Ukraine at D+32: Reverses, and management of expectations.
N2K logoMar 28, 2022

Continuing Russian combat difficulties are reported, and Western governments continue to warn against the possibility of Russian cyberattacks.

Ukraine at D+32: Reverses, and management of expectations.

Saturday's situation update from the UK's Ministry of Defence sees continuing Russian reluctance to engage in close infantry combat. "Russia continues to besiege a number of major Ukrainian cities including Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol. Russian forces are proving reluctant to engage in large scale urban infantry operations, rather preferring to rely on the indiscriminate use of air and artillery bombardments in an attempt to demoralise defending forces. It is likely Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties." The situation doesn't look much different this morning: "In the last 24 hours there has been no significant change to Russian Forces dispositions in occupied Ukraine. Ongoing logistical shortages have been compounded by a continued lack of momentum and morale amongst the Russian military, and aggressive fighting by the Ukrainians. Russia has gained most ground in the south in the vicinity of Mariupol where heavy fighting continues as Russia attempts to capture the port."

Threats, provocations, and diplomacy.

US President Biden, going off script at the end of the otherwise well-reviewed speech with which he ended his European trip, appeared to call for the removal of Russian President Putin. In the Washington Post's account:

"With nine ad-libbed words at the end of a 27-minute speech, Biden created an unwanted distraction to his otherwise forceful remarks by calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be pushed out of office. 'For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,' Biden said. It was a remarkable statement that would reverse stated U.S. policy, directly countering claims from senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have insisted regime change is not on the table. It went further than even U.S. presidents during the Cold War, and immediately reverberated around the world as world leaders, diplomats, and foreign policy experts sought to determine what Biden said, what it meant — and, if he didn’t mean it, why he said it."

The last words, while they express a sentiment any thinking person might share, were ill-advised, giving unwarranted credence to Kremlin claims that NATO is out to destroy Russia, and that Russia's illegal war of aggression is in fact strategically defensive, indeed a necessary response to an existential threat.

The Telegraph calls Mr. Biden's remarks "a gift" to Russian propaganda. But so far Russia's official responses seem to have been relatively muted. Various spokesmen concentrated on Mr. Biden's bad manners, loss of self-control, and lack of decorum, which seem to be curiously muted reactions. Such talk, the Russian representatives seem to be saying, would be an obstacle to the interpersonal mutuality they'd hope to see during any future negotiations.

Poor combat performance.

Reuters says that Ukrainian forces have gone on the offensive, and driven Russian forces farther from Kyiv. East of Kyiv, just fifteen miles from the Russian border, the Telegraph reports that the city of Trostyanets, which had for some weeks been occupied by the 4th Guards Tank Division, had been retaken, with heavy losses to the 4th Guards. The Russian division is a famous one, passing into Russian legend during the Second World War at Stalingrad and the eventual conquest of Germany.

Ukraine claimed over the weekend that another Russian general officer had been killed: Lieutenant General Yakov Rezantzev, commanding Russian forces around the southern city of Kherson. General Rezantsev gained a measure of notoriety at the war's outset by predicting complete Russian victory within hours, not days, of the commencement of combat operations. High losses among senior ranks (which the Washington Post calls "extraordinary") indicate poor troop quality, as senior officers find themselves forced to lead personally from the front. There are a few reports of Russian soldiers turning on their own officers. Colonel Yuri Medvedev is said, by Ukrainian sources (with apparent corroboration from Chechen leaders working for Russia) to have been deliberately run over by an armored vehicle.

Ukraine's smaller and reduced air force has apparently resumed close air support of its ground forces, Newsweek reports.

Russian losses and a growing shortage of soldiers.

The Russian troops deployed against Ukraine are estimated to amount to approximately 150,000. Combat losses have by all accounts except Russia's been unusually high. NATO thinks roughly 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in action so far. Ukraine's own estimate is higher: Kyiv maintains 16,000 Russians have died during the invasion. All such estimates should be treated with a degree of skepticism, and the US Department of Defense thinks NATO's estimate is on the high side. But Russia's official statement Friday that 1351 service members had died during the special military operation, while far too low for credibility, is still surprisingly high. The number of wounded is probably three times the number of killed in action. To take the lower US estimates of Russian casualties, Moscow's battlefield losses now amount to about 18% of the total force engaged over the past month, and that's not a sustainable casualty rate.

