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Defense & Security
Ukrainian soldier at a tank wreckage

As war in Ukraine enters third year, 3 issues could decide its outcome: Supplies, information and politics

by Tara D. Sonenshine

In retrospect, there was perhaps nothing surprising about Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Vladimir Putin’s intentions were, after all, hiding in plain sight and signaled in the months running up to the incursion. What could not be foreseen, however, is where the conflict finds itself now. Heading into its third year, the war has become bogged down: Neither is it a stalemate, nor does it look like either side could make dramatic advances any time soon. Russia appears to be on the ascendancy, having secured the latest major battlefield victory, but Ukrainian fighters have exceeded military expectations with their doggedness in the past, and may do so again. But as a foreign policy expert and former journalist who spent many years covering Russia, I share the view of those who argue that the conflict is potentially at a pivotal point: If Washington does not continue to fully support President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his military, then Ukraine’s very survival could be at risk. I believe it would also jeopardize America’s leadership in the world and global security. How the conflict develops during the rest of 2024 will depend on many factors, but three may be key: supplies, information and political will. The supplies race Russia and Ukraine are locked in a race to resupply its war resources – not just in terms of soldiers, but also ammunition and missiles. Both sides are desperately trying to shore up the number of soldiers it can deploy. In December 2023, Putin ordered his generals to increase troop numbers by nearly 170,000, taking the total number of soldiers to 1.32 million. Meanwhile, Ukraine is said to be looking at plans to increase its military by 500,000 troops. Of course, here, Russia has the advantage of being able to draw on a population more than three times that of Ukraine. Also, whereas Putin can simply order up more troops, Zelenskyy must get measures approved through parliament. Aside from personnel, there is also the need for a steady supply of weapons and ammunition – and there have been reports that both sides are struggling to maintain sufficient levels. Russia appears particularly eager to boost its number of ballistic missiles, as they are better equipped for countering Ukraine air defense systems despite being slower than cruise missiles. Increasingly, Moscow appears to be looking to North Korea and Iran as suppliers. After Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, visited Russia in 2023, the U.S. accused Pyongyang of supplying Russia with ballistic missiles. Iran, meanwhile, has delivered to Russia a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and drones. Ukraine, meanwhile, is dependent on foreign military equipment. Supplies were stronger at the beginning of the war, but since then, Ukraine’s military has suffered from the slow, bureaucratic nature of NATO and U.S. deliveries. It wasn’t, for example, until the summer of 2023 that the U.S. approved Europe’s request to provide F-16s to Ukraine. Ukraine needs more of everything, including air defense munitions, artillery shells, tanks and missile systems. It is also running short of medical supplies and has seen hospital shortages of drugs at a time when rampant infections are proving resistant to antibiotics. Perhaps the biggest factor that remains in Russia’s favor when it comes to supplies is the onerous restrictions placed on Ukraine from the West, limiting its ability to attack Russian territory with U.S. or NATO equipment to avoid a wider war. For example, the Ukrainian military had a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System with a 50-mile range that could hit targets inside Russia, but it modified the range to keep the U.S. military satisfied that it would not cross a Russian red line. If this policy could be relaxed, that might be a game changer for Ukraine, although it would raise the stakes for the U.S. The information war The Ukraine conflict is also a war of messaging. To this end, Putin uses propaganda to bolster support for the campaign at home, while undermining support for Ukraine elsewhere – for example, by planting stories in Europe that cause disenchantment with the war. One outrageous claim in the early weeks of the war was that Zelenskyy had taken his own life. The rumor came from pro-Russia online operatives as part of an aggressive effort to harm Ukrainian morale, according to cybersecurity firm Mandiant. More recently, in France, stories appeared that questioned the value of assistance to Ukraine and reminded the public of the negative impact of Russian sanctions on the French. Stirring dissent in this way is a classic Putin play to raise doubts. And investigative reporting points toward a disinformation network being run out of the Kremlin, which includes social media bots deployed on Ukrainian sites spreading stories of Zelenskyy’s team being corrupt and warning that the war would go badly. Given that Putin controls the Russian media and is quick to crack down on dissent, it is hard to really know what Russians think. But one reputable polling agency recently reported strong support in Russia for both Putin and the war in Ukraine. Ukrainians, too, still support the fight against Russia, polling shows. But some war fatigue has no doubt lowered morale. There are other signs of domestic strain in Ukraine. At the end of 2023, tensions grew between Zelenskyy and his top military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny who had complained about weaponry. Zelenskyy ended up firing the military chief, risking political backlash and underscoring that not all is well in the top chain of command. Should disunity and war fatigue continue into the war’s third year, it could serious impair Ukraine’s ability to fight back against a resurgent Russian offensive. The politics of conflict But it isn’t just domestic politics in Ukraine and Russia that will decide the outcome of the war. U.S. politics and European unity could be a factor in 2024 in determining the future of this conflict. In the U.S., Ukraine aid has become politicized – with aid to Ukraine becoming an increasingly partisan issue. In early February, the Senate finally passed an emergency aid bill for Ukraine and Israel that would see US$60.1 billion go to Kyiv. But the bill’s fate in the House is unknown. And the looming 2024 presidential elections could complicate matters further. Former president Donald Trump has made no secret of his aversion to aid packages over loans, calling them “stupid,” and has long argued that Americans shouldn’t be footing the bill for the conflict. Recently, he has made bombastic statements about NATO and threatened not to adhere to the alliance’s commitment to protect members if they were attacked by Russia. And uncertainty about American assistance could leave Europe carrying more of the financial load. European Union members have had to absorb the majority of the 6.3 million Ukrainians who have fled the country since the beginning of the conflict. And that puts a strain on resources. European oil needs also suffer from the sanctions against Russian companies. Whether these potential war determinants – supplies, information and politics – mean that the Ukraine war will not be entering a fourth year in 12 months time, however, is far from certain. In fact, one thing that does appear clear is that the war that some predicted would be over in weeks looks set to continue for some time still.

Defense & Security
Vladimir Putin at United Russia congress

Russia's fateful triangle

by FAES Analysis Group

The news of the death of Alexei Navalny, a symbol of the political opposition to Vladimir Putin's regime, in a prison 60 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, has shocked Western public opinion, but comes as no surprise. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has resorted to the physical elimination of his political opponents as a tool to stay in power and terrorize the opposition. First he used it against the oligarchs who enriched themselves during Boris Yeltsin's two presidential terms. Then journalists, such as Anna Politovskaya, who criticized him and reported on the Chechen war, were murdered. Then Boris Nemtsov on the Kremlin bridge in 2015, while numerous other opposition politicians were imprisoned. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, several people who opposed the invasion have "committed suicide". Navalny, who had already in 2020 been poisoned with novichok, a chemical nerve agent to whose use only high-ranking government or military officials can have access, had defined Putin's United Russia party as that "of criminals and thieves". He was also the driving force behind the massive anti-regime demonstrations during the winter of 2011-2012 (the largest so far), over alleged electoral fraud in regional elections. The most defiant figure to Putin's regime, Navalny has paid with his life for the one message he insisted on sending to Russians: that they should fight for freedom. Navalny's death is yet another symptom of what is really happening in Putin's Russia. The next presidential elections will be held March 15-17. Putin is certain to win them. The disappearance of the political opposition to the Russian regime has not translated into a mass protest of the population nor - more importantly - into a vote against the government. Boris Nadezdin, baptized by Western journalists as "the candidate for peace" will not be able to run in the elections because the Russian Supreme Court has upheld the decision, taken by the Central Electoral Commission, to invalidate 100,000 signatures endorsing his candidacy, under the generic pretext of "irregularities". Nadezdin advocates an immediate truce and a transition to peace negotiations in trilateral format involving Russia, Ukraine and the West. According to him, the decision on the fate of the territories annexed by Russia should be based on the will of the people who lived there before the conflict. The war in Ukraine, now entering its third year, is the cause of the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West and Russia's growing dependence on the "axis of the sanctioned" (North Korea, Iran and China). Ukraine is losing on the battlefield due to lack of ammunition and war fatigue affecting both its own population and its allies. The prospect of Donald Trump's victory in November this year further darkens its future, as NATO countries will not be able to overcome an eventual suspension of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, as the alliance's secretary general has warned. The war is turning into a competition between the Western and Russian military industries. If Europe does not wake up, Ukraine and its allies will lose everything that Kiev has so far gained, thus fulfilling Russia's goal of turning its neighboring country into a failed state. The Western allies had managed to provide Ukraine with significant political, military and economic support during the two years of war. However, it is not so clear that they are prepared for a long war nor for the containment and deterrence of Russia, although it is well known that investing in deterrence is always cheaper than investing in open warfare. Navalny's death, Putin's electoral victory and the long duration of the war in Ukraine are the fateful triangle that the Kremlin now opposes to the West, a triangle strengthened by the shameful silence of the majority of the Russian population, a silence that is a consequence of the tyranny and information manipulation carried out by the regime, but also of its political apathy.

