Drone strikes continue, and Ukrainian air defenses improve. Russian seeks to stabilize its lines as Ukraine's counteroffensive continues. Russian cyberattacks against energy infrastructure remain a threat, but at this point more a potential than an actual threat. Shifts in Russian propaganda.
Ukraine at D+242: Infrastructure remains a target.
Low, slow, and noisy: Russia's drone war continues in the absence of more capable munitions.
The UK's Ministry of Defence, in this morning's situation report, assesses the progress and implications of Russia's increased reliance on Iranian loitering weapons for its attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. "Russia continues to use Iranian uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) against targets throughout Ukraine. Ukrainian efforts to defeat the Shahed-136 UAVs are increasingly successful. With official sources, including President Zelenskyy, claiming that up to 85% of attacks are being intercepted. These UAVs are slow, noisy and fly at low altitudes, making lone aircraft easy to target conventional air defences. Russia is likely expending a high number of Iranian Shahed-136 UAVs in order to penetrate increasingly effective Ukrainian air defences. It is likely using them as a substitute for Russian-manufactured long-range precision weapons which are becoming increasingly scarce."
Preparing for withdrawal from Kherson.
Saturday morning the British MoD looked at how Russian forces are pressing civilian barges into service for the construction of pontoon bridges over the Dnipro River. "Russian forces continue to reinforce crossing points over the Dnipro River, and have completed a barge bridge alongside the damaged Antonovskiy bridge in Kherson. Although the use of heavy barge bridges was almost certainly included in Soviet-era planning for operations in Europe, it is likely this is the first time the Russian military have needed to utilise this type of bridge for decades. Using civilian barges likely provides Russia additional material and logistics benefits, having lost significant quantities of military bridging equipment and engineering personnel during its invasion. If the barge bridge sustains damage, it is almost certain Russia will seek to repair or replace damaged sections quickly, as their forces and crossing points over the Dnipro river come under increasing pressure in Kherson."
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) sees the bridges as a step toward an orderly withdrawal. "The Russian withdrawal from western Kherson Oblast has begun. Russian forces likely intend to continue that withdrawal over the next several weeks but may struggle to withdraw in good order if #Ukrainian forces choose to attack. Russian forces will likely attempt to blow up the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) to cover their withdrawal and to prevent Ukrainian forces from pursuing Russian forces deeper into Kherson Oblast." The bridges are not the only preparations Russian forces are making. "Russian forces will likely attempt to blow up the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP) to cover their withdrawal and to prevent Ukrainian forces from pursuing Russian forces deeper into Kherson Oblast."
The quislings installed by Russian occupying forces have announced the formation of a volunteer militia to defend the city from Ukrainian forces, the Telegram reports, but how many volunteers will actually show up remains to be seen. It's unlikely this militia will amount to much more than a propaganda gesture.
An AP explainer describes what the loss of Kherson, the only provincial capital to fall during the invasion, would mean to Russia. The city, with a prewar population of 280,000 (now much reduced) is a prestige conquest, and its fall to Ukraine's counteroffensive would be a further blow to Russia's international and domestic reputation. It would also place Crimea at further risk.
Preparing defense-in-depth in Luhansk.
The section of the Russian lines in Luhansk that's been entrusted to the Wagner Group is being fortified, as the "Wagner Line" joins other famous lines in military history (Maginot, Hindenburg, Siegried, etc.), the British MoD reported early Sunday morning."On 19 October, Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed online that his engineering team were constructing an extensive fortified ‘Wagner Line’ of defences in Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast, and posted a map showing the planned extent of the project. Imagery showed a section of newly constructed anti-tank defences and trench systems southeast of Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast. If the plans are as extensive as Prigozhin claims, the works likely aim to integrate the Siversky Donetsk river into the defensive zone, partially following the 2015 Line of Control. The project suggests Russia is making a significant effort to prepare defences in depth behind the current front line, likely to deter any rapid Ukrainian counter offensives."
And preparing for a long war.
