Ukraine at D+103: Intense fighting in the Donbas, and norms of cyber conflict.
N2K logoJun 7, 2022

Intense fighting in the Donbas sees both sides hard-pressed, as Ukraine seeks to regain lost ground and Russia works for a clear tactical victory. Essays consider offensive cyber operations and the norms of armed conflict. Sanctions seen through Moscow's looking glass.

Ukraine at D+103: Intense fighting in the Donbas, and norms of cyber conflict.

Intense fighting continues in the Donbas, Reuters reports, as Ukraine's attempt to retake ground meets Russia's need for a decisive victory in its war. US-supplied M777 155mm gun-howitzers are now in action, operated against Russian targets by Ukrainian gunners. The weapons--M777s and other systems--are arriving faster than training on them can be completed, the New York Times notes. That's being redressed by training, and, in part, by using Google Translate to render the weapons' accompanying manuals into Ukrainian.

Russian logistical failures continue, even in the Donbas, where the challenges of supplying forces adjacent to the Russian border with Ukraine should be easier. But the Guardian describes low morale among Russian troops, and the morale problem is apparently directly traceable in large part to failures in supply: poor food, lack of proper equipment, and poor maintenance. The other principal contributor to low morale is the troops' low level of training. These problems are exacerbated by inability to rotate troops into and out of the line. The complaints are being aired in various channels as appeals to President Putin to look into the problems and do something about them. (This too is a familiar trope from Russian history. When conditions were bad, the reaction of the sufferers was usually to lament "if the Tsar only knew.")

These problems are being experienced by the Russian professionals, the "contract soldiers," that is, what Western armies would call volunteer professionals, as opposed to the conscripts Russia has said it wishes to avoid deploying in the special military operation. (Contract soldiers are, essentially, the Russian counterparts of the US, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand armies. They're not, strictly speaking, mercenaries like the Wagner Group's employees.) The problems are worse for the soldiers from the occupied Donbas, where recruiting has been so aggressive as to amount essentially to conscription. The Guardian quotes one such soldier's post: "'Our mobilisation was done unlawfully, without medical certification,' said another soldier who claimed to be serving in Donetsk’s 107th regiment, loyal to the Russian government. 'Over 70% of those here were previously decommissioned because they physically can’t fight. Over 90% have never fought before and saw a Kalashnikov for the first time. We were thrown on to the frontlines.'” Some of the reported discontent is being carried by news outlets, some over social media.

Partisan warfare against the occupying Russian forces is also becoming a problem, the New York Times reports. It can be difficult to distinguish guerrilla raids from special operations, but it appears that the incidence of irregular attacks against Russian forces is growing.

This morning's situation report from Britain's Ministry of Defense describes the progress of Ukraine's counteroffensive and the Russian need to turn tactical action into operational success: "Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces have recaptured parts of Sieverodonetsk although Russian forces likely continue to occupy eastern districts. Russia’s broader plan likely continues to be to cut off the Sieverodonetsk area from both the north and the south. Russia made gains on the southern, Popasna axis through May but its progress in the area has stalled over the last week. Reports of heavy shelling near Izium suggests Russia is preparing to make a renewed effort on the northern axis. Russia will almost certainly need to achieve a breakthrough on at least one of these axes to translate tactical gains to operational level success and progress towards its political objective of controlling all of Donetsk Oblast."

Update on the cyber phase of a hybrid war: DDoS as a weapon.

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have become a defining feature of Russian cyber operations in its war against Ukraine. Search Security, quoting research by NetBlocks, notes that DDoS attacks have affected connectivity in Ukrainian cities (notably Kyiv, Luhansk and Mariupol), and have also spilled into countries sympathetic to Ukraine. Operators sympathetic to Ukraine (independent hacktivists, in the account Ukraine's SSSCIP Deputy Director Victor Zhora offered yesterday) have also conducted DDoS operations against targets in Belarus and Russia. In these operations the preferred targets have been media outlets. DDoS has been a nuisance-level threat, and not a decisive or even significant weapon.

Resilience in the defense of critical infrastructure.

Another point SSSCIP Deputy Director Zhora made during his media call yesterday was to credit Ukrainian defenders with having blunted the effects of Russian cyberattacks. The Observer Research Foundation has an independent report on the resilience Ukraine has shown in the cyber phases of the hybrid war. Among the most consequential Russian operations was the campaign to take out ground stations essential to the operation of the Viasat network in Ukraine. Disrupted service was either restored or replaced quickly, and the report speculates that Russia, expecting a swift victory, was reluctant to strike Ukrainian infrastructure in ways that would render it inoperable after a Russian conquest. (This speculation is perhaps belied by subsequent Russian willingness to reduce entire cities and their infrastructure to rubble.) The report draws three conclusions important to the cyber phases of any hybrid war:

  1. "Despite its impressive modernisation and known capacity for electronic and cyber warfare, the Russians have found the going in the cyber battlefield difficult. Of course, we cannot accurately access the extent of assistance that the Ukrainians are getting from cyber powers like the US and UK." (It's worth noting, however, that Russian capabilities in electronic and cyber warfare, as well as its army's modernization, have been considerably overrated. See the estimation former NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen offered in Foreign Policy.)
  2. "The second is the importance of resiliency of the digital systems which means there must be sufficient redundancy built in to be able to take on a determined cyber-adversary. Associated with this is the importance of the quality of the EW personnel since there is little room for error in the cyber battlefield, especially when you are seeking to advance in contested territory. Next Gen systems will probably have to incorporate AI and machine learning system to achieve some of these goals."
  3. "Another important lesson is the important role that the private sector has, especially in the area of cyber warfare." Ukraine has acknowledged Google's contributions with a "peace prize," and StarLink made an important contribution to the quick restoration of satellite communication. 

