The Russian Attack on Ukraine: Brief Analyses from the IFSH

War has returned to Europe. This war is destroying human lives, families and livelihoods all over Ukraine. This war is also destroying trust that has grown over decades – trust in declarations such as the Helsinki Accords and in the many years of cooperation on disarmament, reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.

The Russian president’s declaration of war on 24 February 2022 and the scope of the attack on Ukraine – which he called a ‘special military operation’ – took both veteran Russian policy experts and insiders by surprise. Within the broader circles of the power elite, in the Russian State Duma and the Federation Council, in the ministerial bureaucracy and even the presidential administration, it was assumed that, following the recognition of the People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk on 21 February 2022, the military operation would be limited to a conquest of the Donbas region. The decision to invade must therefore have been made within President Putin’s innermost circle.

Over the past several weeks, many Russian intellectuals and cultural figures have already spoken out publicly against an impending war. An online petition calling for an immediate ceasefire quickly received more than one million signatures. In an open letter to the president, over a thousand students and alumni of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) – an elite training ground for Russian diplomats – condemned the current military operation.

Representatives of the Russian business elite also view the invasion quite critically. So far, however, only a few have spoken out publicly. These few include Mikhail Fridman, the founder and co-owner of Alfa Bank, the largest Russian private bank, Oleg Tinkov, the founder of Tinkoff Bank, and Oleg Deripaska, co-owner of the world’s second-largest aluminium producer. All three have voiced their support for an end to the war and the commencement of peace talks. Another Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, who became well-known as the owner of the English football club Chelsea, is said to have been directly involved in the preparations for conflict resolution talks in Belarus.

In the meantime, even several members of both chambers of parliament have spoken out, criticizing Russia’s approach. Yet this dissent is unlikely to have an immediate influence on the Kremlin’s political decision-making. Decisions are made exclusively by President Putin and his closest confidantes, including Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council. An end to the war as a result of domestic political pressure or a rift within the elites is thus highly unlikely at the present moment.

By the time Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian nuclear forces to be put on heightened alert, the war had taken on a nuclear dimension. And yet at the beginning of this year, Russia, together with China, France, Great Britain and the USA, had publicly declared ‘that a nuclear war cannot be won and [therefore] must never be fought’. This assertion stands in direct contrast to Putin’s threats. The danger of the use of nuclear weapons appears low – but it is real nonetheless. In the coming days and weeks, therefore, the task will be to avoid paths that could lead to a possible nuclear escalation. To do so, one must start by distinguishing between tactical and strategic levels of engagement. 
At the tactical level, now that a war is raging at the borders of NATO, escalation risks arise from the sheer geographical proximity of NATO and Russian forces. The two sides should therefore swiftly agree to practical risk-reduction measures in order to prevent inadvertent or accidental military incidents at sea and in the air. In addition to adherence at all times to professional flight control and the use of specific communication frequencies, these measures should include the establishment of a direct communications ground station. Channels of communication between the Russian and NATO militaries that remain open at all times are particularly important in order to prevent inadvertent incidents, or to help resolve such incidents quickly.

NATO military forces at the Ukrainian border should, in turn, be extremely careful not to advance into Ukrainian territory during the physical transfer of weapons delivered from the West or during possible future training of Ukrainian volunteers, so as not to provide Russian troops with a pretext for escalation. The EU and NATO countries must therefore coordinate closely on the form and practical execution of weapons deliveries. Unilateral and uncoordinated action that provides military support to Ukraine must be prevented.

At the strategic level, it is already enormously difficult to weigh the humane wish to prevent Russia from committing further atrocities against the risk of an even larger war, one which would include the possibility of nuclear use. Calls from Ukraine for a NATO-enabled no-fly zone over Ukraine are thus understandable, but from a NATO perspective, a no-fly zone is a No-Go due to the considerable potential for escalation. At the same time, the danger that Putin may escalate to the use of nuclear weapons the longer the war lasts and the more severe the economic pressure on Russia becomes is also increasing.

It is thus imperative to identify diplomatic solutions leading to possible de-escalation. One possible approach could be to offer Putin an immediate lifting of economic sanctions and unfreezing of assets in return for an immediate ceasefire and a complete military withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. The issue of Russian reparations would have to be put on the back burner for the time being. The USA could simultaneously play a supporting role in the area of arms control by putting their December 2021 offer to discuss ballistic missile defence installation in Europe and a new reciprocal INF regime into action sooner rather than later. All of this must, of course, occur alongside staunch military reassurances to NATO’ eastern allies, which is without alternative for years to come. There is still time to prevent a larger war, but the room for manoeuvre is rapidly shrinking.

„So far, we have seen only rather limited cyberattacks against critical infrastructures. However, the risk of an escalation between Russia and NATO via cyberattacks is still there. Additional risks arise through the involvement of cybercriminals.”

