Ukraine at D+201: Ukraine's counteroffensive, and Russian attempts to make sense of it.
N2K logoSep 13, 2022

Ukraine's counteroffensive has largely succeeded in ejecting Russian forces from the Kharkiv oblast, with accounts of the fighting reporting large-scale Russian flight and surrender. Russian official channels of opinion show signs of an attempt to come to grips with combat failure. A retrospective on Russia's hybrid war, six months in.

Ukraine at D+201: Ukraine's counteroffensive, and Russian attempts to make sense of it.

Ukraine retakes most of Kharkiv.

Ukrainian forces have reconquered almost all of the disputed Kharkiv Oblast, the New York Times reports. Ukraine has recovered some 2400 square miles of territory, by Al Jazeera's tally, an area greater than that of the US state of Delaware. (Ukraine itself is roughly the size of the US state of Texas.) The AP cites reports claiming large numbers of Russian prisoners, but the situation remains fluid and details of the fighting are still unclear. US officials confirm that they've observed significant Ukrainian battlefield success, much of it owed to intelligent use of rocket artillery, but they sensibly observe that Russia still has options as the invaders seek to recover from what's being widely described as a rout.

The situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence this morning looks at the state of the 1st Guards Tank Army, many of whose elements were withdrawn from the Kharkiv Oblast in the last few days. "Elements of the Russian forces withdrawn from Kharkiv Oblast over the last week were from the 1st Guards Tank Army (1 GTA), which are subordinate to the Western Military District (WEMD). 1 GTA suffered heavy casualties in the initial phase of the invasion and had not been fully reconstituted prior to the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv. 1 GTA had been one of the most prestigious of Russia’s armies, allocated for the defence of Moscow, and intended to lead counter-attacks in the case of a war with NATO. With 1 GTA and other WEMD formations severely degraded, Russia’s conventional force designed to counter NATO is severely weakened. It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability."

Russian general commanding West is out.

Lieutenant General Roman Nikolaevich Berdnikov has been fired as commander of the Western Group of Forces, the Telegraph reports. His replacement is said to be Colonel General Aleksandr Pavlovich Lapin, formerly commander of the Central Group of Forces. General Berdnikov had held that job only since August 26th; apparently his sixteen-day tenure was marked by enough combat failure during Ukraine's counteroffensive that President Putin felt it necessary to make a change. General Lapin is now the fourth commander the ill-starred formation has had since the beginning of Russia's war.

The Kremlin line on the war.

Russian social media influencers and their amplifiers have been claiming that the Russian retreat is really a planned and voluntary maneuver to create a pocket within which Ukrainian forces can be destroyed ("like Stalingrad") but no one other than the official influencers (and probably not even the official influencers themselves) are prepared to credit this claim. There have been unusual public expressions of dissatisfaction with Russia's fortunes in Ukraine. Foreign Policy reports dissent and disapproval of Russia's progress in the war on the part of hardline Russian nationalists, who, as can be heard on Rossiya1, have been denouncing the Russian war as a campaign of half-measures, fatally restricted by misguided humanitarian restraint. (No one else perceives any such restraint.) Much of the criticism has had a tone familiar in Russian history--wicked advisors around the throne (in this case the intelligence services) are to blame. Why didn't they advise the President better? If only the tsar knew. The Telegraph speculates that opinions voiced on state television to the effect that "Ukraine cannot be defeated" are a stalking horse intended to determine whether Russian public opinion would tolerate peace talks.

Reviewing the cyber phase of a hybrid war.

Six months into Russia's war against Ukraine, CyberCube has reviewed Russian cyber operations. While their effect has fallen far short of prewar fears, those fears based largely on memory of Russian cyberattacks against Ukraine's power grid in 2015 and 2016, some trends have emerged that are likely to continue through the end of the war and beyond.

The close relationship between Russian intelligence services and the criminal gangs they use effectively as privateers has come into sharper relief. The advantage of using such gangs is not only the capacity the criminals contribute, but also the degree of deniability (at this point implausible rather than plausible deniability) they bring with them. They've been deployed against economic targets, but the selection of those targets is designed to stay below a level that might provoke massive (perhaps even kinetic) retaliation. "Russian ransomware gangs are focusing on large targets that fall just under the critical infrastructure threshold," CyberCube writes. The intention is to work economic damage as a way of retaliating against, and perhaps dissuading governments that have provided Ukraine with material and diplomatic support. "Russia is using criminal ransomware gangs to undermine the US economy while also avoiding direct war with the US. European energy companies are also increasingly being targeted for their strategic value. Russia is targeting governments in Europe that are assisting in Ukraine’s defense."

Among the more striking Russian successes in what has generally been an underwhelming performance in cyberspace were early campaigns that deployed wipers against targets in Ukraine and adjacent areas of Eastern Europe. "There has been a dramatic rise in the normalization of wiper malware being used as a weapon in this war."

Russia has advanced its long-term project of Internet autarky. This has been in part by design, driven in part by a perceived Russian need to control information domestically, and in part by necessity, as Western technology firms withdrew from the Russian market. In any case, an isolated Russian "sovereign Internet" is thought likely to provide a more secure safe haven for the criminal gangs Russia tolerates and uses. (Whether it will provide as convenient a line of departure for criminal operations as the former, more connected Russian web remains to be seen.) While Russian cyber operations have not had the devastating effects widely predicted during the run-up to war, they've nonetheless affected the calculations of the insurance market. "In response to this pattern of increased cyber activity, (re)insurers and brokers need to take proactive measures to manage their exposures," CyberCube observes. "Lloyd’s recently introduced a requirement that all standalone cyber attack policies must exclude liability for losses arising from state-backed attacks." The clarity the war clauses will introduce may prove beneficial to the insurance market. "CyberCube believes this mandate will help reduce uncertainty and enable more insurers to participate with confidence, based on a clearer understanding of what is covered, and what is excluded."