In January, British officials announced they had uncovered a dramatic cyberattack on the UK postal service which caused “severe disruption” to the computer systems that send mail abroad. They quickly blamed Russian hackers, who appeared to act with permission from, if not at the direction of, the Russian government. Earlier this month, after a UK derivatives trading operator was hacked, cybersecurity agencies in France and Italy reported a ransomware attack on thousands of computer systems in those countries plus the US and Canada. Increasingly ominous warnings from Vladimir Putin that Western support for Ukraine will draw a variety of Russian responses has intelligence agencies on high alert. Americans and Europeans speak of the war as a fight between Russia and Ukraine. Putin doesn’t see it that way.
For the most part, Putin has been careful to keep his war on Ukraine contained within that country’s borders to avoid direct confrontation with NATO, but this strategy has brought him nothing but frustration. He now appears ready to order an offensive with newly mobilized troops in the coming weeks, though poor training and determined, increasingly well-armed Ukrainian defenders will limit what they can accomplish. Ukraine’s US and European allies have committed to send battle tanks and are discussing fighter planes.
The war is escalating, and as the conflict reaches its one-year mark this month, Putin has no good military options. Russia will continue to punish Ukraine’s cities and critical infrastructure, but that won’t bring Putin closer to the victory he has promised and failed to deliver. Nor can Russia apply much pressure on Western powers. He can’t free Russia of Western sanctions or undermine continuing NATO military support for Ukraine anytime soon.
Yet, no one should expect that Russia will back down. Putin has sacrificed tens of thousands of Russian lives, the resilience of his country’s economy, and his personal credibility to try to conquer Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, genuinely confident that Ukraine can defeat the Russian invaders, is offering no authentic concessions. Making matters worse, Ukraine now poses a credible threat to regain ground Russia took when fighting first erupted in 2014, a deep humiliation for the Kremlin.
For all these reasons, Russia’s frustrated president knows he has little left to lose from further escalation against the West, as long as he can avoid a direct military confrontation that would force him to choose between quick and complete defeat or the use of nuclear weapons that threaten his own survival. He also knows that Western leaders are as reluctant as he is to take actions that might have nuclear consequences. As long as he keeps his attacks limited, he knows the Western response will remain limited too.
That is why, facing intense domestic pressure to flex Russian muscle, Putin will turn to asymmetric warfare to inflict damage and try to weaken NATO unity, rather than rely on military and economic power that Russia no longer has. In coming months, Rogue Russia will become a global version of Iran, its now-closest remaining ally. Sanctioned and isolated, Iran has long acted as the world’s most active rogue state by using espionage, support for terrorism, proxy wars, drone and missile strikes, and other means to advance its aims and aggravate its enemies. Russia will prove a more formidable spoiler, because it has greater means to make trouble and a nuclear arsenal that provides deterrence against outside force.
Moscow’s nuclear threats will intensify, and Putin’s threats will become more explicit. He may well make a show of moving tactical nuclear weapons closer to Ukrainian territory and increasing the alert status of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. That’s not to say Russia’s president will actually use these weapons. These are mainly threats designed to persuade voters in Europe and America that their government’s military and financial support for Ukraine is becoming too risky. But these sorts of games can lead to miscalculation and accidents. The threats alone will raise alert levels to their highest point since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the war in Ukraine will make it much harder for Putin to back down than it was for Nikita Khrushchev six decades ago. (Putin is also aware that Khrushchev was removed from power two years after he removed missiles from Cuba.)
Russian hackers have already increased cyberattacks on the governments and private companies of countries that have supported Ukraine. Energy infrastructure, like pipelines and LNG terminals, will be targets for sabotage. The same is true for communications infrastructure, like underwater fiber-optic cables.
Russia will work to undermine Western elections by supporting and funding disinformation, candidates who question their governments’ support for Ukraine, and even political extremism. Over the coming year, Russia may well launch disinformation campaigns not just against Democrats but against Donald Trump’s Republican presidential rivals. Moscow will probably provoke trouble in the Balkans, as a ploy to distract NATO from Ukraine.
Fortunately, there is a limit to how far Russia is likely to go. Moscow has so far avoided waging a major cyber conflict with Western governments for fear it might lose that war too. That will probably remain the case in 2023. Russian officials know that damaging attacks on Western critical infrastructure that can easily be traced to the Russian government or affiliated cyber groups might provoke highly damaging retaliation. Targeted assassinations of Western leaders and missile or drone strikes on NATO territory also remain a bridge too far for a Russian government that is already contending with severe fallout from the war.
There is a silver lining for Russia’s targets: Just as provocations from Iran brought Gulf Arabs, Israel and the United States closer together, and as Iran’s support for Russia’s war aligned US and European leaders on their hardening views of the Islamic Republic, so Russia’s bid to play global spoiler will continue to strengthen transatlantic unity, in particular. Yet, Russia’s ongoing threats to global security, Western political systems, the cybersphere, food security, and millions of Ukrainian civilians will occupy US and European policymakers for at least as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author “The Power of Crisis.”