Strategic Response to Russian Interference in Ukraine: Information Defense Hub Newsletter

Strategic Response to Russian Interference in Ukraine: Information Defense Hub Newsletter

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / .shock
7 August 2023
FacebookTwitterTelegram
1014

This newsletter provides a summary of the latest updates in Ukraine as it defends its territory against Russian aggression. Drawing from expert sources, the analysis aims to offer readers a well-founded overview of the important developments. The following report covers events from July 16 to July 29, 2023. In this issue, you can read about Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, Russian terror in the Black Sea region and NATO’s response, the development of alternative trade routes during the full-scale war, restoration of e-declarations in Ukraine, when Ukraine will be able to open its airspace for civil aviation, and women in the Ukrainian army.

This newsletter was prepared by the Information Defense Hub. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers. The previous report for July 1-15 is available at this link.

Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive

On 27 July, the Armed Forces of Ukraine liberated Staromaiorske village in Donetsk Oblast, according to footage of Ukraine’s 35th Marine Brigade and Territorial Defense Forces, published by President Volodymyr Zelenskyi. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar also reported on the de-occupation of Staromaiorske. The settlement lies in the Berdiansk direction, one of the three sectors where the Ukrainian army is conducting its summer counteroffensive.

This, and other relatively minor successes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), gave the grounds to local military experts to assume that the second phase of the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive has begun. According to the head of foreign policy and international security programs at the Razumkov Center, Oleksii Melnyk, the Ukrainian command learned lessons from the first stage of the counteroffensive and some adjustments have been made in planning the tactics of how Ukrainian forces are deployed, including at the grassroots level. This assessment coincides with the expectations of the Ukrainian partners. On 27 July, The New York Times reported, quoting unnamed Pentagon officials, that the main thrust of Ukraine’s nearly two-month-old counteroffensive is now underway in the country’s southeast, with thousands of reinforcements pouring into the grinding battle. Many of them, trained and equipped by the West, were held in reserve until now. On 21 July at the Aspen Security Forum. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he believes it is still too early to judge the successes of the Ukrainian counteroffensive but stressed that the US and allies have given Ukraine “everything needed” for its success.

And, while the expectations are still high, more and more analysts also recognize the difficulties Ukraine faces. Recently, the German newspaper Bild published an allegedly leaked report of the Bundeswehr (Armed Forces of Germany), criticizing the operational tactics of the Ukrainian military. It states that the division of combat units is one of the main disadvantages of the AFU, as it complicates “a joint battle command”. Hence, Ukraine divides the brigades which have undergone training in the West into groups of 10-30 soldiers, isolated from the rest of the troops. In this case, neither the Western training, nor the superior armament, nor the high number of manpower becomes of any use. The origin of the leaked report has not been confirmed. Roderich Kiesewetter, former Bundeswehr general and a defense spokesperson for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is in opposition to the Scholz government, said he rejects such criticism of the Ukrainian forces and accused Western partners of insufficient and untimely assistance to Ukraine.

Analysis

Any assessment of Ukrainian progress is based on scarce and diffused information, which may be intentionally twisted by the military commands of Russia and Ukraine. Nevertheless, inflated expectations for the rapid counteroffensive resulted in an underestimation of the relatively slow advancement of the Ukrainian forces. Describing the current situation, Denys Hubashov, a Ukrainian journalist at Texty, explains that Russian forces built a solid system of defensive fortifications on the eastern bank of the occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. The Russians seized these territories in the first weeks of their all-out war against Ukraine in the spring of 2022 and had enough time to dig several lines of defense. In particular, they intensified their work after Ukraine’s successful offensive in Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts last fall.

However, Ukraine also needs to adapt more rapidly to the changes in the operational situation. Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Strategic Studies and the Center for New American Security, who recently visited the frontline, said that the Ukrainian military sometimes displays poor tactics and a lack of coordination between units. While confronted by the stiff resistance of the Russians, Ukrainian soldiers still face deeply entrenched bureaucracy, infighting, and continued reliance on “Soviet-style thinking.” Combined with a lack of timely supplies of Western equipment and arms, these factors may significantly limit Ukrainian strategic options for the continuation of the operation. However, there is still potential for Ukraine’s military success.

Russian terror in the Black Sea region and NATO’s response 

On 26 July, the first working meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council took place. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg convened the meeting following a request for crisis consultation from President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi. The reason was Russia’s escalation of the situation in the Black Sea region. On 17 July, the Kremlin announced its withdrawal from the grain deal and resorted to a “sea blockade” of food exports from Ukrainian ports. A series of terrorist attacks on the southern regions of Ukraine immediately followed this. Russian missiles hit the port infrastructure of Odesa and Danube ports near the border with Romania. Moscow also threatened to attack all civilian vessels traveling to Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. On July 24, the US State Department warned that Russia may be preparing a false flag operation in the Black Sea. The NATO-Ukraine Council strongly condemned Russia’s unilateral suspension of participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the shelling of Ukrainian port infrastructure.

