Ukraine at D+253: Kherson, barrier troops, and an assessment of cyber defense.
N2K logoNov 4, 2022

Russia appears to have revived the old Soviet practice of positioning barrier troops behind combat units to prevent desertion. The battle for Kherson approaches, with rumors of a Russian withdrawal and Ukrainian suspicion of a ruse. A look at the conflict in cyberspace as a case study in collective defense.

Ukraine at D+253: Kherson, barrier troops, and an assessment of cyber defense.

As the battle for Kherson proper begins to take shape, the Telegraph reports that Russian President Putin has called for forcible evacuation of civilians from the city. "Those who still live in Kherson should certainly be removed from the area of the most dangerous hostilities because civilians should not suffer from shelling, from attacks, counter-attacks or something like that," Mr. Putin said this morning.

Russian forces have signaled withdrawal from the city, lowering the Russian flag from public buildings, for example, and also through remarks by the Russian-installed governor of the region that indicated an intention to withdraw east, over the Dnipro River. Ukrainian leaders suspect a ruse and a trap, and are proceeding with caution. US Defense Secretary Austin said yesterday that he believed Ukrainian forces were fully capable of retaking Kherson. Reuters quotes the Defense Secretary as saying, "On the issue of whether the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnipro river and in Kherson, I certainly believe that they have the capability to do that.... We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory."

Russia seems unlikely to evacuate the Kherson Oblast without a fight, a Washington Post op-ed explains. The region represents Russia's only land access to occupied Crimea.

Barrier troops to prevent desertion.

The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning said that Russian forces appear to be deploying barrier troops to prevent desertion. "Due to low morale and reluctance to fight, Russian forces have probably started deploying 'barrier troops' or 'blocking units'. These units threaten to shoot their own retreating soldiers in order to compel offensives and have been used in previous conflicts by Russian forces. Recently, Russian generals likely wanted their commanders to use weapons against deserters, including possibly authorising shooting to kill such defaulters after a warning had been given. Generals also likely wanted to maintain defensive positions to the death. The tactic of shooting deserters likely attests to the low quality, low morale and indiscipline of Russian forces." Barrier troops have a history in Russia: the Soviet Army used them during the Second World War.

Effects of the hybrid war on action in cyberspace.

Russian cyber campaigns have so far not worked the widespread devastation on Ukrainian and allied infrastructure that had been expected at the outset of the war, but ENISA, the EU's cybersecurity agency, finds that the war has nonetheless shaped activity in cyberspace. "However, the geopolitical situations particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine have acted as a game changer over the reporting period for the global cyber domain," ENISA's Threat Landscape 2022 report says. "While we still observe an increase of the number of threats, we also see a wider range of vectors emerge such as zero-day exploits and AI-enabled disinformation and deepfakes. As a result, more malicious and widespread attacks emerge having more damaging impact."

International support for Ukraine's cyber defense.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has issued an assessment of the state of international assistance rendered to Ukraine for its cyber defense. Such assistance is being considered as at least a partial explanation of Russia's failure to meet expectations in its cyber campaign. "Notwithstanding the heightened rate of cyber attacks, Russia’s much-feared cyberwar has failed to materialize the way that many experts anticipated it would."

The report offers a clear summary of prewar expectations of Russian performance in cyberspace:

"Many (though not all) pre-war assessments expected that cyber attacks would play a significant role in Russia’s campaign. The strategic context suggested that, although Ukraine had much experience in defending against Russian cyber attacks and could call on motivated, highly capable experts to protect critical targets, it would ultimately be unable to prevent major harm to, and exploitation of, digital networks and data. Ukraine’s operational strengths would be outmatched by Russia’s strategic advantages of possessing some of the world’s most powerful offensive cyber capabilities (albeit with debatable strategic effectiveness) and operating in a digital terrain that has been thought to favor the offense over defense. Moscow appeared to hold a decisive advantage in cyberspace."

Officials in Kyiv have credited assistance from the EU, the UK, and the US with providing major assistance to Ukraine's cybersecurity. Western technology companies have also provided extensive support. Such assistance includes Starlink's provision of satellite communications services, which the company this week has said will continue. It also includes Microsoft's commitment of $400 million to enable Ukraine to continue its use of Redmond's cloud and data services.

The Carnegie Endowment's paper concludes with some lessons learned so far from the experience of Russia's war. Overall, the lessons make the case for the effectiveness of collective defense:

  1. "Cyber defense at scale relies on the involvement of the largest commercial technology and cybersecurity companies."
  2. "Politics and geopolitics count in cyberspace just as everywhere else."
  3. "Shared values are as important as shared interests."
  4. "Government can be a catalyst and sponsor of large-scale cyber defense involving commercial entities."
  5. "Capacity building is valuable, but it is no substitute for capability reinforcement."