Ukraine at D+452: Russia claims victory in Bakhmut as the G7 finishes its meeting.
N2K logoMay 22, 2023

Ukraine at D+452: Russia claims victory in Bakhmut as the G7 finishes its meeting.

According to the AP, Russia claimed over the weekend to have secured Bakhmut, in what would represent its first battlefield victory in over a year. Ukraine, however, disputes that claim, and says that it continues to contest the city. If the Russian assertion of victory is confirmed, that would represent a striking reversal of fortunes after last week's reports of Ukrainian local advances and public criticism of the Russian army by the rival Wagner Group. (Mr. Prigozhin's private military corporation, which has borne a significant share of the fighting for the dead city, was conspicuously absent in Russian media coverage of official statements of victory.)

Bakhmut in any case continues to preoccupy Russian leaders as a prestige objective. "In the last four days, Russia has highly likely redeployed up to several battalions to reinforce the Bakhmut sector," the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) wrote, in Saturday's situation report. "This follows Ukrainian tactical gains on the flanks of the contested Donetsk Oblast town through mid-May and publicly aired doubts about the commitment of Wagner Group forces to continue fighting in the sector. With Russia likely maintaining relatively few uncommitted combat units in Ukraine, the redeployment represents a notable commitment by the Russian command. Russia’s leadership likely continue to see capturing Bakhmut as the key immediate war aim which would allow them to claim some degree of success in the conflict." The fighting for Bakhmut is thus both inflicting casualties and imposing significant opportunity costs. Both the New York Times and the Telegraph have more extensive accounts of what Bakhmut has cost and continues to cost Moscow.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy's visit to the G7 meeting in Hiroshima over the weekend was accompanied by renewed expressions of solidarity in G7 communiques. The G7 members also tightened sanctions against Russia and asked China to pressure Russia to leave Ukraine.

Russia seeks to reform attack aviation.

Russia is working to reform and enhance the capabilities of its under-performing close-support air capability. They're doing so, apparently, by seeking to create an "elite" aviation group. The UK's MoD this morning reported, "Russia is highly likely creating a new ‘elite’ attack aviation group code-named ‘Shtorm’ to operate over Ukraine. The unit is likely to consist of at least one squadron of Su-24 FENCER and Su-34 FULLBACK fighter-bombers, and a squadron of attack helicopters. The mix of aircraft types suggests the group will have a primary role of ground attack missions." Finding qualified aviators will be a challenge. "Credible Russian media reports suggest that the Russian MoD aims to attract highly skilled and motivated pilots by offering large pay incentives and opening recruitment to retired aviators. The creation of the group highlights how Russia assesses its regular air force squadrons have severely underperformed in their core function of conducting airstrikes on Ukrainian lines."

Attempts to improve targeting with surveillance UAVs.

From the UK's MoD, this Sunday morning: "Since early May 2023, Russia has restarted frequent long-range missile strikes deep into Ukraine. They are likely primarily aimed at degrading Ukrainian air defences. Innovating on earlier waves of deep strikes, Russia has started more frequently integrating unarmed, surveillance uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) into operations. These have included Russian-produced SuperCam UAVs which are relatively cheap and have sufficient range to fly over the cruise missiles’ targets. Russia has highly likely adopted this tactic in an attempt to obtain more timely battle damage assessment and improve its targeting cycle. The Russian military’s slow and inefficient targeting process has been a major weakness in its performance in Ukraine. However, slow surveillance UAVs are highly vulnerable to Ukrainian air defences."

Shifts in Russia's cyber campaign: a Ukrainian perspective.

The Record has a long interview with Yurii Shchyhol, the head of the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine (SSSCIP), in which he reviewed the ways in which Russian cyber operations have shifted to support the present phase of Russia's war. Shchyhol says Moscow's cyber operators are paying more attention to the private sector than they had earlier in the war. He also notes a shift away from the destructive wiper malware that had been a characteristic feature of Russian cyber operations in the early weeks of the war. The focus is now on information collection: reconnaissance and cyberespionage, which is to say battlespace preparation.

A Turla retrospective.

The FSB's Turla group recently received a setback when the FBI and its international partners took down some of the threat group's infrastructure. The takedown prompted a retrospective in WIRED, which covers some of Turla's most notorious operations:

  • 1996: Moonlight Maze. Discovered in 1998, this operation targeted a broad range of US targets, including networks belonging to "the US Navy and Air Force, as well as those of NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environment Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a handful of US universities, and many others."
  • 2008: Agent.btz. This operation went after a US Central Command classified network. The air-gapped target was compromised with malicious code carried in compromised USB drives.
  • 2015: Satellite Command-and-Control. A watering hole attack that compromised a satellite command-and-control network.
  • 2019: Piggybacking on Iran. Turla succeeded in co-opting Iranian hacking networks, thereby giving it the ability to operate under an Iranian false flag, deflecting attribution.
  • 2022: Hijacking a Botnet. In another false-flag operation, Turla took control of a criminal botnet.

The recent FBI-led takedown of infrastructure devoted to the distribution of Turla's Snake malware has been a blow to the FSB, but as WIRED points out, it would be unwise to count Turla out.