Ukraine at D+571: Collection, sabotage, and influence.
N2K logoSep 18, 2023

Ukraine retakes key villages as Russia seeks to reconstitute an operational reserve.

Ukraine at D+571: Collection, sabotage, and influence.

Friday's round-up by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that Ukrainian forces had taken Andriivka, near Bakhmut, and had also advanced near Kishchiivka. In the fighting for Andrivka, the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade reported that it had "completely destroyed" the Russian 72nd Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade. The Ukrainian General Staff also said that operations in the western Zaporizhia Oblast were "inflicting significant losses on Russian manpower and equipment near Verbove." Local pushes continued over the weekend in the Zaporizhia Oblast, with continued advances around Kishchiivka (which Ukrainian authorities said Sunday they had secured) and a widening of the gap achieved in Russian lines around Robotyne,

The challenge of maintaining and deploying an operational reserve.

The Ukrainian offensive around Bakhmut now seems to be the latest phase of a successful diversion that's pinned Russian forces which might have been available to contest the main Ukrainian direction of attack. The ISW calls Bakhmut "an operationally sound undertaking that has fixed a large amount of Russian combat power that would otherwise have been available to reinforce Russian defenses in southern Ukraine." Specifically, "elements of two of Russia’s four Airborne (VDV) divisions and three of Russia’s four VDV separate brigades are currently defending the Bakhmut area." These forces would have otherwise constituted an operational reserve that could be committed in the Zaporizhia Oblast.

This morning the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) also remarked on the commitment and expenditure of Russian airborne forces. "Over the last two weeks, Russia has likely further reinforced the hard-pressed 58thCombined Arms Army with additional VDV airborne units on the Orikhiv axis in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. A total of at least five VDV regiments drawn from the 7th and 76th divisions are likely now concentrated within several kilometres of the frontline village of Robotyne. At full strength, such a force should constitute around 10,000 elite paratroopers. However, almost all units are highly likely dramatically under strength. The current situation is likely to be seen as highly unsatisfactory by the VDV hierarchy."

Throughout the war Russian commanders have attempted to regenerate the airborne forces as a highly mobile, striking force for offensive operations. Once again, they are being used as line infantry to augment over-stretched ground forces. "In recent days, Russian forces have likely reinforced their defences around the occupied town of Tokmak in southern Ukraine, which is approximately 16 km behind the current front line," the UK's MoD said Sunday morning. "Russia is likely deploying additional checkpoints, ‘hedgehog’ anti-tank defences and digging new trenches in the area, which is held by its 58th Combined Arms Army. Tokmak is preparing to become a lynchpin of Russia’s second main line of defences. Improvements to the town’s defences likely indicates Russia’s growing concern about Ukrainian tactical penetrations of the first main defensive line to the north."

Looking toward the war's third winter.

Saturday the UK's MoD predicted a Russian winter program against energy infrastructure. "Between October 2022 and March 2023, Russia focused long-range strikes against Ukraine’s national energy infrastructure. Air launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), especially the modern AS-23a KODIAK, were at the heart of most of these strike missions. Russia uses strategic bomber aircraft to release these munitions from deep within Russian territory. Open source reports suggest that since April 2023, ALCM expenditure rates have reduced, while Russian leaders have highlighted efforts to increase the rate of cruise missile production. Russia is therefore likely able to generate a significant stockpile of ALCMs. There is a realistic possibility Russia will again focus these weapons against Ukrainian infrastructure targets over the winter."

You can't tell the boss that...

The downside of tightly controlled messaging, especially when that messaging includes a strong narrative intended to be accepted as factual, whether it bears any relation to the truth or not, is that corrupted decision-making. The bosses who tell subordinates "I don't want to hear [fill in the blank with some report of a failure]" can be sure of one thing: they won't hear it. That's roughly the position the Russian chain-of-command finds itself in.

