In Other News – Russia is Battling for Donbas and China Signs Security Deal with Solomon Islands – 4/21/2022

April 21, 2022

The battle for the Donbas has commenced. Russia has captured 80% of Luhansk, the siege of Mariupol has been unforgiving and brutal, and Russia is playing to its strengths with superior numbers and equipment on the plains of eastern Ukraine. Putin is hoping for a decisive victory before May 9th (Russia’s Victory Day commemorating the Nazi surrender), but much remains to be seen. In the past week, Ukraine has managed to mount a compelling resistance across the whole of the front line and managed to sink Russia’s flagship, The Moskva. But this initial onslaught of shelling and discrete actions are a prelude to an advance of Russian ground attacks in the coming days. There are reports that Russian troops are weary and demoralized and haven’t reconstituted to mount a thorough assault adequate to win its desired land bridge. Moreover, there is a convincing argument to be made that the issues that beset Russian forces in their initial assault – disastrous logistics, inadequate command and control, insufficient forces, ill-adapted tactics, and a failure to dominate in the air – will endure in the Donbas. While inferior in numbers and materials, Ukrainian forces are motivated and forward-footed. They have launched some strategically-minded pre-emptive counter attacks aimed at disrupting Russian supply lines. And in the past several days, there are reports that the West has provided Ukraine with a significant supply of military aid including heavy artillery and much-needed planes that could give it a better chance at holding off Russian forces. Both sides are running up against the clock. Ukraine has very limited supplies and needs continuous aid from the West. Zelinksyy knows that the longer this conflict endures, with its disastrous effects on the world economy, energy prices, and food supply, the harder it will be to maintain European and Western consensus in supporting Ukraine and isolating Russia. Whether Putin will acknowledge it or not, Western sanctions are profoundly affecting the Russian economy and the absence of a decisive victory brings higher costs and greater risks to Putin, who has really tied his fortunes to the outcome in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, China signs security deal with Solomon Islands, alarming neighbors. As much of the world remains focused on events in Ukraine, China announced a freshly signed security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The security deal is the first of its kind for China in the Indo-Pacific, and reflects Beijing’s ongoing efforts to expand China’s influence in the region. The Solomon Islands changed diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 – a decision that caused considerable unrest, and contributed to widespread rioting that left four people dead and much of the capital city burned. The timing of the current agreement was not coincidental as well, as the announcement came on the eve of a scheduled visit by the NSC’s Indo-Pacific coordinator later this week. Domestically there are concerns that the agreement will lead to an increased Chinese presence in the country, and possibly a military base in the near future. Internationally, New Zealand’s foreign minister called the agreement “unwelcome and unnecessary,” and voiced “grave concerns” that the agreement could destabilize the Pacific region’s security. Australian DPM Barnaby Joyce more bluntly stated “We don’t want our own little Cuba off our coast … That is not what is good for this nation, not what is good for this region.” In response to criticism, and of concern, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the deal involved cooperation on “maintenance of social order,” as well as humanitarian assistance, and natural disaster response.

In Other News – Russia Escalates Battle Against the Ukraine Even As Atrocities are Verified – 4/14/2022

April 14, 2022

Russia is escalating the battle against Ukraine even as atrocities are surfacing and verified. This week, Putin stated his intention to keep the war in Ukraine going at full force, and the Ukrainians are now preparing for arduous battles on the Eastern front. At the same time, the UN-partnered security body Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has determined Russia broke international humanitarian law and committed war crimes in Mariupol, and President Biden classified Russia’s actions as a “genocide.” Meanwhile, the war continues to have an indisputable impact on food and energy prices and availability on the global level, which could lead to lashing out at the ballot box.

Recognizing this, President Zelenskyy has recently made efforts to engage with leaders in Africa and other countries in the global south, explaining his nation’s perspective on the conflict and the need for a negotiated outcome. Western diplomats are personally taking their appeals with images from Bucha to India, Israel and other Middle Eastern states to make the case for supporting efforts to isolate Russia. Ukraine is also making a concerted online effort to make the Russian public aware of the true nature of this war and the cost to Russia of Putin’s campaign. As the battle continues, and the whole world feels the impact, these efforts to surface injustice and control the narrative will help determine whether Kyiv can generate and maintain the international support it needs to counter Russia.

