Ukraine at D+228: Ukraine advances; Russia hits civilian targets.
N2K logoOct 10, 2022

Ukrainian special operations and partisans strike at Russian rear areas as conventional forces continue to make gains. Russia strikes back with missile strikes against apartment buildings. Starlink service is reported to have been interrupted along the line of contact.

Ukraine at D+228: Ukraine advances; Russia hits civilian targets.

Kerch Bridge severely damaged; Russian lines of communication to Crimea at risk.

Early Saturday the bridge over the Kerch Strait, the road and railway that connects Crimea with Russia proper and one of President Putin's signature infrastructure projects, was severely damaged by an explosion. How the explosion occurred is unclear. The AP reports that Russian authorities say a truck bomb was responsible; the Washington Post account attributes the blast simply to a truck explosion. The Main Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee of Russia says it's opened a criminal investigation into the incident. In the Committee's account, a truck explosion "ignited seven fuel tanks on a train heading towards the Crimean Peninsula." The Committee's announcement adds, "As a result, two car spans partially collapsed." Some motor traffic was able to cross the damaged bridge later in the day, but Russian authorities acknowledge that it will be some time before the principal supply line to Crimea is back in full operation. For now, only cars will cross. Heavier traffic will have to rely on barge ferries, which Russia says it will provide.

The UK's Ministry of Defense published an appreciation of the damage Sunday morning. "Early on 08 October 2022, an explosion damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge, the road and rail crossing which links Russian-occupied Crimea and the Krasnodar region of Russia. Two of the four carriageways of the roadway have collapsed in several places over a length of approximately 250m. It is almost certain that some vehicle transits via the other two carriageways have resumed, but capacity will be seriously degraded. The extent of damage to the rail crossing is uncertain, but any serious disruption to its capacity will highly likely have a significant impact on Russia’s already strained ability to sustain its forces in southern Ukraine. The rail crossing was only opened to freight in June 2020, but the line has played a key role in moving heavy military vehicles to the southern front during the invasion. This incident will likely touch President Putin closely; it came hours after his 70th birthday, he personally sponsored and opened the bridge, and its construction contractor was his childhood friend, Arkady Rotenberg. In recent months, Putin’s former bodyguard, now commander of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolatov, has provided public assurances about the security of the bridge."

Apart from its logistical significance, the Kerch Strait Bridge was a prestige civil engineering project, intended not only to demonstrate Russian prowess at large-scale projects, but to consolidate Russia's claim to Crimea, which it occupied in a 2014 invasion. The Guardian's description of the bridge, completed only four years ago, is instructive:

"Twelve miles long and taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Kerch bridge to the occupied Crimean peninsula was the jewel in the crown of Vladimir Putin’s infrastructure projects – described in the Russian media as the 'construction of the century'.

"When the Russian president opened its road span on 15 May 2018, driving an orange Kamaz truck across the bridge, he boasted of its significance.

"'In different historical epochs, even under the tsar priests, people dreamed of building this bridge. Then they returned to this [idea] in the 1930s, the 40s, the 50s. And finally, thanks to your work and your talent, the miracle has happened.'”

Russia did not immediately blame Ukraine for the blast, and Ukrainian authorities didn't immediately claim responsibility either (although there were some expressions of satisfaction over the incident). That changed on Sunday, when Russian President Putin formally called it a Ukrainian operation. “There’s no doubt it was a terrorist act directed at the destruction of critically important civilian infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” the AP quotes Mr. Putin as saying during a meeting with the chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee. "And the authors, perpetrators, and those who ordered it are the special services of Ukraine.” Alexander Bastrykin, the chairman of that Investigative Committee, also issued a warning to any domestic dissenters. The Telegraph reports that Mr. Bastrykin said that “foreign countries” and Russian citizens were involved in the explosion. “They helped in the preparation of the terrorist attack." This suggests that a hunt for Russian dissenters may be in the offing.

The New York Times quoted a senior Ukrainian official on the explosion. Following Kyiv's policy of reticence, he doesn't directly claim responsibility, but it's difficult to read what he did say as anything other than an avowal of the operation. “The operation showed the failure of the Russian system to guarantee the security even of the most significant and sacred targets,” the source said. “The bridge is an artificial umbilical cord that connects the thief to his stolen property. All that is unnatural and obtained illegally must be and will be destroyed.”

Russian retaliation for the Kerch Bridge explosion.