Defense & Security
Russian and Iranian flags on matching puzzle pieces

Increased Iran-Russia Military Cooperation After the Ukraine Invasion: Impact of US/Western Sanctions

by Ian Dudgeon

Iran and Russia have entered a closer political, economic, and military relationship during the past two years, the trigger widely seen as the upsurge in defence cooperation following Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This new relationship, described variously as a strategic alignment or strategic partnership, was seen by both Tehran and Moscow as necessary to meet mutual and separate critical national needs due to the restrictive effects on both of US and Western sanctions. Iran’s international affairs, since its 1979 Islamic revolution, have been largely shaped by two factors. The first is Iran’s strong adherence to national autonomy, maximum self-sufficiency, and non-alignment. The latter has included, as far as practical, a balance between East and West, or today, Global South and Global West. However, Iranians are cautious about trusting others. While, therefore, a strategic alignment with Russia, or potentially others, could be acceptable, a formal alliance that compromise’s autonomy, would not. The second factor is Iran’s relationship with the US, and in turn with Europe, other Western countries and the UN, and their use of sanctions to deter or change international adversarial differences. Iran-US relations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution have been tense and conflicted, and especially with Iranian-supported regional state and non-state militia. Major US concerns include Iran’s support for “state and non-state terrorism,” human rights abuses, missile development, and their potential, some say intent, to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Decades of broadly-based US sanctions, along with EU and UN sanctions, the latter mostly nuclear related, have strongly impacted the nation. The one short period of Iran-US rapprochement commenced in 2016 when President Barack Obama successfully brought Iran onboard as a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA) or nuclear agreement. Obama’s aim was to firstly resolve the nuclear issue and use this as the stepping-stone to negotiations on other regional security issues. But this two-step process was undone by President Donald Trump‘s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose US primary and secondary sanctions. Trump’s action, and President Joe Biden’s subsequent “failure” to rejoin the JCPOA and repeal related US sanctions, bitterly disappointed a large cast of international stakeholders, including Iran’s moderates and other JCPOA signatories. For Iran, the US could not be trusted to seriously seek rapprochement and repeal US sanctions either before, or foreseeably after, this year’s US presidential elections. This distrust extended also to the Europeans and others who would continue to remain subject to US secondary sanctions. Iran saw its future fundamentally with countries that were willing to openly trade with them, notwithstanding US sanctions, and other countries or organisations that were prepared to overlook or actively circumvent or evade sanctions. Multilateral outreach included Iran joining two major non-aligned groups in 2023, the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and BRICS+6 (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa + 6). These comprise some 40 percent and 46 percent respectively of the world’s population, and some 20 percent and 30 percent of global GDP. BRICS also includes some 40 percent of global oil production. Key members of both include Russia, China, and India. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are part of the “+6 members” of BRICS, and are also Dialogue Partners of the SCO. Both organisations offer significant additional political and economic networking opportunities and economic options. Bilaterally, the relationship between Tehran and Moscow, from its imperialist Shah/Tsar and post-revolutionary Iran and USSR/Russia iterations to the late 1980s, has had its share of tensions and conflict, including territorial disputes. The past 30-year period from the early 1990s to 2021, however, has been relatively stable. Geographic proximity, including a maritime border across the Caspian Sea, facilitated a significant increase in trade, reportedly from some US$1 billion in 2005 to US$3.3 billion in 2021. Mutual security interests also saw an increase in regional military cooperation, including joint operations against ISIS in Syria, and increased Russian sales of military equipment to Iran. The relationship changed significantly in early 2022 due to Russia’s increased military equipment needs, and to help offset the broad impact of sanctions imposed by the US, the EU, and others on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Militarily, increased Iranian defence sales to Russia have included a range of munitions, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) systems, and potentially Iranian short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). The UAV deal includes the construction of a factory for manufacturing thousands of Iranian drones in Russia’s Tartarstan province. In return Russia has sold, or agreed to sell, to Iran a range of advanced weapons systems, including the S-400 air-defence missile, helicopters, and SU 34 fighters. Enhanced cyber and satellite cooperation was also agreed. Russia has also passed to Iran many of the high technology Western weapons systems captured in Ukraine, enabling Iran to evaluate, copy, and develop counter-measures. Significantly, this new level of Iranian-Russian cooperation has lifted the military capability of both, with implications for the Middle East and Ukraine respectively. But how effective have the sanctions been? Iran has been subject to harsh sanctions since 1979, and developed a “resistance economy” involving official and extensive unofficial trade and financing arrangements. Because many related statistics are unreliable or unavailable, official GDP estimates may be highly inaccurate. Importantly, however, and despite fluctuations, the World Bank shows a consistent decline in Iran’s GDP since 1979. For Russia, due to shifting markets and higher prices for oil since early 2022, their GDP contracted some 2 percent only that year compared to a prediction of more than 11 percent, and has mostly recovered since. Economically, despite the challenges of sanctions, bilateral cooperation is strong, both economies still function, and their governments remain stable. Militarily, sanctions have facilitated closer cooperation between Iran and Russia, contrary to US, NATO, and allied interests. Are there areas for the US to negotiate the lifting of sanctions with Iran and Russia? US priorities for Iran could include rejoining the JCPOA, facilitating a reduction or cessation of state and non-state militia attacks against regional Israeli, US, and related maritime targets, and restricting specified military cooperation with Russia. US priorities for Russia could include various ceasefire compromises involving the war in the Ukraine, and restricting specified military cooperation with Iran. And the likelihood of progress? For the reasons above, progress on any issue between the US and Iran is very unlikely before this year’s US presidential elections. If or when afterwards would depend in large part on who was elected. For Russia, a ceasefire compromise in Ukraine could be possible if it gave them “temporary” retention of vast tracts of land captured post-2022. Timing will be dictated by battlefield outcomes, but the US Senate approval on 13 February of an additional US$60 billion of military assistance to the Ukraine, and its likely approval by Congress, makes a ceasefire in the foreseeable future unlikely.

Defense & Security
Saint Basil's Cathedral as viewed from Red Square.

There Was Once a Counteroffensive

by Pascal Boniface

The war in Ukraine is developing not quite as expected. Kiev's army is on the defense, Moscow's troops are advancing. All the while, the distance between the West and the rest of the world is increasing The year 2023 was a catastrophic year for geopolitical affairs. The war between Russia and Ukraine that began a year earlier continues, followed by the war between Israel and Hamas that broke out on October 7. The expected collapse of the Russian army did not happen. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of PMC Wagner, who openly questioned Vladimir Putin’s authority, died officially by accident. Vladimir Putin’s power is now even more firmly established in Russia. Westerners, who decided to leave Russia to impose sanctions on it, allowed it to recover $100 billion worth of abandoned assets for next to nothing, which the Russian government was able to redistribute among its cronies. The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in the summer of 2023 has failed. The most likely scenario in this context is, of course, that the military situation will freeze, allowing Russia to retain some Ukrainian territory. This represents a heavy defeat for the West, as they themselves have stated that they will lose their credibility if Ukraine loses the game, and that Putin will win the war by default. The Ukrainian issue is also the subject of intense debate in the USA, with Republicans and Democrats arguing over whether to continue supporting Ukraine on a massive scale. The White House continues to massively support Kiev, but if Donald Trump returns to power next year, American aid to Ukraine will indeed be suspended. Vladimir Putin will be able to prevail, at least from a communications standpoint. The great mistake of the West is that it confused the desirable (Russia’s defeat) with the possible. However, demographics are in Russia’s favor: there are four times as many Russians as Ukrainians. The Russian defense industry is operating at full capacity and is supported by Iran and North Korea. Russia is weakened by the departure of many Russians who fled repression and mobilization. It is cut off from the Western world united against it, but on the other hand, it retains the cards to play in the so-called Global South. You could say that the war in Gaza has benefited its cause. Indeed, on October 7, 2023, Hamas launched deadly attacks against Israel. Israel has launched a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip to root out Hamas. By carrying out massive bombing raids that have already killed more than 24,000 people and created a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Gaza is a children’s graveyard. If nothing justifies the October 7 terrorist attacks, nothing justifies the massive and indiscriminate bombing of civilians who would otherwise be subjected to a blockade. This situation in the Middle East is a real argument for Vladimir Putin against the West. The latter actually continues to ask the countries of the Global South, non-Western countries, to adopt sanctions against Russia that has seized territories by force and bombed civilians, which is forbidden by international law. But the same Western countries recognize Israel’s unconditional right to self-defense, while Israel also occupies territories and bombs civilians. For the affected Israelis, there will be a before and an after October 7. They thought they lived in a safe haven, protected from harm, but found that they did not. These attacks came as an undeniable shock to Israel. But there will also be wars before and after the Gaza war, because the images of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip under Israeli bombardment that we see now may be less visible in the Western world, but are widespread around the world and will also remain in the collective consciousness. In both cases, to varying degrees, there is a difference in understanding between Western and non-Western countries. Western countries condemn Russia and support Israel. Non-Western countries think it is completely abnormal to condemn Russia and not condemn Israel for bombing civilians. This difference in perception is growing and isolating the western world from the rest of the world.