NATO and Allies agreed to step up surveillance and reconnaissance in the Black Sea region, including with maritime patrol aircraft and drones. President Zelenskyi emphasized that the NATO-Ukraine Council is “an effective mechanism for crisis consultations.”

Analysis

More than 400 million people worldwide depend on Ukrainian grain supplies, mainly in Asia and Africa, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. Russia’s refusal to continue its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative puts millions of people around the world at risk of starvation and provokes a rise in food prices. In addition, after Russia disrupted the grain deal, the security situation in the Black Sea region deteriorated significantly. Russian occupants are destroying port infrastructure and threatening a naval blockade of Ukraine. At the same time, the Russians are increasing the military presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, most likely for provocations and strengthening control in the region. Chief of the Joint Coordination Press Center of the Defense Forces of South of Ukraine, Nataliia Humenyuk, informed that 14 enemy ships were observed in the Black Sea over the past week, which is more than during the grain deal. Such actions of the Kremlin aim to reduce Ukraine’s economic potential by cutting it off from the sea, putting pressure on the West with blackmail, and destabilizing developing Asian and African countries (by provoking social unrest, migration, political crises, etc.).

Kyiv is using all possible tools to prevent Moscow’s plans, repeatedly calling on the international community to join Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its vital grain exports. The newly established NATO-Ukraine Council has already proved useful in responding to the crisis. NATO reconnaissance drones will be an additional deterrent to Russia in the Black Sea. According to experts, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will try to enforce a complete blockade in order not to provoke a military conflict with the coastal countries, including NATO members Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Ankara’s role in this situation is crucial. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed that he believes in the possibility of continuing the Black Sea Grain Initiative after his talks with Putin, which are scheduled for August this year. He said that Ankara continues contacts with Moscow, particularly at the level of the foreign ministries.

Development of alternative trade routes during the war 

Ukraine had the opportunity to restore grain export within the framework of the Grain Deal agreement only partially. Nevertheless, it was an essential contribution to the state budget. During the full-scale war, the export of agricultural products brought the most foreign currency income to the state budget. As the reliability and permanence of the grain deal are in doubt due to Russia’s continued aggressive actions, Ukraine and its partners continue to develop alternative ways of exporting and importing agricultural products and other goods.

Analysis

In the face of a full-scale invasion, Ukraine has demonstrated resilience in its trade activities. Despite the problems associated with blocked ports, Ukraine has stepped up the development of alternative ways to export and import goods, ensuring the continuation of trade. The primary strategy for solving the existing problems is the diversification of trade routes. For example, the increase in the throughput capacity of the Danube ports brought the state an additional $1.5 billion. As a result of the expansion of the throughput capacity of the river ports in March 2023, absolute monthly (2.8 million tons) and daily (93.8 thousand tons) records of cargo handling were set. In addition, the Danube ports are currently important for attracting international investments to Ukraine, and the state is aware of this.

An important decision for Ukraine was terminating trade cooperation with Russia, which accounted for a significant share of the trade structure until 2022 when Ukraine carried out a total diversification of trade partners. As a result of the support of the partner countries and a greater emphasis on trade with the EU, Turkey, and China, Ukraine was able to resume its trade activities with more reliable partners. Neighboring European countries, such as Poland and Romania, hold leading positions. Road and rail routes are mainly used for export to these countries, but they cannot provide the same throughput of goods that Ukrainian ports had. However, it helps mitigate the effects of Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea. In addition, Ukraine and its partners have implemented measures to optimize trade processes and reduce bureaucratic barriers. Thanks to the introduction of electronic customs systems, the simplification of requirements for trade documentation, the redirection of trade to the European Union, the development of the international and internal transport system, and the study of alternative modes of transport, Ukraine was able to overcome obstacles and continue its trade activities.

Ukraine’s whole economy and part of its budget revenues depend on the search for alternative trade routes. However, only to continue the development of the Danube ports it is necessary to attract $120 million. Without international assistance, Ukraine cannot implement such expensive projects. In addition, adapting the width of Ukrainian railway tracks to European ones has been discussed. This initiative was brought long before the full-scale invasion. Currently, the significance of any changes lies in their urgency. The length of railway tracks in Ukraine is 19,787 km, making it the third longest railway in Europe. Changing, even partially, the track width, would take many years. Therefore, currently, the most attention is being paid to river ports as they are the fastest options for facilitating the logistics of goods to and from Ukraine.

Ukraine to restore e-declarations: what are the options? 

