• Eyal Pinko

Ukraine and Russia on the verge of war: Hybrid Warfare

Darkness! The lights went out all along the eastern borderline. ­No streetlights, no lights in the houses. In the Ukrainian winter, snow falls and covers the empty streets and roads. No people outside. The cellular networks are dead. No signal.

Freezing silence is all over the streets of Kyiv, a bustling city that has become as silent as a graveyard. The silence before the storm.

In the darkness of the night, hundreds of Russian bombers cross the border from the Black Sea shores to the northern city of Shostka - flying towards their targets. The Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles and cannon brigades are firing, with all power, towards the bombers. But the Russian warplanes operate advanced electronic warfare systems, and the Ukrainian missiles miss their targets.

The bomb attacks, which seem endless, destroy houses, buildings, and roads. Destruction has been shown everywhere. The smell of gunpowder rises in the air.

At the same time, the ground artillery barrels are thundering, accompanied by Mi-25 combat helicopters, armored columns and infantry units break through the border, rushing towards Ukrainian cities, trying to create a territorial continuity to the island of Crimea.

To the south, in the Black Sea, Black Navy ships are operating and creating a naval blockade on the shores of Ukraine, preventing all NATO and US Navy warships from approaching the coasts of Ukraine.

If it will be, this is how the battle for Ukraine is likely to look like. Multi-dimensional Russian attack - Hybrid warfare, land, air, sea, and cyberspace. The attack aims to gain control of the territory between the Russian border and the island of Crimea, create a territorial continuity, and convey a strong and clear message to Western countries and Europe that Russia is not to be messed with.

Putin is fed up. He is impatient and realizes that now is the right time. NATO continues to expand. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, 14 countries have joined the organization, with a total of 30 members. Ukraine is also about to join it. Putin is concerned, and he wants to make sure that NATO does not expand further.

He demands from NATO to reduce military maneuvers and air activity. But the West does not accept his demands. Putin warns that Russia will have to take the necessary steps to secure its strategic balance and remove unacceptable threats to national security.

Ukraine is the perfect "platform" for that. According to the Russians, Ukraine has not respected the Minsk agreement since the last campaign in 2014. This is an excellent excuse to put pressure on Ukraine.

More than that, in the Donbas region, there is a pro-Russian majority, on which Russia seeks to "defend" against the pro-Western moves of the Ukraine government and unite the two nations, which in Putin's view are one.

Marching to an armed conflict, it is interesting to examine the preparations of the Russian military for the potential upcoming campaign. On the one hand, the Russian military directs classic war moves, transferring about 150,000 soldiers to the border, concentrating combat systems, tanks, artillery, air defense systems, planes, helicopters, and more.

At the same time, the Russian military is launching other moves as part of a comprehensive warfare doctrine, known as "Hybrid Warfare." This doctrine combines classic military efforts with the use of "soft" power. Soft power aims to achieve military and political goals without using military force and kinetic weapons.

In this context, for example, according to the White House, Russian military intelligence operates agents on Ukrainian soil. The agents' job is to recruit the pro-Russian population and to direct a Ukrainian attack on the Kremlin's directive, which will provide an "excuse" for the Russian military to launch a counterattack.

Like the 2015 campaign, Russian forces are launching a large-scale cyber-attack to shut down the Ukrainian national infrastructure, such as electricity networks, trains, communications, and cellular networks. With the assistance provided by US cybersecurity agencies to Ukraine, several "hidden" malware – "Back Doors" - were discovered. The "Back Doors" were waiting for the Russian order to operate and cause damages.

The purpose of the Russian cyber offensive is to paralyze and shut down the critical national infrastructure in Ukraine so that the Russian military forces will find it easier to attack targets in the country and dismantle Ukraine's military defense capability.

In parallel with efforts to disable national infrastructure, the Russian cyber network carries out cyberattacks designed to produce influence. These efforts are psychological warfare efforts, which use the various media infrastructure, Internet, and social networks to influence Ukrainian leadership and sow fear and terror among Ukrainian residents Encouraging and raising morale for the pro-Russian people of Ukraine.

Some of the psychological warfare efforts are directed against the United States and NATO to convey messages lest they interfere in the conflict between the two countries.

As part of the psychological efforts and for many years, the Russian state-funded and state-directed media outlets have promoted false and provocative stories about Ukraine. They do this to influence opinion. They portray Ukraine’s government as an instigator of violence, even against its own civilians.

For example, in April 2021, a Russian media outlet reported that a Ukrainian armed forces drone killed a young boy in the eastern Donbas region. The boy’s family did not confirm the incident. No credible, official organizations confirmed this report either.

In the field of influence, Twitter and Telegram have become a playground between the parties. Many profiles are likely to be controlled by Russian statesmen, posting messages condemning Ukrainian rule, calling for unification between the states, and publicizing the capabilities of the Russian military, threatening the West and Ukraine.

A notable example of Russian influence efforts via the Internet is the first wave of a cyber-attack on January 14. About 70 Ukrainian governmental websites were attacked and shut down, including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defense websites. The Russian attackers left a message for users when accessing the sites: "Ukrainians - all information about you is now public. You must be afraid and expect the worst!".

The Russian military units are "warming engines," forces have accumulated along the borders, commando units and intelligence agents are already operating deep in Ukraine, psychological warfare units are scattering the blood-curdling messages, cyber teams dropped the "back doors" and are waiting for the operation, and the Foreign Ministry is conducting a public dialogue with journalists. This is synchronized, coordinated, and sophisticated hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare, as only the Russians know how to do.

Over the next week, the Russian military is expected to hold a multi-armed exercise near the Ukrainian border, which will last ten days. It is expected to end on February 20. When its forces are at their readiness peak - during the exercise or at the end - is the Russian military expected to maneuver into Ukraine? Will the snowy February bring with it surprises? Will Putin withdraw under Western pressure? We have to wait and see.

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