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16 July, 2020  ▪  Марк Войджер

The gathering autumn clouds

Perceptions of weakness drive the Kremlin’s hybrid aggression against America and Ukraine to new heights

For decades during the Cold War, the discipline of international relations was dominated by the theory of realism, whose main postulate was that the international system of states resembles a “billiard ball model”, a field of multiple competing states whose interaction and clashes is based only on the logic of their foreign policy interests. What happened domestically within those state’s borders was not considered as important for analyzing their future actions or the actions of their international rivals. This theoretical model was already flawed back then, and it is even more deficient nowadays, in the post-Cold War period, when domestic political developments and crises have a direct and often dramatic impact on a nation’s international standing, on the fate of its allies, and on the actions of its competitors. When it comes to domestic crises evolving within global powers, such as the United States, their impact is multiplied by the perceptions of their strategic rivals, such as Russia and China, who often feel that they can act with impunity and expand into areas they view as vitally important, while the global hegemon is distracted by trying to handle multiple competing challenges internally. In the era of hybrid warfare and indirect, surreptitious, cross-border actions as the preferred weapon of choice of the Kremlin, the negative effects of this universal principle of “Perceptions Become Reality” usually fall upon Russia’s neighbors, such as Ukraine and Belarus, who feel increasing pressure across multiple domains – political, socio-cultural, economic, legal; and even face the threat of potential renewed military action as Moscow increasingly perceives the US leadership as increasingly weakened, conveniently distracted and sufficiently detached from the Ukrainian hybrid battlefront. 

The summer of 2020 and the upcoming fall months offer exactly such a propitious moment for the Kremlin to increase its pressure on Ukraine and Belarus, both in the non-military domains, as well as the military one, through political, as well as kinetic actions. The primary reason for the Kremlin to feel so emboldened is the series of ongoing dramatic events that, in its view, threaten to engulf America’s polity in a continuous chaos, while distracting the US leadership from the European theater, and refocusing the US attention inward, toward its own societal and health issues. Among those critical domestic factors are the ongoing violent protests of the radical leftist movements in America, the increasing spread of the COVID-19 pandemics on US soil, and the frictions created by the President Trump with the NATO allies following his totally unexpected and unwarranted decision to withdraw 25 percent of the US troops in Europe. To compound it all, the recent revelations of Russia’s GRU bounty payments to the Taliban for the killing of American and NATO servicemembers in Afghanistan, threaten to leave an indelible mark on an already embattled and discredited President in the most critical year of elections. To navigate successfully those turbulent international waters in the coming months, Ukraine must mobilize all its national resolve, diplomatic skills, and leadership wisdom, to preserve its sovereignty and integrity in the face of a potential renewed Russian aggression on multiple fronts.

The past several weeks the situation in certain areas in America has become unstable and volatile due to two major domestic crises - the COVID 19 pandemics that continues to rage across the US, with the number of reported infected persons on the rise; that coincided with the outburst of violent riots that  started as legitimate and peaceful anti-racist demonstrations, but quickly turned into angry mob attacks against the police, state institutions, businesses, and lately – multiple historical monuments. It has already become clear that these protests are no longer spontaneous, but are organized by a number of radical organizations, first and foremost ANTIFA (the radical leftist anti-Fascist movement), or the Black Lives Matter Movement’s radical wings, such as the notorious “Black Panthers”. Their violent actions have led to the feeling of instability and anxiety within America’s society that play in the hands of President Donald Trump, and ultimately – Moscow. The Kremlin has a long-standing tradition of supporting and inciting such movements in the West, in general, and in America, in particular, that goes back to the racial riots in America in the late 1960s. The rational has always been to keep America distracted by fomenting violence based on stoking the existing social and racial tensions, thus scoring a propaganda victory by showing to the world that America is a “racist country”, while at the same time untying the Moscow’s hands to suppress both domestic dissent, as well as emancipation movements in countries it considers within its sphere of influence. In 1968 the protest of the Western European youth and the racial riots in America allowed the USSR to crush the Prague Spring unopposed by a weakened and distracted West, and Moscow’s logic is very much the same nowadays, given that the conditions on the ground are structurally similar, and the “textbook” of the Kremlin’s hybrid action has long been written and successfully tested over half a century ago.

