Ukraine at D+176: Action against rear areas.
N2K logoAug 19, 2022

Attacks against Russian rear areas continue as front lines remain static (and Russian artillery strikes against towns also continue). Western cyber forces hint at contributions to defense against Russian cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. A DDoS campaign against Estonia seems to have fizzled.

Ukraine at D+176: Action against rear areas.

"Russian strikes on residential areas of Kharkiv killed at least 12 civilians on the afternoon of 17 August 2022," this morning's situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) says, adding, "Although the front line in this sector has moved little since May, Ukraine’s second city has been one of the most consistently shelled since start of the invasion, when Russian forces probably aimed to reach the outskirts with 24 hours." The targets are selected for the most part, apparently, because they are within range of Russian artillery, and don't require that artillery to displace, to move, something Russian forces have shown little aptitude for. "Sitting around 15 km from the Russian front line, Kharkiv has suffered because it remains within range of most types of Russian artillery. Multiple rocket launchers and generally inaccurate area weapons have caused devastation across large parts of the city. Russian forces hold the Kharkiv sector relatively lightly but continue to conduct local raids and probing attacks against Ukrainian forces." The MoD sees this as an economy-of-force mission. "They are probably trying to force Ukraine to maintain significant forces on this front, to prevent them from being employed as a counter-attack force elsewhere."

Russian forces are presently effectively stalled, while Ukrainian operations against targets in the Russian rear areas continue. According to the Telegraph, at least four more major explosions have been reported at military air bases in occupied Crimea.

Once deniable "green men," they're now celebrated as patriotic heroes.

There's been a distinct change of tone in Russian state-controlled media as it reports on the Wagner Group, the contract mercenaries who've been pushed to the front in Ukraine to help redress the failure of the Russian regular army (and to help make good the army's heavy losses). The Wagner Group had formerly been kept deniable, the source of the "green men" who operated in the Russian interest on battlefields in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East, but that, the Washington Post reports, has changed. The Wagner Group is now celebrated publicly for its patriotic contribution to the special military operation. "'If before everyone pretended such people don’t exist in general … now everything is different,' wrote the administrator of Special Task Channel, a popular pro-Kremlin Telegram blog. “'t is not some vague volunteers or the general armed forces that are pushing ahead against the Ukrainian military. It’s Wagner doing it.'”

The shift in semi-official tone is probably intended in part to hype recruiting for the Wagner Group across Russia as Moscow scrambles to make good the manpower shortfalls heavy losses have produced. Grid describes the difficulties of estimating casualties in wartime, but concludes that if recent US estimates of seventy-to-eighty-thousand casualties (both killed and wounded) are in the ballpark, that would mean that Russian losses amounted to roughly half the force it committed to the invasion.

The risk of fighting around Zaporizhzhia.

Both sides of the conflict, the United Nations, and concerned governments generally are warning of the risks damage to the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia would entail. UN Secretary General António Guterres is among those calling for military units to be withdrawn from the plant--those units are Russian, and despite official Russian denials that any of its military units are in the plant, video taken on site shows otherwise. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has, the Wall Street Journal reports, been pressing the UN to help bring an end to Russian "nuclear blackmail." We noted yesterday that a correspondent for the Economist had tweeted a clip of a Russian public affairs officer warning that "Ukraine is planning a 'false flag provocation' in Zaporizhzhia (Enerhodar) power station for Aug 19. 'Russia will be blamed for the man-made catastrophe,' he warns." Ukraine and Russia have accused one another of planning a false-flag catastrophic attack on Zaporizhzhia, the New York Times reports. Russian accusations have grown progressively more elaborate and conspiratorial. According to Rossiya 1's propagandists, the US is colluding with Ukraine to conduct a devastating strike against the nuclear plant.

Killnet claims DDoS campaign against Estonia.

In retaliation for Estonia's removal of a Soviet-era war memorial (a T-34 tank) from a park in Narva this week, a large distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) incident was conducted Wednesday by the Russian hacktivist front group Killnet, Reuters reports. "'Yesterday, Estonia was subject to the most extensive cyber attacks it has faced since 2007', tweeted Luukas Ilves, undersecretary for digital transformation at Estonia's Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications." The effects were negligible. "With some brief and minor exceptions, websites remained fully available throughout the day. The attack has gone largely unnoticed in Estonia," Ilves said. The incident is reminiscent of the 2007 cyber riot conducted by Russian operators against Estonia in response to the relocation of another war memorial from a public square in Tallinn to a cemetery.

GCHQ head calls Russian cyber operations a failure.

An op-ed in the Economist by GCHQ director Sir Jeremy Fleming characterizes Russian offensive cyber operations in the present war as a failure. "We have seen the Russian state try to align and co-ordinate cyber capabilities alongside more traditional facets of military power. To date, this hybrid intent has not succeeded; the impact has been less than we (and they) expected."

Moscow's disinformation campaign has also, he says, gained little or no traction in the West (by which he means the developed world), albeit while showing signs of finding some audience in other parts of the world. "So far, President Putin has comprehensively lost the information war in Ukraine and in the West. Although that is cause for celebration, we should not underestimate how Russian disinformation is playing out elsewhere in the world. Many of the most populous countries did not agree to the un motion censuring Russia for its invasion. Public opinion in those places matters and it is influenced already by the information coming out of Russia. This is a new front to the war in Ukraine and its effects will endure at least as long as the conflict does. We must take action to confront organised state disinformation campaigns and to ensure they do not succeed in blunting international outrage over Russia’s actions."

Fleming attributes the lack of Russian success in its cyber campaigns to effective Ukrainian defensive efforts, assisted by international allies. "As we have witnessed heroic defence by Ukraine’s military, online we have arguably seen the most effective defensive cyber activity in history. Operating under sustained pressure against a very capable adversary, this team of industry, intelligence, security agencies and in some cases, citizens, has worked side by side to warn, respond and remediate." And he teases an allusion to extensive British operational support of Ukraine in cyberspace:

"An important component of our response to this situation may involve the UK’s National Cyber Force (NCF)—a partnership between GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence. This builds out from our world class cyber defence and resilience, to deliver offensive cyber capabilities. I won’t go into detail about ncf activity—stealth and ambiguity are key attributes of cyber operations.

"This secret and important work is conducted in accordance with international law and domestic legislation. It is authorised by ministers and scrutinised by judicial commissioners. It is this ethical, proportionate and legal approach that sets us apart from our adversaries and from Russia’s use of cyber capabilities in this war."

US Cyber Command concludes "hunt forward" mission in cooperation with Croatia.

The US Cyber National Mission Force (CNMF), an element of Cyber Command, has concluded what it characterizes as a successful "hunt forward" mission in conjunction with Croatia, CyberScoop reports. "The CNMF team worked alongside the Croatian Security and Intelligence Agency’s Cyber Security Centre on the operation, 'hunting on the prioritized networks of national significance and looking for malicious cyber activity and vulnerabilities.'” US Cyber Command did not explicitly connect the operation with Russia's war against Ukraine, but, as the Record points out, the Command has said that it was giving priority in its hunt-forward operations to threats linked to Russia, and other recent deployments to Eastern Europe have been avowedly conducted for defense against Russian cyber operations.