Ukraine at D+194: Ukraine's counteroffensive, Russian logistic shortfalls, cyber skirmishing.
N2K logoSep 6, 2022

Ukraine's counteroffensive continues, as Russia's logistical challenges increase. Russian disinformation takes an apparently inward-looking turn. Minor exchanges continue in and around cyberspace.

Ukraine at D+194: Ukraine's counteroffensive, Russian logistic shortfalls, cyber skirmishing.

Ukraine's counteroffensive continues.

Ukraine has claimed the recapture of three towns in the South and the East, Reuters reports.

On Saturday the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) reviewed the conduct of Ukraine's counteroffensive so far. "Since 29 August 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been conducting renewed offensive operations in the south of Ukraine. One element of this offensive is an ongoing advance on a broad front west of the Dnipro River, focusing on three axes within Russian-occupied Kherson Oblast. The operation has limited immediate objectives, but Ukraine’s forces have likely achieved a degree of tactical surprise; exploiting poor logistics, administration and leadership in the Russian armed forces. With fighting also continuing in the Donbas and Kharkiv sectors, a key decision for Russian commanders in coming days will be where to commit any operational reserve force they can generate.

By Monday morning the MoD had reported that Russian forces were under new orders to secure the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by September 15th. "Despite its effects to contain recent Ukrainian offensive action, Russia’s main effort in Ukraine almost certainly remain its Donbas offensive operation. Its principal axes of advance in the Donbas remain at Avdiivka near Donetsk City and, 60km to the north, around Bakhmut. Although Russia has had the most success in this sector, its forces have still only been advancing around 1km per week towards Bakhmut. The political goal of the Donbas operation almost certainly remains to secure the whole of Donetsk Oblast, which would enable the Kremlin to announce the ‘liberation’ of the Donbas. Russian forces have highly likely repeatedly missed deadlines to achieve this aim. The Ukrainian authorities have claimed that Russian forces are now under orders to complete this mission by 15 September 2022. The force is highly unlikely to achieve this, which will further complicate Russia’s plans to run referendums on the occupied areas joining the Russian Federation."

Social media continue to present an opsec challenge to Russian forces. Ukrainian operators are said (as in this Newsweek account) to be catphishing Russian soldiers, using dating profiles to induce the lovelorn to reveal unit locations and other sensitive information. It seems unlikely that targets could actually be developed in this way, but target indicators certainly might.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant cut off from grid.

Heavy Russian shelling has cut the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant off from the Ukrainian power grid. The installation's sole remaining operating reactor is now powering the cooling systems of all the reactors; should it fail, Zaporizhzhia's cooling systems will become reliant on back-up diesel generators. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspection team is on the premises, and has said that power lines should be able to be reconnected once fires caused by the shelling are extinguished, the Telegraph reports.

Add paymasters to the list of Russian logistical failures.

The MoD revisited Russian morale in its Sunday morning report, adding irregular pay to the list of problems Moscow's troops seem to be facing. "Russian forces continue to suffer from morale and discipline issues in Ukraine. In addition to combat fatigue and high casualties, one of the main grievances from deployed Russian soldiers probably continues to be problems with their pay. In the Russian military, troops’ income consists of a modest core salary, augmented by a complex variety of bonuses and allowances. In Ukraine, there has highly likely been significant problems with sizeable combat bonuses not being paid. This is probably due to inefficient military bureaucracy, the unusual legal status of the ‘special military operation’, and at least some outright corruption amongst commanders. The Russian military has consistently failed to provide basic entitlements to troops deployed in Ukraine, including appropriate uniform, arms and rations, as well as pay. This has almost certainly contributed to the continued fragile morale of much of the force."

High-tech and low-tech matériel shortages.