Defense & Security
Ukrainian soldier launching a drone for reconnaissance

How the Drone War in Ukraine Is Transforming Conflict

by Kristen D. Thompson

Drone technology has been used extensively in twenty-first-century armed conflict, but the Russia-Ukraine war is driving innovations in autonomous warfare not seen on other battlefields. From drones that fit in the palm of the hand to drones weighing more than 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms), Ukraine has built and acquired a diverse fleet of remotely piloted aircraft to complicate and frustrate Russia’s advances. The constantly evolving scope of this technology and its ever-growing use signal not only the potential for drones to level the playing field in the Russia-Ukraine war, but also their ability to influence how future conflicts are waged. Why is the war in Ukraine a hotbed for drones? As the war enters its third calendar year, neither side is close to achieving air superiority. Most military analysts expected that Russia, with its superior air power, would quickly seize control of contested airspace early in the conflict. But surprisingly, Ukraine’s defenses, later bolstered by Western systems, were able to repel and deter Russian aircraft from making near-border and cross-border strikes. The inability of either side to break through the other’s integrated air defenses has forced them to increase the agility of their fielded forces and rely more heavily on standoff weapons, including long-range artillery, missiles, and drones. These conditions have led to the development of new drone technologies that could help Ukraine level the playing field in the air battle and possibly turn the tide of the war in its favor. What technologies are in use? Ukraine’s drone deployment has evolved with the changing battlefield. During earlier stages of the war—when Russia’s air defense and electronic-warfare capabilities were less pronounced—Ukraine relied on larger drones such as the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar to great effect. The TB2’s ability to carry multiple air-to-ground munitions and loiter for long periods allowed Ukrainian forces to penetrate Russian air defenses and strike heavy targets. However, as time progressed and Russia took greater control of the skies, it was able to detect and shoot down these larger models more easily. The TB2 may maintain some relevance—its sensor suite and considerable range still enable Ukrainian operators to collect intelligence—but Ukraine has nonetheless shifted to using smaller drone technology to adapt to Russian advances. The more abundant, smaller drones are proving to be serious game changers in that they have given Ukraine better battlespace awareness and more capability to hit targets. The Ukrainians have tapped into commercial technology—the same recreational products available to civilians—to get cheap, off-the-shelf drones onto the battlefield quickly. Many of these “hobbyist” drones have been acquired through grassroots crowdfunding efforts, or “dronations.” At just one thousand dollars per unit, the small drones can be rapidly amassed and repurposed by operators for a specific effect. For example, the popular first-person view (FPV) drones commonly used for racing or filmmaking are retrofitted with makeshift explosives and flown to strike fixed targets at relatively low cost. These drones can carry out single-use strikes with high precision while remaining less susceptible to Russian air defense systems. Additionally, the Ukrainians have repurposed significant aspects of their domestic economy to support the new drone supply chain, increasing their drone-making capabilities through public-private partnerships. One year ago, Ukraine had seven domestic drone manufacturers and it now has at least eighty. As for Russian drone technology, Moscow deploys indigenous models, such as the Orion, Eleron-3, Orlan-10, and Lancet, but Western sanctions on crucial Russian supply chains have prevented Moscow from excelling in drone production. Instead, Russia has turned to Iran for a steady supply. The Russians now boast an extensive fleet of Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that can carry 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) of explosives over a range of 1,200 miles (1931 kilometers). How are drones shaping the war? This conflict has demonstrated the battlefield advantages of drones, which have become smaller, more lethal, easier to operate, and available to almost anyone. They compress the so-called kill chain, shortening the time from when a target is detected to when it is destroyed, and they can bolster a military’s ability to reconnoiter the forward edge of the battlefield. Drones with longer endurance profiles can effectively conduct hours of reconnaissance, enabling other, more advanced drones to carry out precision strikes deep inside enemy territory. Other models enable individual soldiers to monitor adversary movement without risking lives or giving up the soldier’s position. Drones can also play an important international humanitarian role, for instance, by conducting battle and collateral damage assessments or exposing war crimes. U.S. drone manufacturer Skydio recently donated nine drones that—with their high-resolution cameras—will be used to help Ukraine document potential Russian war crimes. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), images captured will be used to aid the Office of the Prosecutor General in documenting many instances of human rights abuses. What are the defenses against drones? Drones are susceptible to air defenses. Larger drones with a distinct radar cross-section are easy, slow-moving targets for air defense interceptors and anti-drone guns; both Ukraine and Russia have downed thousands of drones with their interceptors and artillery. However, the continual use of these systems by both Ukraine and Russia can be prohibitively costly, as a single drone could cost thousands or even millions of dollars to intercept. An emerging challenge of counter-drone defense is the need to develop and employ a system that is cheaper than its target. Crucially, smaller drones that can swarm toward a target are more difficult to shoot down. as they can overwhelm air defense systems. A key countermeasure has been to utilize electronic warfare in the form of jammers, spoofers, and high-energy lasers that prevent drones from reaching their target. Jammers—used by both Russia and Ukraine—send out powerful electromagnetic signals that can cause a target drone to fall to the ground, veer off course, or turn around and attack its operator. As the war progresses, both sides are continually investing in and adapting electronic warfare tactics to counter the innovations of their adversary. How will the drone war evolve? The Russia-Ukraine conflict has demonstrated that innovations in drone technology can change the balance of power in the air defense domain especially. While Russia seeks to build pockets of air superiority and bolster its drone production and anti-drone defenses, Ukraine continues to develop both more and less sophisticated solutions. In a recently uncovered partnership project with Iran, Russia finished constructing a drone factory in Tatarstan, 500 miles (805 kilometers) east of Moscow, where it could produce an estimated six thousand Shahed-136 prototypes (renamed the Geran-2 by Moscow) by mid-2025. This expanded drone production could be enough to counter Russia’s shortage of drones on the front lines and turn the tide of the conflict in its favor. However, Ukraine’s ability to acquire and crowdsource commercial drone technology, tactically modify drones in the field based on real-time feedback, and alter tactics to defeat anti-drone systems have proved to be crucial to its war effort. Even while overmatched force-wise, Ukraine has shown how savvy technological adaptation can change twenty-first century warfare and could tip the balance of power in favor of the force that is more innovative. Editor’s Note: Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author.

Defense & Security
A plane of the Russian airline Aeroflot takes off.

War in Ukraine Disrupts Russian Civilian and Commercial Aviation

by Hlib Parfonov

Originally published by Hlib Parfonov at The Jamestown Foundation on 13. December 2023 Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 190 Over the past month, as many as ten forced landings of civilian aircraft have taken place in Russia. The most serious of these happened over the past week. On December 7, a fire on board an Aeroflot Airlines Boeing 777 forced the aircraft to make an emergency landing. The plane was flying from Kamchatka to Moscow when a passenger noticed smoke coming from under his seat. The preliminary investigation attributed the fire to a short circuit of wiring in the main cabin (T.me/aviatorshina, December 7). That same day, a Tu-204S cargo plane of Aviastar-Tu Airlines with registration number RA-64024 was returning from Zhengzhou airport in China. After takeoff, the pilot reported to air traffic controllers that the left engine had stalled and requested an emergency landing at Ulan-Ude airport (Ruavia.su, December 7). And on December 8, a Siberian Airlines Boeing 737 traveling from Novosibirsk to Moscow made an emergency landing in Tolmachevo. Immediately after takeoff, both of the aircraft’s engines caught fire (T.me/aviatorshina, December 8). These incidents highlight growing problems for Russia’s civilian and commercial aviation. Many of the technical difficulties are tied to Western sanctions prohibiting the import of critical components for the proper maintenance of aircraft. The recent forced landings represent another example of the war in Ukraine increasingly being brought home to Russia. Western sanctions and a critical shortage of technical personnel have hampered Russian civilian aviation since the beginning of the war (see EDM, July 3, September 8). Due to a lack of specialists and necessary spare parts, negligence of management, and Moscow’s fundamental departure from the rules for servicing foreign-made aircraft, much of the Russian civilian fleet could be grounded over the next year, with few prospects for reversing that trend. This is evidenced by the fact that, compared to 2022, the number of flight delays for the Urals MTU of the Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsia) increased by 44 percent this year (880 in 2023 compared to 490 in 2022). At the same time, there have been 739 cases of flights being unable to depart on time due to technical malfunctions (Insightnews.media, December 7). The lack of access to software updates and proper technical advice, as well as skipping regular maintenance intervals, have led many of Russia’s civilian aircraft to gradually break down. Most often, engines, landing gear, and brakes are the first to fail. Problems with flaps, air conditioning and de-icing systems, or internal wiring are less common but have been seen increasingly in recent weeks. Thanks to the Kremlin’s orders not to record any defects in pilots’ logbooks, all civilian aircraft appear to be perfectly serviceable on paper (Insightnews.media, December 7). Moscow’s problems with domestic aviation extend beyond civilian flights to the commercial sector. Russia’s air freight industry is stagnating fast, as it is dominated by the outdated Soviet Ilyushin Il-76 and Ukrainian Antonov AN-24 and AN-26 cargo aircraft. On November 8, the Federation Council held a roundtable discussion on the state of the country’s air transit capabilities (Gazeta.ru, November 9). Some participants expressed fear that up to 25 percent of the commercial fleet will be inoperable in less than five years. The average age of Russian commercial cargo aircraft is 50 years old. These aircraft have not been properly upgraded and maintained due to the mass transfer of foreign aircraft to Russia before the war; the lack of economic feasibility in completing such an overhaul, with costs estimated at billions of rubles; and the inability to gain access to necessary parts to upgrade the Ukrainian cargo planes. The repercussions of Moscow’s war against Ukraine have forced Russian operators to pay minimal attention to the maintenance of civilian and commercial aircraft. While companies can still source some spare parts for the 50-year-old aircraft, they have run into problems tracking down components for more modern equipment, such as parts for Motor Sich engines. In another example, the aircraft of Abakan Air, which operates international flights for Russian entities and provides transportation services for clients from other countries, are constantly out of order. According to internal documents, engines, air conditioning systems, and even radios often fail, and the company has been unable to bring in the necessary parts and technical expertise to solve these issues (24tv.ua, December 5) Similar problems also extend to helicopter aviation. The main bottleneck involves flagging production of modern engines. For example, in April, Russian Minister of Trade and Industry Denis Manturov announced that a shortage of VK-2500 engines was slowing down the production of Mi-8 transport helicopters. For VK-2500 engines, only a single production center was created in St. Petersburg, with a maximum volume of 200 engines annually. Manturov pointed out that Russian officials had tried increasing the volume to 300, though production has struggled to keep up. Today, demand sits at over 500 for these engines (Interfax, April 11). In addition, extending the service life of transport helicopters has further hurt the industry. As early as 2022, Russian airline Utair asked Rosaviatsia to extend the maximum allowable service life of engines for the Mi-8 and Mi-172 helicopters. The airline asked to increase the period from 7,500 to 9,000 hours, arguing that “the resource condition of TV3-117 engines” is already close to the maximum permissible level. According to aviation experts, such a request is madness and will likely lead to more serious technical issues in the near future (RBC, August 16, 2022) All this points to Moscow’s war against Ukraine increasingly coming home to the Russian public, disrupting their everyday lives. The current trend in Russian civilian and commercial aviation points to the possibility that these two sectors cannot adequately support the country’s transit demands. This will result in a redistribution to the already overloaded Russian railways. That reality will have severe economic consequences and further limit the effectiveness of military logistics in resupplying the frontlines with manpower and munitions in a timely fashion.

