Ukraine at D+519: Fighting in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
N2K logoJul 28, 2023

Ukraine makes gains in the southeastern sector, and Russia offers carrots (free grain) and applies sticks (DDoS attacks) in its quest to influence African governments.

Ukraine at D+519: Fighting in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

Ukraine's offensive continues. Ukraine claims to have succeeded in retaking ground, especially in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, with the Sea of Azov remaining the operational objective. The Institute for the Study of War assesses that Ukrainian mechanized forces have been able to breach prepared Russian defenses at several points. The extent of the advance is difficult to determine, but the Institute writes that "Geolocated footage published on July 27 suggests that Ukrainian forces may be operating in areas well forward of where ISW assesses Ukrainian advances to be as a result of ISW’s intentionally conservative assessments about control of terrain."

President Putin has reiterated his claim that the Ukrainian attacks have failed across the board. "All counter-offensive attempts were stopped, and the enemy was pushed back with high casualties," the BBC quotes the Russian leader as saying. The Washington Post calls President Putin's claims "extravagant and unconfirmed." Russian mil-bloggers, hard-war in outlook but imperfectly conformed to Kremlin messaging, have a grimmer point-of-view. The mil-bloggers are especially disturbed by pictures of Ukrainian forces advancing into Staromaiorske, a key village along their axis of advance. Ukrainian HIMARS rocket artillery is heavily engaged in preparatory and interdiction fire in the southeast, according to the Telegraph. Details of the progress of Ukraine's offensive remain, the New York Times reports, unclear, but fighting has obviously intensified.

Famine as a tool of influence.

The UK's Ministry of Defence believes that disruption of Ukrainian grain shipments already means at least two more hard years for Africa. "The Russia-Africa Conference convened in St Petersburg on 27 July 2023, with 17 African heads of state attending, down from 43 at the last iteration. The event takes place ten days after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI). The BSGI had allowed the export of 30 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain to Africa, providing essential nutrition to states including Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. As well as the direct disruption of supplies, Russia’s blockade of Ukraine is also causing grain prices to rise. The impact of the war in Ukraine will almost certainly compound food insecurity across Africa for at least the next two years."

Russia has promised free grain to six African countries at the Russo-African summit held this week in Moscow. “In the coming months, we will be ready to provide Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea with 25,000-50,000 tonnes of grain free of charge,” President Putin announced at the meetings. Russia is seeking friends in Africa. It has a presence on the continent in the form of Wagner Group mercenaries, and if hopes to bring wary African governments into line with a mixture of threats--famine and mercenary forces answering to Moscow who might align themselves with rebels--and inducements--food and mercenary forces answering to Moscow who might serve existing regimes.

Cloudy, with a chance of cruise missiles and thermobaric blasts. And also famine.

Evgeny Tishkovets, a weatherman on Russian state television, has been giving an increasingly bellicose spin to his forecasts. In his segment on Sergey Mardan's chat show, he's been displaying a map of the front (the war's front, not a weather front) with arrows depicting not the movement of air masses but rather tactical avenues of approach. He did predict cloud cover, winds, and temperatures, but with a view to assessing their effect on operations. "Dry weather conditions," he said, with manifest satisfaction, will "increase the effectiveness of incendiary and thermobaric ammunition," against vehicles, buildings, and personnel. The winds and sea conditions in the Black Sea will, he added, be just right for the use of submarine- and surface-ship-launched cruise and ballistic missiles against Ukrainian targets, and the weather also favors bombing and cruise missile strikes from strategic aviation.

This is all nonsense, of course--none of these systems are highly sensitive to anything but the most extreme weather, and indirect fire isn't the kind of thing that can be rained out like a ballgame--but the militarization of the weather report is striking. Mr. Tishkovets is now styled as "Lieutenant Colonel Tishkovets," his set is labeled "Stavka" (that is, general headquarters) and he's taken to wearing a military-style blouse. His sign off is "The enemy will be destroyed!"

Mr. Mardan, the host, is cheering strikes against Ukrainian cities and applauding the rise in grain prices (and the attendant risk of famine). Now, when Russia speaks, he suggests, people in Algiers and elsewhere will have to listen. "Fear us" continues to be the overarching theme of Russian influence operations directed abroad. For domestic consumption that message is, "See how the foreigners fear us."

Cyberattacks support influence operations.

Anonymous Sudan (which, remember, is neither Anonymous nor Sudanese, but rather a front for Russian intelligence services) has claimed responsibility for a cyberattack against Kenya's eCitizen portal. The East African reports that Kenya's ICT minister acknowledged an attack on the system, a place where Kenyans access government services online, but said that no data had been lost. The government was working to secure eCitizen and restore it to full operation.

TechCabal has an account of the extent of the disruptions, which it characterizes as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. The outlet also quotes the rationale Anonymous Sudan offered for the campaign: Kenya has “released statements doubting the sovereignty of [the Sudanese] government.” Here's a more likely explanation: Kenya's President William Ruto declined to attend the Russo-African summit, and gave as his reason the impropriety of appearing to support one side in Russia's war. Thus the message Anonymous Sudan is sending probably, as usual, has nothing to do with Sudan. That message is framed in Russia, and it's a familiar one: fear us, foreigners.