Ukraine at D+641: Russian lawfare and official narratives.
the cyberwire logoNov 27, 2023

Both sides look for targets in the enemy's rear areas (with Russia showing signs of considering NATO as Ukraine's rear area. Russia seeks to reframe its wartime narrative: Moscow represents itself as a principled opponent of genocide and a partner for peace.

Ukraine at D+641: Russian lawfare and official narratives.

Russian forces made a number of attacks against Avdiivka late last week, albeit with reduced numbers of combat vehicles, thus continuing a trend toward growing reliance on dismounted infantry in the offensive. Ukraine reported heavy attacks against its positions around the town over the weekend, with Russian forces making some local gains.

Saturday was Holodomor Remembrance Day, commemorating the deliberate starvation of approximately four-million Ukrainians by Stalin in 1932 and 1933. (The famine was engineered as part of the Soviet policy of agricultural collectivization.) Russia marked the day with its largest drone assault on civilian residential areas, sending roughly seventy-five drones against Kyiv. Most (Ukraine claimed seventy-four) were shot down, but falling debris caused injuries on the ground.Ukrainian officials also claimed the destruction of one Russian Kh-59 cruise missile over the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Air defenses were, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reports, "activated in at least six regions, including Kyiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, and Kirovohrad oblasts."

Russia claimed to have shot down twenty-four Ukrainian drones around Moscow on Sunday. Citing Russian media sources, the AP says that no casualties were reported, and that various Russian Telegram channels said the Ukrainian drones resembled the Iranian-built Shahed systems Russia uses. The New York Times characterizes the Ukrainian strikes as retaliatory, says they were directed at Russia's power grid. "The attack hit the thermal power plant in Starobesheve, a town at least 25 miles east of the front line in the region, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. It said that power had been cut in half of the regional capital, Donetsk, and in half of the port city of Mariupol about 60 miles to the south." Ukraine also launched drones against targets in occupied Crimea.

Russian drone strikes continued through the weekend, with Ukrainian air defenses continuing to claim destruction of most of the systems launched against them (eight of the nine launched over the night of November 25th and 26th). Ukrainian commanders credit mobile fire units with the increased kill rate.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported this morning that Russia's casualty rate this month has exceeded nine-hundred per day. "Throughout November 2023, Russian casualties, as reported by the Ukrainian General Staff, are running at a daily average of 931 per day," which is a new high. "Previously, the deadliest reported month for Russia was March 2023 with an average of 776 losses per day, at the height of Russia’s assault on Bakhmut. Although Defence Intelligence cannot verify the methodology, taken as a total including both killed and wounded, the figures are plausible. The last six weeks have likely seen some of the highest Russian casualty rates of the war so far. The heavy losses have largely been caused by Russia’s offensive against the Donbas town of Avdiivka."

NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg this morning confirmed that NATO also saw heavy Russian losses across an essentially static front.

Long-range fires and casualties in rear areas.

On Friday the UK's MoD described the dangers of concentration in the the deep area. "Russian forces in Ukraine continue to suffer mass casualties from Ukrainian long-range precision strikes well behind the front line. On 10 November 2023, likely over 70 Russian troops were killed in a strike on a convoy of trucks 23km behind the front line in the village of Hladkivka, Kherson Oblast. Subsequently, on 19 November 2023, a strike on Russian troops attending an award ceremony or concert in Kumachove, 60km inside Russian-controlled territory, likely caused tens of casualties. Ukraine has also suffered similar incidents: a Russian ballistic missile killed 19 members of Ukraine’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade at a medal ceremony on 3 November 2023. Deployed soldiers are typically well aware of the ranges of their adversary’s weapons systems. However, faced with the reality of very long combat deployments, commanders face an acute dilemma. They must balance the best practice of keeping the troops dispersed, and less vulnerable to strikes, and the day-to-day requirement to gather units together to conduct administration and to maintain morale."

Some missile strikes will be delivered, the UK's MoD expects, from Black Sea Fleet warships now based in Novorossiysk (Sevastopol having been rendered untenable). A pause in sea-launched attacks seems due to logistical problems at Novorossiysk, and Russia's navy is expected to work hard to fix those before it begins its winter program against Ukrainian infrastructure. Russian milbloggers are complaining that their army's ground lines of communication remain unacceptably vulnerable, a state they blame on poor command practices.

President Putin's speech to the G20 seeks to portray Russia as the defender of victims of genocide.

Russia has decided to abandon earlier attempts to find a friend in Israel in favor of cultivating Palestinian sympathizers. In his address to the G-20 on November 22nd, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reports, President Putin said that any of the leaders who condemned Russia's war against Ukraine should reserve their shock for 2014's "bloody" Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, and the genocide Ukraine waged in the Donbas, and that Israel is waging against Palestinians. The ISW's conclusion is that "Putin’s November 22 framing of the Israeli-Hamas war continues to exploit that war to undermine Western support for Ukraine... and also signals potentially increasing support for Iranian interests in the region and an increased willingness to antagonize Israel."

