Ukraine at D+543: Expecting a long war.
N2K logoAug 21, 2023

Nothing new in cyberspace, as kinetic fighting continues along Ukraine's axis of advance toward the Sea of Azov.

Ukraine at D+543: Expecting a long war.

Russian missile strikes continue to target Ukrainian civilian morale as opposed to Ukrainian military capabilities. The Washington Post reports that a ballistic missile hit central Chernihiv Saturday morning, killing seven (including a six-year-old child) and injuring at least one hundred forty four. The target was the Taras Shevchenko Theater, which, the Institute for the Study of War says, was hosting a civilian exhibition about drones. "Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar stated that Russian forces are targeting public events to emotionally affect Ukrainians and noted that Russian forces have previously struck public events even without prior public announcements of such events."

Ukraine conducted its own drone strike Saturday, hitting the Soltsy airbase in the Novgorod Oblast. Russian sources cited by the Institute for the Study of War say that at least two aircraft were damaged by a fire that resulted from the strike. A number of Tu-22M3 (NATO reporting name "Backfire") supersonic strategic bombers were based at Soltsy. The unnamed Russian source said that undamaged Backfires were moved to Olenya air base in the Murmansk Oblast.

Over Saturday night and early Sunday morning Ukrainian drone strikes induced the closure of two Moscow airports, Vnukovo and Domodedovo. Drones were also reported in Kursk and Rostov.

Ukrainian sea drone attacks on the Kerch Strait Bridge has, according to Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty, interrupted supply lines into occupied Crimea enough to induce a gasoline shortage. The fuel is now apparently rationed in the peninsula.

Strikes in rear areas and against lines of communication into occupied Crimea have aroused considerable dissatisfaction among Russian mil-bloggers. They're now demanding retaliation against Ukrainian leaders and their families, because that form of direct retaliation worked in Lebanon and Syria. The mil-bloggers also report a growing shortage of junior officers at the front.

Reorganization for a more effective defense.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) wrote, in Sunday's situation report, "The leadership of Russia’s Aerospace Forces (VKS) is highly likely under intense pressure to improve air defences over western Russia. In recent months, the range of threats penetrating well inside Russia has increased. Strikes deep inside Russia are strategically important because President Putin almost certainly invaded Ukraine on the assumption that it would have little direct effect on Russians. Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles are regularly hitting Moscow. In addition, there have also been increasing reports of SA-5 GAMMON missiles striking Russia. This Soviet-era 7.5 tonne, 11-metre long weapon is retired from its air defence role in Ukraine’s inventory. However, it is now apparently being employed as a ground attack ballistic missile. Pressure is likely to particularly fall on VKS Chief of Staff, Colonel-General Viktor Afzalov; VKS Commander-in-Chief General Sergei Surovikin remains absent, suspected to have been detained in relation to the June 2023 Wagner Group mutiny."

Saturday morning's situation report from the British MoD reviewed the state of the lines at the end of the week. "Over the last week, most of the front line has remained static. However, in the south, Ukrainian forces have continued their advance along the course of the Mokri Yaly river, securing the village of Urozhaine in the face of stiff Russian resistance. In the north, Russian forces have continued probing attacks in the Kupiansk area but achieved no significant advances. Across the front, both sides confront a similar challenge: attempting to defeat well-entrenched forces while having limited uncommitted forces to open new assaults." The Washington Post outlines the difficulties Ukraine faces in achieving a decisive breakthrough, and the New York Times discusses Ukraine's preparations for what now seems likely to be a much longer war than anyone expected.

This morning the UK's MoD noted the formation of a large organization from relatively inexperienced, recently mobilized troops. "Russia is expanding its military structures in the face of wartime realities. One new formation is highly likely – the 18th Combined Arms Army (18 CAA). The formation is likely to be an amalgamation and uplift of other units currently operating in Kherson Oblast, including 22nd Army Corps, the force which usually constitutes Russia’s garrison in occupied Crimea. 18 CAA is likely to consist mostly of mobilised personnel and to focus on defensive security operations in the south of Ukraine. Russia likely aims to free up more experienced units to fight on key axes. There is a realistic possibility that this has led to the recent re-deployment of airborne forces from Kherson to the heavily contested Orikhiv sector."

Russian general officer watch.

Colonel General Gennady Zhidko, theater commander in Ukraine and commanding general of the Eastern Military District between June and October of 2022. CNN reported that General Zhidko died Wednesday "after a long illness." He had made his recent career as a political officer, heading the Main Military-Political Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces until given the job in Ukraine after Moscow's attempt to take Kyiv was abandoned last spring. He was rusticated after Ukrainian forces retook Kharkiv last fall.

His successor, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, who earned the nickname "General Armageddon" during his service in Syria, and who directed the construction of the eponymous Surovikin Line, the bands of minefields and trenches currently impeding Ukraine's advance into its occupied provinces, was also removed from command. In General Surovikin's case the relief came after this summer's Wagner Group mutiny. He was perceived by many observers as having been too close to Wagner Group boss Yevgenyi Prigozhin, and his failure to take decisive action on the ground to stop Mr. Prigozhin's march on Moscow raised eyebrows. Citing Russian mil-bloggers thought to be close to the security organs, POLITICO reported that General Surovikin, said officially to be "resting," was in fact under house arrest. Rumors of his arrest have been circulating since late June.

President Putin has been visiting Rostov-on-Don, where he received a situation report from General Valery Gerasimov, currently commanding in Ukraine. Rostov isn't quite the front, but it's closer to the front than Moscow.

Wartime disinformation.

The cyber front in Russia's war has been quiet of late, with few cyberattacks or significant instances of cyberespionage reported over the last several days. But disinformation continues. Recent themes in Russian influence operations (debunked by the Canadian Government's standing fact-checking of Russian claims) have sought to portray Poland as avid to recover territories the Soviet Union annexed to the Ukrainian Republic at the end of the Second World War.

The overarching theme of Russian influence operations, represented in a very long interview TASS conducted with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, is that Russia is the victim of aggression, with Ukraine's government serving as a cat's paw for the United States, which seeks Russia's reduction to a permanent state of as an impoverished, minor power. (The theme is repeated by Iran's semi-official Mehr News Agency.)

There's also some retail disinformation in progress. Ukrinform reports that Russian bot operators are sending residents of Kherson threatening texts over social media warning them of physical harm. The recipients are told they'll be spared if they report on the "Nazis" to the Russians, that is, if they reveal information about Ukrainian forces.

Some older studies of Russian disinformation practices are worth reviewing for their continued relevance. The State Department issued its "GEC Special Report: Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem" in August of 2020, and RAND published "The Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood' Propaganda Model" in 2016. Both are worth a look.