Defense & Security
Russian Duma

From Shadows to Spotlight - The Kremlin’s Not-So-Covert Gambit for Ukraine

by Annabel Peterson

Introduction: The Culmination Points The war in Ukraine has been raging for 19 months and is yet to exhibit a conclusive imbalance of forces and means. This is good news for Ukraine, who was expected to surrender within days, and an unprecedented embarrassment for Russia, who planned for a Crimea 2.0. What we are witnessing today is undoubtedly the result of a cluster of Russian intelligence failures, both in terms of reconnaissance and operational support. A lot has been written about the general errors in autocratic intelligence management, as well as Russia’s resistance to modern tactical realities such as crowdsourcing open-source intelligence (OSINT), but few have considered the overall weakness of the underlying strategic intelligence assets. For Russia, a loyal collaborator network, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and certain advanced cyberwarfare were central to preparing the ground for a quick surrender. All of these, however, reached their culmination points after the initial intervention in Ukraine 8 years prior. The culmination point of attack is a well-known Clausewitzian military concept describing the inevitable equilibrium reached as a result of the defender’s counterbalancing activities and the attacker’s consequent loss of initial superiority. At this point, the attacker is still able to hold the defence, yet continuing the offensive in the same manner would mean defeat. In Russian doctrine, the same laws apply to a clandestine battlefield, where the culmination point is reached with the exposure of one’s true goals, means, and methods. Intelligence operations that fail to adapt to the operating environment and enemy responses naturally become counterproductive to the attacker’s strategic goals. The annexation of Crimea was an example of a successful deployment of clandestine means at the height of their strategic influence. The operation has been described as a clever adaptation of tactics after being cornered by the failure of Russia’s original active measure campaign in 2013. However, the aftermath of that operation brought the remaining Russian influence assets to their culmination point, thus calling for a clear change of strategy. The Kremlin’s political-strategic goal – ever since Ukraine’s declaration of independence – has been to subordinate it to Moscow’s will. In pursuit of that, Moscow has attempted to instal various puppet entities into Ukraine’s political system, starting with the illegitimate “Donbas people’s republics” in 2014. Eight years and two Minsk Agreements later, the Kremlin had not achieved the desired results and decided to extend the puppet network into Kyiv’s central government. Similarly to Crimea, a successful power transfer merited a quick (and preferably bloodless) surrender of the government. Setting the stage for a Crime-type power transfer was, therefore, the venerable goal of the Russian intelligence services in the leadup to the invasion. The Federal Security Service’s (FSB, Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti) 5th Directorate – tasked with combatting dissent in Russia’s “near abroad” – carried the heaviest weight in preparing Ukraine for invasion. Some western security officials would even hold the FSB accountable for the trickle-down failures of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU, Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie) and Russian military intelligence, who were forced to work with flawed base information regarding the potential for Ukrainian resistance. Adding to this the obsoleteness of Russia’s agent network, Orthodox authorities, and cyberwarfare upon which its success largely relied, the invasion was doomed to fail from the start. 1. A Network Without Collaboration The primary covert asset – required for a swift occupation of Ukraine – was a reliable Russian agent network on the ground to provide strategic intelligence and prepare the information conditions enabling a smooth power transfer. Such a cultivation of the soil for a Russian takeover started already in the 1990s, eventually unleashing a competition for the most impactful ground presence among the Russian intelligence services. According to Bellingcat’s lead investigator, Christo Grozev, Russia’s internal security service and military intelligence, in particular, have been competing to set up the most far-reaching fifth column in Ukraine. In pursuit of that, both the FSB and the GRU have targeted not only Ukrainian politicians, activists, and security officials but also the judiciary, journalists, and former Yanukovych associates. By 2014, Russia’s agents of influence had provided enough leverage to convert existing political divisions, weak institutions, and high- levelcorruptionintoaquicksurrenderof Crimea and Donbas. Researchers from the Estonian Academy of Military Sciences identified the saboteur network’s systematic spreading of panic and propaganda as a key factor enabling Russian success in Donbas. It entailed fake news that alleged heavy Ukrainian casualties and the untrustworthiness of the government in Kyiv. Separatist collaborators, together with professional Russian intelligence officers, stood at the centre of these information operations. Such officers would, for instance, arrive at conflict hotspots, alongside the “journalists” specialised in propaganda, and fabricate the developments to appear unfavourable to Ukrainian resistance. It meant that by the start of the physical confrontation in Donbas, the region had been thoroughly primed for Russian intervention and that incoming troops had no trouble convincing Ukrainians to surrender entire settlements without resistance. Weeks prior, a similar scenario had unfolded in Crimea, with the collaborator network enabling deep deception and fast evolution of events on the ground. At the height of that unprecedented operation, the appearance of Russian troops without insignia made it difficult for Ukrainian counterintelligence to diagnose and respond to the situation, not to mention the paralysing confusion in local civilian masses. The covert operation ran smoothly, owing its success to widespread collaboration from the local police, security service, political, and criminal elites, whom the Russians had managed to infiltrate and corrupt. The efficient informational cover and timely intelligence provided by the collaborator network allowed Russian forces to swiftly seize key strategic positions on the peninsula and thus deny grassroots resistance by deception. However, what the Kremlin may not have realised in 2022 was that underlying the success in Crimea were extremely favourable political conditions and the complete novelty of the chosen approach, which could not be replicated in other operations. Moscow’s human intelligence (HUMINT)-enabled and deceptive diversion operation in Ukraine, therefore, reached its culmination point in 2014. At that moment, Russia still retained enough plausible deniability to avoid direct proportional consequences, but the opposing security communities became hyper- focused on the “hybrid” elements in Russian offensive operations, thereby suggesting exposure of the Kremlin’s covert methods. The operation’s political technologist, Vladislav Surkov, was sanctioned by the US immediately after the annexation, despite the frantic efforts of his aides to deny his involvement to the Western public. Experts interpreted Surkov’s careless reaction as a mere bluff. Notwithstanding the evident exposure of the covert operation, Russia’s game plan for a successful military intervention in 2022 remained unchanged. As the most comprehensive post-mortem of the intelligence failure details, the Russian asset network was meant to paralyse the Ukrainian state and condition Ukrainian officials to accept a pro-Russian course; the next step would be provoking mass protests against the government’s sudden inability to serve Ukrainian national interests. The systematic spreading of false narratives regarding the protests would help fracture Ukrainian resistance and provide a moral justification for an invasion. Analogous to the 2014 operations, Moscow’s agents on the ground were supposed to maintain pro-Russian sentiments in the contested territories until Russian forces secured critical strategic positions. The main goal of the GRU’s ground network was to ensure the physical passage of Russian troops and members of the FSB’s planned puppet government. A principal role in this was to be played by one of the GRU’s most crucial assets and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Andriy Derkach, recruited in 2016. By the time of the invasion, Derkach and his assistant Igor Kolesnikov had been put at the centre of the entire network. However, at the final preparatory and initial active stages of the invasion, multiple malfunctions occurred, signalling a premature burnout. • The first setback was the sanctioning of Andriy Derkach in 2020 for his interference in the 2016 US presidential election. In addition to provoking mass protests and misleading Ukrainian counterintelligence, Derkach was to lead the dissemination of disinformation about the dangers associated with Ukrainian nuclear energy production – all of which failed to materialise after his landing on the blacklist. Complete exposure of Russia’s intended psychological operations became clear weeks prior to the invasion when the UK and US had strategically declassified comprehensive intelligence about Moscow’s plans to politically subvert Ukraine. Remarkably, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU, Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy) had apparently been aware of the Derkach network – and allegedly neutralised it at the beginning of the invasion by detaining Kolesnikov, identified as the key manager of funding. • The second setback partly followed from the first. Such public and attributed disclosure of Russian psychological operations gained superiority for the Ukrainian narrative and mobilised a resolute international alliance (even though Ukrainian officials had been initially denying the possibility of a Russian attack). Moreover, in the face of Russian aggression, domestic public opinion was uniformly in favour of EU and NATO integration. This should have been interpreted as a clear sign that the lack of societal cohesion and international support no longer formed a weakness to exploit. Unlike in 2014-15, there were indicators that the West would intervene. However, the FSB chose to conduct its own polls, overseen by a former Yanukovych aide in charge of sleeper agents, and then interpreted the numbers to support the armed intervention. As RUSI researchers have explained, the invasion was likely based on the premise that those institutions in which the population showed the most trust – i.e., the military and the civil society organisations – could also be easily neutralised by the Russian network on the ground in Ukraine. Battlefield success during the initial stages of the invasion, therefore, relied on similar influence and diversion tactics as in 2014. In grave contrast to the former, the invading troops instead found the local population in the contested territories assisting the Ukrainian intelligence services to sabotage Russian positions. Hence, sticking to the methods of 2014 was counterproductive for the agent network of 2022. • This led to the third setback: the questionable loyalty of Russian junior agents and informers in Ukraine. The FSB’s strengths in the Ukrainian theatre came with a considerable expansion of its operations and the establishment of a “curator system,” whereby over 120 FSB curators would manage around 5-10 asset relationships. It involved a shift from targeting exclusively the highest- ranking officials in 2014 to virtually everyone associated with influential people, down to their service personnel in 2022. A key characteristic of this approach was that assets were recruited on a flexible, temporary, and project basis, which sometimes did not align with their professions and, therefore, took a toll on the assets’ quality and loyalty. In the words of the SBU’s reserve Major General Viktor Yahun, the expanded spy network in Ukraine was corrupted by its own structure. As assets got tangled in a “circle of responsibility” to cover comrades and improve their own results, the intelligence reaching the decision- makers at the top was being tailored to support the illusion of an easy Russian victory. The status of Putin’s favoured service, earned by the successes of 2014, also deepened patrimonialism within the curators themselves, whose tool to advance one’s career was to validate the Kremlin’s pre-decided policies. The GRU was facing the same problem: most of the influence agents they had recruited would not cooperate directly with their curators after “D-Day,” suggesting that they may have never been supportive of an operation of this kind. In this regard, Christo Grozev brings a noteworthy example of an asset inside the SBU that the GRU had to execute to preserve its credibility among other collaborators. The structure and modus operandi of the Kremlin’s agent network in Ukraine, therefore, suggests that it was expected to behave similarly as did in 2014 – i.e., to condition both the authorities and the local communities to surrender without resistance. However, as one puts all the setbacks together a clear picture emerges: once a functioning asset network had been reduced to ashes by the start of the invasion. 