Russia's war against Ukraine settles into a phase of trenches and artillery, but Moscow continues to explore intimidation of civilians and disruption of energy supplies globally (and especially in Europe).
Ukraine at D+277: An artillery war, like the winter of 1917-1918.
Early winter weather is arriving in Ukraine, with snow and freezing temperatures, and Al Jazeera summarizes Russia's continuing anti-infrastructure program. According to the Guardian, Ukraine says Russia is preparing to retreat from Zaporizhzhia, Russia denies any such plans.
Heavy fighting in Donetsk, with little change in the lines. Kherson remains under heavy shelling.
Sunday morning the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) said, in its regular situation report, "The area around the towns of Pavlivka and Vuhledar in south-central Donetsk Oblast has been the scene of intense combat over the last two weeks, though little territory has changed hands." A traditional elite of Russian forces, naval infantry, is deployed in the sector. "Both Russia and Ukraine have significant forces committed to this sector, with Russian Naval Infantry having suffered heavy casualties. This area remains heavily contested, likely partially because Russia assesses the area has potential as a launch point for a future major advance north to capture the remainder of Ukrainian-held Donetsk Oblast. However, Russia is unlikely to be able to concentrate sufficient quality forces to achieve an operational breakthrough." Fighting has also been heavy around Bakhmut, and the Telegraph describes the battlefield there as looking like something out of the First World War's Western Front.
Kherson continues to be heavily bombarded by short-range Russian rocket and cannon fire. "Despite its liberation by Ukrainian forces on 11 November 2022," the MoD reported this morning, "Kherson city in southern Ukraine continues to suffer daily bombardment by Russian artillery. On 24 November 2022 alone, 10 people were killed. On 27 November 2022, a recent high of 54 shelling incidents were reported in the area. The city is vulnerable because it remains in range of most of Russia’s artillery systems, now firing from the east bank of the Dnipro River, from the rear of newly consolidated defensive lines. Much of the damage is likely being inflicted in Kherson by Russia’s use of multiple rocket launchers, principally BM-21 Grad systems."
Repurposed Russian missiles are evidence of depleted ammunition stocks.
The MoD on Saturday morning offered further evidence that Russian munition stocks are increasingly depleted. Obsolescent nuclear cruise missiles are having their nuclear charge removed and replaced, apparently, with ballast, leaving the mass of the missile body and any unexpended propellant to do the damage in land attack. "Russia is likely removing the nuclear warheads from aging nuclear cruise missiles and firing the unarmed munitions at Ukraine. Open source imagery shows wreckage of an apparently shot-down AS-15 KENT air launched cruise missile (ALCM), designed in the 1980s exclusively as a nuclear delivery system. The warhead had probably been substituted for ballast. Although such an inert system will still produce some damage through the missile’s kinetic energy and any unspent fuel, it is unlikely to achieve reliable effects against intended targets. Russia almost certainly hopes such missiles will function as decoys and divert Ukrainian air defences. Whatever Russia’s intent, this improvisation highlights the level of depletion in Russia’s stock of long-range missiles." Not a militarily effective weapon, but enough to damage a hospital or cripple a small electrical substation, and to inflict casual suffering on a civilian population.
Wearing out and repairing cannons.
The New York Times reports that Ukrainian cannon artillery is wearing out due to high rates of fire, and that the guns are being sent to Poland to be retubed. This is entirely foreseeable, and is one of the regular maintenance and logistical challenges gunners routinely plan for. Firing wears out the guns. The tubes erode, the breech mechanism wears out, and the recoil mechanism lasts only so long. Armies use the standard of "equivalent full charge" (EFC--very roughly, the number of standard projectiles that can be fired with a given amount of propellant) as a way of predicting the life of these components. The specifications for the M777 howitzer which the US has supplied in large numbers to Ukraine say that the cannon tube must have a life of at least 2650 EFC, with the breech and recoil mechanisms must last for between 5300 and 10,000 EFC.
The usually well-informed Task & Purpose gets a little breathless over the need to retube, publishing the story under the screamer, "Ukraine is firing so many barrages its artillery pieces are breaking down." The story isn't wrong, but it's also not surprising. Of course the guns are wearing out, but this is regular maintenance, which the US is providing at a depot in Poland.
Russian artillery is probably wearing out at a higher rate. That's the result not of poor quality, but rather of design choices: Russian cannons tend to be, by Western standards, overpressurized, firing higher charges (the higher the charge, the more propellant, "powder," burned to send the shell on its way) than their NATO counterparts. This gives Russian guns a bit more range, but it also causes them to wear out faster. The gun crews must also endure higher overpressures when firing, and that's not good for the gun crews' physical well-being.
The fate and effects of partial mobilization.
On Friday morning the MoD assessed the continuing Russian partial mobilization. "Two months after President Putin announced a ‘partial mobilisation’, common themes are emerging in the experience of mobilised Russian reservists. Their deployment is often characterised by confusion over eligibility for service, inadequate training and personal equipment, and commitment to highly attritional combat missions. Most - though not all - mobilised reservists have previously served and numerous examples suggest that reservists are highly likely not having their medical status adequately reviewed and many are being compelled to serve with serious, chronic health conditions. Mobilised reservists have highly likely experienced particularly heavy casualties after being committed to dig ambitious trench systems while under artillery fire around the Luhansk Oblast town of Svatove. In Donetsk Oblast, reservists have been killed in large numbers in frontal assaults into well-established Ukrainian defensive zones around the town of Bakhmut. The Kremlin will likely be concerned that an increasing number of reservists’ families are prepared to risk arrest by protesting against the conditions their relatives are serving under."
