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Thursday, March 23, 2023

If Russia invades Ukraine, what’s next?

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With all of the focus on whether or not Russia will invade Ukraine, and how the West might respond, little public attention is being given to the day after in this crisis. Few are asking the question, “What will Moscow do in response to the West’s answer to Russia’s aggression, and where will that leave the West, in turn?”  

From the outset, if the West and NATO are to maintain credibility, there must be a response. Uncontested aggression only breeds more uncontested aggression and not responding could well set a dangerous precedent further afield. 

Every crisis develops, however, its own dynamic and it is critical that this dynamic be considered when planning a slate of responses. Every geopolitical contest of wills requires thinking through the move after the immediate move, and right now it would appear that Washington, London, Brussels and indeed Moscow are not considering what comes next or what comes thereafter.   

On Saturday, in a call with President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUS cyber defense agency warns of possible Russian cyberattacks amid tensions Sunday shows preview: White House says Russia could invade ‘any day’; RNC censure resolution receives backlash Ukrainian defense minister vows military is ‘absolutely ready to fight back’ MORE, President Joseph Biden warned that the U.S. and its allies would “respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia” if Moscow expands its invasion of Ukraine. What that entails remains to be seen. Previously the United States indicated

The United States indicated that multiple options are on the table for responding to expanded Russian aggression against Ukraine. Thus far, sanctions up to and including measures against President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT banking network and supporting an insurgency against Russian forces, have all been floated as possible options. It now appears that U.S. and European officials are preparing to target Russian banks such as state-backed VTB and Sberbank, and sanction the country’s tech and defense sectors, as well as its oligarchs.

This is, however, where the dialogue has ended. There has been no follow-on discussion for if or how Russia will respond in kind.   

This is part of sensible strategic planning and cause for a measure of caution when increasingly hyperbolic claims of imminence or inevitability are making the rounds. One can be sure that Russia will respond to any Western response to its expanded invasion of Ukraine. What that response looks like, likely will be contingent upon what the West does. It is here that there is an alarming possibility of unintended consequences and escalation.

Russia has options should to respond to the West’s actions, which Western planners would do well to consider. Economically, there is, of course, the potential for the suspension of the oil and gas transshipment, a not insignificant weapon Moscow has wielded in the past to influence countries’ behavior. But Russia is also a key exporter of other critical resources and has threatened to withhold those, as well; at the end of January 2021, the vice speaker of Russia’s Federation Council suggested that Moscow would slow or halt natural resource transfers to Europe. The disruption of the sale of critical raw materials will have considerable knock-on effects in other markets, perhaps just as much as oil and gas prices.     

Russia has hinted at possible responses to proposed Western actions. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, there were discussions of potentially disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, then, to which Dmitri Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, hyperbolically warned would be a “declaration of war.” At the end of January, the vice speaker of Russia’s Federation Council suggested that Moscow would slow or halt natural resource transfers to Europe if Russia was disconnected. This is to say nothing of the potential knock-on market impacts of disconnecting Russia from the network.   

Would Russia respond with cyberattacks? The reality is that they already are engaged in an aggressive cyber campaign against both Ukraine and the United States. Moscow will continue this line of effort regardless of the outcome of the present crisis. Indeed, just last week the FBI asked businesses to report any suspected Russian hacking activity. Russia will target, in the event of kinetic activity, Ukrainian command and control, communications and other critical infrastructure. If and when the West responds to Russia’s aggression, Moscow will escalate in turn, but using capabilities of which American intelligence is likely aware.  

Thus far, the West has been fortunate enough to avoid an outright war in cyberspace. There have, of course, been cyberattacks, intelligence operations and criminality online, but an open war in cyberspace has not yet happened. Imagine a NotPetya-style attack on the United States in which computers of the financial sector and power grid, along with regular businesses, are wiped.  

Would Russia increase its political warfare campaign? This too is a likely possibility. Moscow could expand its efforts to exacerbate existing schisms within European countries and in the United States through online manipulation and more. Moscow has demonstrated an ability and interest in interfering in elections, and while it has thus far refrained from outright intervention, it could change that course of action to something more direct. Indeed, there is already evidence that Russia has penetrated electoral rolls and stolen election data in the past. With an alarming portion of the American population already questioning the veracity of elections, little additional effort would be needed to cause further chaos and division.   

Would Russia risk something bolder and more aggressive, seeking to increase pressure elsewhere? That is where the dynamics of escalation become of greater concern. Would Moscow consider seizing Gotland from Sweden? Would the Kremlin seek to foment a crisis in a country with an ethnic Russian population, like Estonia? Crises and responses tend to create their own inertia and their own momentum. While Putin, President BidenJoe BidenUS cyber defense agency warns of possible Russian cyberattacks amid tensions Afghans protest US order to free up .5B in frozen Afghanistan funds to compensate 9/11 victims Sunday shows preview: White House says Russia could invade ‘any day’; RNC censure resolution receives backlash MORE, and President Volodymyr Zelensky are all rational actors operating within rational systems crisis dynamics, an urge to respond and the pressure of the moment can and indeed do overwhelm rationality.   

This dynamic should be kept in mind as the West engages with Russia and potentially responds to Moscow’s aggression. There are some things that should be said publicly to reassure allies and others that should be said privately to deter adversaries. Things said and left unsaid, actions taken and actions avoided, all have consequences, and in the field of geopolitics, those consequences can be dire.   

Right now, we do not know what Putin’s intentions are and to suggest otherwise is pure fantasy. We do not know what Moscow will do and, as such, we do not know how the West will respond. It is, however, important to think through what could happen and what could happen next. Planning and preparation are not assumptions that any specific outcome will occur, but are prudent measures in advance of any crisis. We do not want to find ourselves unprepared for Russia’s response and fall into an escalatory trap.   

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersRussia’s Ukraine gambit is an opportunity to steel US resolve Russia and China’s private internets are the ideal forts for cyberattacks Washington’s playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis MORE Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.


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