Intelligence Brief: Russia-Ukraine Crisis Threatens to Escalate

Not surprisingly, the trio of meetings aimed at heading off further Russian aggression against Ukraine – U.S.-Russia, Russia-NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – did not produce any solutions. Russia left the meetings expressing disappointment and asking for even greater changes in European security dispositions, including that NATO forces leave NATO member states Romania and Bulgaria. For NATO’s part, it came away from the meetings fairly united in its position. While a mention by President Biden in his lengthy news conference late last week about possible divisions with European allies about how best to deter Russia raised a few concerns among NATO members, the U.S. administration quickly clarified his remarks, and the Alliance seems to be largely on the same page in terms of messaging to Moscow.

In the meanwhile, Russia continues its troop buildup around Ukraine, including in Belarus, and it continues to engage in hostile rhetoric against both Ukraine and the West. Finally, some Ukrainian government websites were hit with cyberattacks that Kyiv blamed on Russia. Despite making no progress in high level bilateral talks in Geneva the United States and Russia have agreed to keep meeting and talking in the coming week, leaving a door open for some negotiated solution.

Russia retains significant options both on the diplomatic and the military front against Ukraine and against Europe and the United States if it so chooses. At the most severe end, the British government has told press outlets that it has information that Moscow is planning on replacing the sitting government in Ukraine with one more acceptable to Russia. In order to overthrow the government of Ukraine, Moscow would have to engage in a full-scale invasion, some type of not so covert assassination, or a decapitation by air and missile strike when much of the Ukrainian leadership were in one place. All are within Russia’s military and intelligence capabilities, but they would also bring about the most unified and severe response from the United States and its European allies. Attacks that were easier to deny or were limited in time and space might make Western unity in response more difficult. Observers point to Germany’s supposed reluctance to support certain military measures, for example not allowing flights from NATO allies over its territory that were delivering arms to Ukraine. British and German officials later denied that such a refusal took place, saying that no overflight request occurred.

Other reports indicate a rift in the Alliance where Germany refuses, at least so far, to include Nordstream 2 in the package of sanctions that could be triggered if Russia undertakes more military action against Ukraine. Germany has not publicly ruled out including Nordstream 2, and Berlin’s decision may depend on any future level of Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Another factor will be what type of Russian response there is if, a) Moscow chooses to escalate violence against Ukraine and b) Europe and the U.S. respond with sanctions. Russia could choose to strike against European states diplomatically, economically, and/or militarily (including covert intelligence and deniable cyber attacks). Moscow will target both the Ukrainian government and its support by the Ukrainian public as well as the unity of the NATO. If it can, through a series of military, political, and economic moves, split open Ukraine and/or the Western Alliance, it will have made significant progress in its goals of changing the European security framework in its favor. The stakes are high, and despite the continued Russia-U.S. talks in Geneva this coming week, it still appears that Moscow believes it has more to gain than lose by escalating the situation.

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