Ukraine at D+20: Zelenskyy has a wish, and that wish is for air defense.
N2K logoMar 16, 2022

President Zelenskyy appeals to the US Congress as Russia continues its reduction of Ukraine's cities. And cyberspace in the theater of operations is crowded.

Ukraine at D+20: Zelenskyy has a wish, and that wish is for air defense.

Russia continues its maneuver-poor, firepower-rich assault on Ukraine's cities. Russo-Ukrainian talks resumed today, with Ukraine expressing for the first time some optimism, and a formerly guardedly optimistic Russia moving publicly in the opposite direction. Russia's President Putin, in a speech this morning, maintained his implausible contention that Ukraine was being run by Nazis, and denounced the West for waging what he characterized as a hypocritical and futile economic war against Russia.

Combat failure.

President Putin may have said this morning that all was proceeding according to plan, and that victory was in sight, but the facts on the ground seem to belie this. The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in yesterday's situation report argued that Moscow is feeling a personnel pinch in its war against Ukraine: "Russia is increasingly seeking to generate additional troops to bolster and replace its personnel losses in Ukraine. As a result of these losses it is likely Russia is struggling to conduct offensive operations in the face of sustained Ukrainian resistance. Continued personnel losses will also make it difficult for Russia to secure occupied territory. Russia is redeploying forces from as far afield as its Eastern Military District, Pacific Fleet and Armenia. It is also increasingly seeking to exploit irregular sources such as Private Military Companies, Syrian and other mercenaries. Russia will likely attempt to use these forces to hold captured territory and free up its combat power to renew stalled offensive operations."

The MoD this morning added a litany of Russian combat failure. "Russian forces are struggling to overcome the challenges posed by Ukraine’s terrain," by which the MoD probably means mud and rivers, but they also suggest that the Russian forces are curiously roadbound, which would indicate failures of training and leadership as much as they do difficult ground. "Russian forces have remained largely tied to Ukraine’s road network and have demonstrated a reluctance to conduct off-road manoeuvre. The destruction of bridges by Ukrainian forces has also played a key role in stalling Russia’s advance." The invaders have also failed to achieve the expected air supremacy. "Russia’s continued failure to gain control of the air has drastically limited their ability to effectively use air manoeuvre, further limiting their options." And Ukrainian forces have been able to take advantage of their enemy's tactical shortcomings. "The tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have adeptly exploited Russia’s lack of manoeuvre, frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces."

Retired US Admiral James Stavrides, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, offered his assessment of Russian combat performance. He concludes that Moscow's efforts to professionalize its army have failed. Stavrides sees three big problems on prominent display in Ukraine, where Russia is waging a high-intensity war against a nation with an effective standing army. (It's not like Russia's intervention in Syria, which was a low-intensity affair of fighting bandits and terrorizing civilians.)

"The first is obvious: logistical failures. In the military, we often say that amateurs study strategy but professionals study logistics. Getting ammunition, fuel, food, heat, electricity and communications equipment to the troops is crucial. In particular, getting fuel forward has proven very challenging for the Russians, which is logistics 101 for a Western force." Stavrides adds, "The image of the 40-mile stalled tank and transport convoy outside of Kyiv is a good example of incompetence — any modern Western military would have developed the detailed plans to ensure that such a massive offensive weapon wouldn’t sit on highly exposed terrain for days. Supplying relatively small units in Syria is easy compared to providing sustenance for a 200,000-troop force."

The second problem deals with troop quality, and this is a matter of training, and not some inherent shortcoming of the Russian population. "A second challenge is perhaps less obvious but more insidious," Stavrides writes. "A significant number of the troops invading Ukraine are conscripts or reservists. They are not a professional, volunteer force led by career senior enlisted cadres. There have been anecdotal examples of Russian soldiers who are literally unaware of the importance of their mission — some surprised to discover they are not on an exercise in Russia when captured by Ukrainians."

The third problem is a pervasive failure of senior leadership. "The third key misstep is the bad generalship on vivid display. The Russian plan encompassed attacking Ukraine from six different vectors, dividing their forces significantly. A battle plan that spreads forces over six axes is inherently flawed. This no doubt can be attributed to flawed assumptions and intelligence: The Russian generals must have expected the Ukrainians to welcome them with flowers and vodka, not bullets and Molotov cocktails."

On the subject of logistical failure, Task & Purpose contributes a detail as telling as any that might be imagined. Among the items Moscow is said to have requested from China are combat rations, the Russian equivalent of American MREs. Some Russian combat rations taken as trophies by Ukrainian forces have 2015 expiration dates. Even by the gamey standards of iron rations, that's some pretty bunk chow.

If, as the British MoD seems to think, Russia is facing manpower shortfalls in its ranks, does it have any prospect of receiving help from its allies? Probably not, especially since those local allies would be coming from either Belarus or Transnistria, Belarusian President Lukashenka has shown small appetite for joining the fight beyond such support with staging as he's already provided, and his army is thought to have even less stomach for a war than does their president. Mr. Lukashenka's challenge is finessing his relationship with Mr. Putin without committing himself fully to Mr. Putin's war of choice. As for Transnistria, detached from Moldova in much the way Russia seeks to detach Luhansk and Donetsk from Ukraine, the unrecognized statelet is the original "trashcanistan" Steven Kotkin described during his survey of the former Soviet lands. Its combat potential is negligible, and in any case probably unwilling.

A war against civilians.

