Ukraine at D+306: Negotiation as false light.
N2K logoDec 27, 2022

Ukraine continues to push, slowly, against Russian lines in Luhansk, and to conduct cross-border strikes against Russian air bases.

Ukraine at D+306: Negotiation as false light.

On Christmas Eve Russian gunners shelled civilian neighborhoods in Kherson, the AP reports, killing seven and wounding fifty-eight.

The shelling has come to typify the static positional war Russia has pursued in the absence of an aptitude for successful mobile action. Moldova nonetheless continues to fear a Russian offensive through southern Ukraine toward Moldova's own illegally detached province of Transnistria.

Elsewhere, the UK's Ministry of Defense (MoD) this morning described the current situation at the front. "Over the last 48 hours, fighting has remained focused around the Bakhmut sector of Donetsk Oblast, and near Svatove in Luhansk. Russia continues to initiate frequent small-scale assaults in these areas, although little territory has changed hands. To the north, elements of Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army were probably amongst the Russian forces recently deployed to Belarus. This formation was likely conducting training before its deployment and is unlikely to have the support units needed to make it combat-ready."

Ukraine's offensive in the Donbas appears aimed at the city of Kreminna, in the Luhansk oblast, seen, the New York Times reports, as representing the linchpin of prepared Russian defenses in the region. Ukrainian forces are said to be making slow progress toward their objective.

The BBC reviews a range of expert opinion on the likely future of the war. None of them see it ending before the spring, and most see Ukrainian offensives as likely to prove decisive.

Diminished Russian combat capacity may be reducing Ukrainian concerns about escalation risk.

Ukraine continued its anti-military-airfield program with another drone strike against Engels air base, located well inside Russia. It's the third such strike since December 6th, the New York Times reports. TASS says Russian forces shot down the drone, and that, while no aircraft were damaged, three Russian service members were killed by falling debris. Ukraine seems, the Times says in another article, to have concluded that the risk of escalation is negligible, that Russia has already done its worst (short, of course, of nuclear weapons use) and that Russia's combat capabilities have peaked. There seems to be some justification to the assessment that Russian strike capability is diminishing. Strikes against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure have grown progressively less frequent over the past month, and air-raid alerts in Kyiv over Christmas proved false alarms. (They'd been prompted by Russian military aircraft taking off from Belarusian air bases. The flights proved not to be strikes.)

The UK's MoD on Saturday reported signs of Russian ammunition shortages. "Russia has augmented its force in Ukraine with tens of thousands of reservists since October. Despite the easing of its immediate personnel shortages, a shortage of munitions highly likely remains the key limiting factor on Russian offensive operations. Russia has likely limited its long-range missile strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure to around once a week due to the limited availability of cruise missiles. Similarly, Russia is unlikely to have increased its stockpile of artillery munitions enough to enable large-scale offensive operations. A vulnerability of Russia’s current operational design is that even just sustaining defensive operations along its lengthy front line requires a significant daily expenditure of shells and rockets."

On Monday, the MoD's discussion returned to landmines. "Russian forces have largely focused on constructing defensive positions along many sections of the front line in Ukraine since October. This includes laying additional fields of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, almost certainly going beyond Russian doctrinal guidelines." But mines are not a self-sufficient, lay-them-and-leave-them defensive measure. They have to be covered with both observation and fire if they're to amount to more than a nuisance to the enemy. "Minefields only present an effective obstacle for trained troops if covered by observation and fire. A major challenge for the Russian forces will likely be a shortage of surveillance assets and trained personnel to effectively monitor large areas of the new minefields." As indiscriminate weapons with high dud rates, weapons that will continue to inflict suffering for decades to come, it's hard to find something worse than mines. Russian forces continue to opportunistically do whatever harm they can regardless of military necessity, or even military utility.

Russia says it's open to negotiations. So does Ukraine.

Neither proposal is likely to result in actual negotiations between the two sides.

