Skip to main content

How do you make peace with a country that refuses to admit it is waging war?” Peter Dickinson, Atlantic Council

“Starting a crisis is easy, ending it is extremely difficult.” Rob de Wijk

“We’re seeing seen elements of the Russian playbook that we would expect to see in certain situations, starting to play out in real-time.” Boris Johnson

Russia is engaged in the largest military build-up in Europe since the end of the Cold War. It has demanded that NATO pull back from eastern Europe and rule out Ukraine from joining the NATO alliance. Weeks of diplomacy have produced little. On February 11th, Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, warned that “the threat is now immediate.” That is the news we have been hearing now for several weeks.

I want to take a different angle on what is actually happening in Ukraine today. There is so much more than meets the eye in this series of events. There is so much political jockeying happening right now. It is almost as if two junior high boys are engaged in a stare-down, heads aching, eyes watering from the intensity, both waiting for the other to blink. It is presented to us as if whoever blinks first will lose.

I am convinced that this is not the case at all. Russia, Ukraine, and NATO have all already blinked and they are continuing to stare at the others as if the game is still on. What I want to propose is that all players involved, including the international media, are attempting to play out scenarios that are good for their bottom line.  Russia, under Putin’s leadership, is playing a long game which it began in 2007 with its non-traditional struggle with Estonia. It did it again in 2008 in Georgia, yet again in 2014 in Crimea, and still once more in Eastern Ukraine. It has not ceased its engagement in Ukraine, which it sees as the golden ring, since the end of the Cold War. Russian nationalism found its footing in Russia with Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky in or around 1993. 

In this week’s More than Meets the Eye, I want to discuss something most others are not prepared to talk about. Russia is not waiting on Putin for orders to invade Ukraine. It already has. The belief that the only kind of invasion is a conventional one with huge formations of infantry and tanks is a dated understanding of warfare and suggests a general lack of perspicuity on the matter. There is definitely more than meets the eye.


As I stated in my introduction, what I am proposing is not a popular position. It is not popular because the reality does not support the political narratives of Russia and the USA. Both leaders are under immense pressure. They both really need a win. President Biden is suffering under extremely low popularity numbers in the polls over domestic bumbling in the US. The Putin regime is commonly called an authoritarian kleptocracy. It is characterized by a small ruling elite who have usurped all power and most wealth. This power is concentrated in the president, who delegates much of it to the secret police.

There are growing signs that the Putin regime is struggling and its end could come in the foreseeable future. Both Presidents desperately need a win. They are willing to spin the narrative in Ukraine in any way possible to portray themselves as victors in this conflict. How many lives will be spent restoring their reputations is yet to be seen.

One thing is for sure, it has already begun and the cost is already starting to add up.

Russia is using a sophisticated form of hybrid warfare in its attempts to gain the upper hand in this struggle. So far Putin and his leadership have shown a much greater aptitude for this kind of foreign policy confrontation. Here are some of the ways that Russia has gained the upper hand in this hybrid form of warfare. 

Special Operations Forces- The vaunted Russian Spetznaz have been a common factor in nearly all Russian interventions in other states’ politics. They have been captured deep in Ukrainian territory wearing uniforms or civilian clothing with no insignia or identification. Russia’s Spetsnaz [Special Designation] forces are light infantry forces that are largely configured for reconnaissance, counterinsurgency, and power-projection missions, more comparable to the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment or the British 16th Air Assault Brigade than to true special forces. 

Russia’s Special Operations Forces Command, however, is a genuine special forces unit. Spetsnaz missions vary from battlefield reconnaissance and behind-the-lines sabotage to training guerrillas and, increasingly, supporting allied regimes against insurgencies and protests. They have played a significant role in all recent deployments, including in Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria. Spetsnaz forces are especially geared toward “political warfare” operations, reflecting Moscow’s particular interest in integrating conventional military missions with covert “active measures.”

