Ukraine is on the brink of civil war, Vladimir Putin has said, and he should know because the country is already in the midst of a covert intelligence war. Over the weekend, CIA director John Brennan travelled to Kiev, nobody knows exactly why, but some speculate that he intends to open US intelligence resources to Ukrainian leaders about real-time Russian military maneuvers. The US has, thus far, refrained from sharing such knowledge because Moscow is believed to have penetrated much of Ukraine’s communications systems – and Washington isn’t about to hand over its surveillance secrets to the Russians.
If you have any doubts that the battle is raging on the ‘covert ops’ front just consider today’s events in Pcholkino where Ukrainian soldiers from the 25th Airborn Division handed over their weapons and APC’s to pro-Russian militiamen and pretty much surrendered. The Ukrainian commander was quoted as saying “they’ve captured us and are using dirty tricks”. This is the kind of morale-busting incident that can spread quickly. It doesn’t happen spontaneously and it often begins with mixed messages, literally – messages purporting to come from the chain of command but actually originate from the enemy’s dirty tricks department.
So what kind of conversations did Brennan have during his visit? There’s no way of knowing for sure of course. But, according to my sources, and based on my experience of reporting on the Russian invasion of Georgia, the US-Ukraine information exchange would go a lot further than simply tracking numbers and motions of Russian tanks and soldiers. The operative term here is ‘non-lethal’ help – that remains Washington’s official position. But in today’s digital and virtual battlefield, the game can be over before the first shot gets fired. And if Moscow’s mastery over the digital domain can be countered, Putin might think twice about risking the expensive hardware that he has invested billions in upgrading since the Georgian war.
In that conflict, the US refused to sell air-cover missiles (Manpads) to Tbilisi while the Israelis deactivated the ones they’d sold after Putin threatened them with retaliation by selling Hezbollah comparable weapons. So Georgia was left with the Ukraine-made missiles it had purchased, which proved effective but not numerous enough. The Russians have undoubtedly rectified that vulnerability, especially as they and Ukraine share the same weapons systems. In effect, Russian warplanes have likely found ways to jam targeting vectors or to create illusory electronic clusters to decoy the manpads.
So Brennan might have shared data on how to get past the jamming. The same kind of forensic struggle applies to aerial combat, a rare thing these days but one that may become decisive if ground-based missiles prove ineffectual. Since the Russians can hack into any kind of long-distance chatter about such details between the US and Kiev, Brennan probably had to physically hand them over to his Ukrainian interlocutors. That is, to fully vetted individuals, because as we’ve seen repeatedly during the current crisis, not least in the Maidan, Russian spies masquerading as Ukrainian patriots are not uncommon. Ukraine’s politicians and military personnel (though not nearly as much) have a long history of divided loyalties.
Digital conflict, by its very nature, is a shadow conflict and therefore fundamentally psychological. If you lose touch with central command or you suspect the enemy is messing with your communications, you become isolated. You fire at your own side, shoot down your warplanes. In fact, you’re likely to stop shooting altogether, out of confusion and paralysis, as happened in some military bases in Georgia. And now is happening in Ukraine. You don’t know if the coded messages telling you to refrain from firing are a feint or genuine. In a modern war between two sides with hardware i.e. not a guerilla war, line-of-sight engagements occur less often than you’d think. Tanks and planes and artillery get knocked out from afar. Digital certainty is everything. The absence of it spells disaster.
So Brennan needed to reassure his hosts above all on that matter. Or perhaps vice-versa. They might need to reassure the US that Ukraine’s military position is not hopeless. If the US assessed the Ukrainian armed forces as too electronically compromised to use heavy weapons systems, then Washington might discourage a confrontation, might refuse to help in crucial ways, as happened in Georgia. Or Washington might suggest alternate methodologies, low-tech or asymmetrical alternatives, to create enough confusion or humiliation as to tarnish Putin’s popularity. The Russian side has clearly initiated such tactics already. Brennan will try to shore up the security of Ukraine’s military signals systems. He will suggest ways to retaliate in kind by hacking into the pro-Moscow militia’s comms.
To get an idea of how crucial is this stage of the confrontation, just witness how images of Ukrainian armored vehicles now driven by militias have gone global. Moscow will trumpet the news, claiming that even Ukrainian soldiers don’t want to fight, that the US is stoking artificial hatred. The government in Kiev will find itself snookered – either to admit that its signals channels are hopelessly compromised and therefore cannot mount a convincing military operation or that such incidents are spontaneous but limited. A tough position either way. One thing is certain, the war has begun.
Melik KaylanMelik Kaylan
WASHINGTON 4/16/2014 @ 4:30PM 9,980 views