Ukraine at D+300: Solidifying allied support.
the cyberwire logoDec 21, 2022

As fighting continues in Bakhmut, both sides continue diplomatic efforts, but only with their respective friends, not one another.

Ukraine at D+300: Solidifying allied support.

The US State Department thinks it sees wavering within official Russia over whether or not to resume the offense in Ukraine. Al Jazeera reports, "There are conflicting views in Russia on whether or not to launch a renewed offensive in Ukraine, a senior US State Department official said, reiterating that Washington would keep backing Kyiv regardless of which scenario plays out." The US intends to announce a $1.8 billion military aid package for Ukraine, and that package is said to include both Patriot air defense missiles and precision-guided bombs. Congress is expected to appropriate a further $45 billion in military and economic aid for Kyiv.

Fighting continues in Bakhmut.

The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning offered observations about the fighting in Bakhmut, the oddly chosen prestige objective Russia has chosen in the Donbas. "Over the last week, Russian military and Wagner proxy forces have made small advances on the eastern edge of the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut. Russian infantry likely now has a foothold in the eastern industrial areas of the town, and at times has advanced into the residential district of the city. Street fighting is ongoing. Intense combat has occurred in the Bakhmut sector since June 2022, but the front lines have primarily been in open country around the eastern approaches to the town. The war has seen little protracted, large-scale fighting in built up areas (FIBUA) since the Russian advances into Lysychansk and Siverodonetsk in July 2022. With FIBUA demanding highly trained infantry with excellent junior level leadership, this type of combat is unlikely to favour poorly trained Wagner fighters and the Russian army’s mobilised reservists."

Mr. Zelenskyy goes to Washington.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is in Washington today, where he will meet US President Biden during the day and address a joint session of Congress this evening, the AP reports. It's Mr. Zelenskyy's first trip abroad since Russia's invasion back in February. The Telegraph notes that Russian spokesman Peskov said nothing good would come of the visit, and that continued US support would only "aggravate" the conflict.

President Zelenskyy was in Bakhmut just before his departure for Washington. His visit to the front has drawn a contrast with Russian President Putin's recent reception in honor of Russian soldiers fighting in the special military operation. The contrast is all to Mr. Putin's disadvantage: he comes across as cozened, protected, remote from battlefield realities, and indifferent to the suffering his ambitions have produced. The Telegraph reports that even Mr. Putin's supporters have begun to express dismay at their leader's lack of touch. (Similar contrast may be seen in other Russian state occasions, like the recent ceremony that recognized the award of the Putin Prize, "Knowledge," honoring excellence in education. The set prepared for the presentation looked like something designed by Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer.)

Mr. Putin returns from Minsk.

President Putin is back in Moscow after having visited his Belarusian counterpart, President Lukashenka, in Minsk. The goal of the visit was to shore up Belarusian support. Belarus has effectively been Russia's only ally in its war against Ukraine, and indeed permitted Russian forces to stage from its territory in their initial, disastrous attempt at a Blitzkrieg from the north that would have destroyed Ukraine as an independent state within days. Since then, however, its support has been less than Mr. Putin would have desired. He appears to be pressing for Belarusian forces to take an active combat role in the fighting against Ukraine, and Foreign Policy writes that there have been signs in the form of troop movements, inspections, and training exercises, that Mr. Lukashenka is considering the possibility. Ukraine is taking the threat seriously.

How much combat power Belarus could reasonably be expected to deploy is questionable. Its army is a lower-quality copy of Russia's, mired in Soviet tradition, and its soldiers (and their officers) have displayed little enthusiasm for joining Russia's war. The problems that have marked Russian battlefield failure--poor training, low morale, bad logistics, subpar equipment, and incompetent command--are likely to manifest themselves in even starker form should Belarus invade Ukraine.

That said, Defense News reports that President Lukashenka did announce Monday that Russian-supplied S400 air defense missiles and Iskander medium-range surface-to-surface missiles had been placed on "combat duty." What that means is unclear, but it indicates at least that Minsk has taken delivery of promised weapons from Moscow. “Today, we put on combat duty the S-400 complex, which you handed over to Belarus, and, most importantly, the Iskander complex, which you also, having promised it six months ago, handed over to us,” he said, apostrophizing Mr. Putin, the "you" in Mr. Lukashenka's statement. Belarus lies between Ukraine and Poland, and woofing about missile deployment may be intended more as a signal to NATO than an immediate threat to Ukraine. (And barking at Poland is better than actually fighting in Ukraine, at least, from Mr. Lukashenka's point-of-view, safer. His continuation in power requires the support of the army and the security forces. Should they be destroyed or become disaffected, the regime in Minsk would be at risk.)

Moldova may be receiving more Russian attention in cyberspace.

Balkan Insight reports that Telegram chatter posted online that represents itself as originating with Moldovan leaders is fabricated. The communications were presented as exchanged among Moldova's president and two cabinet ministers. "The ministers and the office of pro-European President Maia Sandu say the content of the alleged conversations is fake, but Iurie Turcanu, Moldova’s deputy prime minister in charge of digitalisation, said the attacks themselves are real and increasingly sophisticated." The fabricated contents suggested collusion between the government and criminal elements, and the campaign is regarded as a Russian disinformation effort.