Expenditure of ammunition and matériel losses may be outstripping Russia's ability to replace its stocks. Sanctions have hit Russia's technology sector, POLITICO reports, and Moscow is seeking to build up domestic semiconductor production capacity, but shortages extend to less exotic matériel as well. The New York Times, citing sources in the US Intelligence Community, reports that Moscow is attempting to buy artillery ammunition from North Korea. This is decidedly not a high-tech shopping list. Artillery projectiles and propellant are not difficult to manufacture. The Times observes, "The disclosure that Russia is seeking more artillery ammunition is a sign that Moscow’s supply problems are likely deeper than just high-end components for cutting-edge tanks or precision missiles. If Russia is seeking more artillery shells from North Korea, it is facing a shortage or could see one in the future, and its industrial base is struggling to meet the military demands of the war."

The MoD early Tuesday said that stocks of drones, widely used for artillery observation, are also running low, as losses exceed replacements. "Ukraine’s offensive operations in the Kherson region continued over the weekend. On 05 September 2022, the Odesa Journal reported 27 sorties by Russian uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) on the west bank of the Dnipro, compared to an average of 50 a day throughout August. On 21 August 2022, Ukrainian forces reported shooting down three Russian Orlan-10 tactical UAVs in a single day. In recent years, Russian doctrine has given an increasingly prominent role for UAVs, particularly to spot targets for its artillery to strike. UAVs can be vulnerable to both kinetic effects – where they are directly shot down – and to electronic jamming. In the face of combat losses, it is likely that Russia is struggling to maintain stocks of UAVs, exacerbated by component shortages resulting from international sanctions. The limited availability of reconnaissance UAVs is likely degrading commanders’ tactical situational awareness and increasingly hampering Russian operations." The New York Times notes that Russia has been shopping for drones in Iran.

Ukraine's SSU shuts down two bot farms.

Ukraine says it's shuttered two bot farms, one in Kyiv, the other in Odesa, that were allegedly engaged in spreading and amplifying Russian disinformation. The Kyiv Post reports that, "The ‘bot army’ of almost 7,000 accounts was used to spread destructive content aiming to:

  • "discredit the Defence Forces of Ukraine and the state’s leadership;
  • "justify russia’s armed aggression;
  • "destabilize social and political situation in Ukraine."

The proprietors arrested were locals; they appear to have been hired by Russian clients.

US military doxed, possibly by Conti remnants.

Someone, vx-underground claims, is posting "11.84GB of United States Military Contractor and Military Reserve data." The data were acquired in a 2022 breach of databases in Puerto Rico, and those who are advertising the data dump on Telegram say they're making the data available "in response to the atrocious acts that US has been involved with all these years without regard for human lives." It's unclear who's leaking, but vx-underground speculates, "We suspect (the now defunct) Conti ransomware group is distributing United States Military data they acquired when they breached Puerto Rico." So those responsible might be a Conti successor, Conti alumni, or even a revenant Conti itself.

BlackCat/ALPHV claims credit for attack on Italian energy sector.

The BlackCat/ALPHV ransomware privateers have claimed responsibility for an attack against Italian renewable energy provider Gestore dei Servizi Energetici SpA (GSE). This is the most recent in a string of attacks against Western European energy-sector targets, BleepingComputer reports. It had earlier hit Eni SpA, Italy's largest energy company in Italy, with minimal effect on the utility's operation, and has also claimed the attacks against natural gas pipeline and electrical grid operator Creos Luxembourg S.A., and the German oil supply company Oiltanking. BlackCat/ALPHV is a Russian gang widely believed to represent a rebranding of the BlackMatter/DarkSide group.

They shouldn't call us "orcs." It hurts, and after all we only have their best interests at heart.

Rossiya1's talking heads have developed, over the course of last week, a narrative of Russian benign intentions and ill-use, forbearance in the face of intolerable statements by Ukrainians ("they call us 'orcs") and plans to educate those who think they're Ukrainians (a fictitious nationality which speaks a barbarous language, yet a language that's really a variant of Russian). Perhaps the most surprising embrace of Russia's Soviet heritage on display was Mr. Solovyov's account of the Gulag as an expression of the rule of law, designed for the reform and rehabilitation of the inmates. Resisting such correction is apparently simply evidence of false consciousness. Anyway, the Gulag was better than the Nazi concentration camps, Mr. Solovyov says, which is indeed setting a very low bar, but leave that aside. In the Gulag, he argues, you were seen as an individual, and the Ukrainians who call Russians "orcs" or "Rascists" are denying the individuality of Russian people, "going down the same path" their Nazi forebears walked. And it's the US and the UK, Rossiya1's experts explain, who are pulling the strings being Kyiv.