The upshot of these losses is that Russian forces are running short of personnel. The Washington Post reports that Russia is considering moving forces stationed abroad to Ukraine. These would be drawn from South Ossetia and Abkhazia (both Georgian provinces detached in the way Russia is presently seeking to detach Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine) or from Armenia, Tajikistan, and Syria. The troops in Syria especially are largely composed of "contract soldiers," volunteers-cum-mercenaries who are reckoned to be better trained and more highly motivated than the general run of the Russian army. Russia is also said (by Foreign Policy, among others) to be recruiting Syrian mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. Veterans of the Assad side in Syria's civil war, and recipients of Russian training, supply, and leadership, how such mercenaries will fare in Ukraine, if they appear at all, remains to be seen.

In the relatively near term reinforcements will have to come from such places. It's unrealistic to expect the Russian army to be able to augment its strength rapidly with fresh conscripts: it takes time to train them, and the level of training on display in Ukraine has so far been very low as it is. For the time it takes to train a soldier, consider US practices. US Army Basic Combat Training lasts about ten weeks, at which point soldiers undergo Advanced Individual Training for between four and fifty-two weeks, depending on the Military Occupational Specialty they've been assigned. At that point they join their first unit (and their unit will appreciate them, but will still reckon them to be pretty green). It's unrealistic to assume that one could call up a conscript class and push them into combat within a couple of weeks and expect battlefield success.

Is Russia managing expectations?

“The special operation is aimed at, namely, the neutral status of Ukraine, its demilitarisation, the refusal to use Nazi ideological laws that were adopted by Ukraine,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council, said shortly after "missile strikes" hit the western city of Lviv. That is, Russia's war aims remain essentially unchanged from those announced by President Putin at the beginning of the invasion.

Mr. Medvedev's remarks have been widely interpreted as walking back comments by Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi, first deputy chief of the General Staff, who said, Friday, “Our forces will focus on the main thing - the complete liberation of Donbas.” General Rudetskoi thus seemed to be managing expectations, and backing away from Russia's previously expansive ambitions for its special military operation. He did say that Russian withdrawal from key Ukrainian cities was deliberate, and that Russia could take them quickly if it so chose. Thus he offered an "I-meant-to-do-that" explanation of what most observers regard as tactical failure.

Ukraine characterized the new focus on the Donbas as indicating Russia's intention to partition Ukraine the way Korea was partitioned at the end of the Second World War.

Cyber operations in the hybrid war.

The largest Russian cyber operation of the hybrid war so far still seems to be interference with Viasat ground stations, now pretty clearly attributed to Russia's GRU military intelligence service. There was some spillover of this attack into neighboring countries.

Other parties, not directly involved, have stepped up cyberespionage during Russia's war against Ukraine, as they might be expected to do in any period of crisis and heightened tension. Chinese attempts against NATO networks, for example, are said to have risen by 116% since Russia invaded its neighbor.

C3 and electronic warfare.

Russian failure to execute the widely expected, intense cyberattacks is joined by another small mystery: why hasn't Russian electronic warfare, particularly jamming, been more in evidence? Breaking Defense reports that Ukrainian command, control, and communications have gone largely undisrupted. Why that's so isn't entirely clear, but the matter is less mysterious than Russia's failure to engage in widespread cyberattacks against Ukrainian infrastructure. Among the possible reasons (which aren't mutually exclusive) for a lack of jamming are:

  • Concern that jamming Ukrainian comms would also interfere with Russian comms. Both armies use common or adjacent portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, and jamming must be highly directional to avoid interfering with one's own forces. Such directional jamming might not be feasible when opposing forces interpenetrate one another to the extent seen in Ukraine.
  • The related difficulty of interfering with cellular communications when both sides use them.
  • A desire to continue to monitor enemy communications because intercepting them is yielding valuable intelligence.
  • The resistance of some Ukrainian tactical communications to jamming. Some of the sources Breaking Defense talked to think that Ukraine may have received enough jam-resistant radios from the West to give Russian electronic warfare units difficulties.
  • Finally, simple combat failure. This seems unlikely, since Russian electronic warfare capabilities have for decades been highly regarded, but it's a possibility, especially given the extent of the combat failures on display elsewhere.

In a related problem, Russian units are apparently making extensive use of insecure tactical communications, and that use, the Washington Post reports, has enabled Ukrainian forces to collect against and target Russian formations.

Preparing for the spread of cyberattacks.

Western governments continue to warn that Russian cyberattacks remain a real possibility, and that organizations should prepare to defend themselves. US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) director Jen Easterly put it this way to CNN over the weekend: “All businesses, all critical infrastructure owners and operators need to assume that disruptive cyber activity is something that the Russians are thinking about, that are preparing for, that are exploring options, as the President said. That’s why we are so focused on making sure that everybody understands the potential for this disruptive cyber activity. And it’s not about panic. It’s about preparation.”