Putin is framing the battle with Ukraine as a proxy war between Moscow and Washington ‒ a narrative that serves the interests of Russia and China. As the atrocities in Ukraine continue, and the United States pledges more funding and defense equipment to Ukraine, Putin is now pushing the view that the fight against Ukraine is a proxy war between the United States and Russia. In reality, Russia made an unprovoked attack against a smaller state as Washington was trying to focus on domestic policies and China. But the proxy war framing is gaining more traction than warranted and bolsters Putin’s victim narrative. Painting the United States as the opponent evokes an existential threat to Russia that Ukraine never presented, and it could serve to unite the Russians behind the war effort despite conflicting narratives and economic penalty. The proxy-war framing also allows Beijing to pin the United States as the aggressor and amplify the Chinese state media portrayal of Washington as the instigator of violent conflict.

Further, casting the conflict as a proxy war between the United States and Russia narrows the playing field and could weaken the resolve of some European nations to isolate Putin and deliver critical support for Ukraine. We’re already seeing signs of wavering among some states, as demonstrated by the current French elections, and it’s likely to only get more difficult as the energy crisis deepens. But most importantly perhaps, framing the war as a US-Russia proxy battle undermines the nation of Ukraine: a recognized, autonomous, democratic country that makes its own policy decisions and is defending itself on its own volition.

In Other News – Putin Is Still Looking for Victory After Setbacks, Chinese State Media Is Challenged by a Growing Social Media Movement, & More – 4/7/2022

April 7, 2022

Despite Kyiv setbacks, Putin’s still looking for victory. This week, disturbing images of civilians killed in Bucha reinforced that Putin’s brutality is intrinsic to his modus operandi, and that Chechnya and Syria were harbingers of what was, and is still, to come. At this point, Putin isn’t looking for negotiations he’s looking for a way to win on the battlefield. The extreme violence and loss of human life is justified in Putin’s mind by his misconceived threat of Western aggression against Russia. It’s a narrative Putin’s sown for years, and based on the latest internal polling, his citizens appear to be buying into his disinformation and rallying behind him. Now, as Russia retreats to Belarus to refit, resupply, and redeploy, intelligence suggests that Russia plans to double down in Eastern Ukraine. This will be a hard-fought battle for the Ukrainians, and likely to have a devastating impact.

It’s not just a matter of Russia taking the Donbas. Moscow seemingly has plans to establish a land bridge between the Donbas and Crimea and secure control of coasts on both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. To do this, Putin will need to redeploy from the south and the east and there is speculation on whether Russia’s forces will be able to muster the necessary resilience. The overt brutality of Russian troops in this next stage could further weaken the neutrality of countries like India and Israel and heighten international resolve to increase support for Ukraine. Some military analysts also suggest there are tactical opportunities for Ukraine to develop as Russia retrenches and it gives NATO and others time to also replenish Ukrainian supplies and supply lines for everything including possibly more tanks and even MiGs.

The stakes of the conflict are rising not just for Ukraine but for worldwide supporters of the liberal democratic order and rule of law. And while Russia has suffered deep setbacks in Ukraine, it continues to make gains in its efforts to undermine democratic electoral politics in the West. Indeed, the information war being waged between Russia and its allies, and the West and its allies, is another critical aspect of this conflict. It will be increasingly important to maintain pressure on Putin as food and energy prices soar, supply chains remain disrupted, and Covid continues, along with other knock-on effects, and the framing of the war will impact the extent to which Russia remains isolated, and NATO and the West remain united.

Chinese state media, which continues to amplify Putin’s messaging, is challenged by a growing social media movement that translates Beijing’s propaganda into multiple world languages. While Putin has actively cut off Russian independent media and aims to control the Russian narrative at all costs, Chinese state media has echoed Putin’s messaging and continues to frame the United States as the instigator of the Ukraine invasion and subsequent war. For every egregious human rights violation and war crime Putin’s army commits in Ukraine, President Xi’s media arm makes excuses, often spreading myriad conspiracy theories to explain the horrors. This week, Chinese media representatives offered multiple and contradictory explanations on the Bucha atrocities: the killings were staged by Ukraine, committed by Ukrainians, and committed by Russians against illegal combatants. Indeed, the Chinese campaign is rampant and confusing enough to make the validity of any reporting suspect, which is a key tactic of disinformation.

To expose the blatant propaganda and shame China’s hypocrisy, an international group of Chinese dissidents have organized a growing online campaign to translate state media messaging into languages like English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and others. The effort, dubbed The Great Translation Movement, has grown rapidly and now has over 100,000 Twitter followers. It’s a decentralized effort, and the authors don’t necessarily even know each other, but it has served to expose the Chinese state line to readers far beyond Chinese borders. While the Chinese state media is a powerful propaganda machine, and its message is amplified by the void of competing narratives permitted throughout the nation, Beijing has already demonstrated frustration with The Great Translation Movement‒ indicating that an objective, diffuse social movement can present a threat to Chinese propagandists at the highest level.

