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Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine

February 18, 2022

Mercenaries, cyber-attacks, targeted disinformation — Russia no longer depends on classical methods of warfare in its campaign to destabilize Ukraine.

 Local residents walk along Independence Square in downtown Kyiv

In the past week alone, Ukraine has seen unprecedented cyber-attacks against both the defense ministry and two large Ukrainian banks: PrivatBank and JSC Oschadbank. Individual customers and the whole online banking system were affected. This coincided with reports from the frontline in eastern Ukraine of intensified clashes between Russian-trained rebels from Luhansk and Donetsk and Ukrainian army forces. There have also been reports that the Russian parliament is on the verge of recognizing these self-pronounced people's republics.

These are just some examples of the skirmishes in the hybrid war that Russia has been fighting against Ukraine for eight years now. The world has largely looked the other way and for the people of Ukraine, it has just become part of everyday life. "In hybrid warfare what is very important to remember is that non-military methods play a central role,” says Margarete Klein, a researcher with the Berlin-based German Institute for Security Affairs (SWP) who specializes in eastern Europe.

Ukraine: A region gripped by fear

"It is not primarily a question of the military occupation of territory. Instead, it's about generating influence. Demonstrations of military might like the current troop build-up on the border with Ukraine, the military exercises in Belarus, as well as the carefully choreographed communication surrounding the announced troop withdrawal are all part of a well-equipped toolbox, whereby the main priority is to determine the narrative. And Vladimir Putin has truly mastered such a coordinated approach."

Global anxiety — Kyiv calm

Anybody who has spent much time in recent weeks monitoring the mood in Ukraine — be it on social media and other networks, or talking with ordinary people, may have been surprised to discover how calm many Ukrainians are. Of course, there has been some anxiety and reports of families even contemplating fleeing the country to join friends and relatives in Germany or Poland. Israel, meanwhile, has reportedly even set up an evacuation strategy for Jews wanting to leave Ukraine.

Still, the mood in Kyiv might almost be described as mellow. There seems to be little doubt that people have simply become used to the hybrid warfare waged against their country by Moscow. And perhaps they're more battle-hardened than the febrile international media. Eight years is, after all, a long time to become accustomed to new realities: eight years since the "Revolution of Dignity" or the Maidan Revolution in the capital Kyiv.

"It's a strategy of attrition. They are trying to put Ukraine under as much pressure as possible, especially domestically — with the goal of pushing it back onto a pro-Russian path," says SWP researcher Klein. "One aim is certainly also to create what might be called 'Ukraine fatigue' in the West," says the researcher, in an attempt to explain the constant cycle of tension and de-escalation, more tension and more de-escalation. 

All this, says Margarete Klein, helps to create "a sense, for instance, that the US leadership is simply paranoid. And part of that strategy is surely the announcement of a troop withdrawal at precisely the moment when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was visiting Moscow."

"At the same time, however, there is no real evidence that a substantial withdrawal has begun. Look at the units that were deployed from as far away as Siberia or Russia's Far East. If they were removed, that would really be a signal that a pull-back has begun. Instead, the only troops being withdrawn are those who could be back on the front line in no time at all," Klein explains.

Ukraine International Airlines planes on the ground at Kyiv airport
Fear of full-scale war saw Ukraine International Airlines lose some insurance coverageImage: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Putin's real target: the Ukrainian economy

Vladimir Putin's show of force has had a concrete impact on the heart of Ukraine. For instance, the fear of full-scale war — real or not — was enough to see the national airline UIA lose its insurance coverage for some flights. There was even talk of the company possibly relocating to another country. That in turn forced the government to come up with a new fund costing half a billion euros to protect UIA flights.

Ukraine's pro-European course, says Margarete Klein, ensures key economic backing from the EU itself. And one of Putin's goals in the hybrid war is therefore "to undermine Ukraine's economy." Russia is not so much looking to create a buffer zone against NATO, as to put an end for good to Ukraine's drive to the West. "Hybrid warfare sows the seeds of uncertainty. That, in turn, frightens off potential investors," researcher Klein explains. 

Ukraine's westward orientation has proved to be unexpectedly successful. The balance of trade between Germany and Ukraine recovered from the shock of COVID-19 within just one year, again reaching the 7.7 billion euro mark ($8.75bn). "There's a growing impression that Ukraine can get back on track under its own steam," said Alexander Markus, chairman of the German-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry during an online conference in early February. And, commenting on Putin's hybrid warfare, he said: "I don't think it's going to work." There are, he argued, just too many, "young people in the country who are determined to shape their future."

Fearing the spirit of Maidan

The spirit of the pro-European Maidan Revolution is believed to be precisely what makes Ukraine so interesting for western investors. Many young men and women who were school kids or university students at the time are now entrepreneurs and have founded their own startups.

From that perspective, it is all the easier to understand why the Kremlin is pushing so hard to escalate the hybrid war. Maybe it is not, after all, the issue of whether Ukraine could or should eventually get NATO membership that is so decisive. Perhaps it is rather Ukraine's small pro-European success stories that are being closely monitored in the Kremlin.

Western politicians like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been stressing that Ukraine isn't going to become a NATO member any time soon. Membership would possibly be considered only in due course. "But then it may be too late for us," Putin replied.

This article was originally written in German. 

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