Disinformation and influence operations.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy gave an interview to four "prominent" Russian television journalists yesterday, over a Zoom connection. The four journalists were not official or semi-official Kremlin mouthpieces. One was a freelancer, the other three represented Meduza, Kommersant, and TV Rain. Roskomnadzor immediately forbade any outlet from broadcasting the interview, and warned, "The media outlets conducting the interviews will be subject to scrutiny to determine the extent of responsibility and the appropriate response to be taken." Under recently passed Russian law, that appropriate response may be criminal prosecution.

Newsweek has a summary of the points the Russian communications authority found so objectionable:

  1. "Russia Is 'Stealing' Ukrainian Children, Zelensky Claims. Zelensky accused the Kremlin of removing at least 2,000 children from the hard hit, besieged city of Mariupol by force, and taking them to Russia. 'Their exact whereabouts are unknown,' he said." He also said Russia's war was "worse than a war," and represented an enduring political and cultural rupture between Russian and Ukraine.
  2. "Mariupol Is a 'Humanitarian Catastrophe.' 'The reality is this. The city is blocked by the Russian military—all entrances and exits from the city of Mariupol are blocked. The port is mined,' Zelensky said. 'There is a humanitarian catastrophe inside the city because it is impossible to go there with food, medicine and water.... 'The Russian military is shelling humanitarian convoys. They kill drivers. There is constant shelling.'"
  3. "Zelensky Offers Putin Route Out of Ukraine War. When pressed on his military strategy moving forward, and on how he envisions a military victory for Ukraine, Zelensky acknowledged that 'it is impossible to force Russia to completely liberate the territory...It will lead to World War III. I understand everything perfectly and am aware of [this]. That's why I say: it's a compromise. Return to where it all began, and there we will try to solve the issue of Donbas, the complex issue of Donbas."
  4. "Russia Forged Documents on Planned attack on Donbas. Zelensky accused the Russian government of forging documents that purportedly showed Ukraine's armed forces planned a pre-emptive strike on Donbas. Russia's defense ministry on March 9 published documents it claims shows that Ukraine was planning a military offensive against the region in March 2022."
  5. "Ukraine Won't Discuss 'De-militarization' and 'De-Nazification' on the grounds that both demands, especially the latter, are absurd.
  6. "Zelensky Outlines Potential Deal. A potential deal between Russia and Ukraine could include 'security guarantees and neutrality, the non-nuclear status of our state,' Zelensky said."

The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab reports that Kremlin-directed Telegram channels, notably Kremlin Z, are posting images and documents which, they say, indicate that Ukraine is planning to invade and recapture Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed by invasion in 2014.

Poland, and perhaps NATO as a whole, has also been accused, by a member of the Duma, of revanchist intentions with respect to the geographically isolated port city of Kaliningrad, which is surrounded by Polish territory and has been under Russian control since the end of the Second World War. The accusations were made at a relatively low level, by Duma member Maria Butina, who was last in the news when she was arrested for espionage and expelled from the United States in 2018. Ms Butina told Russian news agencies that “Nato is afraid of its aggressive independent actions. Remember, there was a campaign with fake maps, on which the Kaliningrad region was depicted as if it were not Russian territory.” Kaliningrad was, historically, the city of Königsberg in German East Prussia--it was Immanuel Kant's home town.

Further sanctions.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has added Kaspersky to its list of communications service and equipment providers who pose a threat to US national security, Reuters reports. US concerns derive from Kaspersky's obligation, under Russian law, to provide certain kinds of cooperation with the Russian government. Kaspersky's official statement Friday deplored the FCC's action as "unconstitutional" and baseless, adding, "Kaspersky will continue to assure its partners and customers on the quality and integrity of its products, and remains ready to cooperate with US government agencies to address the FCC’s and any other regulatory agency’s concerns."

Finland has suspended both passenger and freight rail service to and from Russia, Yle News reports.

Friday evening the British Ministry of Defence described further sanctions against Russia's defense sector. "The UK has sanctioned a further 65 individuals and entities with supporting links to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Among those sanctioned include Kronshtadt, Russian defence company and main producer of Russia’s Orion drone and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). These systems have been widely deployed in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Robust Ukrainian air defences [have] almost certainly limited manned flights beyond their front lines, hence Russia has highly likely been forced to use more UAVs instead. This is probably leading to greater demand for, and attrition of, these assets. These sanctions will damage Russia’s defence industrial complex and limit their ability to replace their UAV losses."