Intelligence Forces- The Russian Federation has a significant intelligence capability that it inherited from the former Soviet Union. Much of this intelligence collection infrastructure continues to focus on collecting information concerning the United States. Russia has the ability to use IMINT, SIGINT, HUMINT, MASINT, and open-source analysis to develop all-source intelligence products for Russian political leaders, military planners, and industrial concerns. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 

Russian intelligence operations against the United States have increased in sophistication, scope, and number, and are likely to remain at a high level for the foreseeable future. Russia has three bodies with foreign intelligence functions designated by law: the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), and the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Committee of State Security (KGB) was broken up into eight different agencies, the majority of which are responsible for internal security matters.

The President of the Russian Federation directly controls the activities of the intelligence, law enforcement, and defense activities of the Russian government. You may wonder where the FSB fits in. The Federal Security Service (FSB) is a federal executive body with the authority to implement government policy in the national security of the Russian Federation, counterterrorism, and the protection and defense of the state border of the Russian Federation.

Disinformation/Misinformation- Russia has a number of strategic goals that it hopes to advance through its use of disinformation, including restoring Russia to great power status, preserving its sphere of influence, protecting the Putin regime, and enhancing its military effectiveness. Those aims are intimately tied up in Russia’s history, geography, culture, domestic situation, and perceived place in the world.

Economic pressure- Russia stepped up its economic pressure on Ukraine last week. Massive gas price hikes were announced, and the recent gas price discounts were included in Ukrainian debt. Those Ukrainian oligarchs who have backed the new government in Kyiv are losing their business in Russia. By once again using economic pressure in relations with Kyiv, Moscow seeks to reinforce its pressure on the new Ukrainian government and force it to accept a resolution of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis on Russian terms. Russia hopes that economic tools will convince at least part of Ukrainian big business to take action in order to satisfy Moscow’s demands. Russian economic sanctions pose an enormous challenge to Ukraine, whose economy has been in recession over the past two years. Kyiv will not be able to cope with the economic pressure without external assistance.

Energy Pressure- On 1 November, Ukrainian officials announced that Russia had stopped thermal coal exports just as stocks were five times lower than the government’s expected volumes at that time of year. The news was overshadowed by reports from Ukraine’s national gas grid operator, GTSOU, that Gazprom had decreased the transit of natural gas to just over half of the contracted capacity for 2021. These separate energy sector news items are essentially two sides of the same coin in a high-stakes game with murky ramifications, which Russia pursues as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to claw Ukraine back into its sphere of influence.

Cyber attacks- “The Russian government has used cyber as a key component of their force projection over the last decade, including previously in Ukraine.” Russian actors have, in recent years, “used their offensive capabilities amid specific geopolitical developments of Russian interests … The escalating situation in Ukraine can possibly lead to spillover effects, which are likely to impact EU interests,” the EU Cybersecurity Agency and CERT-EU said in an earlier, classified Joint Rapid Report dated to the end of January and seen by POLITICO. The report flagged Russian hackers who could disrupt Western countries — as happened when they brought down Ukrainian energy networks in 2015 and 2016 — and use cyberattacks and disinformation to influence public opinion and gain critical intelligence. 

Each one of these hybrid forms of warfare is already in use by Russia against Ukraine in order to force them back into the Russian sphere of influence. This is why I am asserting that the invasion of Ukraine has already started and it may just be a continuation of the annexation of bits and pieces of Ukraine until all of it belongs to the Russian Federation.

I know this sounds a bit Machiavellian, but the history of Russian activities within its perceived sphere of influence has proven itself repeatedly over the past 20 years since the end of the Cold War. This is why it is dangerous to define warfare only in terms of conventional force and high-intensity combat as the only way to define war. Russia declared war on Ukraine years ago. They are playing the long game, and it is working.

Should Ukraine be concerned about the arrival of 130,000 Russian soldiers waltzing into its country?  Without a doubt, it should. But one must also see what has been happening not as a precursor, but as the initial stages of the invasion. 

Additional observations:

The way that the US withdrew from Afghanistan set the stage for Putin’s confidence in pushing his Ukrainian agenda. He simply does not believe that the US or NATO has the backbone to try to stop him, even though the rhetoric has been quite prolific.

A strong response is needed from NATO. A strong response will stabilize the situation so that there is space to de-escalate the potential of conventional warfare.