In Other News – Russian Intelligence Posture is Weakening Moscow’s Position, & More – 3/31/2022

March 31, 2022

What happens next on the battlefield will impact ongoing negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, not the other way around. Earlier this week, Moscow’s lead negotiator promised to scale-down military operations around Kyiv and northern Ukraine, but even he asserted that this shouldn’t be confused with a ceasefire. NATO intelligence further indicates that Russia isn’t withdrawing, but repositioning, and is looking to regroup and strengthen its offense in Donbas. Indeed, any hint of a Russian ceasefire is more aptly viewed as a military tactic, and the Pentagon estimates that Moscow’s reconfiguring about 20% of its forces. Putin is also expected to maintain pressure on Kyiv and other cities, and brutal offensives aren’t likely to stop even while ceasefire negotiations continue. It appears that Putin may be counting on a war of attrition, and peace talks will be driven by his successes or failures on the battlefield.

While Moscow’s offensive has thus far been hampered by highly competent and resilient Ukrainian defenses, and western weaponry decimating Russian tanks in remarkable numbers, it has also been hindered by its own inability to adapt. It seems that in Putin’s circle, loyalty is valued over critical thinking and sound advice, and there are rumors that Putin isn’t receiving the full story from his advisors about what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine. It now remains to be seen if and how Putin will shift tactics to achieve a more effective attack strategy, or if his decisions will continue to be misguided by delusions of success.

The Russian intelligence posture in Europe is suffering and will further weaken Moscow’s position. The invasion of Ukraine has prompted many European countries to turn their attention to potential Russian penetrations and opportunistically proceed with expulsions to disrupt intelligence operators, assets, and networks. Since February, there’s been a spate of expulsions of suspected Russian operatives in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, The Netherlands and Poland. The recent purge acknowledges that Russian intelligence agents were a driving force behind the Ukraine invasion, and punishes them for it, while mitigating counterintelligence threats in the process. Notably, the expulsions come amidst a doxing operation by the Ukrainian intelligence agency that released a list of 620 alleged FSB officers, all with addresses in and around Lubyanka, again demonstrating Ukrainian aptitude to crowdsource both intelligence and response.

Elections in Hungary this weekend will be the first litmus test of how the war in Ukraine will affect domestic politics in Europe. Opposition to the invasions of Ukraine and the growing aversion Viktor Orban’s application of Putin’s political playbook in Hungary will make for the first truly contested election in Hungary for quite some time. While the united opposition is likely to do well, it’s uncertain whether they will be able to upend Orban’s political stronghold supported by a gerrymandered electoral system, a strong state propaganda apparatus, and a sophisticated and multifaceted nationalist political strategy deftly executed by his political party Fidesz. Whatever the outcome, there is increasing awareness and pressure on would-be autocrats and the far-right movements that seek to emulate Putin, restrict freedoms, and unite a nativist and racist conservative movement across Europe.

In Other News – Russia’s Ukraine Invasion Consequences, Open-Source Intelligence, & More – 3/24/2022

March 24, 2022

Knock-on effects of Russia’s Ukraine invasion will have wide-reach and could shift the global order moving forward. As an immediate consequence of Putin’s offensive in Ukraine, there’s an emergent global food crisis, soaring energy and commodity prices, a refugee crisis in Europe, and financial distress in places as far afield as Egypt and Pakistan. The shifting dynamics of global energy, the resurgence of the Western liberal democratic alliance, the likely permanent divestment from Russia, and the important, yet still undetermined role played by China, will have a profound impact on supply chains and national policies on energy, trade and diplomacy. We’re likely to see these factors play out in upcoming elections in places like France, Hungary and India, and during international diplomacy efforts like the Iran Nuclear Deal and G7/G20 alliances. Political alliances are also subject to realignment, and the United States is making unexpected overtures for aid and trade deals with traditional allies of Russia and China like Venezuela and Indonesia. Nations are likely to see the geopolitical disruption as an opportunity to form, and respond to, new partnerships, and it’s increasingly apparent that self-interest is the primary motivator for these choices. While we’re confronted with overtly global threats like new pandemics and climate change, the future of globalization is clearly on the table.