“Some colleagues already in their speeches were saying that they were shocked by the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine,” the New York Times quotes Mr. Putin as saying. “Military actions are always a tragedy of specific people, families and the country as a whole and we need to think about ways to stop this tragedy.” He called for peace negotiations, but without renouncing any Russian claims against Ukraine. His hope appears to be that Western supporters will push Kyiv into negotiations that will freeze Russia's remaining gains until such time as Moscow can resume the war on more favorable terms. Calls for internationally brokered peace negotiations are now a major theme of Russian influence operations. (The trolls who comment on the UK's Ministry of Defence situation reports, a reliable indicator of current Russian propaganda themes, have also taken to calling negotiations inevitable, without ceasing their claims of Russian military superiority.)

Most countries' leaders, including those of the US and China, snubbed the speech, according to the Independent.

Rehabilitation and regularization of the Wagnerites.

The Russian government is working toward the regularization of Wagnerites, now extending veteran's benefits to mercenary alumni. "On 14 November 2023, a select group of Wagner veterans were issued with official veteran identification documents. This marks the first time Wagner personnel have been officially recognised as veterans," the UK's MoD reported Thursday. "The Russian Ministry of Defence has established a new system allowing Wagner veterans to receive veteran identification documents and commensurate bonuses. The Wagner Group was recently subsumed into Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia) command structure. This highly likely signals the rehabilitation of some Wagner elements by the Russian administration. This follows a long period of uncertainty on how the administration would regard Wagner personnel in the wake of the Wagner Group's mutiny and abortive ‘March for Justice’ in June 2023."

Sandworm activity puts European power utilities on alert.

An essay the Polish Institute of International Affairs contributed to Defence Industry Europe warns of an increased operational tempo Russian cyberattacks against NATO now exhibit. "Russia mainly attempted to steal data, paralyse systems critical to the functioning of the state, or impersonate state institutions, among other things, in order to sow disinformation or gain access to data." The essay argues for greater cooperation in cyberspace by the members of the Atlantic Alliance.

Recent activity by the GRU's Sandworm threat group has been a matter of particular concern. European electrical utility executives and government ministers have also called for increased vigilance and security against the prospect of Russian cyberattacks against the continent's power grid. POLITICO quotes Polish Deputy Energy Minister Ireneusz Zyska: “I was … observing thousands of attacks on our energy grid taking place live. It is clear that these attacks come from the East: the Russian Federation and non-democratic countries." Those hostile governments, he added, “have created special teams of people working on attacking the democratic states of the European Union cybernetically to cause havoc. We’re extremely concerned about the cyber threats and cyberattacks in the energy sector in the European Union."

Former director of SSSCIP arrested, released on bail.

Yuriy Shchyhol, the chief of Ukraine's State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP), relieved on November 20th and declared a suspect in a case involving alleged diversion of funds for IT purchases were intended to be used in a network of protected data registers, was taken into custody last week. The alleged corruption occurred in 2021, the year before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He was released Friday on the equivalent of $700,000 in bail. Mr. Shchyhol's former deputy, Viktor Zhora, was also relieved and faces charges in the same case; he is not yet in custody, pending the outcome of pretrial decisions.

Ukraine claims doxing of Rosaviatsia.

Ukraine's GUR, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, claims to have penetrated the networks of Rosaviatsia, Russia's civil aviation authority. Whatever else may be going on, the action is in the first instance an influence operation: public release of the information obtained is intended to embarrass Russia, suggesting that Russian civil aviation is on the brink of collapse due to mismanagement, poor maintenance, and parts shortages. If they're accurately represented by the documents posted, these are the same shortfalls Russian milbloggers complain of in their country's army. The GUR summarizes its conclusions:

"An analysis of the character of aviation incidents from the documents obtained indicates that a number of failures, especially those related to engines, landing gear and wing mechanics, are of a systemic type. The trend indicates that the civil aviation sector in Russia is in a zone of serious turbulence with a high risk of a steep dive. This reality is a direct consequence of the sanctions, the most painful of which for the aggressor state of Russia were the imposed ban on the supply of aircraft and spare parts; rejection of software updates; detention of Russian aircraft abroad; [and] restriction of access to meteorological information for air navigation."

Russia puts Meta spokesman Stone on its wanted list.

Andy Stone, spokesman for Facebook's corporate parent Meta, is an extremist, says the Russian government news agency TASS. The precise details of the charges are unclear, but TASS is authorized to disclose that they appear connected to "signs of crimes provided for in Articles 280, 205.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ('Public calls for extremist activities', 'Promotion of terrorist activities'). Stone is said to have announced that Meta's platforms would not censor political speech that Russian authorities construed as calls for violence against Russian forces. Thus expressing a hope for Ukrainian battlefield success and the defeat of Russia's army would seem to constitute "extremism" and "promotion of terrorism." The two articles cited are thus a very expansive element of the Russian Criminal Code.