A New Path to Cyber Conflict with Russia
OPINION — Last Thursday, in a little-noticed U.S. Treasury Department press release, the Biden administration accused Russia of currently implementing a 2020 information warfare plan for “destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine and laying the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine.”
The plan, according to the Treasury release, included “identifying and co-opting pro-Russian individuals in Ukraine and undermining prominent Ukrainians viewed as pro-Western, who would stand in the way of Russian efforts to bring Ukraine within its control.”
“Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force,” according to the Treasury release.
The release named two current Ukrainian Members of Parliament, Tara Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, as being “at the heart” of the Russian effort. Both are members of Platform – For Life, the pro-Russian opposition party in Ukraine, whose leader, Victor Medvedchuk, is a close personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Then last Saturday, the British Foreign Office echoed the U.S. Treasury information in an unusual public statement that said, “We have information that indicates the Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.”
The British statement went on to identify four pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians, adding that some of them “have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine.” Also named was Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian Member of Parliament, whom the British described as being considered by Moscow as a leader in a future pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
Three of the four British-named Ukrainian politicians served high in the government of former president Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia in 2014. The three may be either in Russia, or in the breakaway Ukraine Dombas region. Murayev, who is in Ukraine and heads a television channel, is considered pro-Russian and has spoken in favor of Moscow’s taking of Crimea. On Sunday, he told the British newspaper The Observer, “The British Foreign Office seems confused. It isn’t very logical. I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.”
The U.S. Treasury and British Foreign Office public releases of what would once have been considered highly sensitive intelligence information may illustrate that we are in a new phase of information warfare among major powers over Ukraine.
Whether exposing this type of activity will help diplomatic efforts to avoid an actual Russian military invasion of Ukraine, as the buildup of Moscow’s forces seems to forecast, remains to be seen.
The Russian foreign ministry immediately denied the British accusation saying, “The spread of disinformation by the British foreign ministry is one more piece of evidence that NATO countries, led by the Anglo Saxons, are escalating tensions around Ukraine.”
Those named in the U.S. Treasury release have long pro-Russian backgrounds.
Kozak nominally controlled several media news channels in Ukraine which the Treasury release said supported Russia’s plan “to denigrate senior members of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle, [and] falsely accusing them of mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Although Kozak supposedly purchased the channels, it was thought that the funds came from Medvedchuk or even Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB.
Medvedchuk is currently under house arrest, accused of treason last May, based on evidence alleging he was involved in illegal coal shipments to Russia from the uncontrolled territories in eastern Ukraine, which the current Ukraine government considers as financing terrorist activity.
Last year, the Ukrainian government closed down Kozak’s television channels based on their carrying on a pro-Russian information policy, but he still operates internet news sites. In May, Kozak was also accused of treason along with Medvedchuk.