Offensive cyber operations against Russia.

Ukraine has disclaimed any offensive cyber operations against Russia, saying they're either the work of hacktivists or of sympathetic nation-states, effective allies. In any case, he said, Ukraine lacked the organizational capacity to mount such offensive operations. So if indeed the US (and presumably other cyber powers generally hostile to Russia) are indeed conducting offensive operations as General Nakasone said last week, tersely and without elaboration, does this make the US a belligerent?

In its journal Articles of War, the Lieber Institute has published a thoughtful essay on the application of the laws of armed conflict to cyberspace. Its conclusions are worth quoting in full:

"General Nakasone’s comments on U.S. offensive cyber operations in support of Ukraine may have sparked controversy in the cyber and international law communities. But several points are essential to bear in mind when considering them.

"First, the facts necessary to draw most legal conclusions remain unavailable to those without the required security clearances. Accordingly, commentators would be well-served to be prudent in rendering opinions about the legal effects of the U.S. operations to which General Nakasone referred.

"Second, the operations did not violate the law of neutrality. This is because they either qualified as lawful collective self-defense, a circumstance precluding wrongfulness, or because they are consistent with the notion of qualified neutrality. As to the former basis, the fact that the United States has not indicated it is operating in self-defense is not an obstacle to this conclusion, at least not as a matter of law.

"Third, even if the operations were themselves lethal or destructive (and we have no evidence one way or the other on this matter), they were not unlawful because, so long as Ukraine requested them, the operations can qualify as actions taken in collective self-defense.

"Finally, absent further information on the U.S. offensive cyber operations supporting Ukraine, no definitive conclusion can be drawn on whether they may have triggered an international armed conflict between the United States and Russia, if one was not already underway. But it is crucial to understand that the existence of an IAC is a question of fact based on the nature of the exchange. Characterization of the situation as an IAC or not by the States concerned does not bear on whether one is underway as a matter of international law."

For its part, Russia hasn't cared much for the intervention General Nakasone alluded to. A report carried by UNI/Sputnik quotes senior Russian officials to the effect that Russia is the one who's standing up for good behavior in cyberspace, that Russia is ready to work out "appropriate international legal arrangements with all states that are sober about the threat of cyber warfare." The source quoted is Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Russian information security official. He goes on to denounce US support, in cyberspace, for the "Zelenskyy regime's" attacks against Russia, and warns that, should the US continue in its policy, it should expect a "firm and decisive response" from Russia.

Treat us right or go home.

The Moscow Times describes the session in which Russian authorities called Western media outlets on the carpet yesterday. If the West doesn't "normalize" its treatment of Russian media, then Western media can expect to have their credentials revoked. "'If they don’t normalize the work of Russian media on U.S. territory, there will be forceful measures as a consequence,' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said as she invited U.S. media representatives to the ministry."

Food and energy shortages, and sanctions against oligarchs.

The Telegraph reports that Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian representative to the United Nations, left a Security Council meeting in high dudgeon over European Commission President Charles Michel's accusation that Russia was deliberately seeking to induce famine by blocking shipment of Ukrainian grain. He said, "The dramatic consequences of Russia's war are spilling over across the globe, and this is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty, and destabilising entire regions. The Kremlin is also targeting grain storages and stealing grain from areas it has occupied while shifting the blame on others. Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis, despite its campaign of lies." As Mr. Nebenzia walked out, M. Michel directed a taunt at the Russian envoy's departing back: "You may leave the room. Maybe it’s easier not to hear the truth, dear ambassador."

The Russian media place the responsibility for food shortages where President Putin wants it: on the EU, and on Ukraine. Sputnik reports "European politicians' short-sightedness, not Russia, provoked the energy crisis, and Russia is ready to take necessary measures to alleviate a global food crisis, President Vladimir Putin has said." And any problems getting grain out through Black Sea ports are Kyiv's fault: "Putin called on Kiev to clear areas under its control of sea mines and deliberately sunk ships to ensure the safe export of food supplies, and indicated that Russia was finishing up work to clear areas under its control, and will be prepared to ensure the peaceful transport of goods and the entry of ships into Black and Azov Sea ports. He added that there are still dozens of foreign commercial vessels still trapped in Ukraine's ports, and that their crews are effectively being held hostage." It's fair to say that Mr. Putin's account represents, at best, a minority view.

Russia has also decided to sanction a range of high-profile US individuals, including, according to Reuters, "Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and leading defence and media executives." They won't be permitted to travel to Russia until the US sees the error of its own sanctions regime. It's unlikely any of the people on Moscow's list will find the sanctions particularly onerous, but then it's the thought that counts.