2. A Church Without Faith The collaborator network was interconnected with the ROC – a de-facto state institution that, in the words of Russian religious scholar Sergey Chapnin, “less and less resembles a church in the traditional understanding of this word.” It is rather a multifaceted influence asset of the Russian state that has prematurely culminated first on the strategic and then on the operational level. The ROC attains its strategic significance from its special status as a formally depoliticised extension of the state’s hand – its main function ever since Peter the Great’s imperialistic reforms. Stalin’s revival of the church during WWII and the recruitment of its priests as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD, Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del) agents set up a patrimonial security structure that outlasted the collapse of the USSR. Up to date, Patriarch Kirill, the current leader of the ROC, continues to emphasise the close relationship between the church and the state. A deep dive into its history shows that in 1992, the church’s public discourse began to glorify Russian combat soldiers as saints. Indeed, in the context of war, there is no asset as useful as one that can justify and encourage dying en masse for the Motherland. However, events took a downturn for the ROC on the eve of the Crimean annexation. Leaked emails from the operation’s leading architect, Vladislav Surkov, revealed that the ROC had failed its grand strategic mission already in the leadup to the Ukrainian Euromaidan, making the annexation the last resort rather than a demonstration of power. This happened as the Kremlin sought to use the church as a tool to steer Ukrainian public sentiments towards “Eurasia” but, after various propaganda campaigns, found all the Orthodox churches in Ukraine still formally favouring integration with the EU. Having failed to influence the general direction of Ukraine, the ROC, nevertheless, maintained substantial social authority in the target country. The FSB’s polls found that ahead of the invasion, the church was still highly regarded by over half of the Ukrainian population. The deep intelligence infiltration of the Moscow Patriarchate’s domains allowed the church to remain the main cover organisation for Russian operations since the 1990s. The ROC’s impact was the most visible in Ukrainian domestic politics, where its presence secured Russia’s claims to Ukrainian territory by cultivating a “religious nationalist” political faction, promoting the narrative of inherent religious unity between the two nations. Drawing on this uncontested institutional authority, the real value of the ROC was in enabling the Kremlin to uphold an elected pro-Russian representation in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine throughout multiple election cycles. What was left of the ROC’s strategic influence on Ukraine’s political and religious divisions peaked just before the start of the conflict in 2014. The culmination point was reached with the annexation of Crimea when the church first came under fire. Yet, it was still able to escape blame and distance itself by portraying the Russian intervention as a religious dispute within the context of a “Ukrainian civil war.” Since no creative adaptations to the strategy followed, the increasing public questioning of the ROC’s loyalties after the annexation took a toll on its influence, eventually leading to a formal secession of the Ukrainian church from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2019. It delivered a fatal blow to the ROC as its main reason for existence had become the “one Orthodox nation” myth used to maintain control over Ukraine. Whereas the ROC’s central strategic narrative had simply failed to make an impact before the occupation of Crimea, after the annexation, it was outright swept out of existence. Beyond political strategies, the ROC also had an operational role in capturing Ukraine. In the 2014 battles, for instance, priests were found fighting among separatist ranks in Donbas and operating torture chambers on the premises of religious facilities. Paramilitaries with a distinct Orthodox identity made a significant contribution to the separatist war effort, especially wing to the participation of local “Kazak” units familiar with the landscape. In the ongoing war, Estonian Foreign Intelligence recognised the ROC’s provision of multifunctional safehouses to be a critical constituent of the Russian ground network. Even more importantly, it was the ROC’s associates who provided the most valuable HUMINT if compared to the otherwise underperforming network. Naturally, the church’s special status as a religious institution, with a mandate to oppose the Kremlin, grants it the most auspicious position to conduct social network analysis and gather overall situational awareness. Christo Grozev also admits that church associates constitute a pool of trustworthy pro-Russian “spies and gunners” who assist with the actual conduct of hostilities. In continuation of the 2014 efforts, ROC priests were again among the most important local agents promoting the invaders and reporting the non-conformists to the Russian occupant forces. The ROC’s operational community manage- ment duties maxed out during the initial phases of the occupation in 2022, with the loss of plausible deniability regarding its involvement. Following the secession of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church during Poroshenko’s presidency, the ROC’s positions began to deteriorate, while the reach of malicious Russian networks and influence tools embedded in it was reduced. It had, nevertheless, enjoyed relative immunity up until the invasion due to the Ukrainian government’s political fear of limiting religious freedom and offending the remaining Ukrainian patriots among the ROC’s followers. However, uncovering the extent of Russian war crimes during the Ukrainian counteroffensive left the ROC no more room for denial and resulted in a systematic targeting of the church and its associates. It was at this point that the maintenance of the ROC as an operational asset became counterproductive. Ukrainian counterintelligence soon confiscated its physical property and made sure to expose all suspicious findings to the media. Statistics show that most believers consequently began to see Russian Orthodox priests primarily as intelligence agents; a tectonic shift in formal allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has occurred, thereby dealing a final blow to the ROC’s legitimacy in Ukraine. 3. Attack Without Leverage The final asset – crucial to shaping sentiments on the ground and complementing Russian military strikes – was state-sponsored cyberattacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. One particular GRU cyber unit named “Sandworm” was the prime actor associated with this task since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. After hacking various news and government websites to spread disinformation and encourage the population to surrender to occupation authorities, the GRU’s cyber strategy culminated with a large-scale attack on Ukrainian critical infrastructure in December 2015, leaving thousands of civilians without power for a prolonged period. This was another classic attempt to undermine societal trust in Ukraine’s capabilities to withstand aggression and provide for its citizens. For external observers, Sandworm’s attack constituted both an escalation from previous disruptive incidents and the first successful sabotage of a state’s energy infrastructure by a covert cyber campaign. The West – while acknowledging the campaign’s highly sophisticated and systematic nature – was left dumbfounded by Russia’s technical capability and fearful of Moscow’s potential to politically subvert Ukraine. That ominous precedent exemplified to multiple stakeholders and observer states the necessity of securing their power grids from hostile foreign state actors. The 2015 attack became Sandworm’s culmination point: Ukraine was severely affected but recovered fast amidst the international attention. The GRU managed to hit the target’s weakness in a highly unexpected manner while initially retaining an umbrella of deniability, plausible enough to avoid legal repercussions. In theoretical terms, a retreat – or change of strategy – at that point was warranted to avoid burnout. However, the GRU approached the attack rather as reconnaissance by combat – i.e., a subtype of reflexive control aimed at gaining intelligence on the target’s capabilities and potential responses by way of attack. Having witnessed Ukraine’s inability to resist or respond to such incidents, Sandworm carried out occasional attacks in the following years. Continuing the cyber campaign without any modifications became counterproductive when private companies and other external entities entered the game on Ukraine’s side. By 2022, highly capable private actors such as Microsoft had already pre-emptively intervened and offered real-time assistance to Ukraine in countering Russian cyberattacks throughout the invasion. Likewise, the Starlink communications technology not only derailed Russian attempts to disturb Ukrainian command and control but became a lifeline for civil resistance. In a direct affront to Russia’s cyber campaign’s goals, the donated Western technology enabled sophisticated intelligence collection and fire support operations capability for the Ukrainian forces. The turn of tables became apparent with two main events. • First, in the beginning, stage of the invasion, Sandworm launched large- scale wiper attacks on Ukraine’s critical digital infrastructure, with Viasat, a military communications provider, among its targets. As in the old playbook, the goal was to undermine Ukraine’s political will and collect intelligence on all levels. While significant tactical complications for the target followed, the attack failed to affect Ukraine’s societal and military morale as planned. On the contrary, the Ukrainian Armed Forces managed to leverage the public for intelligence value, further strengthening societal resilience. • Second, reassured by the 2015 experience, Sandworm attempted another ambitious cyberattack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant a few months into the invasion, aiming to leave millions without energy. However, this time, the aid provided by Ukraine’s private supporters enabled a complete denial of the fatal attack or any force-multiplying effects to entail. Furthermore, the resemblance of the offensive software to the 2015 attack facilitated a faster neutralisation of the cyberweapon. Russia’s efforts again failed to account for the greatly enhanced resilience that Ukraine’s digital infrastructure would display after learning from the initial shock attack. The Ukrainian side, on the contrary, demonstrated an understanding of the GRU’s modus operandi and gained silent battleground superiority by capitalising on the initial exposure of Sandworm. Conclusion: The Common Denominator There was one common denominator between Andriy Derkach, the ROC leadership, and Sandworm: they were all products on the Kremlin’s covert action shelf whose expiry date had passed almost a decade ago (although they may still often come up to describe Russia’s hidden strategy to condition Ukraine into a quick surrender). What started as a markedly successful leveraging of covert assets in support of territorial gains and political concessions in 2014 culminated with a complete strategic blunder that was the 2022 invasion. A premature culmination of those three strategic assets is one way to explain the outcomes. After the successful annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Donbas, the FSB expanded its Ukraine operations but failed to realise that the loyalty and public sentiments that triumphed in 2014 would not be the default in 2022. The GRU’s efforts against Ukraine were exposed both on the ground and in cyberspace, which helped Ukraine gain external support and build up resilience against the two types of subversion. In the meantime, the FSB and the GRU were heavily relying on the ROC, which had been gradually losing all leverage in Ukraine after the 2019 schism and the 2022 exposure of its direct involvement in the conflict. On the one hand, the turn of events suggests that Russia’s tools and theories of hybrid warfare may be neither as sophisticated nor effective as feared after the annexation of Crimea. The flip side of this implies that the current war will rely more on Russian biomass and hard power, especially now when assets of influence and non-military subversion have been exhausted. On the other hand, our understanding of Russia’s performance in this regard may be somewhat biased since we are, by definition, only able to analyse intelligence failures – not achievements. Another aspect to consider is the continuing revelations of Russia’s successful meddling in democratic political processes abroad, which suggests that some Russian covert assets outside of Ukraine may yet reach their culmination points. The central questions are if and what the Kremlin learns from the strategic failures in Ukraine, as well as whether it becomes more open to the structural improvements needed.

