TOC Ready Room 9 April 2022: Russia-Ukraine, Adieu mon status quo; Echoes of info ops dance in our heads

What’s wrong and right with the world.

The first order of business in the Ready Room is the state of the status quo six-odd weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Per our RR convention, this won’t be an in-depth look.  But it’s important to point out that the status quo has already changed, in ways that are likely to be irreversible, and that have been flying under the radar up to now.

I think a lot of people realize this is happening, even if they can’t readily think what the specific details are.  Only one border has been breached so far, after all.  NATO hasn’t been drawn into “World War III.”  How bad can it be?

We’ve looked at one detail already:  the immediate failure of NATO’s missile defense linchpin.  The linchpin is (or was) the shipborne Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) patrols in the Black Sea.  This was to be NATO’s defense against intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) from Central and South Asia; the hole-plugger for the ground-based interceptors Obama canceled for Poland in 2009.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine took out the Black Sea patrols in one blow.  I think we all understand it’s unlikely that the status quo ante in the Black Sea will ever be restored.  NATO can’t put enough forces in the Black Sea to defend the Aegis destroyers in Putin’s duck pond, but in any case, the security conventions in the Black Sea – probably even the Montreux Convention itself – are likely to be something different when this is all said and done.

Another detail is the quiet but extremely significant shift of Switzerland away from its 200-year-old neutrality in international relations.  Switzerland signaled this by joining sanctions against Russia in March, announcing “it was freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs and officials, closing airspace to Russian planes, and barring many of those close to President Putin from visiting the Alpine nation.”

As natural as this may seem, Swiss neutrality is an underpinning of the preexisting order that probably can’t be restored to its original credibility and function.  Switzerland’s neutrality has saved lives for decades, affording a venue for nations that don’t keep diplomatic relations with each other to negotiate hostage releases, for example.  (The Swiss embassy in Tehran greased such outreaches for years after the 1979 Iranian revolution by maintaining a U.S Interests section.)

But it’s more than that.  As others have pointed out, the International Committee of the Red Cross can be credited with legitimately neutral – protected – status by all of the world’s nations because Switzerland is neutral in all conflicts.  Having that ICRC mechanism, on that specific basis, has become a feature of world relations that can’t be easily dispensed with or recreated.

The Swiss insisted in March that their overall neutrality hasn’t been compromised.  But there are a dozen nations in Asia, and several elsewhere, that would argue differently.  The forms of the old status quo are already breaking up.  It’s not specious or premature to claim that substance is breaking up with them.

NATO flags on display at 2019 alliance summit in London. YouTube

Another detail is Sweden and Finland, hold-outs from NATO for years, reportedly looking seriously into NATO membership.  To the extent this may have a stabilizing (i.e., deterrent) effect on Russia, I doubt it will last long.  Russia doesn’t have to make formal declarations or overt arrangements to reset the security dynamics in Northern Europe; deploying missiles, and air and naval forces, to increase the threat to Scandinavia will have at least as much of an effect.  (For what it’s worth, Russia has already been increasing provocations against Finland and Sweden in that last few years.)

Long-time alliance hold-outs scurrying to get under an alliance umbrella doesn’t have a great history of effectiveness, in any event.  If the alliance as it exists can’t keep conditions favorable for the formal non-alignment of its close neighbors, the alliance itself is weakening.

That’s what’s going on with NATO.  Its profile in recent years looks in some ways like that of late Imperial Rome, seeking to deter a restive hinterland by adding territory that the alliance – by policy choice, not blind fate – is ill-prepared to defend.

NATO need not continue to operate in this manner, but the point is that it is continuing to.  Consider, as well, that in the last decade, Russia has built up an old, all-but-forgotten outpost in Syria and is now more firmly established in the Eastern Mediterranean than she was during the Cold War (here, here, here).  Russia also has something she has never before had in history: a path to her Mediterranean outpost through South Asia.  No one – not Turkey, not the U.S. or UK, not a Western alliance – can keep Russia from deploying whatever she wants to to Syria.

Not without further eroding the status quo, that is.  Perhaps Egypt could be prevailed on to deny access to the Suez Canal, or NATO might interdict Russian shipping (i.e., for items that can’t be flown across Iran and Iraq into Syria, or moved by surface transportation through the Caspian Sea and by rail or truck).  But a breach of longstanding canal policy by Egypt would be destabilizing; that alone would demand an urgent resolution the current situation does not.  Meanwhile, trying to interdict Russian shipping would be the casus belli NATO is trying to avoid.  (The same is true of Russian materiel – or bombers or cruise missiles – being flown across Iran and Iraq, which is why the U.S. and our allies and coalition partners haven’t attempted it.)