On Friday the ISW cited an assessment to this effect by Duma member Lieutenant General Andrei Gurulev, former Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District. General Gurulev "complained about lying within the Russian military," and said that "a culture of lying in the Russian military is the main issue preventing a Russian victory in Ukraine and claimed that false reports are leading to poor decision-making at many levels within the Russian military."

General Gurulev also complained about how effective Ukrainian air defenses have been against Russian helicopters, but that's a problem unlikely to be ameliorated by candor.

..and don't try to look like a boss yourself, either (if you know what's good for you).

The Washington Post offers an evaluation of another problem for the Russian chain-of-command. Authoritarian governments find it difficult to tolerate, still less make effective use of, competent commanders. A government by a leader who must be perceived as strong and always right is threatened by any senior officer who's achieved battlefield success. This is an old Russian problem. Stalin's purges of senior officers on the eve of the Second World War exposed the Red Army to initial disaster at the hands of the German invaders until wartime exigency frightened Stalin into allowing good officers to remain. Stalin reverted to form when the war was over, sidelining his most successful (and famous) field commander, Marshal Zhukov, and resuming purges. In the current war Generals Surovikin and Popov have been the most prominent casualties of competence. Defense Minister Shoigu retains his job because he's no threat to his boss.

The Ukrainian government is well aware of their enemy's problems with competence. "Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told The Washington Post that Surovikin’s dismissal indicated a 'severe crisis' in Russia’s strategic command. 'The disappearance of Surovikin directly indicates a temporary tactical victory for … Shoigu, as well as the continued presence of Putin’s great fear,' Podolyak said. 'The Russian president categorically does not trust any of the real generals.'” The Kremlin prizes loyalty above skill, and even tends to regard skill as incipient disloyalty.

Another thing that's read as disloyalty is, to return to the earlier point, candor. The Post quotes two students of the Russian security services and military, Mark Galeotti and Dara Massicot, on the problems this causes. “'It’s more that there is an accretional array of different dysfunctions, all of which slowly tracks down,' Galeotti said. 'If you cannot raise with your superior [that] there are some problems, it reduces the capacity of the military to learn.' One such issue that appears to be going unaddressed is the deteriorating morale among Russian forces on the front. 'Offering a difference of opinion will get you in trouble,' Massicot said. 'The effect of this is that we’ll see more distortions coming up the chain of command to where those sitting in Moscow don’t really have an appreciation for where the weak spots are on their front line.'”

More Russophone journalists report spyware attempts.

Meduza reports that three more Russian-speaking journalists, not all Russian citizens and all based outside Russia, have received warnings of possible spyware infections on their devices. The journalists work for Novaya Gazeta Europe, Novaya Gazeta Baltia, and Current Time. The spyware was NSO Group's Pegasus, and, while its deployment seems to have been in the Russian interest, it's unclear who's responsible for the infestation. The Record notes that NSO Group insists it sells only to governments who use Pegasus as a lawful intercept tool, and that Russia isn't known to be a Pegasus customer. But other governments close to Russia's are, and they may have acted on behalf of Russia. Those governments include Azerbaijan's, Kazakhstan's, and Uzbekistan's. Their relationship with Russia is complicated and uneasy, not the satellite relationship of Belarus, for example, but it's possible they may have undertaken surveillance for Moscow. It's also possible that either Latvia (where the journalists are based) or Germany (where they've traveled) is responsible, although that seems less likely. It's also possible that Russia has quietly obtained its own copies of Pegasus, either by purchase or by theft.

A Ukrainian view of cyber warfare.

SIGNAL reports that Illia Vitiuk, head of the Cyber Security Department in the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), offered a perspective on cyber warfare at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit. “What are the three main objectives of cyber attacks?" Vitiuk asked, rhetorically. "First, is to gather important intelligence; second, is destructive—when you destroy systems, digital systems and cause direct damage; and third, is psychological effect." He also dismissed the notion that Russia's hacktivists were genuinely what they represent themselves to be. "All of these groups like Killnet, Anonymous and Cyber Army of Russia with Deep Rock, etc, etc., we do believe that these are all groups created or orchestrated by the [Russian intelligence agency] GRU.”