Another observation that is looming is what I will call the Putin doctrine … A quote from President Putin himself. “The defense of ethnic Russians does not lie in countries in which they reside or with their laws, government, or constitution, but with Russia.” This Russian community in Ukraine forms the largest single Russian diaspora in the world. In the 2001 Ukrainian census, 8,334,100 identified as ethnic Russians (17.3% of the population of Ukraine). Russia sees it as its lawful right to interfere wherever Russian citizens are found. This pretty much defies everything we understand about international law.

This is not new for Russia. They just have some new tools to carry out their agenda that they did not have before. We could go back to Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, and Crimea in 2014.

This approach is a part of the Russian strategic landscape–slow, meticulous encroachment on its neighbors. It will not be happy until there is a rebirth of the new Soviet Union. 

Destabilization and decapitating country leadership and creating space for influence–these are all parts of the Russian strategic plan. There is a need for political courage to call it what it is. NATO and the US may not have that political courage.

The warning for us? According to the Institute of Modern Russia in 2011, the Russian American population is estimated to be 3.13 million. Does Russia see these 3 million as their citizenry that they have global responsibility for?


After a crisis has been catalyzed it begins to take on a dynamic of its own. It is highly unlikely that President Putin knows what will happen next. He is opening a Pandora’s Box and the world may not like what emerges. President Biden as well is playing a game that he does not have the tools to win.

The Ukraine situation is filled with potentially terrible consequences, some of which are already beginning to play themselves out. Global economic consequences are on the horizon. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine may contribute to increased short-term market volatility. Disruption of Russian energy exports as a result of the conflict could temporarily contribute to rises in global energy prices. 

“The economic impacts could be significant if something were to happen over there,” said Bruce Bullock, director of the SMU Cox Maguire Energy Institute, noting that supply and demand pressures coming out of the pandemic are already helping drive prices and U.S. inflation. But if Russia does invade Ukraine, and U.S. sanctions were to follow, then removing Russia’s oil from the world market could drive prices up even more. 

Russia has already attacked Ukraine, and some of their first actions were in the digital space. While these assaults began in a strategic and targeted manner, they quickly expanded to more uncontrollable attacks, such as destructive malware distribution, which has led to collateral consequences on a global scale, with significant monetary damages, as seen before with the global NotPetya cyberattack. This is because cybersecurity is woven into every element of our lives, and anything with an internet connection presents an opportunity to be affected.

My point? There is already a war going on in Ukraine today. It is already beginning to have its effects on you and me. The effects of this hybrid form of warfare are just getting started. Each of us should be concerned. 

While many Americans aren’t sure about the best priority and tactics for the U.S. in a potential conflict, those with opinions generally favor helping Ukraine, including militarily. By more than two to one (54% to 21%), Americans asked to choose between prioritizing taking a strong stand so that Russia does not take over Ukraine by force or maintaining good relations with Russia prefer that the U.S. take a strong stand. Taking a strong stand wins among Republicans (54% to 22%) and Democrats (64% to 14%), and is particularly popular among men and people who have heard a lot about the border situation.


What I hopefully have done this week in this article is lay out a general understanding of the capabilities of Russia and the USA to either de-escalate or escalate this war that has already begun, no matter what the mainstream media is telling you.

This is a very serious situation and as you read this conventional warfare has already begun in the Regions of Donbas and Luhansk. Russian ground forces have occupied both of these breakaway regions and President Putin has ordered it as a “peace-keeping mission.” Some say potato, others say potahto. Rest assured, this will unfold quickly and there will be much more than meets the eye unfolding in the days to come.

The follow-up.

The Intellectual Foundations of the Biden Revolution… Why is there no Rooseveltian school of foreign policy? American past and future greatness is unthinkable without it…

Cuba to deepen ties with Russia as Ukraine tensions mount…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


Putin’s Buildup Continues; NATO Peace Pleas Fail; Attack Now Possible ‘With Little to No Warning’…

Could Ukraine end up as a War of Words?…

Jeffrey T. Richelson, Sword and Shield: The Soviet Intelligence and Security Apparatus, Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1986; and U.S. House of Representatives, FBI Oversight and Authorization Request, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, 101 Congress, 2d Session. 1990. p. 281.

© 2019 • More Than Meets