Ukraine at D+586: Seeking narrative control.
N2K logoOct 3, 2023

Ukrainian drones hit a missile factory in Smolensk and Russia shells homes and markets around Kherson. Ukraine prepares for cyberattacks on its power grid, and the US prepares for influence operations directed at the 2024 elections.

Ukraine at D+586: Seeking narrative control.

The Institute for the Study of War reported Monday that Ukrainian forces had resumed "marginal" advances along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia border, with a continued counteroffensive in western Zaporizhia Oblast and near Bakhmut. Russian milbloggers continue to complain of poor leadership and inadequate support of units on the front. In much of the milbloggers' chatter, Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky continues to receive good press as someone who "saved" a depleted brigade by pulling from the line and giving it a respite from continuous combat.

Ukraine's GUR military intelligence service claimed a successful drone strike against a Russian factory on Sunday. The plant in Smolensk that produces Kh-59 missiles was hit by four drones.

Russian shelling hit shops, homes, and other civilian structures in Kherson yesterday, with two people reported killed.

"Foreign agent" designation as a tool of information control.

"New polling by Russia’s state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) suggests that the authorities are successfully using the ‘foreign agent’ designation as a tool to manipulate public opinion behind the state’s anti-West, pro-war narratives," the UK's Ministry of Defence wrote in this morning's situation report. "On 26 September 2023, VTsIOM reported the results of a poll of Russians’ attitudes towards people and organisations registered as ‘foreign agents’. VTsIOM claimed 61% of those surveyed said that they considered ‘foreign agents’ to be ‘traitors’ who ‘disseminate lies’ about Russia. Russia has broadened the foreign agent legislation since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The measures significantly narrow the information space within Russia, making it increasingly difficult to articulate any viewpoint, including dissenting about the war, which deviates from the official line."

The sources of Russia's war aims.

A long essay published Sunday by the Institute for the Study of War examines at length President Putin's worldview, his vision of Russian greatness, and his opportunism. "Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t invade Ukraine in 2022 because he feared NATO. He invaded because he believed that NATO was weak, that his efforts to regain control of Ukraine by other means had failed, and that installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv would be safe and easy. His aim was not to defend Russia against some non-existent threat but rather to expand Russia’s power, eradicate Ukraine’s statehood, and destroy NATO, goals he still pursues."

The essay's conclusion is sobering. "There is no path to real peace other than helping Ukraine inflict an unequivocal military defeat on Russia and then helping to rebuild Ukraine into a military and society so strong and resilient that no future Russian leader sees an opportunity like the ones Putin misperceived in 2014 and 2022. This path is achievable if the West commits to supporting Ukraine in the prolonged effort likely needed to walk down it. If the West is instead lured by the illusion of some compromise, it may end the pain for now, but only at the cost of much greater pain later. Putin has shown that he views compromise as surrender, and surrender emboldens him to reattack. This war can only end not when Putin feels that he can save face, but rather when he knows that he cannot win."

There's a useful analogy, not made by the essay, with the Axis aggression of the 1930s. Then, as now, the aggressors were animated by a sense of historical grievance and a vision of a destiny replete with power and dominance, whether in the form of Lebensraum for 300 million Germans or in the form of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere under the tutelage of the Imperial Way. Their historical grievances were rooted in a sense of betrayal, of victories lost not on the battlefield, but through perfidy or treason. At great cost decisive defeat and unconditional surrender dispelled both sets of illusions, and both Germany and Japan rejoined the civilized world.

The lesson the essay draws is that weakness is fatal, and that concessions made short of clear battlefield victory will be perceived in Moscow not as negotiation, but as surrender. "Weakness," the authors argue, "is lethal."

Kyiv prepares for Russian attacks on Ukraine's power grid.

Ukraine is preparing for winter attacks against its energy infrastructure, the Economist reports, a reprise of last winter's Russian counter-grid program. That program was dominated by kinetic attacks, and Ukraine expects more of the same over the coming months, but it's also working to increase its resilience in the face of cyberattacks against power generation and distribution, as these are also expected.

Russian disinformation expected to aim at undermining US support for Ukraine.

The US Intelligence Community expects Russia to mount influence operations directed against US support for Ukraine, the New York Times reports, Russian disinformation about NATO in general and the US and UK in particular have been common during the war, but the next round of influence operations is thought likely to be directly disruptive in concept. The US elections next year are expected to be targeted, with Russian operators seeking to support candidates unsympathetic to Ukraine, and to denigrate candidates who favor continued US support of Kyiv. Heavy use of influence washing and troll farms, directed by Russian intelligence services, is expected.