Mr. Solovyov's remarks are worth quoting at length; they capture a view of history that emphasizes the continuity between Russia and the Soviet Union at its worst, between Putin and Stain: Russia is the victim, as it was when Hitler broke the pact with Stalin under which had enabled the two tyrannies to carve up Poland between them.“They don’t see us as individuals. They don’t see us as people. Dehumanisation. Denial of our right to be ourselves. That is the main difference between us and them. Ukraine, diseased with Nazism, does not see us as people. For them we are orcs, Rashists, but nonetheless we still pity them. We still consider them ours but lost, with their heads not screwed on properly. We hate the sin but not the sinner. That is why we will win. Because we see the people, we are fighting for their souls.” Thus the special military operation is being waged for the sake of the Ukrainians themselves. That they can't seem to recognize this amounts not to just false consciousness, but to ingratitude.

The Telegraph has a terse account of the Gulag: "About 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the prisons of the Main Camp Directorate, known by its administrative acronym Gulag, between the late 1920s and the 1950s. Varying estimates of the death toll begin at 1.5 million. The camps were a central pillar of Stalin’s regime of terror and a source of slave labour for ambitious engineering and construction projects." Note that 1.5 million represents the low end of estimates of the death toll.

NAFO mocks Russian disinformation (and raises funds for Ukraine).

Claims that Russia's invasion is really a humanitarian intervention designed to bring the diseased collective mind of Ukraine to its senses (and to a recognition of its Russian roots) may seem too malign for mockery, and so surreal as to be beyond the reach of ridicule, but one loose organization sees trolling and taunting as effective counters to disinformation.

POLITICO last week offered an account of the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO), a group formed to counter Russian disinformation online. NAFO (which is careful to use the French version of its acronym, "OFAN," on its logo) is an example of a spontaneously organized, widely distributed effort to counter Russian disinformation in social media by mocking its claims. It's also engaged in raising funds for Ukraine through sales of custom doge avatars (the Shiba Inu is NAFO's characteristic image) and donations to such campaigns as “Sign My Rocket.” NAFO's technique is trolling and ridicule. "Russian influencers have struggled to respond to the badly-drawn Shiba Inu memes, YouTube-style viral videos and the power of ordinary social media users debunking Kremlin talking points," POLITICO says. "Even answering a Twitter account whose avatar is a 'doge' can make a Russian diplomat look foolish. In essence, NAFO can swim in online waters that governments would struggle to enter."

The NAFO approach is very schoolyard, both in its puerility and its persistence (and we mean this in a good way). POLITICO recounts one exchange that so vexed the Russian official who was its target that he had to take a break from posting.

"One Russian official who tangled with NAFO is Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna and a well-known peddler of Kremlin propaganda via his 30,000 Twitter followers. Since the Kremlin ramped up its assault in February, the Russian diplomat has accused the United States of creating a “ministry of truth,” berated social media users for peddling “fake news” and claimed Russia only invaded Ukraine in response to Kyiv’s aggression. That last declaration caught NAFO’s attention. When someone from the movement accused Ulyanov of rewriting history, the Russian responded with a line he would later regret: “You pronounced this nonsense. Not me.” After more fellas piled on, his message became a meme, quickly emblazoned on NAFO mugs and T-shirts. Ulyanov first accused his Twitter critics of being bots, and then took himself offline for a week after NAFO fellas bombarded his social media account. He later said the social media detox was because he was on vacation."

The meme Mr. Ulyanov contributed was "You pronounced this nonsense. Not me," which was made available in the form of online banners, t-shirts, etc. Proceeds go to Ukraine's defense.

Doing business in Ukraine, not Russia.

During what has proven the most morally unambiguous war in three generations, Western tech companies have fled Russia, but not Ukraine, and have rendered Ukraine valuable assistance in the cyber phases of Russia's hybrid war. Recorded Future is in fact expanding its Ukrainian operations.