Ukraine at D+298: Saving bullets, not bodies?
N2K logoDec 19, 2022

Russia may be planning to expend manpower to conserve munitions. Ukraine warns of the prospect of a Russian winter offensive. Russia's cyber operations' negligible success probably represent a systemic problem--more severe in Russia, but not unique to Russia, either.

Ukraine at D+298: Saving bullets, not bodies?

The week opens much as last week ended: fighting in Donetsk, Russian drone strikes against Ukrainian cities (met with some success by Ukrainian air defenses), and Ukrainian cross-border strikes against targets inside Russia itself. Kherson continues to suffer especially heavily from Russian shelling.

After a visit Friday with his senior commanders (such visits have been rare) Russian President Putin is in Minsk today for talks with his Belarusian counterpart, President Lukashenka. The AP notes that it's unusual for Mr.Putin to visit Minsk (when necessary, Mr. Lukashenka usually comes to Moscow) and reports speculation that Russia is seeking further Belarusian support for its special military operation. Some observers believe he may be looking for Belarus to join in active combat, but most think that unlikely, and that Mr. Putin is probably looking for Soviet-era matériel, especially ammunition, to replace his army's depleted stocks. Mr. Lukashenka, whose seat is arguably less secure than Mr. Putin's, took pains to stress Belarusian independence prior to the meeting, the Guardian reports. “I would like to emphasise this feature once again: no one, except us, governs Belarus,” Mr. Lukashenko said. “We must always proceed from the fact that we are a sovereign state and independent.”

A major Russian ground offensive seems impractical in the near term, but senior Ukrainian officers warn that Russia may seek to reprise its original invasion, including another attempt to take Kyiv, in late February. The timing of such an offensive, should it materialize, would coincide, the Guardian notes, with the first anniversary of the invasion.

Concerns for the security of occupied Crimea.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Saturday looked at Russia's renewed campaign of missile strikes against Ukrainian civilian targets. "In recent days, there has been an uptick in Russia’s campaign of long-range strikes against Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure. The waves of strikes have largely consisted of air and maritime launched cruise missiles, but have almost certainly also included Iranian-provided uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) being launched from Russia’s Krasnodar region." The shift to Krasnodar is significant, as it suggests Russian uneasiness about the security of occupied Crimea. "Previously these UAVs had been primarily launched from locations within occupied Crimea. The change of launch site is likely due to Russian concerns about the vulnerability of Crimea, while it is also convenient for resupply from the weapons’ likely arrival point in Russia, at Astrakhan."

Addressing low morale, and making full use of convict mercenaries.

Russia has announced the formation of two "creative brigades" whose mission will be to raise the morale of troops at the front. The UK's MoD explains: "On 14 December 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced the establishment of two ‘front line creative brigades’ tasked with raising the morale of troops deployed on the ‘special military operation’.Russian media reports that the ranks will include opera singers, actors and circus performers. This follows a recent campaign by the Russian MoD to encourage the public to donate musical instruments to deployed soldiers." This kind of thing has a long and benign tradition in many armies (think, for example, of the American USO). "Military music and organised entertainment for deployed troops have a long history in many militaries but in Russia they are strongly intertwined with the Soviet-era concept of ideological political education." But the UK's MoD thinks it unlikely that the creative brigades will have much effect on the root causes of low morale. "Fragile morale almost certainly continues to be a significant vulnerability across much of the Russian force. However, soldiers’ concerns primarily focus on very high casualty rates, poor leadership, pay problems...lack of equipment and ammunition, and lack of clarity about the war’s objectives. The creative brigades’ efforts are unlikely to substantively alleviate these concerns."

The Wagner Group continues to serve as an adjunct and rival to Russian regular forces. Its tactics are increasingly designed to conserve matériel and officers at the expense of recently enlisted convict private soldiers. The officers and the tanks are reckoned as scarcer and more valuable. "Russian military proxy group Wagner continues to take a major role in attritional combat around the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut. In recent months, it has developed offensive tactics to make use of the large number of poorly trained convicts it has recruited," the UK's MoD wrote in this morning's situation report. "Individual fighters are likely issued a smart phone or tablet which shows the individual’s designated axis of advance and assault objective superimposed on commercial satellite imagery. At platoon level and above, commanders likely remain in cover and give orders over radios, informed by video feeds from small uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs). Individuals and sections are ordered to proceed on the preplanned route, often with fire-support, but less often alongside armoured vehicles. Wagner operatives who deviate from their assault routes without authorisation are likely being threatened with summary execution. These brutal tactics aim to conserve Wagner’s rare assets of experienced commanders and armoured vehicles, at the expense of the more readily available convict-recruits, which the organisation assesses as expendable."

There are other rivalries as well. There are tensions between Rosgvardia (the National Guard, which reports directly to the President) and the army proper (which is within the Ministry of Defense). These have on at least one occasion risen to the level of actual fighting.

The New York Times reports that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy are taking the prospect of sacrificial winter attacks by Russian infantry seriously, and want their allies to do so as well Ukrainian officials argue that Russian planners are likely to push masses of minimally trained foot soldiers against Ukrainian positions in the hope that superior numbers will tell.

Poor training, corruption, general logistical failure, and incompetent leadership are now generally held to have been among those root causes. The New York Times has an account of the problems crippling Russian forces since their invasion of their neighbor:

"Russian invasion plans, obtained by The New York Times, show that the military expected to sprint hundreds of miles across Ukraine and triumph within days. Officers were told to pack their dress uniforms and medals in anticipation of military parades in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

"But instead of that resounding victory, with tens of thousands of his troops killed and parts of his army in shambles after nearly 10 months of war, Mr. Putin faces something else entirely: his nation’s greatest human and strategic calamity since the collapse of the Soviet Union."

One may have utterly no sympathy for the brutality, mendacity, and cynicism of Russia's war of aggression, but at the same time recognize that the degree to which the generals and their government have betrayed Russia's soldiers is heartbreaking.

Further assessment of Russian cyber performance.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has published another paper, "Russia’s Wartime Cyber Operations in Ukraine: Military Impacts, Influences, and Implications," assessing the surprising shortfalls of Russian performance in cyberspace before and during the current war. The study refers to offensive cyber operations as "cyber fires," not unreasonably, given the way electronic attack has historically been managed by fire support coordinators, at least in US doctrine. The author, John Bateman, draws the following lessons from the war:

  • "Russian cyber “fires” (disruptive or destructive attacks) may have contributed modestly to Moscow’s initial invasion, but since then they have inflicted negligible damage on Ukrainian targets." Even here, however, traditional jamming overshadowed the results achieved by cyberattacks, even the well-known attacks against Viasat modems. "Cyber fires, although still very high relative to prewar baselines, have barely registered on the grand scale of Moscow’s military ambitions and high-intensity combat operations in Ukraine."
  • "Cyber fires have neither added meaningfully to Russia’s kinetic firepower nor performed special functions distinct from those of kinetic weapons." Here again, their effects have been lost in the noise, and none of the distinctive potential of cyberattack appears to have been attempted.
  • "Intelligence collection—not fires—has likely been the main focus of Russia’s wartime cyber operations in Ukraine, yet this too has yielded little military benefit."
  • "While many factors have constrained Moscow’s cyber effectiveness, perhaps the most important are inadequate Russian cyber capacity, weaknesses in Russia’s non-cyber institutions, and exceptional defensive efforts by Ukraine and its partners. To meaningfully influence a war of this scale, cyber operations must be conducted at a tempo that Russia apparently could sustain for only weeks at most. Moscow worsened its capacity problem by choosing to maintain or even increase its global cyber activity against non-Ukrainian targets, and by not fully leveraging cyber criminals as an auxiliary force against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military seem unwilling or unable to plan and wage war in the precise, intelligence-driven manner that is optimal for cyber operations." And Ukraine's own defenses, with substantial international support, made Ukraine an unexpectedly hard target.
  • "As the war continues, Russian intelligence collection probably represents the greatest ongoing cyber risk to Ukraine."

The study also offers advice for other countries facing hybrid war, Russian or otherwise.

The growing value of open source intelligence.

Open source intelligence, OSINT, isn't new, General Hockenhull, Commander of the UK's Strategic Command, told the Royal United Services Institute, but it's certainly risen to prominence during Russia's war against Ukraine. Commercial satellites and the overhead imagery they provide have had considerable effect on collection and the intelligence developed therefrom. Online networks have made it easy for civilians in and around the war zone to report combat information about Russian forces. General Hockenhull finds that the fusion of OSINT with secret intelligence has substantially "lifted the fog of war."

The Washington Post offers a similar discussion. Their reporting focused on the ubiquity of video. The war against Ukraine has become, in the opinion of experts the Post consulted, one of the most visually documented wars in history.