Ukraine at D+117: Cyberattacks and a static war in the Donbas.
N2K logoJun 21, 2022

A stalled Russian advance in the Donbas is expected to prompt increasingly indiscriminate fire and a renewed emphasis on cyber operations.

Ukraine at D+117: Cyberattacks and a static war in the Donbas.

Russia's offensive in the Donbas continues its pattern of heavy bombardment from relatively static positions, the Wall Street Journal reports.

On Saturday, the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) described the current state of Russia's advance in the Donbas, and drew attention to the probability of a more extensive targeting of civilians who fail to flee the area of operations. "In the last 48 hours, Russia has likely renewed its efforts to advance south of Izium, with the goal of advancing deeper into the Donetsk Oblast, and to envelop the Sieverodonetsk Pocket from the north." The "humanitarian corridors" appear to be a trap. "Since 14 June, Russian and separatist officials have claimed they are attempting to establish humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to evacuate Sieverodonetsk. Russia has precedent, both earlier in the Ukraine campaign and in Syria, of using unilaterally-declared ‘humanitarian’ corridors as a mechanism to manipulate the battlespace and impose the forced transfer of populations. Ukrainian civilians trapped in Sieverodonetsk are likely to be suspicious of using the proposed corridor. Options to leave the town are limited by the destruction of bridges, but Russia’s proposed route would take them towards the town of Svatova, deeper inside Russian-occupied territory. If trapped civilians don’t take up the offer of exiting via a corridor, Russian will likely claim justification in making less of a distinction between them and any Ukrainian military targets in the area."

"In recent days, both Russia and Ukraine have continued to conduct heavy artillery bombardments on axes to the north, east and south of the Sieverodonetsk pocket, but with little change in the front line," Sunday's MoD situation report said, with morale suffering on both sides, as morale will under heavy shelling in static positions. "Combat units from both sides are committed to intense combat in the Donbas and are likely experiencing variable morale. Ukrainian forces have likely suffered desertions in recent weeks, however, Russian morale highly likely remains especially troubled. Cases of whole Russian units refusing orders and armed stand-offs between officers and their troops continue to occur. The Russian authorities likely struggle to bring legal pressure to bear on military dissenters, hampered by the invasion’s official status as a ‘special military operation’ rather than as a war. Drivers for low Russian morale include perceived poor leadership, limited opportunity for rotation of units out of combat, very heavy casualties, combat stress, continued poor logistics, and problems with pay. Many Russian personnel of all ranks also likely remain confused about the war’s objectives. Morale problems in the Russian force are likely so significant that they are limiting Russia’s ability to achieve operational objectives."

Yesterday's MoD situation report focused on the underperformance of Russia's air force. "Russian ground and tactical air operations have remained focussed on the central Donbas sector over the weekend. In the conflict to date, Russia’s air force has underperformed. Its failure to consistently deliver air power is likely one of the most important factors behind Russia’s very limited campaign success. It cannot gain full air superiority and has operated in a risk-adverse style, rarely penetrating deep behind Ukrainian lines. Some of the underlying causes of its difficulties echo those of Russian Ground Forces. For years, much of Russia’s air combat training has highly likely been heavily scripted and designed to impress senior officials, rather than to develop dynamic initiative amongst air crews. While Russia has an impressive roster of relatively modern and capable combat jets, the air force has also almost certainly failed to develop the institutional culture and skill-sets required for its personnel to meet Russia’s aspiration of delivering a more Western-style modern air campaign. This has led to a greater than planned weight of effort falling to ground troops, who are becoming exhausted; and on advanced cruise missiles, stocks of which are likely running low."

This morning's MoD situation report shifted to conflict in the maritime domain, where Ukrainian coast defense systems may be playing a role analogous to that filled by its air defense systems: denying the Russian navy control of the Black Sea approaches to Ukraine's coast.

"On 17 June 2022, Ukrainian forces claimed their first successful use of Western-donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles to engage Russian maritime forces. The target of the attack was almost certainly the Russian naval tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, which was delivering weapons and personnel to Snake Island in the north-western Black Sea. The destruction of the Russian vessel on a resupply mission demonstrates the difficulty Russia faces when attempting to support their forces occupying Snake Island. This is the latest in a series of Russian vessels, including the cruiser Moskva, to be damaged or destroyed by Ukraine during the conflict. Ukrainian coastal defence capability has largely neutralised Russia's ability to establish sea control and project maritime force in the north-western Black Sea. This has undermined the viability of Russia's original operational design for the invasion, which involved holding the Odesa region at risk from the sea."

