Ukraine at D+96: Russia's slow and firepower-intensive advance.
N2K logoMay 31, 2022

Russian forces concentrate on the Donbas, where they're reported to be making slow progress behind crushing artillery fire in Luhansk. The EU decides to restrict Russian oil imports. Russia's Black Sea blockade has begun to induce food shortages in Africa and elsewhere. Low-intensity skirmishing continues in cyberspace.

Ukraine at D+96: Russia's slow and firepower-intensive advance.

Russia's army continues to demonstrate the ability to mass fire from relatively static artillery, and to conduct slow, limited advances into the cities destroyed by that fire.

Concentrated, very heavy fires have enabled Russian forces to take the town of Lyman as they make slow progress toward the envelopment of Sieverodonetsk, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported this morning. "Russia’s capture of Lyman supports its operational main effort, which likely remains the encirclement of Sieverodonetsk and the closure of the pocket around Ukrainian forces in Luhansk Oblast. Heavy shelling continues, while street fighting is likely taking place on the outskirts of Sieverodonetsk town," Tuesday's situation report siad. "Elements of Russia’s Southern Grouping of Forces are likely leading the most successful axis in the sector, supported by the Central Grouping of Forces attacking from the North. Progress has been slow but gains are being held. Routes into the pocket likely remain under Ukrainian control." Concentration of forces involves accepting risk elsewhere. "Russia has achieved greater local successes than earlier in the campaign by massing forces and fires in a relatively small area. This forces Russia to accept risk elsewhere in occupied territory.Russia’s political goal is likely to occupy the full territory of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. To achieve this, Russia will need to secure further challenging operational objectives beyond Sieverodonetsk, including the key city of Kramatorsk and the M04 Dnipro-Donetsk main road." SIeverodonetsk is said by Reuters to have been reduced to a "wasteland," although Ukrainian resistance continues in the rubble. The Guardian reports that Russian fires have been too intense to permit even an approximate count of the civilian death toll.

A Ukrainian offensive has developed in the south, aiming at the reconquest of Kherson, located between Odessa and Crimea, the first major Ukrainian city to fall to the Russian invaders. In Mariupol, an improvised explosive device is reported, by the Telegraph, to mark the beginning of guerrilla resistance to Russian occupation.

Challenges of reconstituting forces and regaining the initiative in what has become a long war.

Monday's situation report from the UK's MoD focused on Russian leadership challenges. "Russia has likely suffered devastating losses amongst its mid and junior ranking officers in the conflict. Brigade and battalion commanders likely deploy forwards into harm’s way because they are held to an uncompromising level of responsibility for their units’ performance. Similarly, junior officers have had to lead the lowest level tactical actions, as the army lacks the cadre of highly trained and empowered non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who fulfil that role in Western forces. The loss of large proportion of the younger generation of professional officers will likely exacerbate its ongoing problems in modernising its approach to command and control. More immediately, battalion tactical groups (BTGs) which are being reconstituted in Ukraine from survivors of multiple units are likely to be less effective due to a lack of junior leaders. With multiple credible reports of localised mutinies amongst Russia’s forces in Ukraine, a lack of experienced and credible platoon and company commanders is likely to result to a further decrease in morale and continued poor discipline."

Full mobilization would be difficult, as an essay in Foreign Affairs explains, but withdrawal from Ukraine, still less a renunciation of the Russian line about a war against Nazism, would be equally difficult. Moscow would appear to be left with half-measures, like raising the military age in the hope of drawing some superannuated fighters into the ranks. or pulling obsolescent T-62 tanks out of storage and using them to re-equip depleted armored formations. The T-62 entered production in 1961, and, while it stayed in production until 1975, the T-72 began to replace it in Soviet service in the early 1970s. The T-62, while certainly an older, obsolescent model, isn't hopelessly outdated and could still be usefully employed on the battlefield. On the other hand, given the evidence of slipshod Russian maintenance of its frontline combat vehicles on display in the opening weeks of the invasion, how likely is it that tanks pulled out of storage after two or three decades are likely to work as designed? In any case, T-62s will prove even more vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-tank weapons than Russia's newest tanks have been, and the late model combat vehicles have taken heavy losses. Fielding T-62s will also bring with it the logistical complications that always attend mixed fleets.

Sanctions, blockades, and their effects on the world economy.