Moreover, Russia is the chief patron of the more-successful strongman faction in Libya (General Khalifa Haftar’s), with the foothold in the Central Mediterranean that comes with that.  If Putin is able to hold onto his gains in Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine, It will be not just NATO but U.S. national maritime activities beginning to feel the latent effects of his emboldenment in these maritime flanking positions, sooner rather than later.

A world in which a power like Russia has a veto over our trade and freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean would be nothing like the minor, dismissible irritant too many people imagine.  The waters of the sea are our maritime nation’s life’s blood.  We can’t have the Eastern hemisphere closable to us, by chokepoint vetoes at either end, and remain secure along our colossal, easily accessed temperate-zone coastline.

One more detail is the meaningful – once unthinkable – demand of Ukrainian President Zelensky that Russia be removed from the UN Security Council.  The removal couldn’t happen without blowing up the foundational premise of the UNSC, but it’s being treated seriously, if not urgently.  With NATO essentially inert, though few acknowledge that, a governor is off the security imagination of the planet.  Conditions NATO was assumed to maintain are now increasingly a question mark.

With the lengthening Russian sitzkrieg in Ukraine is coming the undoing of the status quo I previewed before the invasion.  Your choice to perceive Putin as a witting or merely blundering and lucky beneficiary of this trend.  Perhaps, for those who think Putin is stupid, it’s easier to see that Xi Jinping will be a beneficiary too, and that he already appreciates all the ways that will manifest itself.

The status quo NATO was meant to preserve was precisely the status quo in which Switzerland could remain neutral, with all the necessary safety-valve arrangements that come with that; and Sweden and Finland could remain secure without joining NATO; and NATO’s missile defense arrangements couldn’t be literally knocked out, in an entire tier, by the single move of one outside power.

NATO has failed to maintain that status quo, and now it’s changing out from under us.  So will NATO.  Bank on it.

*Updates as this goes to post*

We’re all getting used to things moving fast now.

A couple of new items.  Pakistan just kicked Imran Khan out of office.

Bonus: Pakistanis think it’s America’s doing.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is right on vector for NATO’s new IRBM defense deficiency.

China just delivered what we assume to be export-version HQ-22 SAMs to Serbia.  The FK-3 (export version) has a bit less range capability than the baseline HQ-22, but is in the Patriot/S-300 class.

That said, the FK-3 launcher is the same as the HQ-22’s, and the range difference is in the missile and its rocket booster.  So we can’t be sure yet that there’s been no upgrade to Serbia’s purchase about 18 months ago of the FK-3.

The timing suggests Serbia – hitherto an aspiring NATO member – may become questionable-to-prohibitive airspace for NATO aircraft heading to and from defensive missions over the Balkans.

Threat range of HQ-22 (FK-3) SAM from notional deployment positions in Serbia. NATO aircraft frequently fly in neighboring airspace in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Carrier aircraft coming from the Ionian and Aegean Seas fly through or near the threatened areas to operate in Southeastern Europe. Google map; author annotation.

I’m also copying in some more ponderings from a recent email.  Minor overlap with points above.  This was in connection with a Thomas Friedman op-ed.

Friedman continues to perform his appointed function.

This passage is interesting:

“I can imagine a situation where either Putin wants to decapitate his army’s leadership — to make them the scapegoats for his failure in Ukraine — or the army, knowing this is coming, tries to oust Putin first.”

I suspect Putin is already decapitating his army’s leadership.

Putin is also rendering the post-1945 arrangements of the West moot, without having to fire a shot at a NATO nation. He knocked out our intermediate-range ballistic missile defenses with one blow (and now here’s nuclear-armed, IRBM-equipped Pakistan in a leadership crisis), effectively closed off the Black Sea to us (no telling what the Montreux Convention will look like after this), got Switzerland to forsake neutrality after 200+ years (what will the ICRC’s status be from now on?  Where’s the global safety valve of credible neutrality?), made Sweden and Finland feel for the first time in 73 years that their only security option may be to cross a Russan red line and join NATO, and has us talking about blowing up the UNSC because keeping Russia on it at this point is such an ugly option.

