Ukrainian strikes seek to isolate the battlefield as concerns about a stalemate persist. Russia disciplines state media to keep them on message.
Ukraine at D+620: Influence discipline.
It's increasingly clear that Russian tactics are now centered around dismounted infantry attacks across open ground. Russian officers are willing to accept high casualties, apparently with little regard for the gains likely to be achieved."Over the past three weeks," the UK's Ministry of Defence wrote in Saturday morning's situation report, "Russia has likely lost around 200 armoured vehicles during its assaults on the Donbas town of Avdiivka. This is likely due to a combination of relative effectiveness of Ukraine’s modern hand-held anti-armour weapons, mines, uncrewed aerial vehicle-dropped munitions, and precision artillery systems. In response, Russian forces have highly likely switched to conducting dismounted infantry-based assaults in this sector. Ukrainian forces faced similar tactical challenges as the attacking force over the summer. Like previous Russian offensives, the Avdiivka assaults have often been characterised by advances across open ground, leading to high losses. It is plausible that Russia has suffered several thousand personnel casualties around the town since the start of October 2023. Russia’s leadership continues to demonstrate a willingness to accept heavy personnel losses for marginal territorial gains."
The Russian air campaign bears a conceptual (if not moral) similarity to their ground campaign. Relatively inexpensive and relatively plentiful drones are used in mass attacks against large area targets. Most of them are shot down, but a few may leak through. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote Friday, "Russian forces conducted a notably larger series of drone strikes throughout Ukraine on November 3. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Russian forces launched four dozen Shahed-131/-136 drones from Kursk Oblast and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, Krasnodar Krai, and a Kh-59 cruise missile from occupied Kherson Oblast at targets in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force reported that Ukrainian air defenses shot down the Kh-59 cruise missile and 24 of the Shahed drones. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that Ukrainian forces intercepted over half of the roughly 40 drones that Russian forces launched at Ukraine. Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces struck targets in Kharkiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Odesa oblasts, and Zelensky stated that Ukrainian air defenses activated in Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Kyiv, Kirovohrad, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi, and Lviv oblasts."
Ukraine successfully attacks Kerch.
The ISW also reports a successful Ukrainian strike against Kerch, in occupied Crimea. The target was Russia's Zalyv Shipyard, and it's believed that the damage included a Russian naval vessel. "Satellite imagery from November 4 shows that the strike damaged a Project 22800 Karakurt-class Kalibr missile carrier corvette at the shipyard, although the extent of the damage to the ship is currently unclear. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 13 of 15 Ukrainian missiles targeting the shipyard and acknowledged that two missiles damaged an unspecified ship. Ukrainian officials stated that Ukrainian cruise missiles damaged the Askold missile carrier, a Karakurt-class corvette that the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) launched in 2021." Zalyv is the largest shipyard in Eastern Europe, and the strike is part of Ukraine's campaign to deny Russia the use of occupied Crimea for logistics and staging. Other sources (Newsweek among them) confirm that the Askold guided missile cruiser did indeed sustain severe damage. The AP has an account of the Ukrainian missile strike.
Isolating the battlefield.
The strikes against Russian military infrastructure in occupied Crimea are part of a larger Ukrainian campaign to isolate the battlefield. Russian sources cited by the ISW say Ukrainian forces hit targets in Skadovsk, in the occupied Kherson Oblast, a railhead at an oil refinery in Dzhankol, Crimea, and also targets in Berdyansk, Zaporizhia Oblast.
This effort at interdiction was accompanied by Ukrainian offensives near Bakhmut, with confirmed gains in the western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the east bank of the Dnipro in the Kherson Oblast. "Geolocated footage," the ISW adds, "indicates that Ukrainian forces have made limited advances west of Verbove (10km east of Robotyne in western Zaporizhia Oblast), as well as on the east bank of Kherson Oblast near Pidstepne (12km east of Kherson City and 3km from the Dnipro River) and in Krynky (30km east of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River)."
The difficulties of maintaining an army in the field.
The UK's MoD commented on living conditions at the front for Russian units. "As winter approaches, eyewitness accounts from deployed Russian troops in Ukraine suggests that the soldier’s age-old battle against the elements remains a major preoccupation for Russia’s army. On 1 November 2023, recently returned Russian soldiers speaking at the Ogakov Readings military affairs conference in Moscow described being “wet from head to toe” for weeks on end on the front line. One soldier highlighted that the risk of fire alerting Ukrainian forces meant that they 'couldn’t even boil a mug of tea'. They highlighted living and eating 'monotonous' food in pervasive mud. Maintaining a decent level of personal comfort and sound administration in defensive positions is challenging for any army. However, open-source evidence suggests a generally very poor level of enforcement of basic field administration amongst Russian forces. This is likely partially caused by a deficit in motivated junior commanders as well as variable logistical support." The difficulties of living in the field can be authenticated by any old soldier, as the MoD points out, but conditions seem to be unusually deplorable in the Russian army. What that army lacks is something that's often taken for granted in Anglophone armies: a professional non-commissioned officer corps. It's the sergeants who are key to enabling an army to stay clean, dry, and fed under miserable conditions. The Russians don't have sergeants like that.
