Stalled Russian offensives more than a year into the special military operation are accompanied by a shift in Moscow's narrative: the war is now a twilight struggle for national survival.
Ukraine at D+398: Is the special military operation now a forever war?
The situation in Bakhmut remains largely unchanged, but the UK's Ministry of Defence believes Ukrainian forces have pushed the Wagner Group back from the key supply line into the city. "Fighting continues in the Donbas town of Bakhmut, though Russian assaults are still at a reduced level compared to recent weeks. One of the key achievements of recent Ukrainian operations has likely been to push Russian Wagner Group fighters back from the 0506 route. This minor country road has become a critical supply line for Ukrainian defenders. Wagner had previously been within a few hundred metres of the route. On 26 March 2023, Russian media claimed Wagner had taken full control of the Azom factory complex to the north of Bakhmut town centre. However, the area likely remains contested, as it has been for the past fortnight. With Wagner having now confirmed the release of at least 5000 prisoner fighters, personnel shortages are likely hampering Russian offensive efforts in the sector."
The Kremlin's narrative of a forever war.
With a stalled offensive, and no prospect of victory for months or even years, Russian official rhetoric concerning its war over Ukraine has shifted from talk of quick reconquest of lost territories and self-determination for ethnic Russians to a narrative of national survival, with an explicit acknowledgement that the special military operation (increasingly called "war" in government-controlled media) involves an indefinite commitment to combat. The Guardian quotes Alexander Dugin, geopolitical philosopher and prominent nationalist hawk: “Not everyone in this country yet understands what we’re going to have to pay to win this war. People in our country have to pay for their love for Russia with their lives. It’s serious and we weren’t ready for this. I don’t think people in this country fully understand what is happening after a year. Of course there’s full support from the president but it hasn’t fully come into the hearts and souls of all our people … some people have woken up, some people have not. Despite the year of war, it is going very slowly.” This does not represent a change of heart on Mr. Dugin's part, a softening of his own commitment to President Putin's war. It's rather a call for hard war, for, as some observers have characterized it, a "forever war."
A shift in Russian cyber operations.
Barron's reviews industry consensus that "Russia's cyberwar on Ukraine largely failed and Moscow is increasingly targeting Kyiv's European allies."
Thales's Cyber Threat Intelligence Team is the latest industry source to discern a change in Russian cyber operations. Ukraine having proved a hard target, and cyberattacks there having been largely supplanted by kinetic strikes, Russian operators are increasingly focused on hitting Western Europe. "The third quarter of 2022 marked a turning point in cyber-attacks related to the conflict in Ukraine, with a clear transition from a cyber-war focused on Ukraine and Russia to a high-intensity hybrid cyber-war across Europe. The cyber-war is targeting Poland and the Baltic and Nordic countries in particular, with an increasing focus on critical national infrastructure in sectors including aviation, energy, healthcare, banking and public services," Thales says. Thus the Baltic and Nordic countries (along with Poland) have been singled out for special attention, as have smaller states who are candidates for full EU integration (such as Montenegro and Moldova).
Much of the heavy lifting against Western Europe seems to have been delegated to hacktivist auxiliaries. "From targeted destruction campaigns to guerrilla cyber-harassment, pro-Russian hacktivists are using DDoS attacks to make servers temporarily inaccessible and disrupt services. They are part of Russia's strategy to engage in information warfare as a way to wear down public and private organisations." Among the auxiliaries Thales calls out are Anonymous Russia, KillNet, and Russian Hackers Teams. The report suggests that they've sought to pattern some of their activities after operations by the opposing Ukrainian IT Army. The Russian groups represent a wide range of skill-levels and are often although not invariably associated with cybercriminal gangs. Their control by the state ranges from direct command through inspiration to simpatico political alignment with Russian war objectives. And their most common tactic by far has been distributed denial-of-service (DDoS).
Some of the attacks against countries that support the cause of Ukraine are directly tied to current events. Slovakia's decision to transfer thirteen MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine, for example, was immediately followed by an Anonymous Russia DDoS attack against a range of Slovak government sites, Ukrainian Pravda reports.
Piracy is patriotic.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry tweeted this week that Russia has declared online piracy patriotic. "The word 'pirate' is now rehabilitated in russia," the Ministry tweeted (lowercasing the word "Russia" as has become common in official Ukrainian communications). "Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Medvedev & Putin's spokesman Peskov urged russians to download Western movies, music and programs from pirate sites. No need to be shy, just add the skull and bones to the tricolor."
Kyiv of course is just taking an opportunistic albeit understandable swing at Moscow, but they're not really exaggerating, either. TASS reported back in December that piracy in Russia was likely to increase, alas, under the pressure of Western sanctions. Like the special military operation itself, that's to be regretted, but after all it was forced on Russia by the aggressive posture of the collective West. We mean, if you've got to watch "The Batman" and Hollywood won't or can't sell it to you, what're you gonna do, man? There are only so many times a brother can watch "The Battleship Potemkin." You've gotta leaven your Eisenstein with "CoComelon's Sing-Along," right? Is it too much to hope that Russia would seek glory in karaoke and not arms? (Probably, alas, although we confess we'd pay good money to watch RT's Margarita Simonyan perform "Yes Yes Vegetables" or "Baby Shark." She did a pretty good job with "The Raven," after all.)