In apparent immediate retaliation for the explosion on the bridge, Russian forces conducted missile strikes against an apartment complex in Zaporizhzhia, the AP reported, killing seventeen civilians and wounding dozens more. More strikes against civilian targets were feared and expected, the New York Times reported shortly thereafter. The Hill said that President Putin would convene a meeting of the Russian Security Council Monday with no set agenda, but they were expected to discuss their response to the explosion.

Further retaliation preceded that meeting. Reuters reports that Russian missile strikes hit at least ten cities, including Kyiv as well as the western cities Lviv, Ternopil and Zhytomyr, Dnipro and Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, and Kharkiv in the east. The strikes were timed for morning rush hour, and road intersections, parks, tourist sites, schools, and playgrounds were hit. According to the AP, President Putin called the systems used were "precision weapons," and that the targets were command-and-control and, especially, civilian infrastructure sites, notably water and power distribution systems. He promised harsher retaliation should there be other attacks like the one on the Kerch Bridge. Civilian casualties in the strikes are still being assessed.

The New York Times notes that Russian hard-liners were quick to applaud attacks against civilian infrastructure, support for which Kremlin propagandists have been astroturfing for weeks. (See, for example, Russian war correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky make the case for ruthless war against Ukrainian civilians. "Many people," he explained, "have a strange love for Ukrainians. They don't understand why we're destroying their infrastructure. Why do we make them angry? Look, those pigs were already angry. Even when defending, we must destroy the infrastructure. Hospitals will not work and more Ukrainians will die." Mr. Tatarsky shared his thoughts in Moscow as he attended Russia's ceremonial annexation of four Ukrainian provinces.)

It's significant that Russian retaliatory strikes in recent weeks have been conducted either with drones supplied by Iran or by long-range Russian missiles, often air-defense missiles used in their secondary ground-attack role. These are not the weapons one would choose. It suggests either shortages of other ordnance, or an inability to bring them into range, or an incapacity for close combat, or most probably a mix of all three. The Russian strikes are probably better read as a sign of weakness than of strength. And a strike against a target like the Kerch Bridge can be interpreted as a legitimate and discriminating part of an interdiction program. Hitting apartment buildings well behind the front? That's terrorism.

Belarusian President Lukashenka announced deployment of an unspecified number of troops, possibly in combination with Russian forces, into unnamed assembly areas near the border with Ukraine. He's doing so, Reuters reports, in response to the threat of Ukrainian attacks. "'Strikes on the territory of Belarus are not just being discussed in Ukraine today, but are also being planned,' Lukashenko said at a meeting on security, without providing evidence for the assertion. 'Their owners are pushing them to start a war against Belarus to drag us there. We have been preparing for this for decades. If necessary, we will respond,' Lukashenko said, adding that he had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation while at a meeting in St Petersburg." He promised "the lunatics in Kyiv" to make "Kerch Bridge look like a walk in the park" should Ukraine attack Belarus. No one but Mr. Lukashenka seems to perceive a Ukrainian threat to Belarus, but he may be under pressure from his colleague in Moscow to commit some of Belarus's 60,000 troops to Russia's war.

Ukraine's counteroffensive.

The UK Ministry of Defence, in its situation report this morning, described the continuing progress of Ukraine's counteroffensive, and a Russian spoiling attack in the vicinity of Bakhmut. "Ukrainian offensive operations continue to place pressure on Russian forces both in the north-east and in Kherson Oblast in the south. However, Russia continues to give high priority to its own offensive operations in the central Donbas sector, especially near the town of Bakhmut. Over the last week Russian forces have advanced up to 2km towards the town on two axes, coming closer to breaking into Bakhmut, which has suffered very extensive damage from shelling. These forces have likely included Wagner private military company units, including personnel recently recruited from Russian prisons. Russia’s continued efforts to progress its grinding Donbas offensive, in the face of serious threats on its operational flanks highlight the imperative to deliver operational success while also underlining the inflexible operational design which has undermined its plans thus far."

According to Reuters, Kyiv on Sunday put the total area retaken since Ukraine's counteroffensive began in late August at 1200 square kilometers. Most of the gains have been in the northeastern zone.

Ukrainian News cites a source in Kyiv's military intelligence service who claims partisan activity has increased in Russian occupied areas, especially in Crimea. The official emphasized that the partisans were operating under central direction, coordinated with conventional military operations. "There is a law of Ukraine on resistance," the source said. "It says what, where, how to do, who leads, who coordinates these issues. Accordingly, there is success: we really understand how to organize, how to support, how to coordinate all our efforts, and because of that, the partisan movement is [intense] and will only intensify."

