Ukraine at D+550: Ukraine advances in Zaporizhia.
N2K logoAug 28, 2023

Various sources report that Ukraine has broken through Russian defenses in Robotyne, southern Zaporizhia oblast, and is continuing a slow advance toward objectives on the Sea of Azov. Russian hacktivist auxiliaries have briefly disrupted some trains in Poland.

Ukraine at D+550: Ukraine advances in Zaporizhia.

Ukrainian forces have broken through Russian lines at Robotyne in the southern Zaporizhia region, securing the town and continuing their advance toward the Azov coast. Al Jazeera reports that the next objective along Ukraine's axis of advance is the village of Novoprokopivka.

The Institute for the Study of War offered an assessment of Ukraine's recent offensive in its Sunday notes. "Ukrainian forces reportedly advanced in the western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast border area and in western Zaporizhia Oblast amid Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in southern and eastern Ukraine," the ISW wrote. The Russian positions in the area are established in connected trenches, dugouts, and small tunnels, all surrounded by heavily mined ground.

General Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday, according to the UPI, that Ukrainian forces had made incremental but significant advances in the southern zone. "Specifically on the axes of advance that (Ukrainian forces) are attacking right now, [Ukrainian forces] have attacked through the main defense belt," he said. The comment is significant: General Milley has consistently been very conservative in his appreciations of Ukrainian progress.

Russian responses to Ukraine's offensive.

Russia has begun to deploy paratroopers, still regarded at this stage of the war as constituting an elite, into Zaporizhia in an effort to stop the Ukrainian advance. Airborne forces have seen extensive action in the war. The extent to which they represent a more capable force than ordinary infantry is, however, at this poi

The UK's Ministry of Defence in its Saturday morning situation report describes the possibility of a Russian attack in Kupiansk-Lyman zone this fall. "The Ukrainian counter-offensive has put Russian forces under pressure in Bakhmut and southern Ukraine. Despite this, Russia’s Western Group of Forces has continued small-scale attacks in the north-east, in the Kupiansk-Lyman sector, and has made some limited local advances. As Ukraine continues to gradually gain ground in the south, Russia’s doctrine suggests that it will attempt to regain the initiative by pivoting back to an operational level offensive. Kupiansk-Lyman is one potential area for this. There is a realistic possibility Russia will increase the intensity of its offensive efforts on the Kupiansk-Lyman axis in the next two months, probably with the objective of advancing west to the Oskil River and creating a buffer zone around Luhansk Oblast."

Over the weekend Russian missile and artillery strikes killed four civilians in the Poltava and Kherson regions. Last night a wave of drones sent against Kyiv and other cities were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses.

Zapad 23 exercise canceled.

"Russia has highly likely cancelled Exercise ZAPAD (‘West’) 23, its planned ‘joint strategic exercise’ (JSE) and major annual event intended to be the culmination of the military’s training year," the UK's Ministry of Defense wrote Monday morning. "The exercise should have taken place in September 2023. From 2010 Russia ran a four-year cycle, rotating JSEs around the country. However, since 2021, Russia has based the JSE in western Russia at least every second year as it prioritises confronting what it perceives as the threat from NATO. This follows ZAPAD 21, the largest Russian exercise since Soviet times." The Zapad exercises amounted at least as much to theater as they did to training exercise, and such theater may no longer be an affordable luxury. "The Russian military’s under-performance in Ukraine has highlighted how JSEs have had limited training value and have largely been for show. Russia has likely cancelled ZAPAD 23 because too few troops and equipment are available. There is a realistic possibility that the Russian leadership is also sensitive to domestic criticism liable from running another slickly presented JSE during wartime."

Fighting in the Black Sea.

War in the Black Sea has expanded to oil and gas production platforms. The UK's Ministry of Defence reported, Sunday, "As tensions remain high in the Black Sea, skirmishes have taken place between maritime and air forces around strategically important gas and oil platforms between Crimea and Odesa. Last week, a Russian combat jet shot at a Ukrainian military small boat operating near a platform in the north-west of the sea. The platforms are operated by the Chernomorneftegaz company, which was seized by the pro-Russian occupation authorities in Crimea during the 2014 annexation. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine has struck several Russian-controlled platforms. Both Russia and Ukraine have also periodically occupied them with troops. The platforms command valuable hydrocarbon resources. However, like Snake Island to the west, they can also be used as forward deployment bases, helicopter landing sites, and to position long-range missile systems."

Update: the death of Prigozhin and the future of private military corporations.

