Ukraine at D+256: Iranian drones are working (but not much else).
N2K logoNov 7, 2022

Iranian-supplied loitering weapons ("drones") are hitting Ukraine's power grid hard. Elsewhere the combat capability of Russian tactical air and ground units continues to fall short of expectations. Training remains a challenge, and Russia increasingly pins its hopes on Wagner Group mercenaries.

Ukraine at D+256: Iranian drones are working (but not much else).

Russian strikes with Iranian-supplied loitering Shahed drones have continued, and they've focused on Ukraine's power grid with some effect, the Telegraph and others report. Fighting continues on the ground in Luhansk and Donetsk, with local advances by Ukrainian forces. In the south, Kherson's civilian population has been largely removed from the city proper, the Guardian reports. And, according to the New York Times, Russian hopes in the eastern sector increasingly rest on the convict-augmented mercenary units of the Wagner Group.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been in talks for several weeks with his Russian counterparts Yuri Ushakov and Nikolai Patrushev. The US goal in the talks has been, the Journal says, to urge Russia against further expansion of the war, and in particular to convince the Russian side against nuclear escalation. According to Reuters, neither Russian nor US officials had any comment on the Journal's story.

Challenges in training the soldiers of the partial mobilization.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Saturday assessed Russia's difficulties in training the additional troops it pulled in during the partial mobilization. "Russia is probably struggling to provide military training for its current mobilisation drive and its annual autumn conscription intake. The Russian Armed Forces were already stretched providing training for the approximate 300,000 troops required for its ‘partial mobilisation’, announced on 21 September 2022. These issues will be compounded by the additional regular autumn annual conscription cycle, announced on 30 September 2022 and starting 01 November 2022, which is usually expected to bring in an additional 120,000 personnel. Newly mobilised conscripts likely have minimal training or no training at all. Experienced officers and trainers have been deployed to fight in Ukraine and some have likely been killed in the conflict. Russian forces are conducting training in Belarus due to a shortage of training staff, munitions and facilities in Russia. Deploying forces with little or no training provides little additional offensive combat capability."

Unconfirmed reports in the Telegraph describe the destruction of at least one battalion of newly mobilized conscripts in Luhansk, abandoned under fire by its officers.

Tactical air power in the hybrid war.

The MoD this morning turned to the state of Russian tactical air power. "On 03 November 2022, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, stated that Russia had lost over twice the number of aircraft in Ukraine than in the Soviet-Afghan War. This amounts to 278 aircraft lost in Ukraine compared to 119 in Afghanistan. Whilst we cannot independently verify these figures, Russia’s continued lack of air superiority is likely exacerbated by poor training, loss of experienced crews, and heightened risks of conducting close air support in dense air defence zones. This is unlikely to change in the next few months. Russia’s aircraft losses likely significantly outstrip their capacity to manufacture new airframes. The time required for the training of competent pilots further reduces Russia’s ability to regenerate combat air capability."

A senior NATO air commander sees Russia's failed air campaign as marked in particular by poor, outmoded, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). British Air Marshal Johnny Stringer, Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command, said Thursday, "The transformation in US and NATO air power over the last five decades has no equivalent in the VKS [Russian tactical air force], nor do the Russians have anything like the ISR led strike capabilities of NATO Air Forces, nor the targeting processes to exploit them."

A report from the Royal United Services Institute, however, this morning warns against complacency, and argues that Russian tactical air presents a greater threat to Ukrainian forces than has been generally appreciated. In particular, the strike campaign against Ukraine's power grid shows a more focused and intelligent application of drones than has hitherto been seen. The Institute's report argues that Ukrainian combat aircraft are generally older and less capable than those deployed by Russia. The report calls for Ukraine to be provided Swedish-built Gripen fighters and US-manufactured F-16s and F/A-18s to compensate for the Russian advantages in radar and long-range air-to-air missiles the Institute perceives. "The West must avoid complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity," the Institute's report argues. "It is purely thanks to its failure to destroy Ukraine’s mobile SAM systems that Russia remains unable to effectively employ the potentially heavy and efficient aerial firepower of its fixed-wing bomber and multi-role fighter fleets to bombard Ukrainian strategic targets and frontline positions from medium altitude, as it did in Syria."

Another senior Russian commander relieved.

The UK's Ministry of Defence reported Sunday: "On 03 November 2022, Major General Alexander Linkov was reportedly appointed acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District. Linkov replaces Colonel General Alexander Lapin who was purportedly removed from office at the end of October 2022. If confirmed, this follows a series of dismissals of senior Russian military commanders since the onset of the invasion in February 2022. The Commanders of the Eastern, Southern, and Western Military Districts were replaced earlier this year. Lapin has been widely criticised for poor performance on the battlefield in Ukraine by both Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin. These dismissals represent a pattern of blame against senior Russian military commanders for failures to achieve Russian objectives on the battlefield. This is in part likely an attempt to insulate and deflect blame from Russian senior leadership at home."

US FBI rates hacktivist contributions to Russia's war as unimportant.

On Friday the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offered an assessment of nominally hacktivist groups serving as Russian auxiliaries in the war against Ukraine. Groups like Killnet are having, the Bureau says, a minor effect at best. Their distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks have not generally risen above a nuisance level. They've been "unsophisticated," and have fallen far short of achieving crippling effects on their targets.

"The FBI defines hacktivism as a collective of cyber criminals who conduct cyber activities to advance an ideological, social, or political cause. Historically, hacktivist collectives conducted and advocated for cyber crime activity following high-profile political, socioeconomic, or world events. Coinciding with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the FBI is aware of Pro-Russian hacktivist groups employing DDoS attacks to target critical infrastructure companies with limited success. Hacktivists provide tools and guidance on cyber attack methodology and techniques to anyone willing to conduct an attack on behalf of their cause. DDoS attacks of public facing websites, along with web page and social media profile defacement, are a preferred tactic for many operations. These attacks are generally opportunistic in nature and, with DDoS mitigation steps, have minimal operational impact on victims; however, hacktivists will often publicize and exaggerate the severity of the attacks on social media. As a result, the psychological impact of DDoS attacks is often greater than the disruption of service."

Ukraine's own auxiliaries, the IT Army, have preferred website hijacking and counter-influence operations to DDoS. Kyodo News reports the organization has been responsible for some 8000 attacks against Russia targets since the start of the war. The intent hasn't been to disrupt operations, but rather to interfere with disinformation.

Starlink and tactical communications.

Elon Musk has said he intends to continue to deliver Starlink connectivity to Ukraine. Reuters reports that Ukraine trusts him on the matter, quoting digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov as saying, "Elon Musk publicly spoke about this and we had a conversation with him about it, so we do not see a problem in this regard." That said, CNN reports that some 1300 Starlink terminals a British company provided to Ukrainian forces dropped offline last week. The reasons for the outage as well as its extent are unclear.

Other industry support for Ukraine continues uninterrupted. Microsoft said Thursday that it would continue to provide Ukraine with free cloud services through 2023. Vice Chair and President Brad Smith blogged that Redmond's assistance would extend beyond cloud services. "Today’s commitment will bring Microsoft’s total support for Ukraine to more than $400 million since the war began in February," he wrote. "In addition to enabling technology services to run in the Microsoft Cloud, the company continues to: 

  • "Support the country with critical cybersecurity protection 
  • "Support nonprofits and humanitarian organizations operating in Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere in the European Union 
  • "Provide data and support to international organizations aiding Ukraine and addressing war crimes against civilians 
  • "Support and assist employees who are contributing to nonprofits engaged in humanitarian relief efforts"