With a possible stalemate looming in Ukraine, the impact of Putin’s aggression hits home on multiple fronts. While brutal civilian attacks on Ukraine continue, Kyiv is doing its part to hold Russia at bay and Putin is apparently looking for someone to blame. Cracks are visible in his intelligence apparatus, with demonstrated tensions between the President and some of his closest FSB and defense allies. The military offensive has proven more difficult than Putin ever imagined, and this week NATO released estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have died, with up to 40,000 wounded, taken prisoner, or missing. These soldiers have mothers and families back home, and Putin’s going to have to justify their deaths to an increasingly wary population.

Compounding these personal losses are material ones, and in much of Russia there are long lines for basic items such as gas, sugar and flour. Western products are exorbitantly expensive, if they’re available at all, and basic life-sustaining medicines such as insulin have begun disappearing from pharmacy shelves, with no clear guarantee of returning. Russia’s being further challenged by brain drain which could have long-term ramifications. Since the start of the war, it is estimated that more than 200,000 educated middle-class Russians have left the country. IT professionals, who often use their tech-savvy to access information sources restricted by Putin’s regime are among those fleeing in droves- likely further driven by the inability to collect revenue from international clients.

At this point, even if Putin decides to escalate and attempt further military gains, the societal, governmental, and economic ruptures in Russia are substantial and won’t be easily overcome.

Open-source intelligence is impacting military strategy, and Russia is behind the curve. Putin has struggled to achieve the type of quick military victory he anticipated in Ukraine, and clearly underestimated the will and force of Ukrainian resistance, but Moscow has also been failing to adapt to a new aspect of modern warfare: the information shared and analyzed by global citizens. Open-source analysts and hobbyists are taking advantage of online satellite imagery, Twitter images, and videos to track the movement and positioning of Russian troops, and Ukraine is incorporating these assessments into its military strategy. Ukrainians are wise to the power of capturing, disseminating, and utilizing real-time but informal information based on their experience sharing war content back in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. But so far there is little indication that Russia has figured out how to manage this volume of consistent counter-narrative and defend against it. While Russia is desperate to narrate its own story by blocking Facebook, Twitter, and most recently Google News, the proliferation of online images being captured, verified, and analyzed by a borderless community of investigators has a high level of objectivity and is ultimately impossible to contain. Further, the detailed chronicle of open-source imagery is slowly seeping into Russia despite Putin’s best efforts and will make the nature of his invasion hard to dispute for time immemorial.

In Other News – Put Has Cemented Ukrainian Sentiment Further Against Him & More – 17/3/22

March 17, 2022

Putin is aware that complete occupation of Ukraine is becoming highly unlikely, but he’ll try to cut the best deal possible under unfavorable circumstances. Putin continues to launch his brutal attack on Ukrainian civilians, but he’s also attacking the same infrastructure that Moscow would need to effectively command Ukrainian territory in the case of a complete takeover. The UN estimates that infrastructure damage in Ukraine already amounts to over $100 billion, indicating that Putin aims to leave Ukraine in the weakest position possible. Instead of absorbing Ukrainian cities as functional entities, Putin might think that a city left in ruins will be more receptive to one of his puppet leaders. But Putin should be careful that his next steps don’t further the growing internal and external resolve against him.

If ground losses provoke Putin to escalate the violence much further, he risks losing China’s fragile support and perhaps more importantly, the support of his own people. There are already indications that Putin’s not only confronting demonstrations on the street but facing resistance from the inside. He’s rumored to have recently taken actions to neutralize army generals and members of the intelligence services, indicating a high degree of distress and awareness of the discontent. There’s likely a great deal of unease and unhappiness within other governmental institutions about how this invasion was rolled out. Longer term these factors will present a threat to his position. In the short run, the prospects of a satisfying agreement for either Putin or Zelenskyy looks increasingly unlikely. Both leaders will be forced into making concessions, and while thousands of lives have been lost, no party will emerge victorious.

In negotiations this week, Zelenskyy acknowledged that Ukraine “must admit” it won’t join NATO to move peace talks forward, appeasing one of Putin’s primary demands. But key NATO members were already opposed to admitting Ukraine before the invasion and Putin knew that. What Putin wanted was complete ownership of Ukraine, not just a defensive separation between Moscow and NATO members. But as the war progresses, it’s become apparent that to succeed in his quest at expansion, Putin didn’t need NATO guarantees he needed the acquiescence of the Ukrainian people. The irony is that every action Putin has undertaken in Ukraine, whether it be the support of Yanukovich, to the egregious invasion of Crimea, to the current invasions have done nothing but cement Ukrainian sentiment further against him.

