Ukraine at D+218: Annexation, disinformation, and infrastructure attacks.
N2K logoSep 30, 2022

President Putin, in the face of international condemnation, announces the annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. Ukraine's counteroffensive continues to make progress in the Donbas, as long-range Russian missiles resume strikes against civilian targets. The Nord Stream incident is now generally regarded as sabotage, and European concerns about attacks against energy infrastructure rise.

Ukraine at D+218: Annexation, disinformation, and infrastructure attacks.

This morning's report from the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) focuses on another logistical challenge that the MoD believes is having an effect on the Russian army's morale. "Medical provision for Russian combat troops in Ukraine is probably growing worse. Some newly mobilised Russian reservists have been ordered to source their own combat first aid supplies, with the advice that female sanitary products are a cost-effective solution. Medical training and first-aid awareness is likely poor. Some Russia troops have obtained their own modern, Western-style combat torniquets but have stowed them on their equipment using cable-ties, rather than with the Velcro provided - probably because such equipment is scarce and liable to be pilfered. This is almost certain to hamper or render impossible the timely application of torniquet care in the case of catastrophic bleeding on the battlefield. Russian troops’ lack of confidence in sufficient medical provision is almost certainly contributing to a declining state of morale and a lack of willingness to undertake offensive operations in many units in Ukraine."

In advance of today's announcement that four Ukrainian provinces would be annexed, Russian forces resumed missile strikes against Ukrainian civilian targets. A family of four was killed by a missile in Dnipro, the Globe and Mail reports, and Al Jazeera reports that at least twenty-five civilians were killed and fifty wounded in a Russian strike against a relief convoy in Zaporizhzhia. (Russia blames Ukrainian fire for the Zaporizhzhia casualties.)

Partial mobilization remains deeply unpopular in Russia.

There seems to be little to no abatement in the fear and resentment partial mobilization has induced across wide sectors of the affected Russian population. There are reports of self-inflicted wounds intended to exempt the sufferer from service at the front, the Telegraph writes, and some of these are documented in sickening video of, for example, young men getting friends' help to break arms with sledge hammers. Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian president’s office, took to Telegram to urge protest and not self-mutilation. “They mutilate themselves so as not to be mobilised," he posted, adding, “Protest is more effective. But this option is not for slaves.”

Seeking to foreclose direct flight as draft resistance, Russian authorities have begun to restrict travel in border regions near Georgia, at least. The neighboring country has become a popular refuge for those seeking to avoid the call-up.

The fissures and lack of readiness recently revealed in the Russian army run deeper than fear of conscription. An Atlantic Council essay lays out the organizational and cultural reasons behind the army's unreadiness for sustained combat against a committed enemy. There is apparently friction among contract soldiers (whom Americans would call "volunteers, that is, soldiers who sign up without being drafted), conscripts (about thirty percent of the force), reservists (only a few thousand of whom have retained even a weekend-warrior familiarity with military service), and mercenaries (like those of the Wagner Group, who increasingly play the role of enforcers against all the others). None of these problems are susceptible of quick or easy solution. Indeed, they're tougher to overcome than even the deep logistical failures that have so far been one of the defining marks of Russia's war effort. Partial mobilization may succeed in bringing additional troops into the line, but it will do so at a further cost in cohesion and combat effectiveness. More, in this case, is likely to wind up being less.

Mr. Putin announces annexation of four Ukrainian provinces.

President Putin, announcing that the people had spoken in plebiscites internationally regarded as forced and illegitimate. Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson will henceforth be integral Russian territory, he said, and any Ukrainian attempts to retake them would be met with swift and overwhelming retaliation, all the more justified, Mr. Putin explained, in that Ukrainian operations in those territories would now be simple aggression.

The speech he delivered was, as recounted in the Guardian and elsewhere, uncompromising, although he did call for "the Kyiv regime" to return to negotiations. According to the AP, Mr. Putin accused "the West" of responsibility for the war. In its "Russophobia," the West desires to "colonize" Russia, and to reduce its people to "slavery."

None of the four provinces whose annexation Mr. Putin announced are, any longer, fully controlled by Russian forces. Mr. Putin's resolve to treat the newly annexed provinces as organic parts of Russia is likely to be tested soon in the Donbas, where Ukrainian forces are completing an encirclement of Lyman (an important road and rail center) and the Russian forces that occupy the town. Bloomberg quotes defense experts who think Ukrainian capture of Lyman will place areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Russia has held since 2014 at risk.

