Ukraine at D+270: Rise of the Russian milbloggers.
N2K logoNov 21, 2022

Russia is feeding recent conscripts into prepared defensive positions in occupied territory. A new round of partial mobilization is rumored to be in the offing, and milbloggers seek to rally Russian public opinion by calling for a harder, more ruthless war.

Ukraine at D+270: Rise of the Russian milbloggers.

Explosions and fires have been reported over the weekend both in the vicinity of St. Petersburg (apparently a pipeline explosion, according to early reports) and in Moscow (a warehouse fire near a rail junction). The nature and causes of both events remain unclear, and whether they represent sabotage or simple accidents is unknown.

Over the last few days Russia has subjected Kherson to heavy artillery fire. There are also reports of shelling and explosions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Russia and Ukraine blame one another, and the International Atomic Energy Agency warns everyone against "playing with fire."

Russian mobilization plans.

Russia is believed, the Institute for the Study of War reports, to be preparing another round of partial mobilization to be conducted in addition to the regular annual conscript class. "Russian occupation officials and military leadership are seemingly increasingly concerned about subsequent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern Ukraine," the Institute says, and its military "continues to face exceedingly low morale and poor discipline among its forces against the backdrop of ongoing domestic backlash to partial mobilization. Russian occupation officials and forces continued to intensify filtration measures in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine and to undermine the Ukrainian national identity."

A significant augmentation to the Wagner Group in particular seems to have come from released Russian convicts. Some 23,000 of them are thought, the Telegraph writes, to have been released into the private military corporation's ranks. (About 325,000 Russian men remain in prison.)

The current state of Russia's southern withdrawal.

A review of Russia's retreat from Kherson by the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) gives it higher marks than the rout at Kharkiv. "Russia’s recent withdrawal from west of Kherson was conducted in relatively good order compared to previous major Russian retreats during the war. During the retreat, vehicle losses were likely in the tens rather than hundreds, while much kit that was left behind was successfully destroyed by Russian forces to deny it to Ukraine. This relative success is likely partially due to a more effective, single operational command under General Sergei Surovikin. However, the force remains riven by poor junior and mid-level leadership and cover-up culture. For example, in recent months two companies subordinate to the Eastern Military District fled after their commander was killed. Other officers likely lied in an attempt to cover up the incident."

Russian forces have also been preparing defenses-in-depth down into Crimea, the Telegraph reports. Crimea is a strategic objective of Ukraine's counteroffensive. The Washington Post reviews the obstacles that stand in the way of a swift reconquest; the Wall Street Journal describes how Ukraine's liberation of Kherson holds Russian lines of communication into the occupied peninsula at risk.

The MoD's Monday morning situation report describes the current situation: artillery exchanges and Russian consolidation of defensive lines in the territory it continues to occupy: "Over the last seven days, intense artillery exchanges have continued around the Svatove sector in Luhansk Oblast in north-eastern Ukraine. As on other parts of the front, Russian forces continue to prioritise constructing defensive positions, almost certainly partially manned by poorly trained mobilised reservists. With Russia’s south-western front line now more readily defendable along the east bank of the Dnipro River, the Svatove sector is likely now a more vulnerable operational flank of the Russian force. As a significant population centre within Luhansk Oblast, Russian leaders will highly likely see retaining control of Svatove as a political priority. However, commanders are likely struggling with the military realities of maintaining a credible defence, while also attempting to resource offensive operations further south in Donetsk. Both Russian defensive and offensive capability continues to be hampered by severe shortages of munitions and skilled personnel."

Implications of Russian debt issuance.

From the UK's MoD, Saturday morning. "On 16 November 2022, Russia conducted its largest ever debt issuance in a single day, raising RUB 820 (USD $13.6 billion). This is important for Russia as debt issuance is a key mechanism to sustain defence spending, which has increased significantly since the invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s declared ‘national defence’ spending for 2023 is planned at approximately RUB 5 trillion (USD $84 billion), a more than 40% increase on the preliminary 2023 budget announced in 2021. Debt issuance is expensive during periods of uncertainty. The size of this auction highly likely indicates the Russian Ministry of Finance perceives current conditions as relatively favourable but is anticipating an increasingly uncertain fiscal environment over the next year."

Despite widespread sanctions, Russia has continued to benefit from higher worldwide energy prices.

A shift in Russian influence operations.

It's focused on a domestic audience, at least for now, but a new community of quasi-independent "milbloggers" has emerged and found official encouragement, according to a report issued yesterday by the Institute for the Study of War. As a group they're hard-war and strongly nationalist in orientation. They have on occasion been critical of the war, but only insofar as they see it being waged softly or incompetently. Many of them have ties with nationalist thinkers, a number are correspondents for state media outlets, and some have recently been appointed to official positions within the government. Thus their independence is conditional. President Putin is said to have prevented the Ministry of Defense from suppressing or controlling the bloggers.

"Putin continues to double down on support for the independence of milblogger reporting even as he doubles down on efforts to mobilize the Russian population for war," the Institute writes. "These two phenomena are almost certainly related. Putin likely recognizes that the Kremlin and especially the MoD has lost whatever trust many Russians may have had in the veracity of its claims as well as the need to rely on such voices as pro-war Russians find authentic to retain support for the increasing sacrifices he is demanding. Putin’s defense of the milbloggers’ criticisms of his chosen officials is remarkable. It suggests that he sees retaining the support of at least some notable segment of the Russian population as a center of gravity for the war effort if not for the survival of his regime and that he is willing to endure critiques from a group he perceives as loyal to secure that center of gravity."

But this is also a familiar trope in Russian history. "If only the Tsar knew," patriots traditionally lamented. The fault arousing discontent lies with the wicked eunuchs around the throne, not with the strong, wise, and benevolent ruler. Watch your back, Mr. Shoigu.

Starlink, Twitter, and Ukraine's options.

Ukraine has benefited greatly from the resilience Starlink has provided its command, control, and communications since the early days of the war, and it's made intelligent use of Twitter in its influence campaigns. Officially Kyiv has expressed both gratitude and confidence that the support will continue. But Elon Musk's public behavior since his high-profile acquisition of Twitter last month has given Ukrainian authorities pause. They're looking, Breaking Defense reports, for a backup to Starlink and for counters to a feared surge in disinformation over Twitter.

Developing a cyber auxiliary.

Much of the attention given to Ukraine's methods of marshaling non-governmental actors to its cyber defense has focused on the IT Army of Ukraine, effectively an auxiliary of regular government agencies. Recorded Future describes another aspect of that defense: direct assistance received from Western tech companies. "Dozens of companies from the U.S. cybersecurity, threat intelligence and tech world – from Mandiant to Microsoft – have banded together in a kind of volunteer cyber posse, wading into the middle of the conflict without a pretense of neutrality." The companies have organized themselves as the Cyber Defense Assistance Collaboration (CDAC). Another organization of tech companies, Tech to the Rescue, is centered in Poland and has, Computing reports, rendered similar assistance to Ukraine. These modes of constructing public-private partnerships for cybersecurity, particularly in wartime, merits serious study to extract lessons learned.