Tensions around resuming asset declarations for public officials are growing. On 26 July, Ukraine’s parliamentary speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk called upon MPs to support the bill on e-declarations as soon as possible. This urgency stems from the looming deadline for resuming e-declarations stipulated in the agreement between Ukraine and IMF under the $15.6 billion program (due at the end of July). Failing to meet this deadline could jeopardize further IMF tranches, essential for ensuring Ukraine’s budgetary stability. Currently, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has three draft laws on this matter, with the latest being passed in the Parliament on 27 July.

Analysis

In the second year of Russia’s full-scale aggression, resuming e-declarations becomes a matter of Ukraine’s survival. This is very well understood by the Ukrainian public and Ukraine’s Western partners. A public petition calling for the resumption of e-declarations received enough signatures on the first day of its publication in February 2023. The resumption of e-declarations is explicitly mentioned in the 7 EU recommendations to open EU accession talks and in the IMF memorandum.

The resumption of e-declarations is crucial for promoting transparent defense spending and supporting Ukraine’s ongoing reconstruction efforts. Those responsible for allocating international funds must be accountable to the public and partners alike. E-declarations serve as an essential anti-corruption measure that can foster trust towards the Ukrainian state both domestically and internationally. Watchdog journalists highlight that some public officials misuse martial law as a pretext for corruption, as exemplified by recent cases involving figures such as the former military commissioner of the Odesa region Yevhen Borysov, MP Bohdan Torokhtii, and many others. Delaying imperative declarations only increases the temptation for officials to engage in corruption risks. Transparency International outlines five reasons for the prompt restoration of e-declarations.

While urging for the resumption of e-declarations, Ruslan Stefanchuk acknowledged that the specific bill number may not be of utmost importance. Nonetheless, as is often the case in the Ukrainian legislature, the devil is in the details.

Verkhovna Rada (VR) has been considering three bills. Draft No.8071 was registered by David Arakhamia — MP from Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) in September 2022, and received endorsement from the anti-corruption committee of VR and the public, but has since become stalled in parliament. Then the draft law from the Ministry of Justice emerged, proposing to allow officials not to declare certain properties and lacking transparent criteria for public declarations. The National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP) pointed to the corruption risks of this draft. Although not perfect, Arakhamia’s draft No:8071 was endorsed by NACP. The Ministry of Justice’s bill, however, seemed to be more favorable for MPs.

On 26 July, a third draft law No.9534, was introduced, authored by MPs David Arakhamia, Anastasiia Radina, Yaroslav Zheleznyak, and others. This law would mandate the declaration of all property owned or used by officials, while also opening the e-declarations registry for public access and safeguarding personal information due to security risks. Public access to e-declarations is particularly important, considering that most, if not all, recent corruption scandals were brought to light through journalist investigations. On 27 July, the Ukrainian Parliament passed this bill in the first reading with 299 votes. MP Yaroslav Zheleznyak from the Holos party supported the bill but expressed concerns over possible amendments by the MPs that could delay the decision and undermine the spirit of the bill. If the bill is passed on the second reading and signed by the president, officials will be required to file e-declarations for 2023 and the previous years.

When will Ukraine be able to open its airspace for civil aviation? 

In April, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) forecasted that restrictions on flights over Ukraine would remain until 2029. Ukraine State Air Traffic Service Enterprise (UkSATSE) disagreed with this prediction, saying that Ukrainian airspace will reopen as soon as the war ends. Ukraine’s Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov also said that the resumption of flights will be possible as soon as the security situation allows. Eurocontrol currently recommends the airlines not to count on or plan any future flights over Ukraine, but the forecast is given twice a year and the conditions change depending on the security situation. In July, the top management of Irish airline company Ryanair visited Kyiv, announcing plans to resume flights as early as possible, even suggesting that a limited number of flights can begin in 2023. The gloomy Eurocontrol predictions sparked concern in the Ukrainian public space, while the ambitious announcement of the Irish company caused optimism. However, the opening of Ukrainian airspace depends on many nuances and challenges to overcome.

Analysis

Ukrainian airspace has been closed for civilian flights since 24 February 2022. Russian full-scale invasion caused disruptions for civil aviation in the wider region as well. It’s not the first time that statements and discussions about the renewal of civil flights appear in the information space. In September, Ukraine’s Minister of Infrastructure Kubrakov said that Lviv Airport might resume operations even under martial law, subject to security guarantees. The Head of the Lviv Oblast Military Administration Maksym Kozytskyi expressed hope that the airport can resume its operation as a humanitarian hub. The Uzhhorod Airport is also considered as an option, due to being close to the border with Slovakia.

