U.S.-Russia-Ukraine standoff may shift the battlefield online

Russian cyberwarfare continues to shape the conflict, USC experts say, but alliances could curb more aggressive strategies.

February 18, 2022 Paul McQuiston

After weeks of escalations between Russia, the United States and Western Europe, the volatile situation in the Ukraine seems to have reached a stalemate, with Russia indicating they would begin withdrawing troops from the contested border.

However, while the conflict begins to cool in the real world, the online battle rages on — and doesn’t look to end soon. Détente in the Ukraine may only set off a wave of other conflicts.

Cyberattacks, subterfuge critical to Russian tactics

The Russian threat of a full throttle invasion in the Ukraine is the latest step in a series of aggressive actions taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand that country’s influence and territory and reclaim the former Soviet state. And it has happened before. The 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula looms large to those analyzing the conflict. The question remains how much the United States and NATO should interfere with the former Eastern Bloc.

Besides sending more troops to the Ukrainian border, Russia is beefing up efforts on another front: cyber. Well-established tactics like utilizing bots on social media to sow discord and increase political polarization remains part of the country’s modus operandai, threatening not only elections but also disrupting commerce online. Russia obfuscates its involvement with hacker groups, thereby shifting blame.

Clifford Neuman, director of USC’s Center for Computer Security and a researcher at USC’s Information Sciences Institute, said he believes Russia will continue to take this concealed approach.

“It is unlikely that Russia would take credit for such an attack,” he said. “Instead, they would likely put forth the narrative that independent hacker groups were motivated on their own to conduct such attacks.”

Russia may also take a less aggressive approach on the ground than it did in Crimea. It could instead appeal to the Russian-majority separatist Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, according to Robert English, associate professor of International Foreign Policy and Defense Analysis in the School of International Relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

If there is no compromise … then Putin could shift tactics and do something even more serious than threatening war.

Robert English,
School of International Relations

“If there is no compromise, no deal satisfying both NATO and Russian security, then Putin could shift tactics and do something even more serious than threatening war,” English said. “Russia could recognize the independence of the Donbas. That would infuriate Western Ukrainians, and NATO would call it dismembering Ukraine. But Russia would say ‘if you won’t agree to keep Ukraine out of NATO, then we will build a buffer zone here.’

“Russia wouldn’t have to annex the Donbas as they did Crimea, they could simply recognize it as independent and help it build a stronger military and borders from the rest of Ukraine. And they will say, ‘You backed Kosovo secession from Serbia, so we are backing Donbas secession from Ukraine.’”

Alliances may stymie Russian, NATO objectives

Germany and China continue to monitor events in Eastern Europe with major strategic and economic objectives on the line. Germany will hope development can continue with the $11 billion Nord Stream II pipeline project connecting Russian natural gas to Germany beneath the Baltic Sea. President Joe Biden has wielded economic sanctions to ward off Russian aggression, and he has warned the United States and its allies would shut down the pipeline project if Russia invades Ukraine. However, recently appointed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has held a softer line, downplaying the political implications of the project.

While the United States is shoring up its allies, Russia is doing the same. Putin recently visited Chinese leader Xi Jinping in advance of the Winter Olympics, which are taking place in Beijing. As the situation in Ukraine has unfolded over recent months, China has increasingly vocalized its dissatisfaction with NATO involvement in Europe. On Feb. 7, Putin and Xi cemented both countries’ stance against any NATO expansion. Despite their unified front, there may be limits to Russian-Chinese cooperation, according to Gregory F. Treverton, professor of the Practice of International Relations and Spatial Sciences at USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute.

“Russia and China have been pushed together by their common adversary, the U.S.,” said Treverton, who served as chairperson of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014-17. “But I’ve thought there are sharp limits on their cooperation, especially that in any alliance, Putin would be the junior partner, which seems no part of his imaginings.

The issue is whether [Putin] feels he has to do something.

Gregory F. Treverton, USC Dornsife
professor of international relations

“The issue is whether he feels he has to do something. I’m betting that time, plus perhaps some gestures toward his desires — like Ukraine saying it has no intention to join NATO — will let the whole affair fizzle out. Germany is central because it is the most important U.S. ally in Europe but one very dependent on Russian gas. The Nord Stream II pipeline project is a very big deal for it, so the last thing it wants is for that to be lost in sanctions.”

Ultimately, Treverton said that Putin’s negotiating position has been weakened by unrealistic demands throughout the conflict.

“Putin has backed himself into a corner. He made demands on NATO that, while sincere on his part, had no chance of being met. He is impetuous, so anything is possible, but he has absolutely no reason to invade Ukraine. Who would sign up for an insurgency?”