Ukraine at D+186: Cyberattacks against vulnerable targets in Southeastern Europe.
N2K logoAug 29, 2022

Russia works to fill its depleted ranks without using soldiers the important people are likely to care about. Russian cyberattacks his Southeastern European countries sympathetic to Ukraine.

Ukraine at D+186: Cyberattacks against vulnerable targets in Southeastern Europe.

IAEA inspectors enroute to Zaporizhzhia.

The AP reports this morning that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA) are enroute to Zaporizhzhia, where the UN team will inspect the safety of the nuclear power plant that has been occupied by the Russians, continues to be operated by its Ukrainian staff, and has come under artillery fire. The Russians and Ukrainians accuse one another of responsibility for the shelling, but the Ukrainians seem to have the stronger case. POLITICO has a summary of recent strikes against towns in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia.

Filling the ranks.

As Ukraine appears to defer a major counteroffensive until it has received and fielded the new heavy weapons the West has promised, Russia seeks to address its manpower shorfalls.

On Saturday, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) reported an increase in Russian activity in the Donbas. "Over the last five days, there has probably been an increase in the intensity of Russian assaults along the Donetsk sector of the Donbas. North of Donetsk city, there has been intense fighting near the towns of Siversk and Bakhmut." The troops appear to be to a significant extent separatist militia. "Pro-Russian separatist militia have probably made some progress towards the centre of the village of Pisky, near Donetsk Airport. However, overall, Russian forces have secured few territorial gains." And the mission may be economy of force. "There is a realistic possibility that Russia has increased its efforts in the Donbas in an attempt to draw in or fix additional Ukrainian units, amid speculation that Ukraine is planning a major counter-offensive."

The prominence of auxiliary paramilitaries in the current operations in Donetsk appears to be further evidence of a manpower crisis in the Russian army. Sunday morning the MoD offered an assessment of President Putin's recent decree that the end strength of his army be increased. How that increase might be achieved is unclear. "On 25 August 2022, the Russian Presidential Administration issued a presidential decree increasing the established strength of the Russian armed forces to 1,150,628, an increase of nearly 140,000. The government was instructed to provide funding to achieve this. It remains unclear whether Russia will attempt to fill this increased allocation from recruiting more volunteer ‘contract’ soldiers, or from increasing the annual targets for the conscription draft. In any case, under the legislation currently in place, the decree is unlikely to make substantive progress towards increasing Russia’s combat power in Ukraine. This is because Russia has lost tens of thousands of troops; very few new contract servicemen are being recruited; and conscripts are technically not obliged to serve outside of Russian territory."

A large Russian formation recruited recently and trained in haste is being moved into occupied Ukrainian territory. The 3rd Army Corps shows signs of its origins in unfamiliar improvisation: poorly educated, perfunctorily trained, and marked by widespread indiscipline and drunkenness, according to the Wall Street Journal's account. Newsweek offers this characterization: "Russia this year recruited men aged 18-50 to help fill a void after failures in Ukraine and mass losses on the battlefield. The new group of volunteers aren't required to have any prior military experience, nor any education beyond middle school or high school."

Much is being made of the difficulties Russia will face in meeting its manpower needs without what would amount to a formal declaration of war that would permit full mobilization. An analysis by the Telegraph, which cites yesterday's report from the MoD, is representative. "Russia’s plans to recruit 137,000 more troops cannot be achieved unless it declares an outright war, the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said.“

A disproportionate percentage of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine have come from the poorer ethnic minority fringes such as Tuva, Buryatia and Dagestan.There's a certain formal substance to this, but it overstates Russian concern with procedural legality. The two real obstacles to greater mobilization are probably not legal matters at all: First, the manpower needs of a civilian economy that struggles in the best of times and is under great stress from the present war and sanctions it's faced with, and, second, the risk to the regime that an unpopular general mobilization would present. One of the Telegraph's sources, the Institute for the Study of War, makes that second point: "'As the onus of partial mobilisation shifts to more economically advantaged, densely populated and better-educated regions of Russia, domestic opposition to recruitment efforts will likely grow,' the Institute said." Casualties so far have disproportionately come from disfavored populations within Russia, like "the poorer ethnic minority fringes such as Tuva, Buryatia and Dagestan." When the sons of people who matter are conscripted (and some would be, under full mobilization) the Kremlin will face internal dissent.

