Ukraine at D+98: Friction in the gray zone.
N2K logoJun 2, 2022

Advancing into the rubble it's created, Russia's army tries to come to grips with combat refusals. The White House says that the cyber operations NSA Director Nakasone alluded to this week are entirely consistent with the US policy of avoiding direct combat with Russia. Observers work to understand the state of the cyber phase of the hybrid war. And Russian censorship seems to be producing friction in some Russian government operations. (That's why agencies in Moscow are buying VPNs.)

Ukraine at D+98: Friction in the gray zone.

Russia continues to move, slowly, into the rubble of Sieverodonetsk, and its planners are believed to be looking toward the next phase of the war, which would be the occupation of Donetsk. Ukrainian forces continue to pressure Russian units holding Kherson.

This morning's situation report from the Ministry of Defence focuses on the slow-moving Russian advance in Luhansk. "Russia has taken control of most of Sieverodonetsk. The main road into the Sieverodonetsk pocket likely remains under Ukrainian control but Russia continues to make steady local gains, enabled by a heavy concentration of artillery. This has not been without cost, and Russian forces have sustained losses in the process." Continuing the offensive into the other Donbas region, Donetsk, will involve river crossings. "Crossing the Siverskyy Donets River - which is a natural barrier to its axes of advance – is vital for Russian forces as they secure Luhansk Oblast and prepare to switch focus to Donetsk Oblast. Potential crossing sites include between Sieverodonetsk and the neighbouring town of Lysychansk; and near recently-captured Lyman. In both locations, the river line likely still remains controlled by Ukrainian forces, who have destroyed existing bridges. It is likely Russia will need at least a short tactical pause to re-set for opposed river crossings and subsequent attacks further into Donetsk Oblast, where Ukrainian armed forces have prepared defensive positions. To do so risks losing some of the momentum they have built over the last week."

Reports of Russian desertions and combat refusals.

The Wall Street Journal reports seeing documents describing Russia's problem with combat refusals, that is, with soldiers deployed in the invasion of Ukraine who refused to follow orders, or who attempted to desert from their units. Many, but not all, of the refusals have come from members of the National Guard, a force designed for keeping order as opposed to taking and holding ground. For many of the soldiers, it's a business decision: a lawyer representing some of them said, according to the Journal, that "many soldiers who refuse orders to go to Ukraine figure it is easier to risk a criminal case than risk their lives to fight."

Russian prosecution of desertion and combat refusal have been surprisingly light, typically amounting to dismissal from the service. The Journal writes, "Because Russia hasn’t declared war on Ukraine, there also are few legal grounds for criminal charges against those who refuse to serve abroad." We doubt that the light penalties handed out so far stem from legalistic respect for black-letter law, as one might find, say, in the US. In Russia, law serves policy to a much greater degree than it does in the West. Nor, we can safely assume, does it represent a respect for selective conscientious objection. Reluctance to prosecute and punish harshly seems rather to be related to uncertainty as to how to handle the cases without drawing attention to the scope of the problem. Hundreds of soldiers are credibly said to have refused orders, and that's a small but significant fraction of the forces deployed.

Foreign Affairs sees a larger "people problem" in the Russian army. It's difficult to motivate troops to fight when you've accustomed them to systematic hazing, maltreatment, and casual brutality.

Cyber operations in the hybrid war.

US Cyber Command head and Director, NSA, General Paul Nakasone's remarks to the effect that the US had provided operational cyber support to Ukraine attracted considerable attention. The White House yesterday said that the cyber operations General Nakasone alluded to marked neither a change in, nor a deviation from, US declared policy of avoiding direct combat with Russia. That's essentially one of the points General Nakasone made in his remarks. The White House statement seems to rely upon the ambiguity of cyber operations, which remain a gray zone in international conflict.

The state of Russia's cyber campaign.

The Washington Post reviews the ongoing controversy over how effective Russia's cyber operations have been in its hybrid war against Ukraine. The widespread, catastrophic attacks against infrastructure many observers had expected haven't materialized, and that surprised many, given Russia's dress rehearsals for attacks against the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016. Those were apparently successful proofs-of-concept, but they haven't been repeated in the present war. The most significant cyber action was the successful disruption of ViaSat ground stations, but the effects of that attack were quickly made good. Some observers see Russian failure, others Russian restraint, still others see a different choice of objectives by Russian strategists.

ESET's most recent threat report sees a conflict marked by hacktivist and criminal activity, and sees the immunity from cybercrime, especially, that Russia had largely enjoyed, as having significantly eroded. The Cyber Peace Institute this morning released a study of the conflict in cyberspace, concentrating on how two target sets in particular were being serviced:

  1. "Critical infrastructure in Ukraine and the Russian Federation essential for the survival of the civilian population and civilian objects which are all protected under international humanitarian law (IHL) and 
  2. "Targets outside of these two countries that have been impacted by cyberattacks as a result of the war and its associated economic and geo-political context."

The researchers summarize their conclusions under six heads:

  1. "While cyberattacks aren’t playing a major role in tactical advances of either side – cyberattacks are used as a means of destruction, disruption, and data exfiltration, in addition to the widespread use of disinformation; they have led to the destabilization of cyberspace.
  2. "The conflict has seen a number of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, such as communication services and electric power stations, in violation of International Humanitarian Law. 
  3. "So-called “hacktivist collectives” have played a significant role during this conflict with the primary type of attack undertaken by these actors being hack and leak-style attacks by anti-Russian actors and Denial-of-Service attacks (DDoS) on Ukrainian allies by pro-Russian actors. 
  4. "The energy, mining and financial sectors are seeing significant numbers of attacks, both in Ukraine and Russia, as governments across the world impose and/or increase sanctions. 
  5. "Beyond traditional means of propaganda, cyberattacks are being used to spread disinformation and control the flow of information relating to the war."

Who's interested in a VPN? Russian government agencies are.

Russia's government apparently is purchasing VPN services, not to subvert them, but rather for its own use. Top10VPN reports that, since the invasion of Ukraine, "236 official contracts for VPN technology worth over $9.8 million have been made public since the invasion of Ukraine. State institutions and companies regulated by public procurement law based in Moscow spent more than any other region, totaling 196 million rubles ($2.4 million)." The users are either government agencies or established corporations, and they're purchasing VPN services to retain access to sources of information that Kremlin-imposed censorship has otherwise rendered inaccessible. Their goal is "to circumvent the increasingly punitive digital restrictions, state officials and companies may have turned to VPN software to retain access to international news outlets, local financial publications, and social media platforms." Thus comprehensive censorship has induced some noticeable friction into the operation of the censoring regime itself.

Prosecuting Zelenskyy?

A senior lawmaker in the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic, Yelena Shishkina, who chairs the unrecognized parliament's committee on criminal and administrative legislation, has said that the unrecognized government of her unrecognized republic would try Ukrainian President Zelenskyy as a war criminal, should he ever fall into their hands, Newsweek reports.  "Perpetrators of military crimes are not just those who hold weapons in their hands and pull the trigger. Those are also generals, who issue orders, and presidents, too," Ms Shishkina said, because they've affixed their signatures "under orders to send neo-Nazis to Donbas to kill civilians here."