The ISW assesses President Putin's intentions as revealed by recent actions: he's preparing for a protracted war, and not looking for either an early victory or a negotiated exit:
"Putin is setting conditions for #Russia to continue a protracted high-intensity conventional war in Ukraine, not a negotiated settlement or off-ramp. Instead, he is setting conditions for improved Russian combat capability over the winter and well into 2023. The information conditions that the Kremlin has set to enable the Kherson withdrawal, the preparations to blow the dam, and the preparations for additional mobilization and conscription all demonstrate that Putin is not seeking offramps in the near term. Putin signed a decree on October 21 creating a Russian government “coordination council” to "strengthen coordination of federal executive branch organs and the federal subjects’ executive branch organs” during the war in Ukraine. Its responsibilities include coordinating federal & regional authorities to meet the needs of the military; resolving military supply issues, forming plans to supply the military; defining the volume and direction of the state budget to support the military; among other things. Putin’s creation of the coordination council is a continuation of Putin’s October 19 declaration of martial law readiness standards, which the Kremlin seeks to use to expand Russian government authorities as a way of further transiting Russia to a wartime footing. It is a step that Putin need not take if he were seeking to wrap the war up soon or were looking for some sort of off-ramp or pause that he expected to end major combat operations."
Russia pursues ministerial-level diplomacy.
Over the last four days Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu spoke directly and separately with his US and British counterparts, respectively Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
The US Defense Department offered a terse announcement that the call had taken place on Friday. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder said, "On October 21, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke by phone with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. Secretary Austin emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine." Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty report that Secretary Austin initiated the call. Austin also spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, Minister of Defence Oleksii Reznikov. His intent in that call, according to General Ryder's readout, was to "reiterate the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting Ukraine's ability to counter Russia's aggression. Secretary Austin also underscored the international community's continued support in building Ukraine's enduring strength and safeguarding Ukraine's ability to defend itself in the future, as demonstrated by the security assistance commitments made by allies and partners at the most recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting on October 12." They specifically discussed delivery of more US air defense systems to Ukraine.
The British MoD gave a longer account of Sunday's conversation between Secretary Wallace and Minister Shoigu. "At the request of the Russian Ministry of Defence, the Secretary of State for Defence spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, this afternoon. Minister Shoigu alleged that Ukraine was planning actions facilitated by Western countries, including the UK, to escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
"The Defence Secretary refuted these claims and cautioned that such allegations should not be used as a pretext for greater escalation.
"The Defence Secretary also reiterated UK and wider international support for Ukraine and desire to de-escalate this conflict. It is for Ukraine and Russia to seek resolution to the war, and the UK stands ready to assist.
"The Defence Secretary observed that both Ministers were respectful and professional on the call."
Specifically, according to Reuters, Mr. Shoigu warned that Ukraine was preparing a "dirty bomb," that is, a radiological weapon designed to kill primarily by radioactive contamination as opposed to blast or thermal energy. He also made this (very implausible) claim in conversations with French and Turkish officials, but the claim is widely regarded as disinformation. From the Russian side, RT gave a similar account of the Shoigu-Wallace call, and cites the Russian Ministry of Defense as having expressed concern about a Ukrainian dirty bomb. Many observers see the dirty-bomb talk as laying the groundwork for a Russian false-flag provocation involving radiological weapons (or deliberately induced nuclear accidents), but it may equally well be simply intended to confuse and discredit. Moscow made similar claims about Ukrainian biological weapons early in the war, and no provocation has yet developed from those. The foreign ministers of the UK, France, and the US released a joint statement Sunday in response to Mr. Shoigu's allegations:
"We, the Foreign Ministers of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reiterate our steadfast support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression. We remain committed to continue supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory for as long as it takes.
"Earlier today, the defense ministers of each of our countries spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu at his request. Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory. The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation. We further reject any pretext for escalation by Russia.
"The Foreign Ministers also discussed their shared determination to continue supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people with security, economic, and humanitarian assistance in the face of President Putin’s brutal war of aggression."
Norway concerned about threats to oil and gas infrastructure.
The investigation into the Nord Stream sabotage continues, but Norway is already seeking to improve the physical security of its North Sea oil and gas production operations, and it's not shy about naming Russia as the threat, the AP reports. It's noteworthy that seven Russian nationals have been taken into custody by Norwegian authorities in connection with their operation of drones over Norway. A small drone is unlikely to do much damage to oil infrastructure, but the drone activity has been so obvious that observers think the point is intimidation and not actual damage, drones having become the bugaboo of Russia's hybrid war.
Oslo is also concerned, according to the Record, about the risk of Russian cyberattack against its oil and gas sector, but there also seems to be a growing sense that such disruptive cyber operations may be more difficult to carry out than had been feared earlier in the war.
Cyber offense may be proving harder than thought.
