Observers offer their assessments of Russia's war against Ukraine after a hundred days of invasion. Russia shows signs of concern over the information war, and Western governments and corporations grow more open about their work for Ukraine and against Russia in cyberspace.
Ukraine at D+99: 100 days of sanguinary war.
An assessment of Russia's war, 100 days into the invasion.
The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD), in this morning's situation report, offers a harsh assessment of Russia's progress in one hundred days of war. "Today marks the 100th day since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces failed to achieve their initial objectives to seize Kyiv and Ukrainian centres of government. Staunch Ukrainian resistance and the failure to secure Hostomel airfield in the first 24 hours led to Russian offensive operations being repulsed. Following the failure of the initial plan, through false planning assumptions and poor tactical execution, Russia adapted its operational design to focus on the Donbas. Russia is now achieving tactical success in the Donbas. Russian forces have generated and maintained momentum and currently appear to hold the initiative over Ukrainian opposition. Russia controls over 90% of Luhansk Oblast and is likely to complete control in the next two weeks. Russia has achieved these recent tactical successes at significant resource cost, and by concentrating force and fires on a single part of the overall campaign. Russia has not been able to generate manoeuvre or movement on other fronts or axes, all of which have transitioned to the defensive. Measured against Russia’s original plan, none of the strategic objectives have been achieved. In order for Russia to achieve any form of success will require continued huge investment of manpower and equipment, and is likely to take considerable further time."
The MoD elaborated with commentary accompanying an animated situation map depicting the history of the special military operations. "Russia’s assault into northern Ukraine ended in a costly failure. Russia failed to implement its own principles of war. With the limited combat readiness of many units, it spread its forces too thinly without enough support from artillery and combat aircraft. Above all, it was based on wildly optimistic assessments about the welcome Russian troops would receive in Ukraine. Russia has now adopted a “strategy of attrition” and is achieving slow and costly gains in the Donbas."
Here are some essential points to understand about Russian failure and Russian success, one-hundred days into Russia's war of aggression:
- The attempt to quickly conquer Ukraine by the seizure of the capital of Kyiv and other major cities failed due to unexpectedly stiff and effective Ukrainian resistance. The Russian invasion was also not the march of flowers Moscow apparently had convinced itself to expect. Russophone Ukrainians did not greet Russian troops as liberators. Some of the fiercest resistance was in eastern border cities like Kharkiv, which have a largely ethnic Russian population.
- During the failed first phase of its war, Russian forces showed themselves incapable of establishing air supremacy, and of executing combined arms ground operations, especially operations that required effective, decisive maneuver. They also demonstrated an inability to communicate commander's intent to lower levels, and, indeed, exhibited a general failure of junior and mid-grade leadership. Russia's top-down command style has shown its limitations in poor equipment maintenance, low-levels of training in what should have been its best-prepared forces, tactical inflexibility, and surprisingly inept logistics. High casualty levels among senior officers confirm that these are all problems: generals who find it necessary to command from the front because they can't get orders understood or executed without direct personal intervention are at great risk on the battlefield.
- The second phase of the war showed a significant trimming of objectives, which are now largely restricted to the Donbas, large portions of which Russia already controlled, and the Azov coast adjacent to the already occupied Crimea. These regions are all within effective range of Russian artillery. Much of the contested Donbas is within range of Russian artillery firing from positions inside Russia proper. Tactics have also changed. Russian forces can mass artillery, provided it doesn't have to move very far or very fast, and intense, indiscriminate artillery fire can level cities, which maneuver forces can then enter without requiring complicated command and control. This is the pattern now being followed in the slow reduction of cities in the Donbas.
- Russia's army is likely to be able to continue such operations in the Donbas until such time as counterfire deprives it of its artillery as anti-tank weapons have deprived it of much of its armor. Whether Ukraine proves able effectively to use 155mm gun-howitzers, HIMARS rockets, and counterbattery radars supplied by the US, the UK, and Canada will be decisive in the next phase of the war. Artillery is the only Russian arm that's working more-or-less as advertised and expected; if they lose their artillery, they've lost.
- Much-feared Russian cyber and electronic warfare have not been decisive or even particularly important factors, tactically or operationally.
Media matters: Moscow wants attention to be paid.
Russia wants the rest of the world to take its official and semi-official sources seriously, and wants the civilized world to treat Russia's outlets (and their output) with proper respect. Foreign MInistry spokeswoman Maria Zakhaova "If the work of the Russian media - operators and journalists - is not normalized in the United States, the most stringent measures will inevitably follow," Reuters quotes her as saying, today. She added, "To this end, on Monday, June 6, the heads of the Moscow offices of all American media will be invited to the press centre of the Russian Foreign Ministry to explain to them the consequences of their government's hostile line in the media sphere. We look forward to it."
Western support for Ukraine in cyberspace.
The commander of US Cyber Command, General Paul Nakasone, told Sky News this week that, “We’ve conducted a series of operations across the full spectrum; offensive, defensive, [and] information operations," and that clearly was not an off-the-cuff remark, or a case of a senior officer thinking with his mouth open: there's been no clarification along the lines of what-the-general-meant-was, still less any retraction. CNN reports that "A spokesperson for the command did not dispute the accuracy of the article but declined to elaborate on what the command’s operations in Ukraine have entailed." A senior US official, speaking anonymously with CNN, said that the US was comfortable letting Moscow know that the US was active against Russian interests in cyberspace. It complicates an already difficult war for Russia, and it induces considerable uncertainty into Russian planning. They're not sure what the US is capable of or willing to do, and they're uncomfortable with not knowing.
The Western private sector has also made contributions to defense against Russia's threat to Eastern and Central Europe. Google today published an overview of the steps it's taken to help improve security in the region. The company's announcement expresses gratitude for the peace prize it received from Ukraine's government at Davos, and then discusses its activity elsewhere: "To build on our efforts, we are expanding our cybersecurity partnerships and investment in Central and Eastern Europe. Last month, a delegation of our top security engineers and leaders met with organizations and individuals in Czechia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia - they trained high risk groups, distributed security keys, engaged in technical discussions with government experts, and supported local businesses in shoring up their defenses."
In addition to the intelligence reporting by Google's Threat Analysis Group, the company has also provided direct security support to individuals and organizations at particular risk:
"To help address these threats, our high-risk user team conducted workshops throughout the region for dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), publishers and journalists, including groups and individuals sanctioned by the Kremlin. We distributed around 1,000 security keys - the strongest form of authentication - and trained over 30 high risk user groups on account security. We also launched, in collaboration with Jigsaw, the Protect Your Democracy Toolkit, which provides free tools and expertise to democratic institutions and civil society.
"We heard directly from high-risk organizations like the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, NGOs supporting refugees and exiled activists, and leading publishers across Europe who told us just how critical Google's no-cost security tools, like the Advanced Protection Program and Project Shield, are to keeping them safe online. We are grateful for their valuable insights to inform future product development."
And Western nations remain on alert for Russian cyberattacks.
While the crippling Russian cyberattacks against infrastructure that were widely feared haven't materialized, the US Justice Department remains focused on the cyber threat from Russia. "At DOJ, we’re particularly focused right now on the cyberthreat from Russia," the Voice of America quotes Matthew Olsen, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division. "And we are bracing for the possibility of more attacks." A great deal of the Russian combat load in cyberspace is being carried by Moscow-aligned (and tolerated, and enabled) cybercriminal gangs, especially extortionists.