18 October 2022

Putin’s Next Strike may not be Nuclear


OPINION — In a performance worthy of Joseph Goebbels, Vladimir Putin’s announcement of the formal annexation of occupied portions of eastern Ukraine – along with his earlier speech on the mobilization of Russian military manpower – accused Western governments of “open Satanism” and of being out to plunder Russia. He also accused what he refers to as “Ukraine’s neo-Nazi” regime of murdering and torturing its own people and without elaborating, accused the West of conducting “nuclear blackmail” against Russia. He is pledging to use all means at his disposal in response.

Many people interpreted his last statement as a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons if the West persists in supporting Ukraine. This, understandably, has garnered a considerable amount of attention and anxiety.

If Putin decides to take off the gloves in engaging the West, however, he is far more likely to unleash yet un-played non-nuclear options before crossing the nuclear threshold – namely strategic cyber and infrastructure attacks. The recent sabotage of the Nordstream 1 seabed gas pipeline could be just a taste of things to come.

Untangling the Russian web: Spies, proxies, and spectrums of Russian cyber behavior

Justin Sherman


The number of cyber operations launched from Russia over the last few years is astounding, ranging from the NotPetya malware attack that cost the global economy billions to the SolarWinds espionage campaign against dozens of US government agencies and thousands of companies. Yet broad characterizations of these operations, such as “Russian cyberattack,” obscure the very real and entangled web of cyber actors within Russia that have varying degrees of support from, approval by, and involvement with the Russian government.

Contrary to popular belief, the Kremlin does not control every single cyber operation run out of Russia. Instead, the regime of President Vladimir Putin has to some extent inherited, and now actively cultivates, a complex web of Russian cyber actors. This network includes: cybercriminals who operate without state backing and inject money into the Russian economy; patriotic hackers and criminal groups recruited by the state on an ad hoc basis; and proxy organizations and front companies created solely for the purpose of conducting government operations, providing the Kremlin a veil of deniability. This web of cyber actors is large, often opaque, and central to how the Russian government organizes and conducts cyber operations, as well as how it develops cyber capabilities and recruits cyber personnel.

Putin Has Sent Us a Message, but Not the One He Meant To

Margo Gontar

KYIV, Ukraine — If you want to imagine how it felt being in Kyiv on Monday, it isn’t hard.
You wake up at 6.49 a.m. to the sound of air sirens. Or maybe you sleep through the sirens — after all, you’re used to them — but the explosions, shuddering the walls, shake you awake. Hurriedly, you decide to move to a safe place, a subway station or a friend’s house with thick walls. You grab your go bag, which since February has been by your front door, complete with your laptop, chargers and documents.

Or perhaps you decide not to leave. You make yourself some coffee and do chores while listening to the explosions, careful to keep away from the windows. You call the school to ask when to bring in your child (once the air raid is over, they tell you). When it is, you go to the supermarket to get a new pack of coffee, you drop by the post office to pick up some parcels. Amid the confusion and clatter, you continue to live.

That’s not because it’s not scary anymore — it is. It’s terrifying not to hear from loved ones you called hours ago, not to know if they can’t call you back because the power is down or because of reasons you don’t even want to start imagining. It’s devastating to count the dead and to guess whether those you know are among them. It’s exhausting to wonder whether the next house to be hit will be yours.

Pushing back against Putin’s threat of nuclear use in Ukraine

Steven Pifer

Seven and a half months after it began, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has not gone as the Kremlin had hoped. The Ukrainian military has resisted with skill and tenacity, in recent weeks clawing back territory in the country’s south and east. As the Russian invasion falters, concern has arisen that Putin might turn to nuclear weapons.

The nuclear threat needs to be taken seriously. Russia’s conventional forces appear stymied, the country has a large nuclear arsenal, and Putin thus far seems unwilling to lose or retreat. He has, if anything, doubled down, for example, ordering a mobilization and a sham annexation of Ukrainian territory. Moreover, Putin has made a string of miscalculations in launching and executing his war on Ukraine, and his comments have observers wondering if nuclear could be next. But there are reasons to believe Moscow would not press the nuclear button. Such use would not end the Ukrainian determination to resist. It would alienate countries such as China and India that have tried to remain on the sidelines of this war. Moreover, senior Russian political and military leaders understand that introducing nuclear weapons into the conflict would constitute a step into a murky and potentially disastrous unknown.

