Ukraine at D+215: Growing unrest over mobilization, and warnings of cyberattack.
N2K logoSep 27, 2022

If only President Putin knew, state propagandists say, of the mess regional authorities were making of partial mobilization, the errors would cease. Ukrainian military intelligence warns of a coming wave of Russian cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, especially the power grid.

Ukraine at D+215: Growing unrest over mobilization, and warnings of cyberattack.

Russia is reported to be massing forces near Kharkiv, perhaps in preparation for an attempt to retake the city, the Telegraph reports.

Nuclear saber-rattling continues, as former president and current security council numero Dmitry Medvedev expresses confidence that NATO would do nothing whatsoever in retaliation for Russian nuclear strikes delivered in response to Ukrainian "aggression," should Russia be driven to make such strikes. He offered some relevant speculation in his Telegram channel. ""Let's imagine that Russia is forced to use the most fearsome weapon against the Ukrainian regime which had committed a large-scale act of aggression that is dangerous for the very existence of our state," he posted. "I believe that Nato would not directly interfere in the conflict even in this scenario. The demagogues across the ocean and in Europe are not going to die in a nuclear apocalypse."

(An aside: some Western military analysts see prospective Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons as actually a potentially calming measure, an "escalate to de-escalate" move, but this probably represents wishful thinking at best. It assumes a sharp distinction between tactical and strategic weapons, and it relies too much on a game-theoretic view of military and political decision-making. Such decision-making only imperfectly resembles the functioning of an ideal market inhabited by rational actors.)

President Putin expected to announce annexation of Ukrainian territory Friday.

President Putin will address both houses of Russia's parliament Friday. The UK's Ministry of Defence thinks it likely he'll use the occasion to announce the annexation of those portions of Ukraine still under Russian occupation. "President Putin is scheduled to address both houses of the Russian parliament on Friday 30 September. There is a realistic possibility that Putin will use his address to formally announce the accession of the occupied regions of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. The referendums currently underway within these territories are scheduled to conclude on 27 September. Russia’s leaders almost certainly hope that any accession announcement will be seen as a vindication of the ‘special military operation’ and will consolidate patriotic support for the conflict. This aspiration will likely be undermined by the increasing domestic awareness of Russia’s recent battlefield sets-backs and significant unease about the partial mobilisation announced last week."

Partial mobilization difficulties continue.

Russia's central government, in the person of official spokesman Dmitry Peskov, has acknowledged that the call-up mandated by the partial mobilization decreed last week has run into difficulties, the New York Times reports. Mr. Peskov yesterday blamed regional authorities for "errors" and said the problems were being rectified. “These cases of noncompliance with the required criteria are being eliminated,” Mr. Peskov said, “and we hope that the rate of elimination will increase and all errors will be corrected.” An article in the Daily Beast by Julia Davis describes how these errors and the anger they've provoked have been denounced by the high-profile official commentariat: "Top pro-Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov and head of RT Margarita Simonyan spent much of the broadcast of the state TV show Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov complaining about the issues with the mobilization. Solovyov said, 'There are panicked calls on my phone, on Margarita’s phone, which shows that a number of people involved have forgotten how to do their jobs.'” Ms Simonyan urged Russian commanders and administrators to pay attention to small things, because small things have big consequences. She drew an analogy with the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin in 1905, when sailors grew fed up with being fed rotten meat, and she cautioned that such things could happen again.

Here's another analogy with 1905. The lament of the dissatisfied used to be, in late Tsarist times, "If only the Tsar knew!" Because problems were not the fault of the Tsar himself, but rather of the wicked advisors around the throne, of the feckless administrators out in the cities and villages. There's a similar line audible in Mr. Solovyov's chat show. As Davis summarizes, "But there was one person who received no blame, no questions, and no harsh words from Solovyov or Simonyan: Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the contrary, Simonyan praised Putin for taking 'the heavy load of responsibility' solely upon himself. Likewise, Solovyov never criticized the very person responsible for Russia’s ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine, preferring to lay the blame on everyone else involved in the process. Referring to the mobilization criteria set forth by Putin, Solovyov said that anyone not following the mandated guidelines should be subjected to “the harshest punishment.” He added, 'If someone is trying to discredit our Supreme Commander-in-Chief, I would strongly advise them not to do it.'”

