Geopolitical manoeuvring and continued hybrid conflict – what will Putin do next?

As the rhetoric after the US, UK and French bombing of sites in Syria associated with their chemical warfare programme continues, what are we seeing happen with the Russian reaction and how is it likely to develop? Philip Ingram MBE a former senior British Intelligence officer gives his thoughts on the geopolitical manoeuvring and continued hybrid conflict we are seeing.

Putin, emboldened by his political successes at home built on nationalistic fervour and fear when his economy is collapsing and in any normal democratic country he would be held to account politically, we have seen him go on the international offensive.

Putin sees the political cracks in institutions around the world as opportunities and he influences them as any old spy would do, by sticking his knife into them and wiggling it. That knife just happens to be propaganda, fake news, data manipulation and information operations, what the Russians have enshrined in their doctrine, маскировка (maskirovka).

That маскировка is being used to good effect to try and throw off any association with the novichok agent attack on Sergi Skripal, the former Russian military intelligence officer, in Salisbury and the Syrian chlorine attack on Douma.

It has to be remembered that the primary audience for the маскировка campaign is domestic, attempting to make him look strong to his own people. His secondary audience is the increasing groups of conspiracy theorists who seem to believe anything that opposes a government or establishment view, no matter how incredible it sounds.

It is this group that acts as Putin’s voice – spreading the маскировка in their home territories and arguing its justification on social media outlets. They act as the маскировка knife in the institutional cracks across the West and turn it into a self-wiggling knife.

However, as his freedom to manoeuvre in the messaging battlespace is coming more constrained as the details around the Salisbury attack and the Douma attack become clearer, we are seeing the hint of a chink in Putin’s маскировка armour. More and more claims from his officials fall into the fanciful bracket and they begin to sound like ‘Comical Ali’, Saddam Hussein’s spokesman before and during the Gulf War. It is a shame many don’t see this and continue to let closed minds fall to continued маскировка.

So what next, or are we already seeing it? The word that springs to my mind is Kompromat, the threat to or deliberate exposure of compromising material. Unfortunately for President Trump, the whole Muller investigation puts him in an immediate position where he could be compromised. All Putin needs to do is say he had detailed discussions with Trump before his election and offered any help he could, and Trump would be sunk.

It is highly likely there is more and the indicator for this was US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s statement to the UN saying there would be increased sanctions against Russia, just to be told that for some unknown reason, President Trump had changed his mind and there would be no sanctions. The question why has to be asked? It is highly possible that Putin’s intelligence machinery will begin the slow drip feed of any Kompromat they have on Western figures over the coming months. The tabloids should be salivating.

The next possibility is to ramp up pressure on the West through increased Cyber-attacks. We have already seen Russia’s capability with the notPetya attack last year after North Korea was formally blamed for the earlier WannaCry attack. However, the relationship between North Korea and Russia is interesting and bears analysis as North Korea gives a plausibly deniable outlet for blame for Russian inspired attacks.

Dan North from the North Korean Monitoring site 38North.org has identified a company called TransTelekom (ТрансТелеКо́m) has put a fast internet connection into North Korea alongside their older and much slower Chinese supplied connection.

TransTelekom is a major Russian telecommunications company that owns one of the world’s largest networks of fibre optic cables. The company is a full subsidiary of Russian national railway operator, Russian Railways who are owned by the Russian Federation.

WannaCry occurred only a few months before this new connection was confirmed live and over a similar period, North Korean missiles went from failing most of the time to being successfully fired and over increasing ranges almost every time. How was their technology improving so fast? Why would the Russian state want to help Kim Jong Un?

What doesn’t fit with Russia using North Korea to execute cyber-attacks on the West, is the planned Kim Jong Un / Trump meeting, but I suspect this is not all it seems on the surface. However, there is always the potential to use Iran as a plausibly deniable outlet. Time and incidents will tell. With Kim Jong Un and Trump, that is a whole new article, but it is unlikely to be the miracle ‘seeing of the light’ we are all hoping for.

So what? We are likely to see a steady increase in cyber-attacks, using novel and sophisticated methodologies ranging from the carefully targeted to the global releases. The finger of blame from these attacks will likely be pointed at non-Russian actors who I argue, will fall into the plausibly deniable bracket.

Putin’s machinery will take care not to escalate global anti-Russian sentiment too much as they can’t afford retaliation. However, cyberspace is interesting as it is globally unregulated in warfare terms, unlike the Geneva Conventions and Protocols and Outer Space Treaty that regulate warfare in the Land, Maritime, Air and Space environments, cyberspace is a free-for-all environment.

Should escalation occur then the Russian machinery has the ability to refocus western countries into a domestic protection stance. That protection will be from a sustained series of extremist Islamist and increasing number of right-wing inspired terror attacks.

If we look at how many of the attackers in the UK over the past 2 years have been inspired, ranging from the Finsbury Park Mosque attack to the Palace of Westminster attack the internet has played a critical role in inspiring their terror.

The Russians have a clear history in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere of enabling terrorists and “freedom fighters” by whatever means to rise up against authority. Given the power of the internet and what is available in the Deep and Dark web but the power of how social media influences, it would be relatively straightforward for Russian inspired terror, prosecuted by plausibly deniable agents, to hit the streets of the UK and elsewhere. They have done it before elsewhere.

One thing is clear when dealing with Russia is that they plan long, use non-standard tactics, work in the area of subtleties and fight dirty. They love it for other people to take the blame and love the ability to manipulate our politically naïve and will see it like ‘shooting fish in a barrel.’ We are in interesting times but given Putin’s political longevity and domestic political unity compared to any western country, we are in very dangerous times and are currently on the back foot. Now is the time for a firm, coordinated and robust defence based on subtle offence. I suspect our democratic systems will not allow this; we are losing.

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Army Intelligence Officer who has served in the Middle East and Cyprus. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE