk during the last couple of years due to:

  1. the relocation and establishment of permanent bases/forces along the Ukrainian borders;
  2. the militarization of the Crimean Peninsula;
  3. the build-up of military hardware in the region, last after the last military build-up in March-April;
  4. the evolving situation in Belarus, including the increased presence of Russian Armed Forces;
  5. the dislocation of military forces (e.g. 41st Army, which has remained in the European part of Russia, at a distance of about two hundred and sixty kilometers from the state border with Ukraine); and lastly,
  6. “according to defense-intelligence firm Janes, the recent Russian deployment has been covert, often taking place at night and carried out by elite ground units, in contrast to the fairly open build-up in the spring”.
The military build-up along the border (or in the direction) and on the Crimean Peninsula is a part of a process that has been ongoing since the active phase of the Hybrid War started in 2014.

It is a 3D threat involving quantitative and qualitative improvements of both Air Forces, Navy and Land Forces. The present military threat is, therefore, by far more dangerous than in 2014.

This must be seen in context with the enduring critical vulnerabilities in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The fact that the Armed Forces of Ukraine is transforming and might, dependent on support from the international community, be able to establish a credible deterrence within the next 5-10 years, has an impact on both the Russian Hybrid War strategy and its timeline.

“Strategic signaling”

While our focus is drawn to the military forces “like a bee to the honeypot”, it is crucial to remember that the battlespace of the Hybrid War occurs inside the cognitive spaces of populations and key decision- and policymakers. It aims to destabilize nations from within by inducing economic hardship, corrupting institutions, undermining trust in government and parliament, and not at least, create fear and foster inaction.

If Russian actions help foster inaction, the Hybrid War “offensive” has served its purpose.
Russia aims to confuse and manipulate both the international audiences as well as its domestic population. Using disinformation, cyber-attacks, blackmail, provocations, fabrications, military deceptions, and other active measures, it creates a virtual reality that prompts not only Ukraine but also the West into making the political decisions Russia wants without suspecting (or acknowledging) they are being manipulated.

The ongoing Hybrid War offensive, therefore, serves at least five purposes:

  1. It supports Russia’s ongoing attempt to destabilize Ukraine from within. At the start of the cold season, Ukraine might be facing energy restrictions. Cold and unemployed Ukrainians will hold the government responsible and take to the streets.
  2. The social unrest and industrial problems resulting from the lack of energy will reinforce the Russian narrative of a crisis and an ungovernable Ukraine, legitimizing a future humanitarian intervention.
  3. The international concerns raised by the recent Russian build-up, threats (“red lines”), and lack of clarity of their intentions will help limit and even discourage international support to Ukraine. Russia needs to make sure that President Zelenskyy’s Transformation Plan is not supported by the West. Additionally, he needs to ensure that Ukraine will never become a NATO member.
  4. Russia has once again managed to maneuver itself into the position of a “mediator” to new (and Russian-induced) challenges faced by the EU, securing its status as a Global Power.
  5. Russia intends to win the Hybrid War at the cost of Ukraine. If it succeeds, it will be because both the EU and NATO allowed it to happen. After the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, the ongoing energy war and the migration crisis on the border of the EU helps further discredit NATO and the EU. What if Russia wins in Ukraine? If Russia succeeds due to continued “inaction” by the West, we will soon be facing a far more precarious security situation.
The ongoing troop movements are, therefore, most likely “strategic signaling” (diplomatic pressure or blackmail).

The Hybrid War is designed to ensure victory through limited use of military power. If Russian actions help foster inaction, the Hybrid War “offensive” has served its purpose.

The problem is of course that we will not know for certain before afterward. The greatest advantage of military power is its ability to change the strategic situation from one day to another.

This, however, means that we need to rise to the challenge. Not step back and allow Russia to both set and dominate the international agenda. The risk of escalation will not be a result of the West drawing the red line and standing up to the bully, but rather the lack of consistency between what we say and what we do. The Alliance risks eroding its own credibility by maintaining its current ambivalent stance.

We need to remember that NATOs ability to deter future conflicts is neither decided by Washington nor Brussels. NATO deterrence is decided in Moscow. Recent developments may indicate that it lacks credibility.

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