„The danger of the use of nuclear weapons appears low – but it is real nonetheless. In the coming days and weeks, therefore, the task will be to avoid paths that could lead to a possible nuclear escalation. Practical risk-reduction measures are possible.”

„The decision to invade took most Russian elites by surprise. Several among them have publicly spoken out against the war. For the time being, however, their criticism will not have a direct influence on the Kremlin’s political decision-making.”

„As a result of the Russian war of aggression, the future of the OSCE, with its 57 participating States including Russia, is uncertain. Whether governments use the OSCE as a forum for dialogue after the war largely depends on whether Russia recognizes the sovereignty of its neighbouring countries.”

„The signs of civilian protest in Russia are courageous, as the Kremlin cracks down on anyone who speaks out against the war in Ukraine. A complete suppression of protest will not be possible, however – especially if the war drags on.”

„The EU needs more than defence policy. This is a crucial moment for the European Union: if its members do not succeed in growing closer together, it is in danger of disintegrating further.”

We condemn Russia’s attack on the Ukraine in the strongest terms. At the same time, we know that while the establishment of fragile European security against Russia is conceivable in the medium term, a just, stable and inclusive peace order is not.

The field of peace research now has to contribute to the return of peace and security in Europe. To do this, we must initiate a process of reflection with regard to longstanding peace policy ideas and concepts while taking new realities into consideration. At the same time, we must work to explore the potential scope for political action beyond military measures and provide guidance in this regard. Early analysis from the IFSH provides an entry point into these issues. 

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been met by neither considerable support nor widespread resistance from the Russian public – at least so far. While scholars, intellectuals and cultural figures have published letters of protest and anti-war demonstrations have taken place in various Russian cities, large segments of the population are afraid to join these protests. They fear the personal risks associated with public criticism of the Kremlin. 

Over the last few years, the authoritarian regime has done much to prevent social protest. The 2015 assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the detention of Alexei Navalny in 2021 robbed the opposition of its strongest leaders. No large public protests have taken place in Russia since Navalny’s arrest, because participation in political demonstrations is treated as a criminal offence. Civil society has also been weakened by the increasing repression of individual NGOs. In December 2021, the well-known Russian human rights organisation Memorial was forcibly disbanded on the grounds of the ‘foreign agents’ law. 

In its conflict with Ukraine in the past, the Kremlin has intensified media indoctrination in particular. For years, the Kremlin-controlled state media have been spreading the narrative of an ‘aggressive’ West and a ‘criminal’, ‘fascist’ and ‘illegitimate’ Ukrainian regime. The Kremlin has labelled the invasion of Ukraine a temporary and merely regional ‘special military operation’. The fact that this does not reflect reality, and that the extent of the military invasion is much larger, has trickled down into the Russian society.

For this reason, the Kremlin has cracked down even harder on dissenting representations and protests. Independent media outlets have been instructed to remove the word ‘war’ from their reporting. The television station TV Rain and radio station Echo Moskvy were prohibited from continuing to broadcast in Russia after both opted to maintain their independent stance. The Russian State Duma passed a legislation that criminalises the ‘spreading of disinformation about the actions of the Russian armed forces during military operations’. And, at the same time, the police are consistently cracking down on an increasing number of demonstrations. After the first week of the war, already over over 7,000 arrests took place in Russia. 

Public pressure that could move the Kremlin to change its course of action in the war can hardly be exerted under such circumstances. Complete suppression of dissent and protest will not be possible, however – especially if the war drags on. Moscow is manoeuvring itself not only into an outward cycle of violence, but an inner one as well. And at its end is a further loss of the regime’s legitimacy. 

Regina Heller is a senior researcher in the European Peace and Security Orders research area.

Alexander Graef is a researcher in the research and transfer project Arms Control and New Technologies.

Ulrich Kühn is head of the research area Arms Control and New Technologies.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has become a kind of testing ground for Russian cyberoperations against critical infrastructures. In 2015 and 2016, there were attacks on Ukrainian power grids. In 2017, hackers with ties to the Russian government used a malware program, later named NotPetya, against the IT systems of Ukrainian ministries, banks and airports. The unchecked spread of the program led to billions in damages worldwide. Then, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so-called wiper malware capable of destroying data and hard drives in banks and government offices was discovered.

So far, though, information campaigns on social media matter far more than cyberattacks in this war. This could still change, however. According to a report, US President Biden was presented with options for sabotaging Russia’s military advance into Ukraine through cyberattacks on power grids and rail networks. The White House immediately denied the report. But intelligence services are constantly seeking to gain access to other countries’ IT networks for the purposes of espionage. It is therefore fair to assume that such options exist and will remain on the table.