Indeed, another piece in the Record, an extended interview with Very Good Security's Kenneth Gears (an expert on the cyber dimensions of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict) suggests that the war so far suggests that cyber defenses are improving to the point where they're able to deny attackers success. And it may also be that Russia has so neglected its own cyber defenses in favor of developing an offensive capability that Moscow's own capabilities have been degraded by Ukrainian attacks (and, we might add, by operations mounted by third parties sympathetic to Ukraine's cause). For all that, an article in CNET cautions that complacency would be misplaced, and that attacks on energy infrastructure will grow more attractive to Russian operators as the European winter closes in.
A drop in ransomware correlated with Russia's hybrid war.
Digital Shadows late last week published its regular quarterly report on the state of ransomware, and the company noticed an overall decline in the incidence of ransomware attacks. The Telegraph yesterday published an appreciation of those results, informed by conversations with Digital Shadows researchers: part of the drop is due to the co-opting of Russian criminal gangs into Russia's war effort, diverting them from their customary criminal activities and onto targets more likely to have a combat payoff. “[The war] is likely to continue to motivate ransomware actors to target government and critical infrastructure entities,” Digital Shadows threat intelligence analyst Riam Kim-McLeod told the Telegraph.
Is Russian propaganda softening its tone? (Or, what does it take to get you fired from RT?)
RT announced the suspension of its broadcast chief, Anton Krasovsky, yesterday on its website. RT's bosses didn't much care for what he said on their channel. "RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has condemned comments from Russian-language broadcast host Anton Krasovsky that suggested Ukrainian children need to be 'drowned', and suspended his contract." Ms Simonyan explained the decision to part ways with Mr. Krasovsky in her Telegram channel. RT quotes her: "'Perhaps Anton will explain what temporary insanity caused it and how it came out of his mouth. It is hard to believe that Krasovsky sincerely believed that children should be drowned,' she wrote. Simonyan clarified that she is suspending his contract with the broadcaster, 'because neither I nor the rest of the RT team can allow even the thought that one of us is capable of sharing such nonsense. For the children of Ukraine, as well as the children of Donbass, and all other children, I wish that all this ends as soon as possible, and they can live and study in peace again – in the language they consider native.'”
The offending passage in Mr. Krasovsky's remarks was (courtesy of the Russian Media Monitor): "They should have been drowned in the Tysyna [river], right there, where the duckling swims. Just drown those children, drown them right in the Tysyna. That's not your method, because you sci-fi writers are intelligent people, but it is our method. Whoever says that 'Moskals' occupied them, you throw them in the river with a strong undercurrent." That's the nonsense Ms Simonyan refuses to share.
Other remarks in the same broadcast Ms Simonyan passed over in silence, like the one cheering Russian soldiers' rape of "Ukrainian grannies," or the one advocating burning inhabitants of Carpathia alive in their own squalid little huts. Those perhaps were fine, but drowning children simply went too far.
What Mr. Krasovsky said was indeed barbarous and genocidal in tone, but it was pretty routine stuff--indeed, tame stuff--by the standards of Russian state media, where calls for the physical extermination of Ukrainians have been common, where the denial of any Ukrainian history or culture is routine. Why Ms Simonyan put him on the toboggan and gave him a swift shove down the hill therefore isn't entirely clear. She herself, for example, has said of Ukrainians in Donetsk who haven't welcomed Russian occupation, "There is a significant number of Nazis and indoctrinated people, with whom there isn’t much to be done, other than to have them shot under the laws of the DPR" [the puppet Donetsk People’s Republic].
Perhaps what distinguishes Mr. Krasovsky's policy recommendation from Ms Simonyan's isn't so much the age of the people being executed as the coloration of legality under which that execution might be done. How about this, Ms Semonyan? "They should have been drowned in the Tysyna, right there, where the duckling swims [in accordance with the laws of the DPR, ed.]. Just drown those children, drown them right in the Tysyna [under the laws of the DPR, ed.]. That's not your method, because you sci-fi writers are intelligent people, but it is our method. Whoever says that 'Moskals' occupied them, you throw them in the river with a strong undercurrent [in due compliance with the laws of DPR, ed.]." There. Fixed it for you.
In any case, and seriously, the firing is interesting because it's unusual. It might be an early sign that Russian propaganda may be softening, that the oderint-dum-timerunt approach to influence operations is not as plausible as it once may have been. Russian battlefield ineptitude may have caused the stock in direct verbal intimidation to crater, and the Russia-as-victim line may now be in the ascendance.