Russian discontent with senior leadership.

This morning's situation report from the MoD describes how combat failures by Russian forces are leading to a loss of influence on the part of Defense Minister Shoigu. "Recent independent Russian media reports have claimed that due to the problems Russia is facing in its war against Ukraine, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is now being side-lined within the Russian leadership, with operational commanders briefing President Putin directly on the course of the war. Russian officers and soldiers with first-hand experience of the war probably routinely ridicule Shoigu for his ineffectual and out-of-touch leadership as Russian progress has stalled." One of Mr. Shoigu's problems is his reputation for being more costumed civilian than experienced general officer. "Shoigu has likely long struggled to overcome his reputation as lacking substantive military experience, as he spent most of his career in the construction sector and the Ministry of Emergency Situations."

The Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office told the Telegraph that he thought it "very likely" that some senior Russian official would begin to work for Western intelligence services and against Moscow's war. “In moments like this when you’re dealing with a significant conflict and there is apparently clear disagreement among Russian citizens, and you can see that from protests on the streets of Russia, then the possibility that somebody might be willing to have a conversation with us about that and seek to perhaps to do the right thing for the sake of the greater good I think is very likely,”

Russian cyber operations reported in Southeastern Europe.

On Friday and Saturday, respectively, Montenegrin and Bulgarian officials accused Russia of conducting cyber attacks against their countries' infrastructures. "Montenegro’s National Security Agency (ANB) said on August 26 that several Russian agencies were behind a cyberattack on key IT systems of state institutions earlier in August. Outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said that Montenegro was at the peak of a hybrid war," BNE Intellinews reports, adding, "The following day, Bulgaria’s former ruling Gerb party said it was attacked by Russian hackers who aimed at publications on three specific topics on its social media pages." Earlier attacks, also attributed to Russian threat actors, had hit Albanian government services. All three countries have generally supported the cause of Ukraine in the present war, with Albania and Montenegro being particularly vocal in their support of extensive sanctions against Russia. Reuters describes the effects of the cyberattack against Montenegro: "'Certain services were switched off temporarily for security reasons but the security of accounts belonging to citizens and companies and their data have not been jeopardised,' Public Administration Minister Maras Dukaj said on Twitter." The state-owned power utility was among the services affected, and has switched some automated services to manual operation as a precaution.

Montenegro's attribution of the incidents to Russian cyberattack was direct and unambiguous. Metro News reports, "The Podgorica-based Agency for National Security blamed hackers based in Russia for efforts to bring down government websites, communications and transport infrastructure. Airports and border crossings could all be impacted, it warned, adding: ‘Co-ordinated Russian services are behind the cyber attack. This kind of attack was carried out for the first time in Montenegro and it has been prepared for a long period of time.'" A government spokesman said, according to an AP report cited by ABC News, "I can say with certainty that this attack that Montenegro is experiencing these days comes directly from Russia."

The challenge of containing the cyber phases of a hybrid war.

Modern Diplomacy has an essay that, while overstating the actual tactical and operational effects of cyber operations in Russia's war against Ukraine, points to the difficulty of waging cyber war in a discriminate fashion. Cyber effects easily cross borders, and the blurred lines between state and non-state actors (the essay singles out "terrorists," but might have with equal justice said "criminals") render it difficult to apply familiar principles of war involving requriements that forces operate under effective government control.

Concern about spillover isn't, however, simply a matter of academic speculation or a priori probability. Switzerland's Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) is reported to be concerned about possible Russian exploitation of Swiss servers to mount interference campaigns against Western elections. The FIS didn't comment on the report directly, saying only "Switzerland, as a European nation and as part of the western community, is a target of anti-western influence campaigns promoting the Russian narrative."