Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova attends a weekly briefing in Moscow. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP

Fears of war breaking out between Russia and Ukraine have dominated headlines in the international press. Information warfare is an undeniable reality of modern conflicts, and its impact is often strategic in demoralizing the adversary’s forces and populace.

In many of its doctrinal and strategic publications, Russia acknowledges that the information domain is an active battleground, regardless of the contending sides being in a state of war or peace. Despite spirited official denials, it is fair to say that Russia gives as good as it gets in the information domain.

In the latest round of public jousting around hybrid and information warfare, both sides have led with accusations and official public statements.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has alleged that American mercenaries are present and looking to orchestrate a chemical attack in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Meanwhile the US State Department has released a fact sheet detailing the alleged Russian “destabilization campaign in Ukraine.” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has made a statement accusing Russia of planning “to install pro-Russian leadership in Ukraine.”

Russia’s approach to building up forces on Ukraine’s border is best characterized as Clausewitzian, meaning it’s aimed toward achieving political goals through other means.

Given the astronomical costs of launching an overt military operation, it is more likely the deployment is meant as a tool for strategic signaling.

The Russian intent, as announced publicly, is to compel the US and its NATO allies into addressing long-standing security concerns of the Kremlin. By deploying forces within its own territory, Russia has not only brought its adversaries to the negotiating table but has demonstrated its centrality to European security. 

Public diplomacy, war of narratives

In the ever tumultuous and interconnected world of information warfare and influence operations, public diplomacy becomes the arbiter of narratives. Russia recently published two draft treaties, one addressed to the US and the other to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, demanding “legally binding security guarantees” before any actual meeting between diplomats could take place.

According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, the public release of the draft treaties was “meant to avoid manipulation in the press.”

A similar measure to set the record straight was also observed in November, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s correspondence with his German and French counterparts was made public.

Russia’s chief negotiator in the ongoing dialogues with NATO and the US, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, believes Russia has the initiative, which the US and the collective West are following.

While the US has agreed to provide a written response to proposed Russian draft treaties, it has not agreed to the major concerns highlighted in them as yet.

CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan

The Collective Security Treaty Organization, a security bloc made up of some former Soviet countries and led by Russia, recently conducted a successful operation in Kazakhstan, quelling widespread unrest.

The speed with which the CSTO approved and conducted the operation and then withdrew finds almost no parallel in post-Cold War history, especially when viewed in contrast with quagmires like the US war in and withdrawal from Afghanistan. With this latest operation, Russia has not only reinforced its key role in Central Asia and the post-Soviet space, but also proved that it is a much more dependable ally than the US. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a jab at the CSTO intervention, saying, “Once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” However, with the withdrawal of Russian and other CSTO troops from Kazakhstan now complete, it can be said that Blinken’s “concern” was unfounded. 

Measures against economic coercion

In the wake of the events in Crimea in 2014, the US and its allies responded by imposing backbreaking sanctions on Russia, causing widespread damage to its economy. Since then sanctions and the mere threat of them have become a key coercive tool in US foreign policy.

As many international observers have opined, this has led Russia to prioritize decoupling its economic interests with its adversaries and “de-dollarize” its holdings as well as foreign trade. 

The “de-dollarizing” policy measures have not ensured a tight seal, so to say, insulating the Russian economy from instability, volatility and decline.

Recently the Russian stock market and currency reportedly saw some volatility and downturn ushered in by anxieties over a kinetic conflict and ensuing Western sanctions on Russia. Russia’s domestic inflation and high food prices are also bearing down heavily on the overall situation.

Cooperation against cyber-criminals

Ukraine was hit by cyberattacks on January 14, which it connected to a group allegedly linked to Belarus, after initially suspecting Russia in a knee-jerk reaction. On the same day, the Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB conducted an operation against a well-known cybercriminal group, REvil.

The Russian authorities asked the US to take action against the group. The timing and public release of information on the operation signal that Moscow may have offered an olive branch to the US and the collective West despite the ongoing tension. 

Zelensky is right – and wrong

As a contradiction to the popular narrative in the West, in a recent statement Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rightly said about war with Russia that “risks have existed for more than a year, and they haven’t increased. What has increased is the hype around them.”

Similarly, Ukrainian Security and Defense Council secretary Alexey Danilov has said in the past that there is no evidence that a Russian invasion is imminent.

However, President Zelensky has also called for pre-emptive sanctions against Russia, which may be akin to pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire.

In conclusion, the widely watched nature of the crisis has given rise to unintended diplomatic, security and financial consequences – consequences that may drive Russia, Ukraine and NATO toward escalation rather than easing of tensions.

The escalation may not boil over into full-scale war but will indefinitely prolong the toxic exchange of hostile messaging from all parties involved. 

Follow Aditya Pareek on Twitter @CabinMarine

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.