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Weekend Read: Critical Resources on Russia’s War in Ukraine: Documents on NATO Expansion, Putin’s Rise to Power, and Russian Cyber Tactics

March 4, 2022
 Photo: Kyiv, 1990. The ‘human chain’ from Lyiv to Kyiv demonstrated unity in the path towards Ukrainian independence. Estimates from the Soviet Union suggest 300,000 participants, while unofficial estimates place the figure anywhere between 1 to 5 million. Source: Radio Svoboda/Valery Solovyov. 

By Claire Harvey

On February 24, 2022, Russian forces began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine following months of troop build-up along the border and failed negotiations between the two countries, as well as between Russia and Western governments. Here is a collection of essential National Security Archive materials to help contextualize the current conflict. Selections include relevant Archive postings and projects on Russia and Eastern Europe, the historic trilateral diplomacy to denuclearize Ukraine in the 1990s, documents on Vladimir Putin’s succession of Boris Yeltsin, a case study on Russian cyber tactics during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and much more.

Essential Reading:

  • Amidst the backdrop of Russian troops invading Ukraine this week, the Russian Supreme Court turned down the appeal by the legendary human rights group Memorial Society against the December 2021 “liquidation” orders to shut down the organization. As recently as today, Friday, March 4, 2022, Reuters reports Russian authorities searching the group’s Moscow office. The Archive’s March 3, 2022, posting, The “Liquidation” of Memorial, includes documents and photographs from the long-standing partnership between the Archive and Memorial, including reports describing the Russian war in Chechnya in terms directly parallel to what the world is seeing in Ukraine today: indiscriminate targeting of civilians, ill-informed and badly supplied Russian conscript soldiers, and a Russian leadership more like a “mafia organization” than a government. On March 4, 2022, the Archive published In Memoriam: Col Gen. (ret.) Evegny Maslin 1937-2022, remembering Evgeny Maslin, a hero and leader of the nuclear non-proliferation that took place in Ukraine and Kazakhstan after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
  • The Nunn-Lugar Project is a documentation and oral history project on the unprecedented “proliferation in reverse” that took place in former Soviet republics in the 1990s. The Archive’s December 5, 2019, posting, Nuclear Weapons and Ukraine, details how trilateral diplomacy between Russia, Ukraine, and the United States led to the removal of the third largest nuclear force from Ukraine in the 1990s and harken back to a time of extraordinarily productive, if short-lived, trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington. 
  • There’s a roiling debate in academia and policy circles over whether the West promised Moscow it would not invite former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact allies to join NATO.  The story is complicated, but by far the best place to start is by exploring the declassified record, which the National Security Archive has been a leader in uncovering, both in the United States and Russia. Archive document compilations on the subject include the December 12, 2017, briefing book NATO Expansion: What Gorbachev Heard, the March 16, 2018, collection NATO Expansion: What Yeltsin Heard, and the November 24, 2021, posting NATO Expansion: The Budapest Blow Up 1994.
  • Political turmoil in the former Warsaw Pact states and local resentment – including from within Ukraine – toward Soviet domination created flashpoints during the Cold War and were an object of intense U.S. interest. To read about the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “keeping the pot boiling” in Eastern Europe without having it “boil over” into possible nuclear conflict during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, see the Archive’s May 10, 2017, posting Hungary 1956: Reviving the Debate over U.S. (In)action During the Revolution.  

For more Archive documents on the cold war, visit the Russia Programs and Openness in Russia and Eastern Europe projects.

Documents on Putin’s Rise to Power 

The documents described below should be of special interest to those wanting to better understand Putin’s succession of Yeltsin. 

  • The Archive’s November 2, 2020, posting Putin, Clinton, and Presidential Transitions provides granular insight into Putin’s rise to power from an obscure prime minister to Yeltsin’s successor in 2000. The documents show that Clinton’s initial insistence on the importance of elections in conversations with his Russian counterpart leading up to the 2000 election gradually subsided as Yeltsin’s unconventional maneuvers became clear. Yeltsin fired four prime ministers, in what he himself described as “prime ministerial poker,” prior to Putin serving as prime minister from 1999 to 2000. Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Years’ Eve 1999, following the Russian apartment buildings bombings and the beginning of the Second Chechen War, catapulted Putin into the position of acting president. 
  • In a December 31, 1999, telecon, Yeltsin tells Clinton, “now I’ve given him [Putin] three months, three months according to the constitution, to work as [acting] president, and people will get used to him for these three months. I am sure that he will be elected….”  Remarkable telcons and memcons like this may not exist for more recent conversations between Russian and American heads of state. President Trump reportedly did not allow the creation of memcons for at least five of his conversations with Putin between 2017 and 2020.
  • For more on the role of the Second Chechen War and Putin’s rise to power, see recent reporting from This American Life, February 25, 2022, “The Other Mr. President”

Documents on NATO and Russia in Cyberspace   

The role of cybersecurity in international conflict is a developing story that is still in its early stages. Given previous Russian hacking of Ukraine’s networks and other experiences, most observers expected cyber attacks to feature early and often in Moscow’s playbook, but that has apparently not been the case, at least as far as we know.  Experts are still confident this will change as the war goes on.  The National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault has gathered and posted a range of useful background materials describing Russia and Ukraine’s capabilities and methods.  Here are some examples.

  • Read about NATO cyber defense capabilities in December 6, 2021, posting “Baltic Ghost: Supporting NATO is Cyberspace. Documents detail the evolution of NATO cyber exercises to deter Russia, the incorporation of the energy sector into cyber defense exercises following Russian cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016, and the July 8, 2016, NATO Cyber Defense Pledge
  • The unclassified June 1, 2016, U.S. Army War College, Strategic Cyberspace Operations Guide, from the source Public Intelligence and published in the National Security Archive Cyber Vault Library, features a case study of Russian cyber operations against Georgia in 2008 (page 65). 
  • The case study found that cyberspace attacks against Georgia began several weeks before active warfare commenced on August 8, 2008, the Russian government used non-state cyberspace militias to cover for government operations, and cyberspace operations included targeting civilian infrastructure to create panic. The study found that Russian-backed hackers targeted the Georgian military and government but refrained from attacking “Georgia’s most important asset, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and associated infrastructure. By holding this target in reserve, the Russians gave Georgian policymakers an incentive to quickly end the war.” 
  • The monograph states that leading up to the Russo-Georgian war, the Georgian president’s website was subjected to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. On August 8, 2008, a coordinated attack was carried out on Georgian government websites. As noted in the 2016 case study, the coordination was precedent setting for synchronizing cyber attacks with major combat operations. 

For further reading, see Cyber Brief: European Cybersecurity and Russia.

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