Uncertainty also exists about the abilities and intentions of the numerous non-state and para-state actors who are increasingly participating in the conflict. On 26 February, the Ukrainian government announced the formation of a volunteer IT army whose target list includes Russian banks and energy companies. Back in January, the so-called Cyber Partisans in Belarus disrupted the Russian army’s movements by attacking the rail network’s IT systems. Members of the non-state hacker network Anonymous claimed that they had already breached several governmental websites as well as a gas supply company. On the other side, the cybercrime group Conti announced that it would avenge every attack against Russia by attacking critical infrastructure in Western countries.

The role of professional cyber criminals, some of whom are based in Russia, deserves particular attention. In the past few months, these groups have increasingly used ransomware to blackmail energy and transport companies as well as hospitals worldwide, all of this apparently tolerated or even supported by the Russian government. The possibility that the Kremlin will now give these groups free rein to exact political retaliation against NATO members for economic sanctions, for example, cannot be ruled out. This assumes, however, that Russian leadership intends to further internationalize the conflict instead of seeking to avoid such a move.

Mischa Hansel heads the International Cyber Security (ICS) research focus.

The EU reacted to the Russian attack on Ukraine with unprecedented speed and severity. It threw its collective weight behind efforts to apply political and economic pressure to Putin and to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. In doing so, the EU not only imposed the largest package of sanctions in its history, but also delivered lethal equipment and supplies to the Ukrainian military through the mobilization of the European Peace Facility. In contrast to its reputation for often-sluggish foreign policy responses, in this crisis the EU has managed to overcome its internal divisions and conflicting interests – at least in the short term.  The question now is how the EU can succeed in maintaining and expanding this joint effort in order to restore peace in Europe over the long term as well. This is a crucial moment for the European Union: if its members do not succeed in growing closer together, it is in danger of disintegrating further. The Eastern member states in particular need to know if they can rely on the EU.

The EU must make the war in Ukraine a turning point and, in doing so, deny Russia the opportunity to remake Europe to serve its interests. The possibility of such a turning point exists, as institutional developments and pushes towards greater integration in the EU often arise from acute crises and political failures. But the development of the EU’s foreign policy and security policy capabilities is also a story of incremental and incomplete reforms. Further challenges are evident: in addition to the high economic costs for EU member states that will result from the comprehensive package of sanctions, in the area of security and defence policy, the EU continues to have very limited capabilities and is tied to cumbersome decision-making processes. In order to not lose credibility, the EU should not make any promises it cannot keep.

A more strategically-minded EU must make a concerted effort to actively expand its capabilities in order to hold a common policy line on Russia and be effective in securing peace in Europe in the long term. There are many steps that can be taken, from the swift introduction of qualified majority voting in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, to the Europeanization of energy security issues, to the reduction of inefficient and costly duplication of military capabilities in Europe.

And last but not least: the EU must signal to Moscow that war in Europe will make the EU member states even more determined to defend their values, their way of life and the European peace project. To do this, the EU needs more than just defence policy. As a common political entity, the EU needs robust institutions, fast and lean decision-making structures and a persuasive counter-narrative to the increasing power of authoritarian states – and, yes, for this it also needs a new constitutional convention.

Ursula Schröder is the director of IFSH as well as professor of Political Science, especially Peace Research and Security Policy, at the University of Hamburg.

The West is counting on deterrence measures against Russia and even arms shipments. Cooperation with Russia currently appears unrealistic. But talks are necessary nevertheless, even if they “only” address minimizing the risk of nuclear war. In the West, NATO and the USA are central in this.

But the OSCE can also contribute to building a new security order in both the medium term and long term. In the 1960s, in the shadow of the crises over Berlin and Cuba, Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr explored shared interests with the Soviet Union, ultimately paving the way for the CSCE. Now, the 57 participating States can use the OSCE to identify common interests.

For example, answers to China’s steadily growing role in the OSCE region are needed. This development is problematic for Russia in Central Asia, for example, even though Western sanctions will force Russia to tie itself more closely to China. Cooperation is also possible on security risks arising from Afghanistan.

After this war, of course, the OSCE will be even more fraught than it was before. Measures like reciprocal inspections as laid out in the Vienna Document are now scarcely imaginable. When it comes to OSCE support for human rights and democracy, Russia and other autocracies view even small-scale projects as part of the threat to their patronal systems. A transition from peaceful coexistence (should this even be achieved) to a peaceful order based on common values (as enshrined in the 1990 Charter of Paris) is now little more than a dream.

Striking a balance between OSCE principles has also become even more difficult because each side is creating its own facts. Russia stresses the indivisibility of security and wants to disarm Ukraine to this end. The West insists on the free choice of alliance while fuelling fears in the Kremlin by discussing the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU.