Ukrainian air forces expressed doubt over plans to restore any kind of civil aviation flights during martial law. The spokesperson for the Air Force of Ukraine, Colonel Yurii Ihnat, pointed out that enemy missiles and drones can appear everywhere, in any part of the country. “You see, we had a grain corridor from which Russia single-handedly withdrew. Will someone negotiate with Russia so that it does not attack humanitarian aviation corridors?” said Yurii Ihnat, adding that “the systems we receive from partners are not in sufficient quantity today to protect all critical infrastructure.” Today, any functioning and nonfunctioning airport can become a target for Russian attacks, as it happened numerous times since February 2022. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said that if Ukraine gets F-16s, patrolling the sky can ensure the safety of passengers, allowing the operation of at least the Lviv Airport for the civil aircraft. However, Ukraine critically lacks anti-missile defense. Assessing the risks, the available weapons, and the needed resources, the possibility of passenger flights is highly unlikely as long as Russian military attacks persist.

Aviation expert Bohdan Dolintse explains that Israel’s civil aviation, which is often presented as an example, can’t be applied in this case, considering the different levels of threats, the size of the territories, and that Israel’s sky is much more secure. Also, air carriers can’t fly without liability insurance. For restoring passenger transport, both Ukraine and international regulators, carriers, and insurance companies must recognize airspace safety.

Demand for flight tickets would be quite high, just as it is now for railway tickets, due to the high number of people who have moved within and outside the country. The competition to operate in the Ukrainian market has already started. Beyond practical considerations, it is also about symbolic significance. For airlines, operating flights to Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities in the post-war period would be a powerful PR move. Several Ukrainian airlines with aircraft stationed abroad are planning to resume domestic and international flights once conditions permit. In his meeting with Minister Kubrakov, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary announced plans to invest over €3 billion in Ukraine’s aviation industry once the war ends, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) declares that flying to and from Ukraine is safe again, and low airport fees are obtained. He also mentioned the company wants to start operating flights from the airports of Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa, within six to eight weeks of the reopening of Ukrainian air space. Ryanair’s plans, if implemented, would secure its early presence in the Ukrainian market, but similar moves by other carriers can be expected.

The investments and operations would not only contribute to the country’s economy but also provide employment for various professionals and meet the transportation needs of many people. As for the plans or forecasts, they depend on the current security situation, and the condition of airport infrastructure because Russians can inflict significant damage to it. The current priority must be addressing the needs and obstacles for Ukraine to secure both its territory and airspace.

Women in the Ukrainian army 

As of March 2023, there are 60 538 women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, of which 42 898 are military personnel. Since 2014, the number of women defenders serving in officer positions in the AFU increased almost fivefold – from 1600 to 7400, as was reported by Liubov Humenyuk, chief specialist at the Department of Gender Issues and Relations with Religious Organizations of the Humanitarian Directorate at the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Despite the fact that women’s role is becoming more and more visible, and Ukrainian society accepts and increasingly takes the idea of women serving in the army for granted, there are still many problems faced by servicewomen — from a system designed for men to signs of sexism.

Analysis

In 2016, relevant laws were adopted and women were allowed to serve in combat positions, and in 2018, women officially obtained the right to hold any position of non-commissioned officer, explains Oksana Hryhoryeva — Gender Advisor to the Commander of the Ground Forces of the AFU. Currently, women are fighting as snipers, gunners, tank operators, and battery commanders; in platoons and unmanned aviation units, informed the commander of the United Forces of the AFU, Lieutenant General Serhii Naiev.

Maryna Moloshna, formerly a journalist and now a military officer of the AFU says that “Women are constantly forced to prove that they are worth something, that they will not let others down, that they can be trusted and relied on. They are treated with more meticulous attitudes, while men in the same combat positions automatically get respect”. She adds that the army is not oriented towards women and this can be seen from the problems reported by the servicewomen. “There is sexism, sexual harassment, lack of female uniforms, means of protection and hygiene,” explains Moloshna. Nowadays, the state issues men’s uniforms to all servicepersons. There are also women’s uniforms, but they are mostly provided by volunteers. That is, the production of female uniforms relies on sponsor funds and volunteers, says Oksana Hryhoryeva.

The attitude towards women serving in the army is changing in society, but gender stereotypes are more difficult to overcome than racial and ethnic prejudices, says the deputy director of the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of the National Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of Ukraine Svitlana Chunikhina.

After the resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine “Some issues of ensuring equal rights and opportunities of women and men” of 9 October 2020 came into force, the AFU launched a network of advisors on gender issues in all management bodies and military units to deal exclusively with the objective of ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women and men.

Today, several hundred Ukrainian servicewomen and an unknown number of civilian Ukrainian women are held in Russian captivity. According to Viktoriia Tsymbaliuk, a representative of the Coordination Headquarters of Treatment of POWs, Ukraine does not hold female military servicemen of the enemy army in captivity. This is also what Ukraine demands from Russia – to return the captive women without conditions or exchanges.

Attention

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations