Ukraine at D+81: Russian battlespace and diplomatic underachievement.
N2K logoMay 16, 2022

Kharkiv now called a Ukrainian victory, Russian milbloggers show signs of losing confidence in the quality of their army's leadership over the failed Donets river crossing. Finland and Sweden prepare for Russian cyberattacks as they approach NATO membership, and both sides in the cyber phases of the hybrid war engage in nuisance-level hacktivism.

Ukraine at D+81: Russian battlespace and diplomatic underachievement.

Ukraine claims its forces around Kharkiv have reached the Russian border.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) early Saturday situation report discussed the prospects of a plebiscite in Kherson. "The Russian-imposed military-civilian administration in Kherson announced they will ask Russia to include Kherson Region in the Russian Federation. A central part of Russia’s original invasion plan was highly likely to use rigged referendums to place the majority of Ukraine’s regions under long-term pro-Russian authority. The fact that Russia has only succeeded in imposing a pro-Russian local leadership in Kherson highlights the failure of Russia’s invasion to make progress towards its political objectives in Ukraine. If Russia carries out an accession referendum in Kherson, it will almost certainly manipulate the results to show a clear majority in favour of leaving Ukraine. Citizens in the Kherson region are likely to continue to demonstrate their opposition to Russian occupation."

Sunday morning's situation report sees stagnation in the Donbas as Russian equipment and personnel losses render effective offensive operations more difficult. "Russia’s Donbas offensive has lost momentum and fallen significantly behind schedule. Despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the past month whilst sustaining consistently high levels of attrition. Russia has now likely suffered losses of one third of the ground combat force it committed in February. These delays will almost certainly be exacerbated by the loss of critical enablers such as bridging equipment and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones. Russian bridging equipment has been in short supply throughout the conflict, slowing and restricting offensive manoeuvre. Russian UAVs are vital for tactical awareness and directing artillery, but have been vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-air capabilities. Russian forces are increasingly constrained by degraded enabling capabilities, continued low morale and reduced combat effectiveness. Many of these capabilities cannot be quickly replaced or reconstituted, and are likely to continue to hinder Russian operations in Ukraine." The Institute for the Study of War also sees shortages of trained manpower and signs of low morale, and believes Russian forces have abandoned near-term plans to consolidate control over Donetsk, concentrating on what they perceive will be a more attainable goal of tightening their occupation of Luhansk.

This morning's report from the MoD draws attention to Belarusian deployment of forces along its border with Ukraine. The MoD believes their presence is intended to draw Ukrainian units away from the active theater in the Donbas and along the Azov coast, but that a Belarusian invasion of Ukraine remains unlikely. "Following exercise activity earlier this month, Belarus has announced the deployment of special operations forces along the Ukraine border, as well as air defence, artillery and missile units to training ranges in the west of the country. The presence of Belarusian forces near the border will likely fix Ukrainian troops, so they cannot deploy in support of operations in the Donbas. Despite early speculation, to date Belarusian forces have not been directly involved in the conflict. However, Belarusian territory was used as a staging post for Russia’s initial advance on Kyiv and Chernihiv. Russia has also launched air sorties and missile strikes from Belarus. Belarusian President Lukashenko is likely balancing support for Russia’s invasion with a desire to avoid direct military participation with the risk of Western sanctions, Ukrainian retaliation and possible dissatisfaction in the Belarusian military."

Battlefield failure and popular morale.

The mauling Russia's 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade took during its failed assault crossing of the Donets on May 11th may be having a more general effect on Russian popular morale. The New York Times reports that pro-Russian military bloggers, some of them "embedded" with Russian forces, have grown sharply critical of Russian military leadership. "Perhaps most striking," the Times writes, "the Russian battlefield failure is resonating with a stable of pro-Russian war bloggers — some of whom are embedded with troops on the front line — who have reliably posted to the social network Telegram with claims of Russian success and Ukrainian cowardice." The Institute for the Study of War wrote Saturday that “The commentary by these widely read milbloggers may fuel burgeoning doubts in Russia about Russia’s prospects in this war and the competence of Russia’s military leaders.” 

Nuisance-level hacktivism in the hybrid war.

The cyber phases of the hybrid war have recently been marked for the most part by nuisance-level hacktivism. Both sides have developed characteristic attack styles. Anonymous, hacking in the Ukrainian interest under its #OpRussia hashtag, continues to dox its targets and dump the stolen data online at DDoSecrets. Hacker News summarizes the most recent targets, which seem to have been targets of opportunity:

  • SOCAR Energoresource, which operates a major refinery (Antipinsky Refinery) and a number of oilfields. Anonymous has dumped 130 GB containing about 116,500 emails.
  • Achinsk City Government. Some 7000 stolen emails amounting to about 8.5GB.
  • The Polar Branch of the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography. Essentially a fisheries regulatory agency, the Branch lost 466 GB of emails.
  • Port and Railway Projects Service of JSC UMMC, which operates the two principal coal ports. Anonymous has dumped almost 77,500 emails in a 106 GB archive.

These cyberattacks seem roughly the virtual equivalent of harassment and interdiction, and probably about as consequential as H&I fires are in kinetic combat.

On the Russian side the hacktivist style appears to have become distributed denial-of-service, directed most recently at prestige targets in retaliatory attacks. Last week the pro-Russian hacktivist group styling itself "Legion" (a Killnet affiliate) called for cyber attacks against the Eurovision song contest, which had excluded Russian artists from the competition as a gesture of disapproval of Russia's war. Reuters reports that Italian police successfully disrupted the attack, which was itself intended to interfere with voting. (Ukraine's Kalush Orchestra won the contest, in case you missed it, with their performance of "Stefania.")

Sweden and Finland move closer to NATO membership; concern over possible Russian cyberattacks rises.

Russian comment on Finland's and Sweden's approach to NATO membership has been in part grandiose and violent ("annihilation," forward deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to deter NATO aggression, etc.) but all of it has been strongly unfavorable. Neither the alliance nor the two prospective new members seem likely to be dissuaded, but the two Nordic countries (and NATO) are preparing for the possibility of Russian cyberattacks with realistic caution, the Hill reports.

Intelligence, disinformation, or wishful thinking?

Major General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine's military intelligence service, told Sky News Saturday that Russia's president was suffering from cancer, and that his illness would provide a covering justification for a coup that would remove Mr. Putin from power. "It will eventually lead to the change of leadership of the Russian Federation. This process has already been launched and they are moving into that way." When asked by Sky News if that meant a coup was in progress, General Budanov said, "Yes," adding, "They are moving in this way and it is impossible to stop it." It's impossible to evaluate the truth of his claims or the soundness of his assessment. President Putin has been rumored to be in poor health, but General Budanov's widely reported remarks are the only openly circulating reports of an imminent coup in Moscow.