In order for the OSCE to play a role at all, there needs to be a willingness at the highest political levels to engage in talks after the war’s end. In the West, however, this willingness is dependent upon whether Russia recognizes the sovereignty of its neighbouring countries – in other words, if it does not occupy or (further) break up Ukraine. If these talks happen, the West should take Russia’s security concerns seriously, even if those concerns are considered irrational or – following this war of aggression – illegitimate.

Whether or not the OSCE will survive the war or lose its raison d'être through Russia’s exit, for example, remains to be seen.

Cornelius Friesendorf is head of the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE) and senior researcher at IFSH.

On 2 March 2022, following a three-day emergency session, the General Assembly of the United Nations condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in resolution A/RES/ES-S/1. By voting in favour of the resolution, 141 countries reaffirmed crucial pillars of the international order such as the prohibition of the use of force and the principle of territorial integrity. They demanded that Russia immediately cease its use of force in Ukraine and withdraw its military forces.

The fact that the General Assembly and not the Security Council was summoned to address this conflict was made possible by the ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure. While not envisioned by the UN Charter, this institutional workaround evolved from the practice of the UN as a reaction to the veto rights granted to permanent members of the Security Council. If, as in the current situation, there is a threat to international peace and security, but the Security Council is unable to act due to one or more vetoes, the General Assembly can convene in an extraordinary session to debate the topic and make recommendations for conflict resolution – just as it did last week.

What exactly does this action by the General Assembly mean, and what further steps might follow? First of all, with the resolution from 2 March, the international community unequivocally expressed its support for Ukraine and made clear that a paralysed Security Council in no way releases them from their responsibility for the maintenance of international peace. Now, it is to be hoped that the General Assembly, in subsequent resolutions, will go beyond condemnations and appeals, and prove willing to recommend concrete measures.

Due to the risk of escalation in this conflict, recommendations of military measures are unlikely. The General Assembly, however, could certainly recommend measures not involving the use of armed force, such as interruptions of diplomatic relations or universal economic sanctions, ensuring a coordinated multilateral response and increasing its legitimacy.

But such measures should be complemented by other instruments for peacemaking and peaceful conflict resolution that the UN have at their disposal, for instance special envoys serving as mediators and peacekeeping troops. An observer and peacekeeping mission with a mandate to monitor the situation, to protect civilians and to secure humanitarian corridors for safe evacuation and aid supplies is urgently needed.

Elvira Rosert is a junior professor at IFSH and at the Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences (WISO) of the University of Hamburg.

„The UN Security Council is deadlocked, so condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was up to the General Assembly. The United Nations must now take further steps and use their various peacemaking tools.”

The war in Ukraine provides an opportunity to analyse the conflict’s effects on and significance for democracy and societal peace in Germany. Democracy and societal peace depend not only on certain internal conditions, but also on favourable external conditions. The development of democratic structures and norms in Germany benefited from a relatively stable ‘zone of peace’ in post-war Europe, one which was able to rely on a dense network of political and societal integration. The Russian invasion of Ukraine also represents an attack on this system. The reaction to Russian aggression is thus not only about the defence of alliance territory, but the defence of democracy as well. Stable democracies and societal peace must again and again be secured anew. In the current crisis in particular, public discourse and constructive conflict must be protected as a central element of democracy at home. This applies to the dangers of disinformation or of proliferating conspiracy theories, which always have an external and international dimension in the age of cross-border (social) media networks. But it also means that, especially now, a democratic society needs to have open, controversial discussions that include various opinions on the consequences of the war in Ukraine. This is neither liberal Western decadence nor the West being oblivious to its own power, but rather a fundamental prerequisite of democracy.

Even if the hope of promoting democracy through inclusion was ultimately not borne out in the case of Russia, looking to Russia is also important from a democracy perspective. In times of a reduction in or even a rupture of ties, civic means of promoting and supporting democracy in Russia remain important. Now, an autocratic state with several formally democratic elements has begun a war of aggression against a democratically elected government. Elections alone are thus no guarantee that a state will not wage war against a democracy. More is necessary: functioning checks on state authorities, a diverse media landscape and a vibrant civil society. All of these things are missing in present-day Russia. Any contact with Russia that is based on a common understanding of democracy and that can strengthen institutional checks on the state should not only not be severed, but be expanded wherever possible. This, too, will protect democracy in Germany.

Martin Kahl is deputy director at IFSH and heads the research area Societal Peace and Internal Security.

Hendrik Hegemann is a senior researcher in the research area Societal Peace and Internal Security.

„Reactions to Russian aggression in Ukraine are not only about the defence of alliance territory, but the defence of democracy as well.”

In Berlin and all over Europe people demonstrate for peace in Ukraine © dpa Paul Zinken