Defense & Security
Flags of North Korea and Russia

How North Korea Could Affect the War

by Can Kasapoğlu

As Kim Jong Un arrives in Russia for arms talks with Vladimir Putin, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Can Kasapoglu offers a defense intelligence assessment of North Korea’s potential to affect Russia’s stumbling invasion campaign. Executive Summary Having failed to quickly conquer Ukraine, the Kremlin now pursues a war of attrition to wear down the will of Kyiv and NATO nations supporting the Ukrainian military. In this attritional fight, Russia enjoys a manpower advantage over Ukraine but faces setbacks in sustaining the necessary firepower. North Korea, which possesses an arsenal compatible with Soviet-Russian systems and the production capacity to augment it, could provide Moscow with the armaments it seeks. Pyongyang could also support Moscow in cyber warfare and training new recruits by dispatching its large special forces detachments. Russia and North Korea, along with Iran, represent an emerging axis that the West should take seriously as a global security threat. 1. North Korean Artillery Systems Could Replenish Moscow’s Stockpiles When it launched its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow anticipated a blitz intervention lasting a few weeks. Its military planners’ intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) reflected this assessment. This is why Russian fighters were afforded generous provisions of artillery at the outset of the war. Available intelligence reports suggest that when the war began, each Russian battalion tactical group possessed up to two batteries of howitzers and a rocket battery. Subsequently, complete artillery brigades engaged Ukraine’s combat formations, unleashing overwhelming firepower at a high tempo to support the main axes of effort in a multifront war. At their heaviest, Russian artillery salvos regularly used 24,000 shells per day, and peaked on some days at 38,000 shells. As the campaign wore on and Russia’s initial intelligence estimates proved faulty, this rate dropped to 10,000 shells per day by the first quarter of 2023. At present, Russia’s artillery salvos utilize between 5,000 and 10,000 rounds daily. This change in fire patterns reflects Russia’s diminution of its own ammunition stockpiles. The Russian military used a total of 12 million artillery rounds in 2022. At its current rate of usage, it is on pace to use close to 7 million rounds in 2023. This means that the Russian military is using an average of 13,600 fewer shells per day this year than it used last year. This is troubling for Moscow since its defense industry can only produce 20,000 rounds per month of the Soviet-remnant 152mm-class weapons that dominate its artillery units. The overall artillery round production rate of the Russian industry falls somewhere between 2 million and 2.5 million shells per year. This is the void that Pyongyang could fill. Artillery and rockets are core assets of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Open-source intelligence assessments estimate that the KPA operates some 14,000 to 20,000 artillery pieces of all kinds. At least 10,000 pieces of this stockpile are the 122mm-class rocket systems and 152mm-class artillery that are compatible with Russia’s heavily Soviet-era arsenal. Seventy percent of North Korea’s fire systems are forward deployed at high readiness, while some 4,000 are stored in underground networks. In any baseline wargaming scenario, KPA combat formations can volley up to 500,000 shells per hour at the outset of hostilities and sustain that operational tempo for several hours or opt for a prolonged conflict with a reduced artillery tempo of 10,000 shells per day. Worryingly, thirty percent of North Korea’s artillery and rocket deterrent is certified with chemical warfare agents, drawing upon up to 5,000 tons of Pyongyang’s stocks of chemical weapons. Initial assessments have suggested that the Kremlin is interested in North Korea’s 152mm-class artillery shells and its 122mm-class rockets, which the KPA uses as the mid-range artillery in the rear echelons of its combat formations. Pyongyang’s defense industries have been diligent in cloning artillery and rocket systems in these classes—with some added touches of their own. Their M-1974 Tokchon, for example, is simply the derivative of the Soviet 152mm-class D-20 howitzer and the ATS-59 tractor. The KPA operates thousands of 122mm-class MLRS and 152mm-class artillery, along with an enormous arsenal of ammunition certified for these weapons. Even more troublingly for Ukraine and its Western allies, North Korea could provide support to Russia that extends beyond 122mm- and 152mm-class solutions. The KPA’s longer-range fire-support systems—the 170mm Koksan self-propelled gun, with a range of some 60 kilometres, the M-1985/1991 truck-mounted 240mm-class rockets (which are highly mobile and destructive), and the 300mm-class heavy-rocket KN-09 (which has a range of 200 kilometres)—would be incredibly dangerous in Russian arsenals, especially when used in urban and semi-urban settings. Russia could seek to acquire these weapons systems. Should Kim Jong Un sign off on transferring some of these armaments to Moscow, it would not be his first rodeo. In December 2022, the White House revealed intelligence showing that Russia’s infamous Wagner network had received rockets from Pyongyang. 2. North Korean Tactical Ballistic Missiles Could Alter Battlefield Dynamics In a prolonged high-tempo conflict, Russia is running out of advanced tactical ballistic missiles. Its expenditure rate has long surpassed its production capacity of these key armaments. Here, too, North Korea could offer help to Moscow. Although it possesses fewer tactical ballistic missiles than artillery and rocket systems, the missiles it does possess could rain terror onto Ukraine’s population centers, even in small numbers. To grasp this issue, one needs to understand Russia’s missile warfare efforts in Ukraine. In January 2023, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s official tracking efforts determined that Russia had unleashed 750 SS-26 Iskander tactical ballistic missile salvos up to that point in the invasion. At that time, Ukrainian sources estimated that Russia had less than 120 Iskanders remaining in its stockpiles. Whether that figure was precise or exaggerated, Moscow, with a flagging production rate of only five Iskander tactical ballistic missiles per month, was quickly depleting its stocks of this vital weapon. Pyongyang could not supply the Russian military with thousands of ballistic missiles, as it could do with its stores of Soviet-compatible artillery and rockets. Nevertheless, transfers of a few hundred ballistic missiles remain within the realm of possibility. Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) are the foundations of North Korea’s missile proliferation efforts. While Pyongyang has a large arsenal of liquid-propellant missiles possessing a Scud baseline, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation prefer newer, solid-propellant missiles with better accuracy and shortened launch cycles, as these weapons stand a better chance against being hunted down by the Ukrainian military while causing more reliable damage. Unfortunately, Pyongyang also possesses stocks of these solid-fuelled, road-mobile tactical ballistic missiles. According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, in one single military parade in October 2020, North Korea showcased 52 solid-propellant SRBMs on 6 different wheeled and tracked transporter erector launchers (TELs). In 2021, it was estimated that North Korea possesses some 600 solid-fuelled SRBM variants. Pyongyang’s next-generation tactical ballistic missile systems are menacing weapons. These assets feature a quasi-ballistic trajectory, improved accuracy (especially compared to other North Korean systems in the same range), and broad warhead configurations. All these features would support Russia’s missile warfare campaign. One of Pyongyang’s tactical ballistic missiles is the KN-23. The KN-23 is often portrayed as the North Korean version of the Russian SS-26 Iskander-M, as both projectiles follow a quasi-ballistic, depressed trajectory. The KN-23 is also capable of executing pull-up manoeuvres when homing in on a target. These features put extra stress on missile defense and make the KN-23 a hard-to-intercept threat. Moreover, in missile tests the KN-23 has demonstrated a range of 690 kilometres, with a flight apogee—the highest point in a rocket’s flight path—of 50 kilometres when carrying a lighter payload. It can also deliver a combat payload of one-half ton within a range of 450 kilometres. Should Russia acquire this weapon, it would bode ill for Ukraine’s air defense. Interestingly enough, the KN-23 was on display when Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu paid a recent visit to North Korea. The Russians may also show interest in the KN-24, another quasi-ballistic missile endowed with a powerful warhead. Some writings suggest that the KN-24 is modelled after the American ATACMS. North Korea test-launched the missile in 2019 with a depressed trajectory, showcasing a range of 400 kilometres and an apogee of 48 kilometres, and, in another test, a range of 230 kilometres with an apogee of 30 kilometres. In March 2020, Pyongyang conducted another launch, unleashing two KN-24 missiles that registered a maximum range of 410 kilometres and an apogee of 50 kilometres. The 2020 test reportedly featured missiles that could perform pull-up manoeuvres. Available evidence shows that both the KN-23 and the KN-24 likely deliver two main combat payload configurations—either a unitary warhead with one half ton of high explosives, or a submunition option packed with hundreds of charges. These warheads have a lethality radius of between 50 and 100 meters that expands against soft targets hit by submunition variants. In comparison with North Korea’s legacy, Scud-derivative tactical ballistic missiles, the KN-23 and KN-24 enjoy favourable circular error probable (CEP) rates, indicating that the newer missiles are more accurate weapons than their aged forebears. 3. North Korea Could Assist Russia in More Unconventional Ways While artillery and rockets seem the likely focus of any assistance Pyongyang could provide to Russia, North Korea could also affect the conflict in more unconventional ways. The first of these is cyber warfare. Pyongyang has gradually built a notorious cyber warfare deterrent. In 2016, North Korean agents hacked South Korean Cyber Command, contaminating its intranet with malware, and stealing confidential data. North Korea’s hackers also hacked the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016, pulling off a notable heist. Alarmingly, the hackers even used the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) banking networks to do so. Pyongyang and Moscow had already established collaborative ties in cyberspace well before the invasion of Ukraine. The burgeoning security relationship between North Korea and Russia could push them to target the West in retaliation against sanctions. The second opportunity for unconventional cooperation between the two nations is in special forces and combat training. According to British Defense Intelligence, the Russian military is preparing to recruit 420,000 contract troops by the end of 2023. Understaffed and penurious non-commissioned officers’ corps with inadequate combat training have plagued the Russian military for decades. North Korea employs the largest special forces branch in the world, with some 200,000 servicemen. Thus, one cannot rule out the North Korean military dispatching training missions to help with Russia’s incoming waves of draftees. Plagued by skyrocketing armour losses in Ukraine, the Russian military has begun to put decades-old T-62 tanks onto the battlefield. To do so, Russia has pulled some 800 T-62s from Cold War–era storage and modernized them with 1PN96MT-02 thermal sights and reactive armour. While this upgrade package is less than glamorous, it is the only way to keep a museum piece in the fight. Herein lies another potential area for unconventional cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. North Korea has an arsenal of armour some 3,500 units strong, with large numbers of the T-62. Russia could seek to modernize North Korea’s T-62s to acceptable standards in an effort to buttress its own decrepit arsenal. 4. Battlefield Update Following the usual pattern of the conflict, the war zone has seen high-tempo clashes paradoxically married to a static battlefield geometry. There have been no major territorial changes over recent weeks. Marking a tactically important achievement, however, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has managed to incrementally widen and deepen the Robotyne bulge across Novopokrovka in the southwest and Verbove in the southeast. The Russian first lines of defense are stable and have continued to hold the line, stymieing Ukraine’s efforts to attain a breakthrough. Weapons systems assessments on several fronts in the south and northeast indicate that Ukraine is continuing to conduct first-person-view kamikaze drone strikes. Open-source defense intelligence suggests that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are cherry-picking advanced Russian assets, such as T-80BV main battle tanks and 240mm-class Tyulpan heavy mortars, to inflict maximum asymmetric destruction. Ukrainian special forces also conducted a raid in the Black Sea, recapturing the Boika Towers oil and gas drilling platforms situated between Snake Island and occupied Crimea. Regardless of whether the Ukrainian military can hold these facilities, its success in capturing them revealed major gaps in Russia’s real-time intelligence capabilities. Western military assistance programs for Ukraine have also begun to show some progress. The American military reportedly even asked for extra training sessions for the Ukrainian armour crews before combat deploying US-provided Abrams tanks, which Ukraine’s mechanized formations will probably start operating in a matter of weeks. It remains to be seen if they will be immediately sent to the front lines. Ukrainian combat pilots are also set to start their training on the F-16 aircraft, with optimistic and more conservative estimates of the training timeline for basic operational efficiency coming in at 3 months and 9 months. Notably, news stories now report the improving chances of ATACMS tactical ballistic missile transfers to Ukraine. Our previous writings have assessed how important it is for Ukraine to strike the Russian rear. The ATACMS could play a critical role in furthering this objective. In the northeast, the Russian military is conducting frontal assaults with no major progress in the direction of Kupiansk. US-transferred cluster munitions artillery shells reportedly made a difference in preventing Russian advances in this sector. On September 9 and 10, the Russian military unleashed a barrage of Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions to pound Kyiv. While Ukrainian air defense intercepted the bulk of these munitions, the volley marks the ability of the Russia-Iran axis to sustain large-scale drone salvos for over a year. Russia’s defense industries have made considerable progress in co-producing the Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions baselines at home, further enabling Moscow’s high-tempo drone warfare efforts.

Defense & Security
Pedro Sánchez Prime Minister of Spain

The president of the Spanish government, Pedro Sánchez, has delivered this speech in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament

by Pedro Sánchez

Thank you very much.  Dear Mr. Speaker Stephanchuk, Distinguished Members of the Verjovna Rada,Excellencies, dear friends. I am very grateful to be here today, on this very special day for my country. Today, 1st July,  Spain assumes the great responsibility of becoming the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the next six months. And I wanted that the very first thing I did in my new capacity was to address the people of Ukraine through their Verjovna Rada. I wanted to tell you that we are and will be with you as long as it takes. I wanted to tell you that we will support Ukraine no matter the price to pay. That we will be with you in the achievement of your aspirations to be a free and sovereign  country that decides its own destiny as a member of the European family. In short, I am here to express the firm determination of Europeans and Europe to fight against the illegal, unjustifiable and unjustified Russian aggression to Ukraine. Once again, I have the honour to address all of you in this temple of Ukrainian democracy. My first address took place in February, on the first anniversary of Russia’s aggression against your sovereignty and territorial integrity. Things have changed since then. Today Ukraine is in the midst of the counter-offensive against an enemy that is showing signs of weakness. We have all seen the events of last week. They speak for themselves. And, if one side shows weakness, it is because in front of him there is someone who shows the opposite: determination. It's what I can see, right here, and right now: determination, strength and courage. What I can see is a whole country that refuses to be subjected and fights for its independence with immense dignity. I know the price to pay is enormous. Especially in human lives lost. Nothing I can say here today can comfort a family that has lost a daughter, a son, a mother, a father or a husband. Men and women who gave their lives defending a free and democratic Ukraine.  Still, I want to do it from the bottom of my heart on behalf of my country, Spain. A country that mourns with you. A country that condemns every Russian attack against Ukrainian civilians, like the one at Kramatorsk. Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer was there. Severely injured, now fights for her life. Victoria was close to the front line, because she wanted to document the tragedy. She wanted to collect the memory of infamy. The lost heritage. The broken lives. The crimes committed. We need women Victoria Amelina, to write history. To tell the facts as they happened and preserve the memory of those who suffer this tragedy. Excellencies, dear friends, we do not forget that the European aspiration of the Ukrainian people was one of the excuses that triggered the Russian reaction and, in turn, the invasion. It was only fair to honour this aspiration by granting you the status of candidate to the European Union. No one deserves it more than you, than Ukraine. However, I know that this is not an easy process, especially with an ongoing war. To become a member state requires changes, reforms and sacrifices. Not long ago, Spain faced this challenge as a candidate country. But, let me tell you, that the process to become an European Union member taught us important lessons. One of them is that undertaking reforms has a value in itself. Reforms make your governance and your economy better, more modern and transparent. They bolster international confidence and proximity. They attract investment. And, in time, they will grant you access to our European Union. A Union, which is more than just the largest internal market in the world. Which is, above all, a community of values: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Last week, the European Commission made a positive assessment of Ukrainians, of Ukraine’s progress concerning the required reforms. I congratulate you for the progress made, especially thanks to the legislative work of this Rada, and I encourage you to keep up with it. It is worth the effort. Congratulations. And of course we will be eagerly awaiting the report of the European Commission in the fall, which will set the basis for the future. Excellencies, We want a just and lasting peace in Ukraine. Only Ukraine can set terms and times for peace negotiations. Other countries and regions are proposing peace plans. The involvement is much appreciated, but, at the same time, we cannot accept them entirely. This is a war of aggression, with an aggressor and a victim. They cannot be treated equally. And ignoring the rules should in no way be rewarded. That is why we support President Zelenski’s peace formula, which is respectful with International Law and the UN Charter. Ukraine is paying a heavy prize in terms of destruction of cities and infrastructure. So, we need to make sure that the country is rebuilt, thus creating the conditions for its growth and prosperity. And we have already started. Today, Spain has decided to dedicate another 55 million euros, including offering 51 M€ through the World Bank Group to help finance Small and Medium Enterprises in Ukraine, as well as 4 M€ to the UN Development Program to provide schools in Ukraine with green-friendly and resilient energy systems. Reconstruction will take time and investment in many sectors. Spain is committed to accompanying Ukraine in this process. There are some areas, such as the railway infrastructure, in which our companies have the know-how that can make the difference. The Spanish government will support finance the necessary investments to adapt and upgrade infrastructures and productive sectors in your country. Yet, we understand that reconstruction and prosperity will only arrive if real, long-term security is achieved. My friends, in my view, it is clear that we cannot rely on the promises made after the Cold War anymore. We have to adapt to a different security environment, one in which concepts like peace, sovereignty or territorial integrity can no longer be taken for granted. The aggression on Ukraine has shown us that they need to be effectively defended. Not just with words, but with facts. Therefore, we will need to rethink the security framework to ensure that your country, Ukraine, will be able to live free from aggression or intimidation. As the President said, we are approaching the NATO Summit in Vilnius, which will follow on the commitments we made last year, in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Spain supports enhancing the political participation of Ukraine through the creation of a NATO-Ukraine Council, where you will no longer be an invitee, but a member, a full member. We are also in favour of enhancing the practical cooperation, to continue to adapt your defence sector to NATO Standards. These are, my friends, big steps forward that will be further discussed during the upcoming NATO Summit in Vilnius. Spain will continue to do its part as well: we are delivering more Leopard tanks, armoured personnel carriers and a field hospital with surgical capacity. We also continue to reach out to other countries and continents, to explain what is really happening here in Ukraine, but also to listen to their concerns, especially those related to food and energy security or insecurity, in this case. Excellencies, Last February, before my trip to Kyiv, someone in Madrid, in my city, was  wondering about the Ukrainian’s state of mind and asked me: “Do you think they are afraid?”. When I came back, after the visit, I had a clear answer to this question and I told them: Look, they are not afraid. They are going to win. It will take them weeks, or months. It will take tears, blood and sweat, but Ukraine is going to win this war. And they asked me “Pedro, Pedro, why?, why?”. And I said, “Because there are two battles. One happens in the battlefield. The other happens in the mind, because it’s a battle of ideas. And that one, the Ukrainian people have already won it”. Ukraine has chosen democracy in the face of those who despise it. Ukraine has chosen openness and freedom, in the face of those who fear it. Ukraine has chosen to sit, and discuss, and vote, and change, and evolve, in the face of those who only believe in force and obedience. Ukraine has chosen to be independent, to move freely, to trade, to invest, to prosper, to have hope, in the face of those who still have delusional dreams about old empires. The Ukrainian people have chosen the European way. The Ukrainian people ARE, you are Europeans. And you are Europeans not only because of a geographical imperative. You are Europeans by moral and spiritual commitment. So, dear friends. During this years, I have learned many things about Ukraine. Even some Ukrainian words. For instance, I have learned that "Mriya" (emriya) means “dream” in English, we say in Spanish Sueño. That was the name of the largest plane in the world, located at the Hostomel airfield when it was destroyed by Russian troops in February 2022. That plane brought medical supplies during the pandemic or carried humanitarian aid in natural disasters. It was a symbol, a pride for Ukraine. They destroyed the symbol, but they couldn’t destroy the idea. Now, I have learnt that Ukrainian engineers are already working on the reconstruction of that giant of the skies. Let me tell you that you are not just rebuilding an airplane: you are rebuilding a dream. One day, that dream will cross the skies again. And from there, here on the ground, we will see a new Ukraine reborn from the ashes of destruction. That’s what you fight for. You fight for peace, for security and prosperity for your children. And every Ukrainian soldier knows it. Russian soldiers fight because they are scared they will be punished if they don’t. They ask themselves everyday “what are we doing here?”. You are united, you stand on the moral high ground. They even rebel, as we saw a few days ago. That’s why they cannot win and you cannot lose. I came here today to tell you that Europe is open to those who make the choice. The European Union was built to prevent new wars. We chose to get together, to be “united in diversity”, and that made us stronger. Europe is with you, and you are one with Europe. Mui Yevropa! [¡Somos Europa!] Slava Ukraini [¡Viva Ucrania!]

Defense & Security
Crimean Bridge

Crimean bridge attack is another blow to Putin’s strongman image

by Stefan Wolff

The bridge connecting mainland Russia across the Kerch strait with the illegally annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was seriously damaged on July 17 2023, in what appears to be a successful strike by naval drones.  While there has been no official confirmation from Kyiv yet, the attack on a vital Russian supply line fits well into the overall picture of the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has been under way since early June. But the strike is also hugely symbolic, demonstrating Ukraine’s ability to undermine the unlawful Russian claim to Ukrainian territory. The partial destruction of the road bridge followed unsuccessful recent attempts to strike both the bridge and Sevastopol harbour, the main base of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Monday’s attack on the bridge left its parallel railway track undamaged, but all road traffic came to a standstill. Russia is likely to be able to render the bridge operational again as it did after an earlier attack in October 2022. But these repairs will take time, as they did before, and the limited use of the bridge during peak holiday season will serve as a reminder to ordinary Russians of a war that is not without cost to them. Less than four weeks ago, Ukraine also carried out a precision missile strike against the two parallel Chonhar bridges, which provide a vital connection between Crimea and the Russian-occupied part of Kherson region on Ukraine’s mainland.Crimea’s crucial roleThese may seem symbolic strikes of little strategic significance. And on their own, they probably would be, especially as the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive has been slow in taking back Russian-occupied territory. But these strikes are part of a broader campaign to disrupt Russian supply lines, which is vital to wear down well-entrenched Russian defences across some 1,000km of front line in eastern Ukraine. Crimea plays a crucial role in this context. The links between Russia and southern Ukraine – via the Kerch strait and Chonhar bridges – are potentially vital for supplies to reach Moscow’s occupation forces in the southern Kherson region. This will especially be the case as Ukraine becomes more capable to hit rail and road connections along the so-called Crimean land bridge. Kherson and, further to the east, the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, are critical to providing Crimea with freshwater for drinking and farming. Water is already in short supply following Russia’s destruction of the Nova Kakhovka hydro-electric dam in early June. Little wonder then that Crimea has been heavily militarised since Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in March 2014 – or that Russian troops there have increasingly been threatened by different anti-Putin partisan groups. These include both Russian volunteers and indigenous Crimean Tatars who have become more active since the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Similar attacks occured in August 2022 at a time when Ukraine was gearing up for a successful advance against Russian forces that were eventually driven out of the northern parts of Kherson region.Putin’s vulnerabilitiesWhat is really important in all of this is that these same Russian vulnerabilities still exist, in Crimea and in other parts of the hinterland behind the Russian defences in occupied Ukrainian territory. The strike on the Chonhar bridges on June 22 and on the Kerch strait bridge on July 17 exposes them once more for all to see. This exposure is also symbolically highly significant. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is trying to reassert his authority after the abortive mutiny by his erstwhile ally, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. So the damage to Putin’s bridge across the Kerch strait further chips away at his strongman image of invincibility. And again, it matters that these attacks happened in Crimea. Of all the territories invaded and still occupied by Russia, this is the one area in which the Russian occupation was overwhelmingly welcomed. What’s more, it is also the one area that Russians are likely to care about, regardless of how detached from reality historical claims to Crimea might sound. So appearing unable to prevent Ukrainian attacks in and on Crimea also exposes a potentially significant personal vulnerability of Putin’s regime and the myths on which it is partially built. This does not mean that the Kremlin is about to lose its grip on Crimea. But Ukrainian claims that it will eventually be able to retake the peninsula, if need be by force, have just become a bit more believable. At a time when debate over how to end Russia’s war on aggression against Ukraine – at the negotiation table or on the battlefield – continues in the west, these strikes serve as a useful reminder that this is Ukraine’s war. It is ultimately decisions in Kyiv that will determine whether, where, and how it can be won.