Calling them elite won't make them so.
On Thursday, the UK's Ministry of Defence noted the integration of large numbers of recent conscripts into Russian airborne units, traditionally considered an elite, as their counterparts in most armies are. "In the last two weeks, Russia has likely redeployed major elements of the VDV (airborne forces) to the Donetsk and Luhansk fronts in the Donbas. From September to October, most of the severely weakened VDV units were dedicated to the defence of Russian-held territory west of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast. Some VDV units have likely been reinforced with mobilised reservists. Although these poorly trained personnel will dilute VDV’s supposedly elite capability, Russia will likely still allocate these units to sectors deemed especially important. Potential operational tasks for the VDV include supporting the defence of the Kremina-Svatove area in Luhansk Oblast or reinforcing offensive operations against the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut."
One of the lessons the US Army took away from its experience in Vietnam was the difficulty of integrating new troops into units already deployed in combat. The newcomers were mistrusted as FNGs by the old hands, and they tended to be poorly assimilated into their organizations. Unit cohesion suffered, and this was in an army that didn't face the logistical and leadership challenges the Russian army faces in Ukraine. And if green troops are tough to assimilate into any formation, that difficulty is compounded many times over when the formation receiving them is one that's been told for years that it's an elite. It's unlikely the conscripts of the partial mobilization will fare well with the VDV.
Internet service in Ukraine and Moldova interrupted by strikes against Ukraine's power grid.
Moldova's Vice Prime Minister Andrei Spînu tweeted last Wednesday morning, "Massive blackout in [Moldova] after today's Russian attack on [Ukraine's] energy infrastructure. Moldelectrica, [Moldova's] TSO, is working to reconnect more than 50% of the country to electricity." The Record reported over the weekend that the attacks against the power grid also took down Internet service in both Moldova and Ukraine. Ukrainian Internet service providers are using emergency generators as they work to restore online connectivity.
Sandworm renews ransomware activity against Ukrainian targets.
ESET reports a surge in a ransomware variant the company calls RansomBoggs. Deployed against Ukrainian targets, the malware is written in .NET and represents a new strain of ransomware, but the deployment, ESET says, is similar to what they've observed in Sandworm activity in the past. Sandworm has been associated with Russia's GRU. The researchers tweeted, "There are similarities with previous attacks conducted by #Sandworm: a PowerShell script used to distribute the .NET ransomware from the domain controller is almost identical to the one seen last April during the #Industroyer2 attacks against the energy sector." ESET also sees similarities between RansomBoggs and Iridium, Microsoft's name for the GRU operation the company detected in "Prestige" ransomware attacks against Polish and Ukrainian targets in October.
Russian cyber-reconnaissance at a Netherlands LNG terminal.
Other Russian threat activity linked to past attacks against energy infrastructure has been observed in at least one Western European port. According to the NL Times, industrial cybersecurity firm Dragos has warned that Xenotime and Kamacite may be engaged in reconnaissance of liquid natural gas terminals in the Netherlands. The two threat groups have been linked with GRU attempts against industrial targets in the past. The publication quotes Dragos's Casey Brooks as saying, “We know that LNG terminals are a target. It’s just a question of when and how. These are tests to see where they could potentially have an impact with a digital attack.” The researchers have seen signs of such preparation in the systems of Gasunie’s LNG terminal in Rotterdam's port of Eemshaven. OilPrice.com reports that threat intelligence and security firm EclecticIQ has seen "increased activity" around critical infrastructure in the Netherlands and in Europe generally.
European Parliament votes to declare Russia a terrorist state (and Russia responds with cyberattacks and terroristic threats).
The European Parliament last Wednesday voted to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism on the grounds that its strikes against Ukrainian civilian targets (including energy infrastructure, hospitals, schools and shelters) violate international law and warrant the terrorist designation. It's effectively a symbolic vote, since the European Parliament, Reuters explains, lacks a legal framework that might provide some mechanisms for enforcement, but the designation is thought likely to spur deeper sanctions. Maria Zakharova of the Russian Foreign Ministry responded in her Telegram channel, "I propose designating the European Parliament as a sponsor of idiocy."
A few hours after the vote, the Parliament's websites were taken down for a short period of time by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which, the Wall Street Journal and others report, members of the EU's Parliament described as "sophisticated." It took about two hours to restore service, and since the incident appears to have been a relatively routine DDoS attack, it's difficult to see where the sophistication lay. The Russian auxiliary threat actor Killnet has claimed responsibility in a message posted to its Telegram channel, which reads in part, "Killnet officially recognizes the European Parliament as sponsors of homosexualism!" Most observers are inclined to credit Killnet's claim of responsibility--the attack looks like something up their alley.
Another Russian response came from Wagner Group impresario Yevgeny Prigozhin, who posted a video of a business-suited man (said to be a Wagner Group lawyer) placing a sledgehammer with a polished head and the Group logo into a violin case for shipment to the European Parliament. The handle of the sledgehammer was daubed with red paint, as if the tool were smeared with blood. It's an unusually contemptuous, menacing, and repellent gesture. The Wagner Group has adopted the sledgehammer as a symbol; the mercenary group has used sledgehammers to murder prisoners. And it's filmed some of those murders. The symbolism is unmistakable, the message clear. It's Caligula's "Oderint dum metuant." Let them hate us, as long as they fear us.