Ukraine at D+151: A quick end to a diplomatic solution?
N2K logoJul 25, 2022

Russia followed an agreement to reopen grain shipments with missile strikes against Odessa. In the criminal markets, Luna ransomware is being offered only to Russian-speaking gangs. And observers speculate on the relative restraint Russia has shown with respect to GPS jamming in the active theater of its war against Ukraine.

Ukraine at D+151: A quick end to a diplomatic solution?

The negotiated agreement to open Ukrainian grain shipments seems not to have lasted long.

At the end of last week Russia and Ukraine concluded an agreement (brokered by Turkey) that would have reopened Ukrainian Black Sea ports to grain shipments. The UN Secretary General's comment on the agreement is representative. “Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea,” Secretary General Guterres said. “A beacon of hope – a beacon of possibility – a beacon of relief -- in a world that needs it more than ever.” Mr. Guterres also praised Russia and Ukraine, as the UN statement had it, for "putting aside their differences in the common interests of humanity." The Secretary General said, “The question has not been what is good for one side or the other. The focus has been on what matters most for the people of our world. And let there be no doubt – this is an agreement for the world.” The Telegraph thinks that HIMARS strikes motivated the Russians to come to the negotiating table, but most of the press coverage of the agreement was willing to receive the agreement as good news, as something that offered the prospect of relieving international food shortages. And President Putin came across, the Telegraph adds, as a benevolent friend to suffering Africa. (Foreign Minister Lavrov, the Guardian reports, is in Egypt to play to the beneficiaries of Russian diplomatic largesse.)

This was all sadly premature, The widespread welcome the agreement received internationally, and the expectation of some relief in a burgeoning international food crisis, unfortunately must now be at best tempered, at worst abandoned entirely. Russia followed up the agreement with cruise missile strikes against Odessa, Ukraine's biggest port. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry tweeted, with justice, "It took less than 24 hours for Russia to launch a missile attack on Odesa’s port, breaking its promises and undermining its commitments before the UN and Türkiye under the Istanbul agreement. In case of non-fulfillment, Russia will bear full responsibility for global food crisis." TheHill puts the strike at four Kalibr cruise missiles, two of which scored. The other two were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. The AP reports that official Russian sources say that only military targets were hit (a patrol boat and a Harpoon anti-shipping missile launcher), so really there was no violation of any agreement.

Sunday's situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence outlined recent Russian progress in the Donbas: "In the Donbas, small-scale Russian offensive action remains focused on the Bakhmut axis, but it is making minimal progress," the report said, before turning to an assessment of Russian ambitions for other regions of Ukraine. "On 20 July 2022, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia had expanded the scope of its ‘special military operation’ beyond the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Lavrov claimed that the operation now included new additional areas, including the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as a result of Western countries supplying longer range weapons to Ukraine. This is almost certainly not true. Russia has not ‘expanded’ its war; maintaining long-term control of these areas was almost certainly an original goal of the invasion. Russia invaded these areas in February and the occupation authorities have been publicly discussing the prospects for legal independent referendums since at least mid-March. There is a realistic possibility that Lavrov made the comments to pave the way for referenda to take place in occupied territories beyond Luhansk and Donetsk."

Mykolaiv, a city on the Pivdennyi Buh River near the Black Sea, between Kherson and Odessa, currently threatened by Russian forces, was hit late last week by two Russian missiles. The target destroyed, either intentionally or mistakenly, was a large warehouse holding humanitarian relief supplies. Newsweek quotes the governor of the Mykolaiv Oblast, Vitaly Kim, as saying, "Yes, at 3 o'clock in the morning, the Russian occupiers hit one of our humanitarian headquarters with two rockets. Thousands of tonnes of products intended for children, the elderly and those who need help were completely burnt."

Western observers now think Odessa is also on Russia's list of objectives. A report in Foreign Policy argues that Russia intends to take the Black Sea port "early next year," which introduces an interesting perspective on how Russian intentions are no longer limited by the early plans of a quick invasion that would swiftly decapitate Ukraine and leave the country prostrate to Russian occupation. It now seems that operational planning may extend into 2023.

Bridges and bridging units become high-value targets.

The MoD on Saturday morning noted that Ukraine has taken the offensive in the south, aiming to secure the Kherson Oblast. "In the last 48 hours, heavy fighting has been taking place as Ukrainian forces have continued their offensive against Russian forces in Kherson Oblast, west of the River Dnipro. Russia is likely attempting to slow the Ukrainian attack using artillery fire along the natural barrier of the Ingulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro." Bridges and the ability to conduct combat river crossings will be crucial in that campaign. "Simultaneously, the supply lines of the Russian force west of the Dnipro are increasingly at risk. Additional Ukrainian strikes have caused further damage to the key Antonivsky Bridge, though Russia has conducted temporary repairs. As of 22 July 2022, it was almost certainly open to some traffic. It has not been possible to verify claims by Ukrainian officials that Russia is preparing to construct an alternative, military pontoon bridge across the Dnipro. The Russian army prioritises maintaining its military bridging capability, but any attempt to construct a crossing of the Dnipro would be a very high risk operation."