Russian authorities on Sunday announced that DNA tests showed that the bodies recovered from last Wednesday's crash of the Embraer business jet carrying Wagner Group boss Yevgeni Prigozhin “conform to the manifest" of the flight. That is, the Russian government officially confirms that Mr. Prigozhin and the others aboard are dead.

The US Intelligence Community has said that the crash was the result of an "intentional explosion," that is, a bomb on board, and it's widely believed in the West that the crash was directed by the Russian government in retribution for the Wagner Group's short-lived mutiny. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had this to say on the matter Friday. “Right now, of course, there are lots of speculations around this plane crash and the tragic deaths of the passengers of the plane, including Yevgeny Prigozhin. Of course, in the West those speculations are put out under a certain angle, and all of it is a complete lie.” So the Russian government says the Russian government didn't do it.

President Putin has sent condolences to Mr. Prigozhin's family, the Guardian reports. President Putin's condolences and official denials of responsibility for the crash should be understood in the context of twenty years of political violence against opponents: poisonings, shootings, defenestrations, implausible suicides, and inexplicable accidents, all of which the Guardian runs through in another article.

All "volunteer formations," that is, mercenary groups, are being required to swear an oath of allegiance on the Russian flag.

Crude "cyberattack" on rail control systems stops Polish trains.

Over Friday night and into early Saturday morning, a cyberattack halted trains near the Polish city of Szczecin. An emergency radio signal was compromised and used to stop about twenty trains. Service was restored within a matter of hours. Both freight and passenger trains were affected. The BBC reports that Poland's internal security service ABW is investigating the incident.

There's widespread speculation that the incident was the work of Russian hacktivist auxiliaries. Evidence for that attribution is circumstantial but compelling. "The signals were interspersed with recording of Russia's national anthem and a speech by President Vladimir Putin." Reuters reports that Stanislaw Zaryn, a senior Polish security official, said, "For the moment, we are ruling nothing out. We know that for some months there have been attempts to destabilise the Polish state. Such attempts have been undertaken by the Russian Federation in conjunction with Belarus."

According to WIRED, the emergency stop signal was transmitted over a legacy radio-frequency system that lacks either authentication or encryption. Anyone with the right equipment--and such equipment is both cheap and readily available--can trigger an emergency stop by sending a "series of three acoustic tones at a 150.100 megahertz frequency." The biggest difficulty such a hacker might face is getting physically close enough for their signal to be within range.

It's a throwback hack of a throwback system. The ur-hackers, before people thought of hacking or talked about cybersecurity, were the phone phreaks. In the late 1960s they discovered that sending the right tone into a telephone let them make free long-distance phone calls, which back then were pricey. You needed a 2600 hertz tone to engage the old Bell System's long-distance service, and you could use two cheap musical toys to do that: the Cap’n Crunch whistle offered as a prize in boxes of the eponymous cereal did it, if you covered up the right hole before blowing. So would blowing through the detached mouthpiece of a Tonette, the song-flute well-known to generations of American elementary music students.

Influence laundering as Russia's long disinformation game.

The New York Times describes the organization of a Russian influence campaign that concentrates on the use of front groups to cultivate Western influencers who can be counted on to disseminate and amplify the Russian government's chosen narratives. The Russian services are playing a long game. "The newly declassified U.S. analysis looks at how Russian intelligence services, in particular the Federal Security Service or F.S.B., have been secretly using allies inside nominally independent organizations to spread propaganda and cultivate ties with rising leaders, efforts that are intended to play out over long periods of time." It's in some respects a familiar exercise in public diplomacy, but it differs from most of these in its use of front organizations and the cultivation of "co-optees" and what used to be called, during the Cold War, "useful idiots." A representative front organization is a nongovernmental organization, Creative Diplomacy. "The organization bills itself as a public diplomacy program for aspiring leaders to facilitate dialogue with Russia." Creative Diplomacy denies any association with the Russian government; the US government thinks otherwise.

CNN notes that the narratives prominently feature the official Russian line on the war against Ukraine (the Ukrainians are Nazis, NATO is behind the war, Russia is defending its interests and protecting oppressed ethnic Russians, etc.) but they also extend to other areas of Russian interest, notably the ongoing civil conflict in Syria. One of the lines pushed about Syria accuses the White Helmets, a volunteer humanitarian relief organization operating in opposition-controlled Syrian territory, of trafficking in human organs and of faking chemical attacks by the Assad regime's armed forces.