Ukraine at D+510: Assessing progress in a long war.
N2K logoJul 19, 2023

Russia begins targeting port infrastructure to stop Black Sea grain shipments. The US and UK both see slow Ukrainian progress in its counteroffensive.

Ukraine at D+510: Assessing progress in a long war.

Russian drones and cruise missiles hit the Black Sea port of Odessa for the second night as Russian seeks to cripple Ukraine's ability to export grain. The strikes are being framed by Moscow as retaliation for Ukraine's attack against the Kerch Strait Bridge.

Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty agrees with other assessments: the effects of the damage to the Kerch Strait Bridge are both logistical and psychological. Increased security for the bridge will slow traffic and impede logistics even if Russia's optimistic estimate of repair by November proves accurate. More significantly, the attack has made Crimea feel more like an active combat theater as opposed to the normal, vacation destination the Kremlin would like the occupied province to be.The bridge itself was a prestige project, a big civil engineering achievement that opened with much fanfare. Russian state television pundits are asking, now, how well it was built in the first place, and whether security for a known target was adequate. They're also openly advocating a covert operation to sink grain ships (leave aside that an openly discussed action is no longer plausibly deniable).

The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning outlined the decisions fighting in the Dnipro delta is forcing on Russian forces. "Since the start of July 2023, there has highly likely been an increase in fighting around the lower reaches of the Dnipro River. As well as intense combat on the eastern bank around the small Ukrainian bridgehead near the ruined Antonivsky Bridge, small units of Russian and Ukrainian troops have also been contesting islands in the Dnipro delta. Both sides are using small, fast motorboats, and Ukraine has successfully used tactical one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles to destroy some Russian boats. Russia faces a dilemma in deciding whether to respond to these threats by strengthening its Dnipro Group of Forces at the expense of the stretched units facing the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast." Russian forces are said to have massed approximately 100,000 troops in the vicinity of Kharkiv, probably in preparation for what amounts to a spoiling attack intended to divert Ukrainian forces from the southern sector.

A US assessment of Ukraine's counteroffensive.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday described Ukraine's counteroffensive as an effort that's making slow progress as it works through extensive Russian minefields. “They are slowly and deliberately and steadily working their way through all these minefields. It’s a very difficult fight.” And, he said, the counteroffensive is "far from a failure," and that Ukrainian forces are carefully preserving their combat power.

As far as Russia's command structure is concerned, post-Wagner, General Milley described Russia's "command-and-control apparatus at the strategic level" as "certainly confusing at best and probably challenging," The recent mutiny, poor training, and high officer casualties have, he believes significantly eroded morale within the Russian forces.

MI6 would like to talk to disaffected Russians.

In a rare public appearance this morning, Richard Moore who directs the UK's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, also gave Ukraine's counteroffensive a generally positive review, and Russian combat performance a strongly negative evaluation, saying, “there appears to be little prospect of the Russian forces regaining momentum.”

According to Reuters, he assessed the Wagner mutiny as a mark of fissures in the Russian elite, and a sign that the Russian government has become an "unstable autocracy." Moore explained, "If you look at Putin's behaviour on that day, Prigozhin started off as a traitor at breakfast, he'd been pardoned by supper and two days later he'd been invited for tea. There are some things that even the chief of MI6 find a little difficult to try and interpret. I don't think you'd need all the resources of MI6 to conclude there are deep fractures in the Russian elite around Putin." He also told Russians unhappy with the course President Putin's rule has taken that they should come and talk to MI6. "As they witness the venality, infighting and callous incompetence of their leaders ... many Russians are wrestling with the same dilemmas as their predecessors did in 1968," Moore said. "I invite them to do what others have done this past 18 months and join hands with us. Our door is always open ... Their secrets will be safe with us and together we will work to bring the bloodshed to an end."

That would be human intelligence. The AP reports that Moore also said that MI6 was using artificial intelligence to monitor and where possible disrupt the supply of weapons to Russia.

Skirmishes in the cyber phases of Russia's war.

A Russian medical laboratory has suspended services as it recovers from a ransomware attack. It's unclear, the Record reports, whether the attack was politically or financially motivated. Either is possible, as is an admixture of the two motivations. Should it prove to be an attack in the Ukrainian interest, it would be difficult to justify as a legitimate operation--medical facilities and organizations are under most circumstances prohibited targets under international norms of armed conflict.

On the Russian side, the Russian hacktivist auxiliary NoName57 is said to have claimed responsibility for distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against New Zealand's Parliament and Law Commission.

And the Russian cyber auxiliary groups UserSec and Anonymous Russia have announced a DDoS campaign against airports in the UK. Both groups announced the attack simultaneously on Telegram, stating that “Anonymous Russia is uniting for an attack on airports in Great Britain! In our sights is the sleeping international UK airport Birmingham! God save Russia!” Anonymous Russia also posted a link to which showed the airport's front page as being down. At the time of writing, however, the Birmingham site seems to be up and available.

How do you demobilize cyber forces (especially the auxiliaries)?

Friends of Europe thinks that, whatever the outcome of Russia's war proves to be, when it's over, it will be difficult to know what to do with the cyber operators on both sides. Many of them have been loosely controlled, and there's no precedent for standing down what amounts to a cyber army. "Textbook peacemaking relies on the so-called ‘DDR’ methodology: demobilisation, disarmament and repatriation," the Friends of Europe point out. "Incomplete DDR is often the fastest road to endless and nasty violence. For failing to demobilise elite navy commandos, Mexico has been plagued with the Zetas, who have turned out to become the backbone of drug rings. For failing to repatriate, eastern Congo has been an open-air nightmare for the past 30 years. For failing to properly disarm all belligerents, former participants of the Yugoslav Wars have been fuelling European gangs with all sorts of weaponry." Dismantling conventional forces can be challenging enough, but in principle the necessary steps are clear enough. But cyber forces are difficult to identify, their tools difficult to locate and disable, and both the operators and their tools can find ready postwar employment in the cyber underworld.