The ongoing protests are a mixed blessing for President Trump, for sure, as on the one hand he is using them to portray himself as the only force of stability amidst the chaos unleashed by the radical left. On the other hand, he instinctively overreacted by threatening to meet the violence with violence, not only by pushing the states’ governors to use their National Guard units to disperse the protestors, but very disturbingly – by trying to draw the US military into this complicated matter. While there exists a legal option for using regular US troops on US soil, it is limited strictly to suppressing insurrection (as was the case with the US Civil War when the North’s legal rationale was defeating the Southern insurgents and restoring the Union). The current situation, of course, is completely different, and not surprisingly, Trump’s highly unusual demand to use the US army at home was met with the strongest opposition of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley. This negative reaction revealed, regardless of the official public reconciliatory statements, that Trump’s erratic demands tend to cause frictions between the civilian and military leadership in times of crises. The Kremlin likely sees these internal dynamics that are pushed openly into the public space, as yet another sign of Trump’s dysfunctional relationship with his professional military establishment and another opportunity to potentially try to test the US resolve internationally. 

To compound matters even further, Trump’s announcement of the planned withdrawal of 9500 US troops from Germany (almost 25 percent of the personnel of US Army Europe), has caught everyone by surprise - from America’s NATO allies in Europe, in particular Germany (whom Trump is trying to punish), to the US military, including the Pentagon leadership. It came as yet another demonstration of the inclination of Trump and his team to take even such important strategic decisions in the dark, without consulting the military establishment who are expected to execute those unsubstantiated plans. 


This is de facto an undeserved strategic gift to Putin and the Kremlin, that comes at the least appropriate moment and totally unexpectedly for America’s allies and partners. It is a unilateral step that has not been reciprocated on the part of the Kremlin in any meaningful way, since Moscow has taken no steps to stop its aggressive war against Ukraine, On the contrary, it is moving to expand it potentially this fall, by using a number of military and non-military tools in the well-tested “all of government” model that Russian 21stcentury hybrid warfare is characterized with. At the level of military engagements, the most likely scenario for the Kremlin could include using the strategic exercises Caucasus 2020 exercises as cover for a new military invasion of Ukrainian territory, just like it used military exercises near the border with Ukraine prior to the occupation of Crimea. Unlike the summer of 2014, however, when Russia introduced regular troops and subversive GRU elements in the Donbass, but constantly and vehemently has to deny their presence there to this day, a potential Russian military aggression this fall could finally be launched in an overt fashion for reasons pertaining to Russia’s successful use of information warfare and lawfare against Ukraine. These hybrid tools would allow the Kremlin to claim, internationally and domestically, that it is “legally justified” to intervene in Ukraine to protect both the Russian-speaking citizens there, as well as the population in Crimea. Two important developments since 2014 are reaching a critical stage that could allow Russia to act labeling its aggression as “defensive” and “humanitarian” actions. The ongoing lack of water supply to Crimea from Ukrainian territory can be used by the Kremlin to claim that an impending humanitarian catastrophe is at hand in the course of the summer months, which would necessitate a “sallying out” of Crimea to capture the Kahovka reservoir and other water supply facilities. On the lawfare “front”, the process of “passportization” of the Russian-speaking population of the Donbass is proceeding at an alarming rate, with the number of Russian passport holders reaching one million, according to some reports. Any military action there can already be portrayed by Russia as a justified military operation to protect the substantial number of “Russian citizens” abroad. This use of lawfare for operational purposes will likely be matched by the Kremlin’s strategic lawfare, likely based on the most recent demands within the Minsk Group, that Ukraine introduces changes to its constitution and recognizes the Russia-occupied portions of the Donbass – the so-called DPR and LPR – as legitimate entities that Ukraine must negotiate with directly. Following Ukraine’s refusal to do so, and implement the other Russian demands written into the Paris meeting protocol in December 2019 (de-mining, de-fortification, the opening of new border control points), Russia could easily claim that the Ukrainian leadership is reneging on its legally binding promises, then organize a series of provocations in the occupied Donbass to use as pretext for overt military action. Last, but not least, in the sphere of information warfare, no other but President Putin himself delivered quasi-historical narratives about Russia’s role in WWII filled with complaints about the presumed “loss of Russian lands” during the Soviet Union, especially territories that according to him were ceded to Ukraine in that period. Putin’s publishing of his article in a major American journal – the National Interest – is not simply yet another attempt to pervert history, but should be interpreted as a critically important link of the Kremlin’s infowarfare – lawfare combined hybrid action aimed at preparing the information and legal “operational environment” at the international level for potential impending Russian kinetic action, should the Kremlin decides that there are no other options left to force Ukraine to comply and accept the Russian terms. 

