Ukraine at D+155: A shift in momentum?
N2K logoJul 29, 2022

Russia's difficulties filling its depleted ranks (down nearly 50%, the US Intelligence Community is said to have told Congress) and its inability to advance (during what looks more like exhaustion and neutralization than it does operational pause) appear to have given Ukraine an opportunity to take back the initiative in the North, East, and, especially, the South. A look at hacktivism in the Ukrainian interest.

Ukraine at D+155: A shift in momentum?

Russia's manpower shortage.

The daily situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence early this morning sees the continuing deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries as ordinary line units as evidence of a growing manpower problem for the Russian army. "Since March, Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group has operated in eastern Ukraine in coordination with the Russian military. Wagner has likely been allocated responsibility for specific sectors of the front line, in a similar manner to normal army units.This is a significant change from the previous employment of the group since 2015, when it typically undertook missions distinct from overt, large-scale regular Russian military activity." They were, for example, the 'green men" of earlier deniable incursions into Ukraine and Syria. "This new level of integration further undermines the Russian authorities’ long-standing policy of denying links between PMCs and the Russian state. Wagner’s role has probably changed because the Russian MoD has a major shortage of combat infantry, however Wagner forces are highly unlikely to be sufficient to make a significant difference in the trajectory of the war."

There's a growing sense in Western intelligence services that Russian casualties in the present war have become unsustainably high. CNN's Marshal Cohen tweeted Wednesday that, "Biden administration officials told House lawmakers today in a classified briefing that 75,000+ Russians have been killed or wounded during the ongoing war in Ukraine. 'We were briefed that over 75,000 Russians have either been killed or wounded, which is huge. You've got incredible amounts of investment in their land forces, over 80% of their land forces are bogged down, and they're tired,' @RepSlotkin [Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat, Michigan 8th] told CNN." That's thought to be a casualty rate of approximately half the total invasion force.

The battlefield effects of fire.

The Telegraph, which repeats CNN's story, points out by way of comparison that this would be "a loss equivalent to almost the entire British Army." The New York Times is also running with the US estimates, and its story alludes to US targeting doctrine which considers a unit "neutralized" if it sustains 10% casualties (both killed and wounded) and incapable of carrying out its mission until reconstituted. 30% casualties render a unit "destroyed," that is, permanently incapable of carrying out its mission. If the US is correct in its estimates (and we say in caution that battle damage is notoriously difficult, but not impossible, to assess), a large fraction of the Russian units in contact have been neutralized. This would account for both Russian reliance on artillery (which is not normally in direct contact) and for its deployment of Wagner Group troops.

It also suggests the importance NATO-supplied 155mm howitzers and rocket launchers are likely to assume as the war enters its next phase. The Washington Post reports a growing consensus that Russia's operational pause has provided Ukraine an opportunity to take the initiative away from the invaders, and that HIMARS in particular is proving invaluable to Ukraine's incipient reversal of fortune. The BBC reports that "Soldiers on the front lines in eastern Ukraine say sophisticated Western weaponry has stalled Russia's furious bombardment." It then asks, "But is this merely a brief lull, or a sign that the tide is turning in the conflict?" If the new Western systems are used effectively in a counterfire role against Russian artillery, and if they continue to be used in a counter-logistics program, they will take away the Russian army's only effective arm, and they will compound the logistical weakness and failure already so much on display in that army's supply system. And that would be a decisive sign of a turning tide.

Hacktivism and the conduct of war.

Website Planet has published a long history of Anonymous's engagement--against Russia--in Moscow's war against Ukraine. The report stresses a few points to bear in mind while assessing hacktivist contributions to any war. There are difficulties of control and management with respect to any hacktivist activity, and Anonymous, as essentially an anarcho-syndicalist collective with no formal leadership and no reliably fixed structure, is particularly difficult to direct. Tweets of "official" declarations of war against Russia, for example, don't really lend themselves to any interpretation other than an expression of outrage. Where there are no officials, it's difficult to see how any declaration of anything could be "official." This point isn't idle: one of the foundational principles of international norms of armed conflict is that war should be entered into only by legitimate authority, and that fighting units operate under the effective command of some responsible leadership. While some hacktivist groups seem to operate under state control (and indeed, some, like Russia's Killnet, seem little more than front groups for an intelligence service, whereas others, like the now possibly retired Conti, acted as privateers in conformity at least with broad state guidelines), it would seem that Anonymous has met neither of these norms. (Anonymous probably doesn't care, but that's another matter.)

Anonymous has evolved its tactics and techniques. Website Planet lists some of the recent developments:

  • "Hacking Printers." That is, getting them to churn out "uncensored facts or anti-propaganda and pro-ukrainian messages."
  • "Using Conti Ransomware Code."
  • "Hijacking Russian Servers."
  • "Hacking The News." Mostly to say things the Kremlin would prefer remain unsaid in front of its domestic audience.
  • "Attacking Exposed Data."
  • "Targeting companies who still do business in Russia."
  • "RoboDial, SMS, and Email Spam."
  • "Holidays and important date Hacks."

