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These attacks against civilian infrastructure are not random. Rather, they reflect an insidious calculation integral to modern Russian military theory. For more than 20 years, Russian military journals have insisted on the need to conduct non contact war and target critical infrastructure.
Like a defense strategist with nearly 20 years of military experience, i think the world should prepare for more strikes as moscow looks for ways to regain the upper hand in the conflict and catch up declining battlefield position.
“Initial period of the war”
In accordance with the Russian military concept of “first period of war– the belief that the keys to winning a conflict are early actions that support mobilization and undermine the adversary – attacks on infrastructure began before the first shot was fired.
In January 2022, a month before the invasion of Ukraine, a critical submarine cable connecting satellite ground stations in Svalbard, Norway, and the Norwegian mainland was mysteriously cut off, with most speculating that Russia was to blame. By targeting the cable as Russia deployed more than 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border, Moscow signaled the risk of escalation if NATO got involved in the conflict.
Once the war started, Russia used cyber operations to limit Ukraine’s communication capability, temporarily deactivate the Viasat satellite Internet network.
Cyber operations targeting infrastructure, cutting cables, GPS jamming and electronic attacks are key elements of Russian military theory. In fact, Russian military doctrine specifically calls for strategic operations to destroy critical infrastructuresor SODCIT.
These operations select targets primarily for their psychological effect. The belief is that hitting key infrastructure and creating prolonged blackouts, as well as disruptions in the ability to travel and transport goods, make political leaders and the population less willing to resist an attacking force.
Detain key targets at risk
According Valery Aleksandrovich Kiselevretired colonel and professor at the Combined Arms Academy of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, modern warfare should focus on destroying the enemy’s critical economic infrastructure without employing large concentrations of ground troops.
This concept ties in with the Russian approach to coercive strategy – an alternative to traditional warfare that attempts to manipulate the behavior of an opposing force under political, economic and military pressure. The logic is simple: why fight a protracted conflict when you can use a mix of fear and punishment to induce the enemy to surrender?
When this coercive campaign failed in Ukraine, Russia invaded and made seizing nuclear facilities a key part of its ground campaign, using them both as blackmail and as an operational shield to protect troop concentrations. In March, Russia decided to seize several nuclear power plants across Ukraine. Fighting continues outside the largest of these facilities, Zaporizhia.
After its initial war plan – which relied on rapid troop movement to seize key ground – was overcome by stubborn Ukrainian resistance and Western support, Russia stepped up its attacks on transport infrastructure. in a failed attempt to limit Kyiv’s ability to resupply its front line formations.
While military campaigns have historically targeted transportation infrastructure, Russia has gone further. In response to the lawsuit counteroffensive – which has seen Ukrainian forces retake land formerly occupied by Russia in the east and south of the country – Russia’s coercive measures have escalated to include the targeting of large dams. In mid-September, Russia attempted to destroy the dam outside Kryvyi Rih, a city of half a million people. The city narrowly avoided disaster despite two rounds of cruise missiles, which caused severe flooding but did not produce a hole large enough to destroy the dam. Later in the month, Russia targeted a barrage on the Silversky Donets River.
Extending the strategy beyond Ukraine’s borders
Many believe attacks on infrastructure are now spreading beyond Ukraine.
Russia is strongly suspected of being behind the sabotage of a underwater gas pipeline in October, resulting in a environmental disaster in the Baltic and further compressing European energy markets ahead of winter.
Meanwhile, an investigation has been opened into an act of sabotage which destroyed large segments of the German rail network on October 8, 2022. “The targeted and malicious action”, as the German Transport Minister described it, came after NATO and the EU have warned nations to protect critical infrastructure amid tensions in Europe.
These attacks could be harbingers of the next stage of the Ukrainian conflict. As seen in the horrific attacks on 10 Ukrainian cities on October 10, a mixture of fear, honor and interest will lead to Russia continuing to strike at infrastructure as part of its broader coercive strategy.
While Vladimir Putin said the strikes were underway response to the attack on the Crimean Bridge, the goals indicate that Moscow could try to break Kyiv’s power generation and distribution capacity before winter. With gas prices high, nuclear plants under threat and pipelines disrupted, Russia is betting it can take advantage of a cold winter to gain a new bargaining advantage.
If the sabotage attacks in Germany and on the Nord Stream pipelines are linked to Russia, as most suspect, Moscow is sending a clear signal that countries supporting Ukraine are not immune to future infrastructure attacks. Using covert action and sabotage targeting infrastructure to complement Moscow’s documented use of energy exports as coercive leveragePutin is likely reminding the world of his reach without publicly acknowledging his role in the attacks.
benjamin jensen is Professor of Strategic Studies at Marine Corps University and Scholar-in-Residence at American University School of International Service.
This article is republished from The conversationan independent, non-profit news organization dedicated to unleashing expert knowledge for the public good, under Creative Commons license.