The one thing the Russian army has shown itself capable of is the delivery of high explosive against soft, primarily civilian, area targets. It's also shown a capacity for direct atrocity that goes beyond the callous brutality of indiscriminate bombardment. The US embassy in Ukraine this morning tweeted news of a fresh and utterly gratuitous atrocity: "Today, Russian forces shot and killed 10 people standing in line for bread in Chernihiv. Such horrific attacks must stop. We are considering all available options to ensure accountability for any atrocity crimes in Ukraine." And the flow of refugees continues unabated. The United Nations estimates the number of refugees at around three million.

Zelenskyy addresses the US Congress.

Addressing "Americans and friends," Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to a joint session of the US Congress this morning. His general aim was to argue that Ukraine's cause was, substantially, humanity's cause. His specific aim was to obtain a no-fly zone, or, failing that, shipments of combat aircraft and air defense systems.

Denouncing Russia's invasion as an assault "against basic human values," Mr. Zelenskyy emphasized that the hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainians who are now under threat are felt and shared by people everywhere. He compared the Russian invasion to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks of 9/11, and asked that Americans consider that Ukraine has been experiencing a Pearl Harbor and a 9/11 every day for the past three weeks. "Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death," President Zelenskyy said, calling the Russian campaign "terror Europe hasn't seen for eighty years." He called for a humanitarian no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory. "If this is too much to ask," he added, "we offer an alternative:" provision of combat aircraft and air defense systems. "I have a need," he said (alluding explicitly to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream") and that need is in the first instance for air defense. (The AP is among those noting how President Zelenskyy took care to frame Ukraine's defense in familiar American terms: Pearl Harbor, 9/11, the Declaration of Independence, the civil rights movement, Mount Rushmore.)

He asked the US to do more, and to do it soon: more sanctions, a general withdrawal of US companies from the Russian market (a market, he said, which is "flooded with our blood"), and closure of American ports to all Russian exports. Mr. Zelenskyy also asked that the US sanction all politicians in the Russian Federation who don't cut ties with those responsible for "state terror." He proposed a "union for peace," a union of countries ready to provide all forms of support to victims of aggression within twenty-four hours. At that point he asked Congress to watch a video record of Russian atrocities in which scenes of Ukrainian cities at peace were juxtaposed with video of those same cities undergoing attack, caring for their wounded, and burying and mourning their dead.

President Zelenskyy, switching to English, closed with an appeal for a recognition that peace in your country depends upon peace in your neighbors' countries. "We want the right to live in peace," he said, "and to die when your time has come." Ukraine's cause is, he argued in his peroration, the cause of humanity itself.

Information operations.

There may be a benefit to permitting some US companies to continue their Russian operations. The Washington Post says that one reason Apple, Google, and Cloudflare, to take three tech examples, have maintained a presence in Russia, albeit a reduced one, is that the US Government wants them to stay there. Their services provide Russian citizens at least some access to unfiltered news.

Marina Ovsyannikova, the young producer who crashed the Vremya television news program with an anti-war placard, was in custody for some fourteen hours and was also fined for her action, the Telegraph reports. She could still face prosecution on more serious charges.

Cyber phases of the hybrid war.

Ukraine has arrested an individual (identified only as a "hacker") who was allegedly engaged in helping Russian commanders send instructions to their troops via cellular networks, CNN reports.

Investigation of the attack against Viasat's KA-SAT Internet service continues, Reuters says. It's presumed to have been a Russian operation, and, while technical details on the incident have been sparsely shared, senior Ukrainian cybersecurity official Victor Zhora said, “I believe that’s one of their goals is to destroy providers’ infrastructure and to prevent the Ukrainian armed force to actually communicate with each other." 

Zhora also shared his assessment of why Russian cyber operations have been less devastating than was confidently predicted during the run-up to the war. The Washington Post gives Zhora's top three reasons for Russian cyber's failure to show up in overwhelming force:

  1. "Russian hackers aren’t nimble enough to identify and compromise the most important Ukrainian government and industry targets during fast-moving military operations.
  2. "Stealthy cyberattacks aren’t that useful in comparison to the damage Russian troops are causing with bombs and missiles.
  3. "Russian cyber operators are too busy protecting their own digital infrastructure."

That digital infrastructure is itself under attack, mostly at a nuisance level, by hacktivists sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause. Zhora expressed his appreciation for their efforts against the Russian enemy, but he distanced their activities from Ukrainian government control.

Default day.

Today is when Russian dollar-denominated notes come due, and risk of default is seen as high. $117 million in interest is due on two dollar-denominated sovereign bonds Russia sold in 2013. Russia's Finance Minister says it's got the funds and can meet its obligations, but that it's now up to the US to permit them to pay.

The AP has an explainer on the implications of a Russian default. It would be bad for Russia, but most of the rest of the world would probably be able to shrug off the effects:

"Impact outside Russia could be lessened because foreign investors and companies have reduced or avoided dealings there since an earlier round of sanctions imposed in 2014 by the U.S. and the European Union in response to Russia’s unrecognized annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

"Head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, said that while the war has devastating consequences in terms of human suffering and wide-ranging economic impact in terms of higher energy and food prices, a default by itself would be 'definitely not systemically relevant' in terms of risks for banks around the world."

You can't fire me; I quit.

As Moscow might as well have said to the Council of Europe, withdrawing from the body as it considered expelling Russia because of its war of aggression against Ukraine.