The essayist is no apologist for Russia's war of aggression, but he's no fan of hacktivism, either. He offers a diagnosis of how contemporary culture, with its swift gratification and the disinhibition that affects so many of us when we're online:

"Digital information and technology has given us unrealistic expectations with instant gratification. We want results now and our smartphones have apps to shop, get a ride, date, or knowledge in a few clicks. The same logic applies to cyber activism except these individuals are breaking the law in many cases. People want instant vigilante justice and not to wait 20 years on an international court case that may never bring anyone to justice. One of the reasons people protest is because they lose faith in traditional institutions like tribunals or courts. Hacktivism allows average people to act in real time and be as destructive as they want and support a cause they believe in. This can be done from anywhere in the world and hackers can use technology to hide their location and identity from both the legal authorities and the victims they target."

The case that Russia's war is genocidal.

Two pieces on Russia's war by academics, one American, one Ukrainian, offer some perspective on the myths that animate that war. Those myths come down to a form of pan-Slavism inherited from Tsarist Russia, shaped by eight decades of Soviet power, and revived by the long retreat from the civilized world Russia has passively endured during President Putin's rule.

The first, a long essay in Foreign Affairs by Kristina Hook (a US State Department alumna, presently Assistant Professor of Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University and a former Fulbright scholar to Ukraine) lays out a convincing case that Russia's war against Ukraine is genocidal in both intent and practice, aiming at expunging Ukrainian national identity, national memory, national language, at expunging an entire nation. The Russian official view is that "Ukrainian" is an artificial construct, Those who might call themselves, and whom others (the West in particular) might consider "Ukrainians," are really just Russians, either repressed by the regime in Kyiv or living in false consciousness, and should be brought back to their true historical identity as such. These are familiar elements that inform declared Russian policy, and as tropes they figure prominently in Moscow's influence operations. Those influence operations have gained little traction in the West (expansively considered to include the developed and democratic world--thus Japan and the Republic of Korea would be "Western" countries), slightly more in Professor Chomsky's "global South" (but where they still fall far short of conviction), and much more within Russia itself.

Ukrainians who would resist such assimilation (or rescue, in the official Russian view) are damned out of their own mouths as unreconstructed Nazis. ("Nazi," it must be stressed, is meant literally. It's not a mere figurative slander.) If such unreconstructed "Ukrainians" are unmasked in the "filtration camps" (an institution pioneered by Soviet Russia as it suspiciously screened returning prisoners of war for evidence of disloyalty), their fate is likely to be grim indeed. Over a million Ukrainians are believed to have been forcibly removed to Russia proper, and (this is particularly chilling) more than 300,000 Ukrainian children have been fast-tracked for adoption by Russian parents.

The author argues that genocide, as a matter of international law, is well-established as a crime. She argues that international efforts to investigate and punish genocide in Ukraine are wholly positive, and should be maintained. They should even be expanded. Leaders should certainly come under sanction from the civilized world, as they have, but the lower ranks, the operators down to the bottom links in the chain-of-command, should also be subjected to individual sanctions, like the denial of visas to travel abroad in the civilized world. She also draws some realistic conclusions for Western policy makers. Russian cease-fire negotiations, for example, should be treated with the utmost suspicion, as such cease-fires serve in the first instance as a gift to genocidal occupation forces more unmolested time on the ground to pursue their objective. And it's unlikely that genocide on the scale currently in progress will be stopped by anything short of military defeat. That need not require a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Equipping, training, and supporting Ukrainian forces offer, she thinks, a reasonable prospect of success, if the political will in the West to deliver such assistance continues.

The case that pan-Slavism has found wayward, but sincere, expression in Mr. Putin's war.

The Ukrainians, Mr. Putin says (and some are prepared to think he may actually believe it) are really just Russians. The Slavic countries that have successfully put distance between themselves and the Russia that dominated them during the Cold War as either provinces or satellites, have been particularly aware of this, and have reacted to Russia's invasion of Ukraine with peculiar clarity. (Belarus is the lone clear outlier, with Serbia having opted for a more-or-less tepid neutrality. There's no such trimming in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Croatia, Bulgaria, etc. They see what they have to deal with.)

The second essay, by Taras Kuzio (professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy), sees Mr. Putin as having permitted himself to be misled by his own propaganda. He assumed that he would find in Ukrainians the same passivity, the same "lack of agency," he's accustomed to finding among the Russians he rules. (And indeed such routine deference to political authority, such dismissive hostility to individual thought, action, and responsibility, are vividly on display, daily, in the political discussion shows that run on Rossiya 1.) That hasn't been the case. (We note, which Professor Kuzio does not, that some of the fiercest civil resistance to the Russian occupiers has come in cities with a large, perhaps majority, Russophone population, like Kharkiv, which suggests that insular Russian lack of agency hasn't traveled well.)

It's clear that differently constructed and contradictory historical memories are in conflict. Kuzio offers a touchstone for the difference: how Stalin and the Second World War are remembered: "The growing gulf between modern Russia and Ukraine is also evident in the contrasting attitudes of the two neighboring societies toward historical memory. The Putin era has witnessed the rehabilitation of Josef Stalin in Russia and the elevation of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany into something approaching a religious cult. In contract, Ukrainians have belatedly come to terms with many of the darkest chapters of the Soviet past such as the genocidal forced famine of the 1930s that killed an estimated four million people."

The cult of the Great Patriotic War goes back to Soviet times, and modern Russia is in this, as it is in so many other things, the historical heir to the Soviet Union. That's a heritage it claims in official statements. And it's a heritage its forces are enacting on the ground.