International rejection of Russia's annexation.

The Council of Europe was quick to denounce Russian annexation of Ukrainian provinces. The Council's statement is worth quoting in full:

"We firmly reject and unequivocally condemn the illegal annexation by Russia of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. By wilfully undermining the rules-based international order and blatantly violating the fundamental rights of Ukraine to independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, core principles as enshrined in the UN Charter and international law, Russia is putting global security at risk.

"We do not and will never recognise the illegal 'referenda' that Russia has engineered as a pretext for this further violation of Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, nor their falsified and illegal results. We will never recognise this illegal annexation. These decisions are null and void and cannot produce any legal effect whatsoever. Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk are Ukraine. We call on all States and international organisations to unequivocally reject this illegal annexation.

"In the face of Russia's war of aggression as well as Moscow's latest escalation, the European Union stands resolutely with Ukraine and its people. We are unwavering in our support to Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Ukraine is exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against the Russian aggression to regain full control of its territory and has the right to liberate occupied territories within its internationally recognised borders. The nuclear threats made by the Kremlin, the military mobilisation and the strategy of seeking to falsely present Ukraine's territory as Russia's and purporting that the war may now be taking place on Russia's territory will not shake our resolve.

"We will strengthen our restrictive measures countering Russia's illegal actions. They will further increase pressure on Russia to end its war of aggression.

"We reiterate that the European Union firmly stands with Ukraine and will continue to provide strong economic, military, social and financial support to Ukraine for as long as it takes."

Speaking at a conference of Pacific Island leaders, US President Biden also denounced the plebiscites as an "absolute sham" whose results were "manufactured in Moscow." Reuters quotes him as saying, “The United States, I want to be very clear about this, United States will never, never, never recognize Russia's claims on Ukraine sovereign territory." He also said, “Russia's assault on Ukraine in pursuit of imperial ambitions is a flagrant, flagrant violation of the UN Charter, and the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The EU and the US are working, the Washington Post reports, on more stringent sanctions intended to increase the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Moscow.

NATO formally calls the Nord Stream explosions "sabotage" as fears of attacks against critical infrastructure rise.

NATO has formally declared the four explosions that severed the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea this week to have been acts of sabotage, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Atlantic Alliance stopped short of attributing them to any actor (although Russia is widely suspected), as investigation is still in progress. Euractiv quotes US Defense Secretary Austin, who said, “Until we get further information, or are able to do further analysis, we won’t speculate on who may have been responsible." That said, Western suspicion centers on Russia, and informed speculation points to a Russian naval operation. CNN cites multiple European sources as saying they observed Russian naval vessels in the area shortly before the explosions.

For its part, Russia sees no ambiguity in the situation at all. Who dunnit? The "Anglo-Saxons" dunnit, that is, the British and the Americans. "The sanctions were not enough for the Anglo-Saxons: they moved onto sabotage," Reuters quotes Mr. Putin as saying. "It is hard to believe but it is a fact that they organised the blasts on the Nord Stream international gas pipelines. They began to destroy the pan-European energy infrastructure. It is clear to everyone who benefits from this. Of course, he who benefits did it."

Physical sabotage raises concerns about cyberattacks against energy infrastructure.

There are understandably jitters in Europe about the possibility that cyberattacks might disrupt energy infrastructure as winter approaches. Finland's Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) said in its National Security Overview, published yesterday, that it's “highly likely that Russia will turn to the cyber environment over the winter.” That is, the Record explains, Russia is likely to use cyberattacks to increase pressure on Europe to abandon its support for Ukraine. 

WirtschaftsWoche wonders whether German cyber defenses are up to the task of fending off "Russian hackers," and wishes that more had been done in advance of Russia's war against Ukraine. The article surveys the threat of both direct attack and spillover collateral damage from action in Ukraine.

The Voice of America summarizes the week's warnings from Ukraine, as CERT-UA predicted a growing likelihood of Russian cyberattacks against energy targets. The US said it's seen no specific indicators that such attacks are imminent, but Defense officials note that Russia has shown a growing disposition to hit Ukrainian energy infrastructure with missile strikes.