Dissatisfaction in Moscow over the progress of the war.

This morning's missile strikes against ten Ukrainian cities were greeted with satisfaction by Russian hard-line voices, and that represents a shift in a more enduring mood of unhappiness over the conduct of the war. The UK's Ministry of Defence on Saturday described signs of nationalist dissatisfaction with Russian battlefield failure. "Following continued battlefield setbacks for Russia over the last two weeks, increasingly diverse actors within the Russian system have joined voices in criticism of the Russian MoD leadership. Critics have included Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Wagner Group private military company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, state-approved TV presenters, pop stars, and an increasingly vocal community of ultra-nationalistic military bloggers. Kadyrov and Prigozhin are likely being perceived as informal figure heads of a ‘pro-war’ bloc whose criticism hinges on arguments for greater state commitment and willingness to escalate. Both likely achieve some credibility based on the significant deployment of both Chechen and Wagner combat units on the ground. The criticism remains focused at the military high command rather than senior political leadership, but it does represent a trend of public voicing of dissent against the Russian establishment which is being at least partly tolerated and which will likely be hard to reverse."

Prominent among the critics is Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, a former FSB officer who played a role in Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea and styled himself a leader of separatist forces in the Donbas until he was removed from that position after his responsibility for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Newsweek reports that Mr. Girkin took to Telegram to denounce Russian tactics as "senseless." Mr. Kadyrov, who continues to deploy his private army to Ukraine, took back his earlier criticisms of Russian tactics after Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities. The Washington Post quotes the warlord's Telegram channel, apostrophizing Ukrainian President Zelenskyy: "“We warned you, [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky, that Russia hasn’t really started yet, so stop complaining like some hokeypokey — better run before [a missile] arrives [to you]. Now I am one hundred percent satisfied with the special military operation.”

Hard-liners expressed shock and frustration over the Kerch Bridge explosion, and called for revenge. The New York Times offered a selection of representative comments from the regime's journalists. Komsomolskaya Pravda's correspondent Aleksandr Kots called upon Russian forces to “hammer Ukraine into the 18th century, without meaningless reflection on how this will affect the civilian population.” RT's Evgeny Poddubny urged action that would put fear into Ukraine's leaders. “The enemy has stopped being afraid, and this circumstance needs to be corrected promptly,” he wrote. "Commanders of formations, heads of intelligence agencies, politicians of the Kyiv criminal regime sleep peacefully, wake up without a headache and in a good mood, without a sense of inevitability of punishment for crimes committed.” Mr. Poddubny advocated reviving the tactics used in the Chechen war as a winning formula: pursue the enemy relentlessly, and “waste them in the outhouse.”

Russian forces in Ukraine get a new boss (with a reputation as sinister as the last one's).

On Saturday Russia's Defense Ministry announced the appointment of General Sergei Surovikin as overall commander of the special military operation against Ukraine. Reuters says the Defense Ministry did not say whom (if anyone) General Surovikin would replace, but the post he's been given seems to have been unoccupied since June, when General Alexander Dvornikov was fired after less than two months on the job.

General Surovikin had been in command of the Southern Military District where he had succeeded General Alexander Dvornikov. The appointment marks the third change in senior military leadership over the course of last week. On Friday it was reported that the Eastern Military District commander, Colonel-General Alexander Chaiko, had been replaced by Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov. That followed Monday's report that Western Military District's commander, Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlyov, had been replaced by Lieutenant-General Roman Berdnikov. General Zhuravlyov had presided over the loss of Lyman to Ukraine's counteroffensive.

General Surovikin brings to his new command a reputation for both corruption and brutality. Accounts vary, but he's been in legal trouble at least twice during his career. The Guardian reports that General Surovikin has served two terms in prison for corruption. The New York Times has a more detailed account, and says that General Surovikin's first stint in jail was for six months while his (now more generally approved) role in the suppression of a 1991 coup attempt as the Soviet Union collapsed was investigated. Troops under his command killed at least three protesters in Moscow; then-Captain Surovikin was eventually released without trial. In 1995 he received a suspended sentence for corrupt sale of military equipment, a conviction that was subsequently voided. Al Jazeera says that he was responsible for the indiscriminate destruction of Aleppo during Russia's intervention in Syria. He's also a veteran of Russia's war to suppress the Chechen insurgency in the first decade of this century.