In a televised address on Sunday, Russian President Putin said that he was open to negotiations, and that responsibility for failure to reach a negotiated settlement of his war lies with others. "We are ready to negotiate with everyone involved about acceptable solutions, but that is up to them – we are not the ones refusing to negotiate, they are," the Telegraph quotes him as saying. In this Mr. Putin principally blames Western nations that support Ukraine. Russia is, he said, fighting an essentially defensive war. “I believe that we are acting in the right direction, we are defending our national interests, the interests of our citizens, our people. We have no other choice but to protect our citizens. Actually, the fundamental thing here is the policy of our geopolitical opponents which is aimed at pulling apart Russia, historical Russia.” Thus, realistically, Russia is not interested in a negotiated peace, and the US dismissed Mr. Putin's remarks as "disingenuous," saying that Moscow has shown no desire for negotiation.

Still, the Russian president's statement cast him as what passes for the good cop in Moscow. Foreign Minister Lavrov supplied the bad cop. TASS yesterday was authorized to disclose the conditions for peace, as Mr. Lavrov explained them:

"The enemy is well aware of our proposals on the demilitarization and denazification of the [Kiev] regime’s controlled territories, the elimination of threats to Russia’s security that come from there and it includes our new territories [DPR, LPR, Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions]. There is a little left to do - to accept these proposals in an amicable way. Otherwise, the Russian Army will deal with this issue. As for the possible continuance of the conflict, then the ball is on the court’s side of the [Kiev] regime and Washington, which stands behind it. They can put an end at any time to this senseless resistance."

(The interpolations are in the TASS original.) "The point is simple," said Mr. Lavrov, apostrophizing Kyiv. "Fulfil them for your own good." Because Russia cares. So, give us back the territories the Russian Army took, and then lost, or else the Russian Army will take them back again, and maybe more. The bad cop line seems predicated on an inflated view of Russian combat capability that's unlikely to convince most observers, let alone the intended audience in Kyiv.  

The AP reports that Ukraine has also proposed a summit in February at which peace might be negotiated. It would be a summit to be held at the UN, moderated by the Secretary General, but Ukraine does not expect any Russian participation. Ukraine's precondition for direct talks with Russia is that Russia first face a war crimes tribunal. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said, "Every war ends in a diplomatic way.” He added significantly, however, that combat success also shaped the conclusion of any war. “Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.” Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied to Foreign Minister Kuleba's proposed negotiations by saying that Russia “never followed conditions set by others. Only our own and common sense.” By "common sense" Russia has recently meant recognition of its sovereignty over the Ukrainian territories it's claimed: Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

Thus negotiations seem unlikely.

Raiding a dark web contraband market.

Bitcoin News reports that Alex Holden, founder and CISO of Hold Security, has successfully rifled the cryptowallet of Solaris, a major Russian contraband market on the dark web, and donated what he and his team have taken to a Ukrainian charity. Forbes, which broke the story at the end of last week, notes that Solaris is not only heavily involved in drug trafficking, but is believed to have connections with the Russian cyber auxiliaries of Killnet. Killnet has conducted nuisance-level attacks against targets in Ukraine and (especially) in countries sympathetic to Ukraine's cause.

The wartime resurgence of hacktivism.

It's been largely doxing and DDoS. Wired describes how some older hacktivist groups saw themselves revitalized. "Legacy hacktivist collective Anonymous was revitalized, but new groups were also formed." Ukraine also raised a hacktivist auxiliary that tunes its operations in response to general direction from the government in Kyiv. "Ukraine’s unprecedented IT Army, a volunteer group of hackers from around the world, has continuously launched DDoS attacks against Russian targets that are outlined in its Telegram group. In June, a speech by Vladimir Putin was delayed after a cyberattack. Other hacktivist-linked groups have run huge hack-and-leak operations against Russian entities, resulting in hundreds of gigabytes of data from Russia being published online."

