By Kishika Mahajan*
After much speculation, Russia has finally begun a ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine. The hostilities between the two countries threaten to spread wider. The military action came after Russia decided to send the “peacekeeping force” to the separatist Donbas region of Ukraine. The Russian action was preceded by a wave of cyberattacks on Ukraine involving two banks, its defence, foreign, and cultural ministries and the army. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister accused Russia of carrying out these attacks and also noted that this is one of the largest attacks of its kind ever seen.
These cyberattacks appear to be straight from the hybrid warfare tactics adopted by Russia against its adversaries in recent years. Comparing the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and with the current series of events unfolding in and around Ukraine, this article analyses how Russia is trying to perfect its hybrid warfare playbook by using new techniques and learning from the West’s reactions.
Concept of Hybrid Warfare
Hybrid warfare essentially refers to the use of unconventional methods of warfare clubbed with the traditional means of military actions. It includes means like economic coercion, disinformation and propaganda, use of proxies, cyber warfare, etc. Considering the many advantages that this mode of warfare offers, it is fairly intuitive why nations today choose this course of action.
Given the inherent element of ambiguity in hybrid warfare, the West has found it difficult to counter it. Nonetheless, few ideas that can prove useful for the West to develop some kind of a defence against it include identification of non-state actors and increased resilience to tackle disinformation tactics.
Comparing 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea with the current situation in Ukraine
In February 2014, as a result of the failure of the Ukrainian government signing the long-negotiated deal of Ukraine’s association with the EU, there were a huge number of anti-government protests observed in Ukraine, known as the Euromaidan crisis. These protests led to the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych and him fleeing the country. Post this, the pro-Russian politician Sergei Aksonov was appointed the Prime Minister after pro-Russian activists protested outside the Crimean Parliament. After Russia pledged the use of its armed forces in Ukraine, a referendum was planned to make Crimea a part of Russia—a move condemned by Ukraine. The results of the referendum purportedly showed a majority of Ukrainian citizens wanting to join Russia. Since no international observation of the referendum was allowed, questions were raised over the credibility of the referendum. Nevertheless, Crimea officially became a part of Russia.
The current situation in Ukraine is eerily similar to 2014. Although the West, too, is assisting Ukraine with weapons and by sending troops, that isn’t proving to be sufficient to effectively fight the strategically positioned and the high number of Russian troops. After a series of events of Russia threatening a nuclear attack, calling back some troops and now, announcing an outright war and launching a full scale invasion, the West is bound to react but again, that didn’t stop Russia from declaring a war and it is unlikely that it will turn things the right way.
Because Russia has previously invaded and annexed Crimea, nobody is doubting Putin’s ability to do the same again, only this time, the scale of the attack and the retaliation from the West (i.e., NATO) will be of a higher magnitude as well. Keeping that in mind, it might prove to be useful to compare and analyse these two crisis situations, Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine, as a whole, in 2021-22 from the perspective of hybrid warfare.
Use of proxies
In the case of the 2014 invasion, it is no doubt that the annexation of Crimea was one of the smoothest invasions in modern times. Russian intelligence played a crucial role in ensuring the plan was extremely discreet. With soldiers being regularly infused in Crimea and along with that several undercover civilian volunteers, the invasion moved along unnoticed. For instance, there were Russian men in Ukrainian uniforms posing to be police and army on check posts who ensured checking of every person except the locals during the time of the invasion planning to seal off Crimea for Russia. After the annexation, these volunteers and “soldiers” helped in securing Ukrainian bases. This was a much more planned surreptitious penetration that not only speeded up but also ensured a sure shot annexation without much revolt from Ukraine.
Another area that can be looked into is the covertness of both situations. The operation in Crimea was done in a smooth and surreptitious manner by using intelligence forces. As a result, the invasion was over before the rest of the world could retaliate or even understand what happened. This is not exactly the case with the current situation. The entire trajectory of the military build-up along the Ukrainian border has happened openly. Every move of Russia is being closely monitored. This also raises the question if the Russian moves are just a way of asserting power and leveraging the West into bending as per Moscow’s demands.
Disinformation and propaganda
In Crimea’s case, to formally make Crimea a part of Russia, the referendum gave Russia the pretext—the “willingness of the people” in Crimea to join the Russian Federation—for annexation. Russia’s propaganda has been accused of not being in any relation to the objective reality. There have been accusations of Russia hiring actors who play as victims of various tragedies, manufacturing evidences, fake reporting, amongst others.
In the case of the current crisis, the disinformation part is clearly evident from the US report which noted the Russian plan to fabricate an attack by the Ukrainian officials against the Russian-speaking people. This incident would have then served as a justification for the attack on Ukraine. While there is considerable debate surrounding the issue, this debate itself shows the power of disinformation and propaganda in carrying forward a narrative.
Cyberattacks on Ukraine
However, the most significant part of the hybrid warfare is the series of cyberattacks on Ukraine, attributed to Russia. These attacks have helped Russia to keep the Ukrainian security establishment preoccupied with dealing with the aftermath of the cyber breaches and disruptions.
In the case of the Crimea crisis in March 2014, cyberattacks against Ukraine led to a collapse of communication lines in the region, primarily involving the members of the Parliament. Apart from this, the Ukrainian government websites were also hacked and they remained non-functional until 72 hours after Russia took over Crimea.
In the case of the current crisis, a similar course of Russian action is evident. On 14 January, 2022, a major cyberattack hit Ukrainian government websites that warned the Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst”. Further, Russia’s intelligence and military agencies have also been accused by Ukraine’s military intelligence for providing tanks, mobile artillery, fuel, etc. in areas in eastern Ukraine.
In fact, the Russians have honed the use of cyberattacks to achieve their geopolitical objectives. A similar use of cyberattacks was seen in 2007 in Estonia, when Russia launched a series of cyberattacks against Estonian banks and government sites. Similarly, in 2008, in a dispute with Georgia, even before Russian forces attacked, there were cyberattacks and disinformation tactics which significantly impacted Georgian security establishment.
What can be concluded from the analysis is that Russia has successfully anticipated the probable response from the West from its attack in 2014. Even now, NATO has not agreed to send combat troops to Ukraine. Even the Western economic sanctions are unlikely to harm the Russian economy significantly. By sending troops into the two rebel regions and now, even after launching a full scale invasion, the West seems reluctant to respond. And in that response lies the success of Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics.
*The author is a research intern at ORF. The views expressed above belong to the author(s).