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Beware Russia’s next move

Associated Press
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has moved from location to location, to avoid Russia’s assassination attempts.

With many Russian forces in ragged retreat from the vicinity of Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine’s north, Ukrainian forces are justifiably proud of their resilience, and some friends of Ukraine are starting to make statements such as “the big war is lost for Russia.” Beyond the obvious facts that fighting remains intense in the south, as well as the east, and that artillery and missile strikes as well as aerial bombardment prevail throughout much of the country, this kind of thinking is careless. 

Perhaps the biggest risk right now is the ongoing danger to President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, together with his top advisers and military leaders. They must make every effort to maintain their own security and safety; a decapitation attack, already attempted by Russia at least twice since Feb. 24 — and possibly more times, according to one of his advisers — could quickly swing the tide of battle, if successful.

For inspiration, Zelensky, the former actor, comedian and writer, can look to the movies. Two characters in particular come to mind. One is the aging “Godfather” advising his son, Michael Corleone, of the inevitable assassination attempts to come from other Mafia families, and warning him of how to stay safe by sniffing out the ringleaders. The other is the famous “Q” in James Bond movies — the clever chap from British intelligence wielding the latest invention that 007 can use to fend off or kill an adversary when finding himself in a fix.

In this day and age, the fantastical technologies that Q developed for the fictional world are all too real. Leave aside the knives emanating from briefcases or machine guns emerging from a car’s headlight cavities. The real danger for Zelensky is surveillance technology that could give Russia information on his real-time whereabouts if he is not meticulously careful.

Zelensky undoubtedly is moving from location to location and avoiding the systematic use of any given cell phone or satellite phone known to Russian intelligence capabilities. But he must worry about several other possible threats, such as:

  • Closed-circuit television that departing Russian forces may have set up in towns they are now vacating — towns they know Zelensky will visit soon;
  • Voice detection technology in these and other locations that could identify Zelensky when he speaks; and
  • Pop-up drones, whether remotely activated or set to a timer, that could gain quick information about something like a presidential motorcade.

With information gleaned from any such sensor technologies, Russia might undertake quick air or missile attacks that could reach their destination within minutes of launch. It might even have pre-deployed weapons loaded on drones or other objects hidden in the towns of northern Ukraine that are now being reclaimed by government forces as the Russians retreat, shortening and tightening the “kill chain.”

There potentially will be many other threats in coming days and weeks. I worry, as well, about what Russian forces, refit with new recruits and stocks of fresh technology, may be able to do in the open country of eastern and central Ukraine when the ground firms up in June. And, of course, intense territorial struggles continue now in the east and southeast of the country. But a knockout blow against Ukraine’s government is what Russian President Vladimir Putin most wants, and expected to achieve, all along. He likely will try for it again.

Michael O’Hanlon holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags Assassination attempt Michael O'Hanlon Military intelligence Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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