There’s no UNSC without Russia; there’s only what we do next that ISN’T the existing UNSC.  It probably doesn’t matter though; NATO and the UNSC Perm-5, each in its own right, have no affirmative unity on the current crisis anyway.  The fiction of NATO unity has been exposed.  Germany bucks the alliance; the UK acts, in the biggest crisis since the breakup of Yugoslavia, where the US won’t.  That’s not the NATO of the last 70-odd years.  The form is still with us, but the substance isn’t coherent.  It’s only NATO eyes that can’t see it. 

Yeah, Putin is losing.  The above infrastructure IS the departing status quo NATO has declined at each step to defend.  It’s been in Putin’s sights – his desire to neutralize the “Atlantic” alliance – for at least the last 15 years.  Putin’s also in growing control of a territorial crescent in Eastern Ukraine from which he’s unlikely to be dislodged.  And he’s got an undislodgeable position in Syria, with back-door access through South Asia (something Russia has never had before, ever; gained in 2016, it ended any basis for the Truman Doctrine, which is now defunct), and a client in Libya (General Haftar) who has de facto control of 90% of the country.  If Putin wants to line NATO’s Med with P-800 supersonic coastal cruise missile coverage from Southern Turkey to the Strait of Sicily, who’s going to stop him?

NATO could still counter Putin effectively.  But to date, we have lost some core conditions of the status quo ante that we may never get back – and Putin hasn’t lost anything he’s invested in.

Finally, there’s this addendum:

Info ops against the people: Listening with our ears

The subject topics in this section may seem to be the Alfa Bank-Trump hoax, the Hunter Biden laptop, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But the actual topic is information operations, and how we can hear sounds of it as a category of communication if we listen with our ears.

I’m trusting readers to know enough about the individual topics to not need all the backstory repeated here.  This is an exercise, one I think is worthwhile for its illustrative power.

The most extended portion is the first one.  It comes from a 4 April 2022 filing by Special Counsel John Durham in his case against Perkins Coie lawyer Michael Sussmann.  Sussmann took the Alfa Bank narrative concocted for Fusion GPS by IT executive Rodney Joffe’s pick-up team, and presented it to General Counsel James Baker at the FBI (in September 2016), and later to the CIA in February 2017.

What we’re listening for here is the sound of info ops getting you to believe something just enough, and/or long enough, to affect your behavior.  It’s kinetic communication, in a metaphorical sense.  It’s intended to impel your mass with its velocity.  It’s not about whether it’s true; it’s about what it can motivate you to do.

The set-up is a passage from the email sent by a researcher working with Joffe.  It starts on p. 20 of the PDF linked above.  I will quote only a couple of brief excerpts from it (all punctuation original to the Durham citation.  Rodney Joffe is Tech Executive-1):  [The researcher, Originator-1, says] “Regarding this whole project, my opinion is that from DNS all we could gain even in the best case is an *inference*.

Originator-1 goes on to say that “even if we found what [Tech Executive-1] asks us to find in DNS we don’t see the money flow, and we don’t see the content of some message saying ‘send me the money here’ etc.

I could fill out a sales form on two websites, faking the other company’s email address in each form, and cause them to appear to communicate with each other in DNS. (And other ways I can think of and I feel sure [Researcher-2] can think of.)

IF [Tech Executive-1] can take the *inference* we gain through this team exercise … and cause someone to apply more useful tools of more useful observation or study or questioning … then work to develop even an inference may be worthwhile.

The middle paragraph about faking comms events is left in so that we won’t get sidetracked with a discussion of its importance.  It’s important, but it’s not what we’re listening for here.  The meaning of info ops doesn’t depend on whether people faked info or info events.  That’s not the sound we’re listening for.  Sometimes the events are faked; sometimes they’re real.

Rodney Joffe. Neustar video, YouTube

That point sets up what we are listening for, which comes in Joffe’s response to Originator-1’s email.  The response is on p. 22, where Joffe says, “Being able to provide evidence of *anything* that shows an attempt to behave badly in relation to this, the VIPs [i.e., the persons whose wishes are coming through Joffe’s tasking source, Fusion GPS] would be happy.

Next, in unassuming and easy-to-miss form, is the money slice:  “They’re looking for a true story that could be used as the basis for closer examination.

That’s it.  That’s info ops.  It’s using communication to provoke further behavior: to shape it to what you desire.  In this case, the “closer examination” would consist of Fusion GPS’s signature treatment; i.e., flogging something endlessly in the media for the political mileage of embarrassment, throwing an opponent’s behavior in doubt, potentially warranting an actual law enforcement investigation, and so forth.

