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Opinion | Russia secretly strikes back against NATO
Opinion | Russia secretly strikes back against NATO

The Biden administration is warning its NATO allies that Russia is intensifying a covert sabotage and hybrid warfare campaign against supporters of Ukraine. To counter this growing Russian threat, U.S. intelligence agencies are pushing information to their European partners that can disrupt the saboteurs.

This month, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, briefed members of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s decision-making body, on a spike in classified Russia-linked attacks that began this spring. Haines summarized U.S. intelligence and urged allies to disclose and tone down the Kremlin’s strategy.

Haines’ warnings about Russian sabotage were described to me by Biden administration and intelligence officials. They declined to provide details, but media reports show the extent of the alleged Russian actions. The targets were largely related to European logistical support for Ukraine.

“This is (Vladimir) Putin’s way of ratcheting up the pressure,” said a senior administration official. It is a typical modus operandi for the Russian president: he attacks aggressively but covertly – to maximize confusion and damage to his opponents and minimize danger to himself.

To cover up its involvement in the recent attacks, Russian intelligence hired local thugs to carry out its operations, U.S. officials told me.

The alleged Russian attacks span Europe: In March, Britain arrested several suspects after a fire at a Ukrainian warehouse in east London that US authorities said was storing communications equipment for Ukraine. A warehouse in Spain owned by the same company, which also housed communications equipment, was also set on fire.

The Russian attacks have also hit key European allies of Ukraine: Last month, Poland arrested 12 suspected saboteurs who were allegedly planning attacks on supply lines to Ukraine, an official said. Also last month, a Berlin factory belonging to a German company that makes the anti-aircraft missiles used by Ukraine was set on fire. And Norwegian authorities warned that saboteurs could target companies that supply weapons to Ukraine.

The sabotage is a new twist in the increasingly deadly conflict in Ukraine. US officials say Putin fears NATO is moving toward direct intervention against Russia after the US approved $61 billion in military aid in April and Biden subsequently allowed American weapons to be fired at Russia itself. The New York Times published an initial report on the sabotage last month.

Haines told the NATO council that Putin’s goals are to disrupt arms supplies, split the alliance and prevent further NATO support for Kyiv. The Russian president wants to intimidate European countries but stay below the threshold that could prompt NATO countries to invoke Article 5 to respond militarily to attacks, U.S. officials believe.

Russian agents may also be trying to spread fear with attacks on civilian facilities. In the Czech Republic, a suspect was arrested this month on charges of setting fire to public buses. “There are suspicions that the attack was probably organized and financed by Russia,” the Czech prime minister said. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Russia was “probably” responsible for a fire that destroyed Warsaw’s largest shopping center last month.

No civilians have apparently been killed in this secret Russian campaign, but if they do, officials warn, the country in question could request urgent consultations with NATO under Article 4 of the NATO Charter to discuss a collective response.

The Biden administration’s strategy against Putin is centered on intelligence sharing. As it did in the early days of the war, the administration is pushing to share as much information as possible with allies to help them identify and thwart attacks – and build collective resilience. The message they hope to send to Russia is that the sabotage campaign will not stop NATO from supporting Ukraine and will only exacerbate Putin’s problems.

“Russia hopes to sow fear and cause divisions,” the senior administration official said. “We have taken away their space to do so. If they go any further, it will only harden the position of NATO countries.”

While officials are concerned about the sabotage campaign, they doubt it will escalate into open confrontation. Putin does not want a war with NATO that he knows he would lose, officials believe. He simply wants to undermine the alliance. Officials do not see this situation as similar to that in October 2022, when intelligence agencies saw a significant possibility that Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons to avert a collapse of Russia’s front lines in Ukraine and prevent a hasty withdrawal.

The conflict in Ukraine is climbing inexorably up the escalation ladder: Russia attacks, Ukraine defends itself; NATO pumps military aid into Ukraine, Russia responds by sabotaging NATO supply lines. With each rung higher, the risk of a misstep increases.

By Everly