Russia has tended to draw its own auxiliaries from its large criminal underworld, where longstanding traditions of privateering in the interest of both profit and the state have lent themselves to easy mobilization. "On the other side of the conflict, there are four main pro-Russian hacktivist groups, says Sergey Shykevich, threat intelligence group manager at security firm Check Point. These are: Killnet, NoName 057, From Russia With Love, and XakNet. Killnet is probably the most active of these groups, Shykevich says. 'Since April, they have targeted around 650 targets—only about 5 percent of them were Ukraine.' Its targets, like the European Parliament, have largely been countries that oppose Russia. The group, which mostly uses DDoS attacks, is proactive on Telegram, media friendly, and appeals to Russian speakers."

Security firm Kaspersky describes the broader patterns of the cyberwar. The preparatory operations during the run-up to war and the wiper attacks mounted against Ukrainian targets in the war's opening hourse the now familiar course of the cyberwar. The preparatory cyber operations against Ukraine, and the wiper attacks against Ukrainian targets in the opening hours of the invasion were noteworthy but of short duration. "The ViaSat sabotage once again demonstrates cyberattacks are a basic building block for modern armed conflicts and may directly support key milestones in military operations." Such support hasn't, however, continued, and cyber operations have since then shown little coordination with combined arms operation. Instead, Kaspersky sees four trends in the cyber phases of this hybrid war:

  • "Hacktivists and DDoS attacks. The conflict in Ukraine has created a breeding ground for new cyberwarfare activity from various groups including cybercriminals and hacktivists, rushing to support their favorite side. Some groups, such as the IT Army of Ukraine or Killnet, have been officially supported by governments and their Telegram channels include hundreds of thousands of subscribers. While the attacks performed by hacktivists had relatively low complexity, the experts witnessed a spike in DDoS activity during summer period both in number of attacks and their duration. In 2022, an average DDoS attack lasted 18.5 hours, almost 40 times longer compared to 2021 (approx. 28 minutes).
  • "Hack and leak. The more sophisticated attacks attempted to hijack media attention with hack-and-leak operations, and have been on the rise since the beginning of the conflict. Such attacks involve breaching an organization and publishing its internal data online, often via a dedicated website. This is significantly more difficult than a simple defacing operation, since not all machines contain internal data worth releasing.
  • "Poisoned open source repositories, weaponizing open source software. As the conflict drags on, popular open source packages can be used as a protest or attack platform by developers or hackers alike. The impact from such attacks can extend wider than the open source software itself, propagating in other packages that automatically rely on the trojanized code.
  •  "Fragmentation. Following the start of the Ukraine conflict in February 2022, many western companies are exiting the Russian market and leaving their users in a delicate position when it comes to receiving security updates or support – and the security updates are probably the top issue when vendors end support for products or leave the market."

Wartime cyber operations receive a more detailed treatment in Kaspersky's report, "Reassessing cyberwarfare. Lessons learned in 2022."

Defenestrations continue.

Russian oligarch Pavel Antov, who in July was briefly moved by the death of a small girl in a Russian missile strike to post a critical story about the special military operation in his WhatsApp channel, has died in a fall from a high window in an Indian luxury hotel, the Telegraph reports. Mr. Antov quickly retracted his WhatsApp criticism, apologizing and saying it had been posted by someone else, adding that he still supported President Putin's objectives in Ukraine. He had been a member of the ruling United Russia Party who served in the Vladimir Region's Legislative Assembly. (United Russia is effectively President Putin's party, although Mr. Putin is nominally an independent.) TASS quotes official condolences from the Vladimir Region in its announcement of Mr. Antov's death. The Daily Beast frames the death in the context of other, similar deaths. "At least 13 other prominent Russian figures, many of them involved in the oil and gas industry, have died in strange circumstances this year." It's been going on for some time. Newsweek offered a tally (now exceeded) back in September that extended back several years.