Two of the latest moves by the Russian military prove that these scenarios are real, and can be implemented with the sufficient number of Russian troops in position – both near Ukraine, as well as in the direction of NATO’s Baltic Republics and Poland. Right after the Trump administration announced its plans to withdraw 25 percent of the US Army Europe service members, Russia’s military announced its intentions to move additional military units in the Western strategic direction, that would directly threaten Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Belarus. Such military deployments can also be used to put pressure on President Lukashenko amidst the ongoing political crisis in Belarus to accept a deeper integration with the RF – a potential development that will pose a direct military threat to Ukraine from the North.

The history of the relations between Russia and the West has clearly proven that any concession on the part of America in particular, have always been perceived by the Kremlin as a sign of weakness, as this was the case during the Cold War’s confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, the announced US troops reduction, combined with the overall refocusing of America’s attention domestically due to the COVID pandemics and the violent protest movement stateside, could embolden the Kremlin to exploit to the maximum degree the perceived America’s distraction with its own domestic issues, especially given the upcoming critical US presidential election this November. 

In order to counteract this, both chambers of the US Congress, which have traditionally demonstrated strong support for NATO and Euro-Atlantic security, must adopt legislation aimed at reversing Trump’s irrational withdrawal plans that threaten to weaken Europe’s defense and strengthen and embolden Russia.  

Still, there are positive signs, too, as the US and NATO continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and pro-Western course, following the announcement of a number of important decisions in the past few weeks that promised to have positive strategic, as well as tactical impact on the security situation related to Ukraine. On 12 June the North Atlantic Council recognized Ukraine as an expanded capabilities partners, which will deepen Ukraine’s cooperation and inter-operability with NATO during future operations and NATO missions. 

Across the Atlantic, the US foreign policy and security elites perfectly aware of the security situation around Ukraine and are constantly try to help the country increase its defense potential in the context of the ongoing Russian aggression. The latest announcement by the State Department of the sale of 16 Mark VI speedboats that could be used for coastal defense, is a clear sign of America’s continued support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and national security. These new naval assets will help Ukraine counter the naval threat from the Russian Federation, in particular in the Azov Sea, and protect its territorial waters in that region. Although this step is not a magic “silver bullet” solving all of Ukraine’s security problems stemming from Russia’s aggression, it will undoubtedly help stabilize the military balance in the regions of the Black and Azov Seas, and potentially help dissuade the Russian leadership from launching aggressive actions to take over Ukraine’s Azov coast. 

The coming summer and fall months between June and November are fraught with the threat of many potential real or engineered crises – internationally, within America and the West, as well as domestically for Ukraine. Ukraine and its leadership must use the few positive security developments and political trends, albeit limited in number and scope, to navigate through those stormy waters, while simultaneously preparing to withstand the most dangerous and negative potential scenarios. Only the perception of Ukraine’s strength, resolve and unity can dissuade the Kremlin from launching yet another military adventure, and bring hope to Ukraine’s people that the stormy autumn clouds will disperse without unleashing yet another deadly storm from the Northeast. 

Mark Voyger, Visiting Scholar with the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, Washington, D.C., USA


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