Where is the Hybrid Warfare? Russia’s cyber capability to augment its physical assault on Ukraine, and to respond asymmetrically to Western sanctions, remains an ongoing threat. And yet, thus far the expected deluge of cyber warfare has not come. While the Ukrainian cyber agency SSCIP has reported more than 3000 cyberattacks against Ukraine since February, Ukraine has deftly been able to fend off much of the assault and further launch its own rather effective cyber campaign against Russian military infrastructure. Russia’s reported cyberattacks have mostly been paired with local kinetic attacks to limit Ukrainian communications and maintain access to information, but they have largely failed. There could be a larger cyber wave looming, or Moscow might have been taken aback by the degree of Ukrainian defense. It also remains to be seen if Russia’s planning a wider attack targeting the West or if it’s holding that option in abeyance pending the war’s outcome. Regardless of Russia’s cyber strategy, there will be knock-on effects of the increase in malware circulating on a global level and proactive cyber security efforts are warranted.

In Other News – Russia’s Invasion in the Ukraine – 3/10/22

March 10, 2022

The war will go on, for now. As Russia’s offensive in Ukraine increases in brutality and scope, it appears that the Ukrainian resolve to fight back has augmented with equivalent fervor. A third attempt at negotiations failed, arguably with less areas of possible agreement than the first two.

The reverberations of Putin’s Ukraine invasion could have long term impact on the global order.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is reverberating in geopolitical dynamics concerning energy, trade, diplomacy, and security, with no end in sight. To win European support for a ban on Russian energy exports, the U.S. is making overtures to Russian allies as varied as Azerbaijan to Venezuela to broker deals that pair aid, trade deals, and sanctions relief in exchange for fuel. Negotiations on a renewed Iran Nuclear Deal are also advancing apace with Western hopes to secure Iranian oil sooner rather than later. Israel’s Prime Minister Bennett has proffered himself as a possible arbiter of the Ukrainian conflict in his own bid to ensure Israeli security imperatives that will potentially have to address a less constrained Iran and a beleaguered Syria on its borders. The conflict has further underscored diplomatic and strategic ambiguities of traditional U.S. allies – with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and India equivocating unexpectedly. How these complicated dynamics play out in the next few weeks could set the precedent for a new global order in years to come.

Fake News
Russia’s long-running information and propaganda war against the West is on display in full force over the invasion of Ukraine. All foreign media, including social media, has been banned or closed shop as reporting that veers from official narratives has been outlawed in Russia. Furthering the incongruous narrative that Russia has entered Ukraine to protect all Ukrainians from “drug-addled Nazi fascists,” Russia has promulgated fake stories about the discovery of chemical and biological weapons on the Eastern border of Ukraine. Interestingly, it seems that China’s strategic ambivalence continues in this area as well, as Chinese State Media shares many of these false narratives while simultaneously openly portraying the humanitarian plight of the Ukrainians at the hands of the Russian invasion.

Nuclear Conundrums
The IAEA reported that remote data transmissions for monitoring systems at Chernobyl have been lost since Tuesday, and the 210 staff, on-site since the war began, cannot rotate out of regular shifts. The critical nuclear site lost power on Wednesday, but the IAEA says there was no critical impact on safety. This follows reports that Russian forces shelled a neutron generator at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology. Western confusion as to why exactly Russia is targeting these sites adds to the alarm that Putin has ordered his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness.” Some believe Putin’s interest in these sites is mainly anchored in his desire to advance the narrative that he is protecting Russia from Ukrainian ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. Many argue that his dabbling in this nuclear space is focused mainly on messaging the West that he is willing to consider using nuclear weapons. One purported FSB Whistleblower assesses that Putin is unlikely to go for the nuclear route, and that the decision is not his alone. He notes further, there is not high confidence that the nuclear protocols would function properly having suffered from a lack of transparency in recent years, and it is unclear whether the plutonium fuel has been replenished in the past decade as would be required. At this stage, we assess that Putin is not seriously considering targeting a Ukrainian or European city or electrical grid with a nuclear weapon.

The Jedburgh Podcast – Jumping In with CIA Operations Director Jack Devine – 3/6/2022

Watch Jack Devine while he discusses the Ukraine, Russia, Putin & war in Europe in ‘22 on the Jedburgh Podcast.

Bloomberg Radio – What is Putin’s Endgame? – 3/5/2022

Listen to Jack Devine on Bloomberg Radio where he discusses Putin and the Ukraine.

Jack Devine’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed: Putin Has Ensured His Own Downfall – 3/3/2022

Read Jack Devine’s newest Wall Street Journal Op-Ed on Putin and his downfall.