Putin’s nuclear threats. Putin has ensured that the nuclear specter has loomed over the Russia-Ukraine war since nearly the beginning. On February 27, three days after the Russian military launched its invasion, Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on a state of “special combat readiness,” which may have meant an increase of staff at nuclear command centers. Since then, Putin and other senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have alluded to the threat of nuclear war. On September 27, Russian Security Council Deputy Chairman Dmitry Medvedev cautioned that the nuclear threat was “not a bluff,” referring to words used by Putin in a September 21 address, and suggested that Russia could employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine without NATO reacting.

Why UK Prime Minister Truss fired her finance minister — and what happens next as the economic storm worsens

Nikhil Kumar

The news: Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain’s finance minister (or chancellor of the Exchequer, as the position is known there) was unceremoniously fired on Friday, just three weeks after he announced an emergency budget to boost economic growth that spooked the financial markets, led to a sudden drop in value of the British pound and set off a new wave of economic pain for ordinary Britons.

Kwarteng’s boss, the country’s recently installed Prime Minister Liz Truss, asked him to step down as she struggles to contain the fallout from the budget proposals — which Truss had signed off on and said was the way to get “our economy moving.”

But speaking after Kwarteng’s exit was confirmed, she admitted that the budget plans “went further and faster than markets were expecting”; it was the best gloss she could put on the fact that the proposals had been roundly voted down by economists and financial investors and — if opinion polls are a good judge — by the British public as well.

A Xi Jinping ‘report card’: Six ways Xi’s decade of crackdowns and campaigns has changed China

Lili Pike

Next week, China’s President Xi Jinping is likely to make history. The man who has ruled China for a decade is expected to secure a third term as the country’s leader at the Communist Party Congress, China’s once-every-five-years leadership reshuffle. This year may bring a “reshuffle” at lower levels, but despite a range of domestic problems, almost no one anticipates change at the very top. In which case Xi will cement his status as one of China’s most powerful leaders ever.

It’s a moment to take stock of Xi’s tenure and what has without question been a period of staggering change in China. Grid surveyed experts who have watched Xi and China closely, with the aim of assessing where Xi has had the greatest impact on the country he has led since 2012.

“Things have changed dramatically on the social, political and economic fronts,” John Yasuda, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on China, told Grid. “It is difficult to pinpoint any one particular thing because it has been a sea change in many respects since the Hu [Jintao] years.”

China Pathfinder: 2022 annual scorecard

GeoEconomics Center and Rhodium Group

China is a global economic powerhouse, but its system remains opaque. With distress in the property sector, Beijing’s crackdown on technology companies, and the draconian zero-Covid policy being perpetuated through 2022, questions are mounting about Beijing’s economic trajectory. Both policymakers and businesses around the world are assessing how to respond and position themselves. Leaders need a shared language to describe China’s economic system that can be trusted by all sides for its accuracy and objectivity. This is the goal of the China Pathfinder Project.

Building on the framework they launched in 2021, over the past year teams from the Atlantic Council and Rhodium Group have taken a dive into China’s economy to address a fundamental question: Is China becoming more or less like other open-market economies?

To conduct this cross-country comparison, the China Pathfinder report looks at six components of the market model: financial system development, competition, innovation system, trade openness, direct investment openness, and portfolio investment openness. Our annual scorecard places China in relation to ten leading OECD economies to establish a data-centered benchmark for discussion and analysis. It finds China’s progress toward market economy norms slowed in most areas from 2020 to 2021, though not enough to undermine the market opening efforts that took place since 2010.

Around the Halls: Assessing the 2022 National Security Strategy

Shadi Hamid, Daniel S. Hamilton, Ryan Hass, Bruce Jones

On October 12, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration released the 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS). Brookings experts reflect on the document and what it reveals about the United States’ security trajectory.