The Russian economy and the war.
The UK's MoD in Monday morning's situation report looked at the economic effects of the war on Russia's economy. "Inflation rose to 6 per cent in Russia in September 2023, up from 5.3 per cent in August 2023. This was driven by rises in consumer prices such as food and fuel. Higher inflation is almost certain to increase the costs of funding Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Central Bank of Russia (CBR) responded by increasing the base interest rate by 2 percentage points, to a new base rate of 15 per cent. These are the highest rates since May 2022. It is highly likely the CBR will maintain high interest rates through 2024. This is highly likely to increase borrowing costs for Russian consumers and is likely to also impact the Russian government’s debt servicing costs. Due to increasing demand, partially due to large increases in defence spending, along with continued pressures of a tightening labour market, the Russian economy is likely at risk of overheating. This is highly likely to ensure inflation in Russia in 2024 remains above the target rate of 4 per cent. Continued high inflation is likely to erode real terms government spending, particularly in areas such as social care with below-inflation spending rises. This further illustrates the reorientation of Russia’s economy to fuel the war above all else."
Stalemate or positional war.
Ukrainian President Zelensky emphasized the difference between the Ukrainian and Russian ways of war Saturday during a joint press conference with European Commission President von der Leyen. The positional war, he said, is not a stalemate, and that the world shouldn't confuse Ukraine's care with the lives of its soldiers with failure. He pointed to success in Kharkiv and Kherson, and said that F-16s and upgraded air defense would be crucial in the next phases of the war.
Some Western observers do see a stalemate. An essay in the Telegraph argues that flagging Western interest and the attention being drawn by the war in Gaza will inevitably starve Ukraine of much-needed matériel. A Washington Post op-ed makes a similar point, suggesting that the conflict may be a stalemate, and that Russia's objectives aren't obtainable, and that the feasibility of Ukraine reaching its own maximalist goals is also receding.
Managing influence operations: the case of TASS.
The chief of the major Russian news service TASS was replaced on July 5th, a few days after the Wagner Group's abortive march on Moscow. The Moscow Times reports that the removal was indeed a sacking, and not a retirement or voluntary resignation. The paper quotes an unnamed Russian government official on the change in leadership at TASS: “TASS covered all this," that is, the Wagnerite mutiny, "in too much detail and promptly. Some kind of insanity has happened to them. They have forgotten that their main task is not to report the news. It’s to create an ideologically correct narrative for the Kremlin.” The official added an assessment that TASS now understood its role, and that it would be properly aligned in the future. “The neutrality of TASS is of no use to anyone right now. It’s wartime and presidential elections are looming. The chief [Putin] must win on record. Under the new director general, TASS will be more aggressive and provocative.”
The Moscow Times, which ran this story, is an independent source of news on Russia. It was published in English and Russian from Moscow between 1992 and 2022, leaving Moscow for Amsterdam last year to escape an increasingly restrictive and hostile media climate.
Cybercrime on the side of Ukraine.
While cybercriminals have worked for Russia in the hybrid war, either as privateers or co-opted contractors, they've been much less in evidence on the Ukrainian side. HackRead reports, however, a departure from this pattern. Russia's second largest insurer, Rosgosstrakh, has apparently sustained a significant data breach. Someone with the nom-de-hack "Apathy" has offered the stolen data for sale on Breach Forums. The asking price is $50,000, payable in Bitcoin or Monero.
HackRead summarizes the data that appear to be on offer: "The compromised data includes full access to the investment and life insurance department records dating back to 2010. The breach, which has put approximately 3 million bank statements at risk, has also compromised data on 730,000 individuals, with approximately 80,000 individuals’ Russian Social Security Numbers (SNILS) and 45,000 individuals’ complete bank routing information now in jeopardy. The breach also includes access to all life insurance policies and contracts, as well as associated attachments such as passports and scanned documents of public officials or their immediate relatives."
The attack seems to be criminally motivated, with no obvious admixture of political or military purpose. (The compromised data do seem to include relatively full information on three Russian GRU agents, but that's hardly enough to qualify the hack as a wartime coup.) Insofar, however, as the cyberattack inconveniences and embarrasses a major Russian enterprise, objectively (as TASS used to say, and may now start saying again) it works in the interests of Ukraine.