A number of cities are reported to be seeing civil unrest, and according to the AP, seventeen acts of arson have been reported at government buildings involved in administering the call-up since President Putin announced it last week.

Al Jazeera reports that Russian officials have said there are as yet no plans to seal the country's borders, but there are reports of border guards stopping young men from leaving the country as they seek to avoid what has effectively become general conscription, albeit selectively enforced. There have been calls in the Duma to close the borders. “Everyone who is of conscription age should be banned from travelling abroad in the current situation,” said Sergei Tsekov, who represents Russian-occupied Crimea in the upper house of parliament. Some neighboring countries have stated their intention of providing draft refugees shelter. Some of those promises are surprising. The Moscow Times reports that Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has said his country will ensure the care and safety of Russians fleeing a "hopeless situation." "Recently we've had many people from Russia coming here," he said. "Most of them are forced to leave because of the hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue." (President Tokayev also condemned Russia's war and denounced the staged referenda on annexation in the occupied regions of Ukraine.) 

The Telegraph estimates the number who have so far fled Russia to avoid being called up at roughly 300,000, which is, of course, the number of former soldiers Mr. Putin said he intended to recall to active service. The symmetry is striking enough to arouse suspicion, but even if this figure should prove over-stated, the number of departures appears certainly to range at least into the tens of thousands. Al Jazeera notes that Central Asian and Southwest Asian countries, notably Georgia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, have become destinations for those fleeing the recall. Others have sought refuge in the Baltic States and Finland.

Ukraine's Defense Intelligence warns of coming Russian cyberattacks against infrastructure.

"The Kremlin is planning to carry out massive cyberattacks on the critical infrastructure facilities of Ukrainian enterprises and critical infrastructure institutions of Ukraine’s allies," the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Service (GUR) warned yesterday. The GUR added, "First of all, attacks will be aimed at enterprises of energy sector. The experience of cyberattacks on Ukraine's energy systems in 2015 and 2016 will be used when conducting operations." Their estimate concludes that the cyberattacks will be a combat support operation, intended to augment the effects of kinetic strikes. "By the cyberattacks, the enemy will try to increase the effect of missile strikes on electricity supply facilities, primarily in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. The occupying command is convinced that this will slow down the offensive operations of the Ukrainian Defence Forces." And Ukrainian allies, especially Poland and the Baltic States are warned to expect further distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. "The Kremlin also intends to increase the intensity of DDoS attacks on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine's closest allies, primarily Poland and the Baltic states."

Ukraine has said, and outside security experts tend to agree, that the country learned from the 2015 and 2016 cyberattacks against its power grid. Ars Technica notes the ways in which CERT-UA and its partners appear to have avoided a repeat of those attacks. It seems that a massive takedown of that grid has since become markedly more difficult and considerably less likely than it was in the middle of the last decade. Russian cyber operations have underperformed international expectations during the present war. Their most marked success--the takedown of the Viasat network in the early hours of the invasion--now seems retrospectively to have been less consequential than initially believed. The network was indeed crippled, but the target selection in this case seems to have been wayward. The evident intent was to degrade Ukrainian command and control, but Ukrainian forces used the satellite network only as a backup, and its disruption didn't, Zero Day reports, have any significant impact on military communications. The piece quotes Victor Zhora, deputy chairman and chief digital transformation officer at the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection in Ukraine. "I said that it [the Viasat takedown] had an impact… the attack resulted in outage of this service," Zhora said. "But since it was not the only service, it didn’t impact the process of coordination between forces and between state leaders and forces….There was impact. But this impact didn’t lead to the absence of communication and, correspondingly, to the absence of coordination between forces." So the cyberattack had an effect, but not the desired and anticipated payoff.