It is little surprise that the NSS has a lot to say about democracy in theory as well as practice. The long struggle between democracies and autocracies, as systems of government, has become the distinctive mark of Biden’s foreign policy.

In the past, I have been critical of the administration’s tendency to instrumentalize democracy by suggesting that its strength and value hinges on its ability to produce “good” outcomes. As I argue in “The Problem of Democracy“, this way of thinking about the democratic idea can easily lead to incoherence. Policymakers have little choice but to be incoherent, some of the time; the world is complicated. Still, identifying these tensions is worthwhile, in anticipation of when they might cause problems for U.S. foreign policy. In this case, they almost certainly will, because they already have.

Russia Is Trying to ‘KILL’ Starlink Internet Services In Ukraine – Elon Musk


US billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said on Saturday that Russia is trying to “kill” Starlink satellite services in Ukraine, and the system could stop working regardless of the invested resources in its protection.

“Starlink is only comms [communications] system still working at warfront – others all dead. Russia is actively trying to kill Starlink. To safeguard, SpaceX has diverted massive resources towards defense. Even so, Starlink may still die,” Musk said in a tweet.

Big difference between peace comms vs warfront comms.

Starlink is only comms system still working at warfront – others all dead.

Russia is actively trying to kill Starlink. To safeguard, SpaceX has diverted massive resources towards defense.

Even so, Starlink may still die.

DECODED: Why US-Led “Chip 4” Countries Are In ‘Hum & Haw’ To Hurt China’s Booming Semiconductor Industry

Prakash Nanda

With the tardy progress of the so-called “Chip 4 Alliance” comprising the US, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to produce “Democratic Chips” and stop China from disrupting the global semiconductor supply chain, the Biden Administration seems to have decided to act alone, hoping others will follow.

Last week, it envisaged new controls on semiconductor sales to China, which, if successful, could disrupt China’s military by blocking access to memory chips and chip-making equipment crucial to modern defense systems like stealth aircraft, satellites, and cruise missiles.

These controls also tightened rules on selling semiconductor manufacturing equipment to companies that produce advanced logic chips in China. In the process, these controls could adversely affect hundreds of Chinese-American tech executives working for American tech companies in China by forcing them to choose between their citizenship and their job.

The new rules bar “US persons, including US citizens and permanent residents, from supporting the “development or production” of advanced chips at Chinese factories without a license.

US Policy on Tibet Has Lost its Way. We Want to Change That.

Jim McGovern and Michael T. McCaul

Qin Gang, ambassador to the United States from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), wrote in the Washington Post recently that “Taiwan has been an inseparable part of China’s territory for 1,800 years.”

The problem is not only that his statement is historically inaccurate — but it also follows a pattern of revisionism from PRC officials. In addition to Taiwan, this revisionism has been aimed at undermining the dignity and freedom of the Tibetan people, whom the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not consider worthy of basic human rights.

Speaking up for the truth must be part of any foreign policy that prioritizes human rights. Pushing back on these lies, and the human rights atrocities they perpetuate, requires innovative solutions to counter misinformation. We believe that our new bill, the Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act, will do just that.

Has the War in Ukraine Finally Killed the Main Battle Tank?

Kris Osborn

The U.S. Army is working on a program known as the Optionally Manned Tank, a largely conceptual effort to explore future tank platforms. Army platform developers say some kind of initial “step” is expected to emerge next year, but that a wide range of options are being closely examined. Unmanned capabilities, long-range sensing and fidelity, composite armor materials, and multi-domain manned-unmanned, air-ground networking are likely to figure prominently. These factors are informing ongoing analysis of how the Army plans to address the future role of heavily armed platforms.

There does appear to be a delicate and perhaps necessary balance between a continued place for heavy armor and the need for faster and lighter expeditionary platforms. Unmanned teaming, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled computing, multi-domain networking, and high-speed, lethal, forward-operating anti-armor weapons may all be used in close coordination with a future tank platform as part of modern combined arms maneuver concepts. Weapons developers are likely weighing the promise of current and emerging future technologies with the kind of protection, informational, and mobility requirements necessary to prevail on the battlefield.