Cyber options may grow more attractive as kinetic operations stall.

Reuters reports that US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo warned the Bank Policy Institute last week that the threat of Russian cyberattack remained high. The Treasury Department reiterated its commitment to intelligence sharing during a period of heightened threat. "Treasury’s commitment to sharing appropriate intelligence and fostering an ongoing, real-time dialogue with financial institutions about threats as they arise."

Tanium's Teddra Burgess argues, in an essay published Friday by SC Media, that Russia's war against Ukraine represents a template for future, broader, cyber operations in other hybrid wars. She stresses the threat of both supply chain attacks and the disruption of critical infrastructure. She also argues that assessing that threat requires an understanding of the role criminal groups play in a hybrid war: "These most recent developments point to a concerning trend because of the escalation and atypical behavior displayed by established hacker groups, there’s potentially a power struggle in play after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This might explain the change in extortion patterns in an attempt to accumulate larger amounts of ill-gotten gain. As a result, we can expect to see this activity at the very least continue as we work to keep pace with the evolving attack surface."

Whatever course the present war takes, The Hill cites a range of cybersecurity experts who think one lesson of the war is already clear: cyber operations have become a routine part of combat, as much to be expected, we would add, as electronic warfare came to be in the Twentieth Century. The Hill's essay is also striking for the way in which it presents influence operations as a prominent and routine part of belligerents' larger cyber campaigns.

The difficulty of assessing a threat.

The Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, put US pre-war overestimations of Russian combat capability down to faulty assumptions about the Russian military's "intangibles,""What we did not see from the inside was sort of this hollow force" Berrier said, singling out the absence of an effective non-commissioned officer corps, poor leadership training, and ineffective doctrine, Business Insider reports. "Those are the intangibles that we have got to be able to get our arms around as an intelligence community to really understand." It's not so much that these weaknesses were overlooked--they have been staples of US military talk about Soviet and Russian forces during and after the Cold War--but rather that their importance was grossly underestimated. (We would add surprising logistical ineptitude to the list of Russian shortcomings the war has revealed.) The question is why their significance was underestimated. The glib explanation is that threat inflation is a natural institutional tendency of any military seeking numbers, budgets, prestige, and so forth, but that's too facile. Caution, wariness of one's own tendency to believe one's own press releases (the US military, for example, has long prided itself on its noncommissioned officer corps), the difficulty of arriving at a single assessment and the tendency to offer so many alternatives that the importance of any of them is flattened, these are more probable explanations. But the failure to see the Russian shortfalls accurately would seem to call for a serious after-action review. In fairness, the Russian army seems to have been as surprised as anyone else.

Sanctions, defense, and a revanchist threat.

Lithuania has blocked rail shipment of certain classes of goods from Russia to its non-contiguous province of Kaliningrad, an enclave on the Baltic Sea that has been Russian since the end of the Second World War. (It had formerly been the easternmost East Prussian city, Königsberg, established in the Middle Ages by the Teutonic Knights and best known as the hometown of philosopher Immanuel Kant. The enclave, thoroughly Russified since 1946, is separated from the rest of Russia by Poland and Lithuania.) Reuters reports that Lithuania will block shipments of "coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology." The rail line connecting Kaliningrad to the rest of Russia runs through Lithuania. Russia reacted sharply to the news yesterday. Russian government Dmitry Peskov said, "This decision is really unprecedented. It's a violation of everything. We consider this illegal. The situation is more than serious ... we need a serious in-depth analysis in order to work out our response,"

Lithuania's Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė told attendees at an Atlantic Council event last Thursday that, with respect to Russian revanchism, they told us so. “When people sometimes say, ‘Look, you were right—we should have been listening to you,’ I feel no happiness about it,” she said. Her comments are of a piece with what's heard from other former European Soviet Republics (like Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine itself) and former members of the Warsaw Pact (including Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Czechia, and Bulgaria) who retain vivid memories of Soviet power, and are very much alive to the possibility of that power's revival in a post-Communist, avowedly Great Russian form.