Hard-liners have expressed satisfaction at General Surovikin's appointment. The Guardian quotes Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group's founder and capo. as applauding the appointment. “Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army,” he said, calling General Surovikin a “legendary figure" who "was born to serve his motherland faithfully.” Mr. Prigozhin added, referring to the failed insurrection of 1991 by Soviet dead-enders, “Having received an order [in 1991], Surovikin was that officer who without hesitation got in his tank and went forward to save his country.” Russian political scientist and war critic Grigory Yudin tweeted a more critical appreciation of that same background: “It is highly symbolic that Sergei Surovikin, the only officer who ordered to shoot on revolutionaries in August 1991 and actually killed three people, is now in charge of this last-ditch effort to restore Soviet Union. These people knew what they were doing, and they know now."

Starlink service interruptions reported.

Ukrainian forces are said to have encountered disruption of Starlink services as they've advanced into formerly Russian occupied territory, the Financial Times reported Friday. No cause for the outages has been established, publicly, but there's been speculation that SpaceX had interfered with service in those areas to deny them to Russian operators, and that they'd hadn't been able to keep up with Ukraine's advances. There's also been speculation (described by Newsweek, Business Insider, and others) that SpaceX might have put the brakes on Starlink as part of founder Elon Musk's recent suggestions that Russia and Ukraine might be better with a negotiated peace. His suggestions, tweeted on October 3rd, that a referendum might be the solution to the conflict was well-received in Russia, very poorly received in Ukraine, generally disapproved of elsewhere, the Economist reports. For his part Mr. Musk dismissed the Financial Times' story as "bad reporting," especially insofar as it overstated the services Ukraine had bought and paid for.

For now, the reported outages remain under investigation. Starlink's early provision of Internet connectivity to Ukraine was widely regarded as crucial to blunting Russian jamming and information operations in the theater. The Washington Post reported in August that the US Government had bought and delivered more than 1,330 Starlink systems to Ukraine, and that SpaceX itself had donated about 3,670. That Ukrainian forces missed their connectivity and raised its loss as a tactical communications challenge attests to how important commercial Internet services have become to battlefield command and control.

Killnet and other nuisance-level cyberthreats to Western targets.

US states whose websites were briefly disrupted last week by Killnet remain largely closed-mouthed about their recovery, but recovery seems to have been accomplished quickly. Colorado, according to Government Technology, is back online and fully operational, but state authorities are providing few details until their investigation is complete.

Aaron Sandeen, CEO and co-founder, Cyber Security Works (and former CIO of the State of Arizona) thinks that nuisance-level attacks should serve as warnings. "This may seem like a low-level attack because of the minimal disruption Killnet caused," he wrote, "but it is proof of existing security gaps that can be exploited. Hackers are constantly evolving and creating new techniques, which means organizations need to be proactive in their security strategies. Asset discovery, continual scanning, and frequent penetration testing are all necessary actions to stay one step ahead of attackers."

Lloyd's of London has also recovered from the "unusual" incident it underwent. Russian operators have been the leading suspects on grounds of a priori probability (Lloyd's had been prominent in its practical support of sanctions against Russia, Infosecurity writes), but, as the Register points out, attribution is still up in the air.

Bundesbahn communications network sabotaged in northern Germany.

Rail travel in the north of Germany was disrupted over the weekend by sabotage that took down communications used for train control. Tagesspiegel reported that traffic in Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein was affected. The incident was one of deliberate physical sabotage--cables were cut--and remains under investigation. Bloomberg quotes German police as calling the sabotage "targeted and professional," and says that they have so far developed no clear suspects. Nonetheless initial suspicion turned to Russia. The Telegraph reports that Anton Hofreiter, a member of the Green party who chairs the Bundestag’s European affairs committee, "said the Kremlin may have issued a “warning” because of Germany’s support for Ukraine. 'To pull this off, you have to have very precise knowledge of the railway’s radio system. The question is whether we are dealing with sabotage by foreign powers,' Mr Hofreiter told the Funke newspaper group. He said 'given that the Nord Stream [gas pipeline] leaks pointed to the Kremlin, we can’t rule out that Russia could also be behind the attack on the rail services." It's still early in the investigation, but early signs point to a foreign intelligence service, and the leading suspect is Russia.

Reports: Germany's cybersecurity chief faces scrutiny over alleged ties to Russia.

Reuters reports that Arne Schoenbohm, president of the Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik (BSI), Germany's federal information security agency, is under scrutiny for contacts with Russia he may have developed through his participation in the Cyber Security Council of Germany. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser is said to be seeking his dismissal. The story is still developing.