Amid Controversy, Musk Backs Off Pledge to Fund Ukraine Starlink Satellites

Stephen Silver

Elon Musk appeared firmly on the side of Ukraine following its invasion by Russia and was even considered a “hero” to Ukrainians at one point. That was partially due to his decision, through SpaceX, to fund Starlink satellite units for Ukraine, which allowed for crucial communications on the battlefield.

That changed, a bit, when Musk earlier this month tweeted an idea for a “peace plan” that seemed heavily tilted towards Russia’s objectives, and subsequent reporting—disputed by Musk himself—that the entrepreneur had personally spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin before suggesting that plan.

Now, there’s word about another potential move by Musk that would undermine Ukraine’s capabilities.

Will Saudi Arabia Pay a Price for Its Oil Cuts?

Will A. Smith

With OPEC+’s unprecedented oil production cut last week, any hopes that President Joe Biden’s trip to the Gulf would win the United States favors were laid to rest. More importantly, however, the Saudi and Russian-led cartel’s decision to raise oil prices may mark a turning point between the Gulf and Washington.​​

The refusal of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to increase their oil production should hardly be a surprise. Although a supposed “oil for security” bargain is often said to be at the heart of U.S.-Gulf ties, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s energy policies have always put their interests first. Indeed, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi made it clear in the months before Biden’s Gulf tour that their production decisions would be driven by profits, not by their pursuit of American concessions or their desire to help the West isolate Russia. From the Saudi and Emirati perspectives, they have been asked to cut into their booming profits and turn against Russia, an increasingly close partner, to bail out a U.S. administration they see as hostile and unreliable. A looming recession that will drive down oil prices, both countries’ desires to fill their coffers ahead of the global transition away from fossil fuels, and their almost non-existent spare production capacity have made this an even harder sell.

Why Russia’s Military Reforms Failed in Ukraine

Lasha Tchantouridze

After Russian forces’ rapid collapse and disorderly retreat from northeastern Ukraine, it is clear that the Russian military faces severe problems that go beyond bad logistics and incompetent commanders. Current structural weaknesses in the Russian military are the results of reforms initiated fourteen years ago. However, by the time of the invasion of Ukraine, some of the reforms had barely been implemented while others have led the Russian army to an assortment of dead ends.

The key idea behind Russia’s military reforms was to make mechanized infantry battalions the main form of organization on the battlefield. These were supposed to replace Soviet-style regiments that were deemed too slow and ineffective during the Afghanistan campaign of the 1980s and the first and the second Chechen wars. To remedy the small size of the 500-man Soviet-style battalions, the reforms transformed them into “battalion tactical groups” complemented by another 800 to 900 men. According to the Russian government, before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army had 170 such combat-ready battalion tactical groups. Reportedly, they were designed to be in “constant battle readiness.” Over 100 of them have participated in combat operations in Ukraine since February.

Impotent Missile Strikes Can’t Reverse Russia’s Losing as Beginning of the End of the War Unfolds

Brian E. Frydenborg

SILVER SPRING—Since early march, I have been bullishvery bullish—on Ukraine’s prospects for victory, but even I am continually thrilled and elated at how often Ukraine surprises me by exceeding even my high expectations. And, after the latest events, it is clear to me now that in many ways, we are seeing the beginning of the end of the war, at least in terms of major ground combat operations in Ukraine not on the border with Russia. I don’t mean to imply that this is soon, but that these current operations will lead to and include both the climax and most of the denouement, even if it takes months, half a year, or longer.

How I Got to Here

Back in April, after Russia had collapsed quickly on the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy fronts, I realized that if (when, for me) Ukraine could retake Kherson City and the rest of the west bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast, that would mean that the bulk of Russian forces would have been exhausted, weakened, damaged, or even destroyed, with little to stop for long a determined Ukrainian advance along the additional sixty-ish miles to the northern border of Crimea with Kherson Oblast.