The inference doesn’t have to be true, or the thesis fully developed, or anything researched and ready to present for conclusions.  It just has to be enough to produce the desired effect in a particular situation.  In this case, the situation was the 2016 election, and the desired effect was creating innuendo and doubts about Trump.

Joffe continued:  “So the prior hypothesis was all that they needed: A mailsever dedicated or related to trump configured with an ACL, and with traffic almost exclusively with [Russian Bank-1] was sufficient to do the job. Even though there was no evidence of financial exchange, there was clear communication.

“Trump has claimed he and his company have had NO dealings with .ru other than the failed Casino, and the Miss universe pageant. He claims absolutely NO interaction with any financial institutions.

So any potential like that would be jackpot.

In other words, the researchers knew they had nothing that indicated Trump had actual dealings with Russians.

But Joffe knew Fusion could use it if they merely found systemically routine computer behavior that could seem as if it was counter to what Trump had said about dealings with Russians.

It doesn’t have to bear long-term inspection.  It can be based on a true nugget; or not.  It doesn’t have to turn into anything verifiable.  It just has to make enough of an impression to get you to do something.

Those are the interstices info ops work in.  I’m sure every reader can think immediately of a thousand ways in which info ops have infiltrated much of our current communications – probably even the preponderance of them.

The Biden laptop caper

The second example is from the letter signed by 51 “intelligence and national security officials” in October 2020 about the Hunter Biden laptop. 

This is another situation in which the construct of info ops – on the part of the 51 officials – is intuitively evident.  Clearly, these guys want to get you to believe something.  They’re writing to persuade.

But it’s interesting how little that they wrote in the letter was actually persuasive.  Here’s a money passage:

Click to enlarge for legibility (all images).

Now, on inspection, the laptop caper had no classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.  I wrote a critique of this letter at the time pointing out the fatal flaw in the officials’ assertion. The odd career of the laptop only happened to bring it to public attention before the election.  Nothing guaranteed that it would be seen by voters before Election Day 2020 – and indeed, if the FBI had handled it in the timely and professional manner we’d expect for such explosive evidence, it’s very possible the public wouldn’t have seen it at all until after the election, if ever.

We only got wind of the laptop because the FBI did not show prompt interest in it, and the computer repairman eventually got it to Rudy Giuliani.  In what universe do Russian operatives have perfect foresight on such developments?  Even supposing the repairman was a Russian agent, how would he know the FBI would leave him hanging for weeks, and he would have leisure to shop the laptop to Giuliani instead?

If we’re to read the “Russian disinfo” scenario into this, we’d have to expand it to include some level of Russian control over what the FBI did, such that the repairman was left with the option of passing the laptop along to Giuliani in default of initial FBI interest.  Otherwise, the FBI would have just taken custody of the laptop immediately, made the repairman sign forms vowing non-disclosure of what he knew, and probably kept it quiet until after the election.

You know that, I know that, and the Russians know that.  None of us would plot a pre-election surprise for Biden that involved the FBI declining nearly a year earlier to take custody of a laptop containing thousands of files related to the leading Democratic candidate’s son, in order to give Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post a shot at it.

At any rate, the other assertions by the 51 officials were equally vaporous, due to the gaping holes in their logic.

The claim about Russia seeking to undermine Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump was a fact not in evidence (something DNI John Ratcliffe had been at pains throughout 2020 to emphasize).

A “laptop op” fitting the bill by being connected to an email leak is something that sounds good because of vague echoes of 2016, until you realize that the only laptop in 2016 was Seth Rich’s, and the narrative of Russia releasing embarrassing emails was emphatically not about Rich’s laptop.  It was about a supposedly Russia-linked hacker (Guccifer 2.0) abstracting emails from the DCCC system by intruding into it remotely.

A “laptop op” sounds like it could be a thing.  But then you realize that no such animal as a Russian “laptop op” has been established as an info-ops model or reference.

Vague allusions to “key methods” of hacking and dumping accurate information “or distributing inaccurate or misinformation” also don’t parse.  The purported “laptop op” involving Hunter Biden’s devices either (a) doesn’t readily translate into any of those, or, (b) while it may be one of those methods, is not a fresh example of a method already seen.  The intel officials perhaps mean to say a “Hunter Biden laptop op” would be an instance of “hacking and distributing inaccurate or misinformation” – but then they’d need to identify a prior example of that method.  They don’t.  They don’t even pretend they have one.

The letter from the intelligence officials is a snow job.

But, listening with our ears, the money quote is actually this one:  “If we are right, this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election, and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this.”