This morning's MoD situation report finds current fighting "inconclusive." The Russian army is caught between alternatives: reinforce the offensive in the Donbas, or reinforce the defense along the Black Sea coast. "Inconclusive fighting continues in both the Donbas and Kherson sectors. Russian commanders continue to face a dilemma; whether to resource the offensive in the east, or to bolster the defence in the west." The Russian forces are also having difficulty repairing damaged vehicles and returning them to combat units. "On 18 July 2022, intelligence identified a Russian military vehicle refit and refurbishment facility near Barvinok, in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast, 10km from the Ukrainian border. At least 300 damaged vehicles were present, including main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and general support trucks. In addition to its well documented personnel problems, Russia likely continues to struggle to extract and repair the thousands of combat vehicles which have been damaged in action in Ukraine."

Report: FSB says it foiled a plot to bribe Russian combat pilots to defect (with their aircraft) to Ukraine.

The lead Russia reporter for Bellincat tweeted this morning that the FSB has announced its detection and thwarting of Ukrainian plans to induce Russians to surrender themselves and their aircraft to Ukraine. It's a complicated story, with both sides playing one another. On balance Bellingcat scores it as a loss for the FSB. "While Russia is presenting today this as a coup for its counter intelligence, in fact the operation was a serious blunder for the FSB, disclosing unintentionally identities of dozens of counter intel officers, their methods of operation, and their undercover assets. Remember the Wagner sting operation in Belarus? Well, as Russia invaded Ukraine, some of the Ukrainian operatives who engineered that sting decided to repeat it: this time by enticing RU military pilots to surrender. In April, Ukraine adopted an 'weapons-surrender-incentive law.”

The Weapons Surrender Incentive Law offered various bounties for different kinds of Russian equipment: $1 million for a combat aircraft, half a million for a helicopter, $25 thousand for a multiple rocket launcher of 122mm caliber or less (larger calibers would fetch $35 thousand), $100 thousand for a tank or a self-propelled artillery piece, $50 thousand for an infantry combat vehicle or comparable armored vehicle, and $10 thousand for other types of military vehicles. Ships were on the shopping list, too: $1 million for a "ship of the first or second rank," $500,000 for a "ship of the third or fourth rank," $200 thousand for a naval auxiliary vessel, and $50 thousand for a small reconnaissance vessel. "A team of Ukrainian operatives decided to approach Russian pilots with an offer based on this law, " @christogrozev tweeted.

Eventually both sides called it off. The FSB realized it wasn't getting any Ukrainian intelligence officers, and the Ukrainians decided they probably weren't getting any MiGs.

A C2C offering restricted to potential privateers.

SecurityWeek reports that Luna ransomware, a cross-platform capable attack tool coded in Rust that's landed with some éclat recently in the criminal-to-criminal markets, is being offered only to russophone affiliates. Criminals speaking other languages can shop elsewhere.

The minor mystery of GPS-jamming...

...and why Russian electronic warfare hasn't been more aggressive with GPS-denial operations. C4ISR reviews the potential explanations, and they closely parallel the reasons why Russian offensive cyber operations have been similarly restrained:

  1. Maybe Russian electronic warfare isn't as good as everyone thought it was. Other Russian capabilities have been overestimated, and there may have been a tendency to exaggerate Russian electronic warfare prowess as well, the thinking goes. Maybe, but on the other hand Russia has shown an ability to jam GPS signals (in Norway, for example) or spoof them (in the Black Sea, for example). Other explanations seem likelier.
  2. Russian forces themselves use GPS, and they don't want to deny their own access to the system in the theater of operations. Russia does have both GLONASS (a domestic alternative to GPS) and Chaika (a terrestrial navigation system roughly equivalent to the American LORAN), but these are not as widely used. GPS receivers are cheap and ubiquitous, and many Russian units use them. Almost every smartphone has GPS; very few if any use GLONASS.
  3. Russian EW operators are concerned about the ease with which their jammers could be located, targeted, and destroyed.
  4. Ukraine's stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons aren't dependent upon GPS, and thus GPS jamming won't affect them. (Of course, Ukrainian forces are likely to use GPS receivers as much as Russian forces do, and systems they've recently received from NATO use GPS.)
  5. Russia is pulling its punches, holding its full capabilities in reserve against possible use against the main enemy, which is NATO.