The European Union, after prolonged and difficult internal discussions, late yesterday agreed on an embargo of Russian oil. The AP reports that the EU will cut its purchases of Russian oil by about 90% over the next six months. Reuters notes that the EU has agreed to immediately halt delivery of Russian oil by tankers. Europe receives about two-thirds of its Russian oil by ship, and the remainder through the Druzhba pipeline, so yesterday's decision amounts to an immediate embargo of two-thirds of all Russian oil exports to Europe. The New York Times points out that the effects of the embargo are likely to be significant, but that they won't be felt, in Russia, immediately.

The Russian blockage of Ukraine's Black Sea ports has begun to have an effect on world food supplies, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, where deliveries of both grain and fertilizer have been disrupted. Russia has

On Sunday, the MoD reviewed the effects of sanctions and the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. "On 25 May, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Andrei Rudenko, said Russia is ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food through the Black Sea in return for the lifting of sanctions. The minister also requested Ukraine de-mine the area around the port of Odessa to allow the passage of ships. Rudenko’s request for Ukraine to de-mine follows a core tenet of modern Russian messaging strategy: introducing alternative narratives, however unconvincing, to complicate audiences’ understanding. In this instance, Ukraine has only deployed maritime mines because of the continued credible threat of Russian amphibious assaults from the Black Sea. Russia has demonstrated it is prepared to leverage global food security for its own political aim and then present itself as the reasonable actor and blame the West for any failure. Russia’s attempt to achieve a reduction in the severity of international sanctions also highlights the stresses sanctions are placing on the regime."

The agricultural sector is vulnerable to cyber disruption, as the small-scale Ukrainian bricking of tractors stolen by occupying forces and shipped back to Russia suggests. Some twenty-seven agricultural machines were taken by Russian forces from Melitopol and carried off for use in the Chechnyan region of Russia, CSO reports, but their former owners have rendered them inoperable and useless, much as one might remotely brick a stolen laptop. What's networked can usually be remotely disabled by its owners, and tractors are no different in this respect from a tablet. Should Russia decide to increase its push back against sanctions by exacerbating the food shortages its blockade has already induced, some observers have expressed concern that it could mount a general cyber campaign against the agricultural sector. The privateering against JBS Foods, ABC says, foreshadows what might be possible: "JBS Foods, the world's biggest meat processor, was held ransom by Russian-based hackers for $US11 million last year."

Western nations remain on alert for Russian cyber attacks.

Bleeping Computer reports that Italian authorities warned yesterday that Italy could see more distributed denial-of-service attacks of the sort recently conducted by the Russian Killnet group, nominally independent patriotic hacktivists working in Russia's interest, but probably also receiving some direction from Moscow's security and intelligence services. Killnet declared "Operation Panopticon," (that is, the creation of a space in which everything is seen) last week, and has since been seeking to rally sympathetic hackers to its cause. The original panopticon was proposed in the Eighteenth Century by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who intended it as a proposal for prison reform. Prisons ought to be designed, Bentham argued, with a central panopticon from which all the prisoners could be observed continuously and without interruption. We leave the unpacking of Killnet's choice of metaphor as an exercise for the readers.

Observers in the US and UK also continue to express concern about the prospects of major Russian offensive cyber campaigns, although so far at least no such successful campaigns have developed. Some warn of a potential for attacks against industrial control systems (using Pipedream malware tools); others see more risk of distributed denial-of-service attacks organized by Gamaredon (APT53, or Primitive Bear).

Ukrainian hacktivists continue to conduct nuisance-level attacks against Russian targets. Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, remains a favorite target, the Telegraph reports.

REvil prosecution has reached a dead end.

Remember when Russian authorities arrested some alleged leaders of the REvil ransomware gang back on January 14th? It would seem that their prosecution is now at a standstill. And, moreover, it's the Americans' fault, or so the word on the courthouse steps in Moscow has it. The Russian media outlet Kommersant reported Friday that "America did nothing," and suggests that this is a disappointment for the Russian authorities. Russia did its best in good faith and with a commitment to procedural equity, but the Americans failed to deliver the evidence they promised (says Kommersant).

The US suspended its cooperation with Russian law enforcement after the special military operation in Ukraine began, and so the Russian prosecution can now proceed no further. Cyberscoop points out that this is basically the defense attorney's perspective, and that perhaps it should be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, defense counsel has apparently suggested that the alleged leaders of REvil are patriots willing to turn from their young, misguided life of crime, and that they're in a unique position to render assistance to Russia in her hour of cyber need. They've got the chops for it, apparently, having honed their skills as privateers (or if you prefer, criminals).