Ms Šimonytė also urged nations in the region to learn one important lesson from Russia's war: upgrade their air defense capabilities. Indiscriminate warfare is easier to wage if you have air superiority, and thus the ability to deny it is vital. “It is so easy to sit in your own territory… and bomb civil infrastructure and cities and hospitals and whatever you are not supposed to bomb under the rules of war.”

An essay in Task & Purpose discusses lessons from the air war over Ukraine and draws a similar conclusion: denying the enemy air superiority may be smarter than trying to achieve it yourself.

The Telegraph reports signs of such revanchism on stage at the St, Petersburg International Economic Forum last Friday. Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, on stage with President Putin, said that Kazakhstan did not recognize the two Donbas regions Russia is seeking to detach from Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent republics. Mr. Putin asked, "What is the Soviet Union? This is historic Russia," and then praising Kazakhstan as a "fraternal nation." Ukraine could've been fraternal, too, but no: “The same thing could have happened with Ukraine, absolutely, but they wouldn’t be our allies.” The Telegraph reads this as a "thinly-veiled threat," which it may well have been. But threat or not, it's significant in that it suggests Mr. Putin's understanding of the legitimate scope of historic Russian rights: they extend at least as far as the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin's keynote address before the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum took as its theme optimism founded on the historic record and destiny of the Russian people. The view he expressed was that the "present difficult time" comes from the doomed American attempt to maintain a "unipolar world" under its own direction after "declaring victory in the Cold War." In summary, here's his view of the world situation: "This is the nature of the current round of Russophobia in the West, and the insane sanctions against Russia. They are crazy and, I would say, thoughtless. They are unprecedented in the number of them or the pace the West churns them out at."

A further refinement in Russia's account of events in Ukraine.

The moderator of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT. The Daily Beast (whose Julia Davis has been watching Rossiya 1 closely) reports that Ms Simonyan subsequently appeared on Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov to offer an account of her discussions with President Putin. She said she asked him why he had shown so much restraint in attacks against Ukrainian cities, a restraint difficult for non-Russian observers to discern. “He said, “Would we want to turn those cities into Stalingrad?” Indeed, our people are there! Those are our future cities! It’s obvious... This is our land and our people, we’ll later have to restore it.” Ms Simonyan went on to offer her own characterization of the action in Ukraine, presumably derived from her discussions with President Putin. There's no war, not even, really, a Russian intervention. What's going on in the Donbas is a civil war between Russians and anti-Russians, and Russia is providing support to the Russians. As she explained:

"It’s obvious to any person that there is no war between Russia and Ukraine. This isn’t even a special operation against the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is a civil war in Ukraine. Part of Ukrainians, who are Russophobes and are anti-Russian in the same sense fascists were antisemitic—absolutely the same way—is destroying another part of its own people. Russia is simply supporting one side of those warring parties. Why this particular side? That is obvious, because they are Russians. Those are our people. And over there, they are anti-Russians. That’s all.”

Her views on what should be done with "anti-Russians" were uncompromising: “There is a significant number of Nazis and indoctrinated people, with whom there isn’t much to be done, other than to have them shot under the laws of the DPR [the supposed Donetsk People’s Republic].”

DDoS in St. Petersburg.

Friday's proceedings at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum were delayed for about an hour and a half, Reuters reports, by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. The now-familiar Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov put the delay down to a cyberattack that began on Thursday and affected the conference's admissions and accreditation systems, but he offered no attribution.

Selling a Nobel medal to raise money for UNICEF.

Dmitry Muratov, cofounder and former editor-in-chief of the now-shuttered dissenting Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, auctioned his Nobel gold medal to raise funds for UNICEF to use for the relief of Ukrainian children made refugees by Russia's war. The AP reports that the medal fetched $103.5 million. This eclipses by two orders of magnitude the previous record for a Noble gold medal, the $4.76 million James Watson's medal for the co-discovery of DNA's double helix fetched in 2014. Muratov had already pledged donation of the $500 million prize itself. UNICEF confirmed that the auction payment was deposited in a UNICEF account within minutes of the sale.

Muratov was surprised and gratified by the interest the auction attracted. “I was hoping that there was going to be an enormous amount of solidarity, but I was not expecting this to be such a huge amount,” he said. Novaya Gazeta was forced to close by the Russian government this past March during a crackdown on media regarded as insufficiently supportive of Russia's special military operation against Ukraine.