They’re not saying they’re right.  They don’t have to be right.  About any of it.  They just have to get you to doubt the Hunter Biden laptop enough to dismiss it until after the election.

The amazing Russia-baiting info ops maneuver

The purpose of intelligence is not, and is not supposed to be, driving policy or shaping public perception to herd it toward policy.

The general public too easily assumes that intelligence is supposed to lead policy.  But it’s not.  That’s one reason information operations has never been a part of intelligence, per se.  Rather, info ops is a discipline that intelligence supports – as intelligence supports other disciplines like armor maneuver, aerial targeting, and anti-submarine warfare.

And you’re wrong, and need to change your mind, if you think intelligence should be driving national policy.  National policy is driven by national interests, which precede every other consideration and set priorities for all tools like intelligence and armed force.

The U.S., for example, has an enduring national interest in freedom of the seas and safe, open navigation of the world’s seaways for trade, access, and restraining tendencies to exclusionary dominance by local powers in some key regions.  We don’t have that interest because intelligence may tell us there’s a threat to it.  We have that interest because we’re the world’s biggest maritime trading nation, with by far the longest, most accessible and vulnerable temperate-zone coastlines any single nation has.  No other nation has a situation like ours.

Being that is our intrinsic nature.  We gather intelligence on potential threats because freedom of navigation, access to trade, and maritime security are in our inherent national interest – not the other way around.

If intelligence is manipulated as if policy needs it to be, for suasion or propaganda, that true role of intelligence is fatally compromised.  No one will believe it anymore – nor should they.

It’s a misuse of intelligence to basically turn it into info ops – and especially to do it for the purpose of shaping public opinion.  I don’t think I have to emphasize how much credibility is lost when that is done.

Fever swamp. CIA HQ, Langley, VA.  Wikipedia: By Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress

So it’s useful to listen to the recent explication of exactly that process in the NBC interview many readers probably encountered this past week, on 6 April.  This is the oddly celebratory, yet flat-footed and goofy, acknowledgment that the U.S. gambits during the Ukraine invasion with things we “know” about Russia have been intended to gig Russia.  They’re not even necessarily true.

After our discussion of the first two info ops examples, I doubt this one needs much additional commentary.

(Click through for the full thread.)

I will, for completeness’ sake, register that this is obviously the money slice:

Three U.S. officials tell NBC News that U.S. claims based on “intelligence” on Russia were made up simply to “preempt the Russians”

One U.S. official: “It doesn’t have to be solid intelligence when we talk about it..”

But it’s also important to point out that making claims about the Russians based on shaky intel doesn’t preempt the Russians at all.  It misleads the public.

It’s not like the Russians were waiting to see what we knew before choosing a course of action.  And beyond that, when we’re wrong – as the intel officials appear to admit we were or could well have been – the Russians just think we’re idiots for blasting out public announcements that are incorrect and calling them “intelligence.”

Back before we called anything “information ops” or “information warfare,” Churchill decided to take hits from Germany – even costly ones – rather than reveal the existence of the “Enigma” decoding capability to read German military traffic, and the intelligence Britain was getting from it.

In 2022, the Biden administration is doing a kind of opposite:  trumpeting in advance its claimed intelligence knowledge of Russian intentions – for “info ops” impact.  This comes with dubious effect on Russia, and what will in the end be utterly predictable impact on public opinion.  Our ears instinctively know the tinny sound of falsehood.

Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

3 thoughts on “TOC Ready Room 9 April 2022: Russia-Ukraine, Adieu mon status quo; Echoes of info ops dance in our heads”

  1. Wow, just discovered you have an account on Gab: https://gab.com/OptimistCon

    Even if you don’t want to take the time to interact there (I know how time consuming multiple accounts are), it would be fantastic if you’d just post links to your blog posts so people can keep up with you. “New on the blog: url-link” is all you need. I think many people would be glad to follow.

  2. Thank you again for your work and the information you publish. I read things in your posts that I don’t hear on any news broadcasts, especially on military movements around the globe. I appreciated your work when you were with LU; their site is diminished by your departure. Sadly, I think your commentary is too cerebral to be digested properly by a public handicapped by either stunted attention spans, blinding fear about “what’s next,” demonic hatred for a specific political figure, or some combination of these factors. You are correct in testifying that we know Who holds our future and, for that reason, we continue to have hope for our destiny, personal and national.

  3. I await your take on the Moskva. Russians claiming it was only an on board fire is an indictment of the Russian navy. That ship should have the best and best trained sailors.

    More likely the Ukrainian missiles did do severe damage but the heavy seas did her in.

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