At a glance.
- Accusations of provocations.
- Accusations of fakery.
- Truth in SIGINT.
- Russian disinformation's traction seems mostly domestic.
- Mr. Nikonov's neighborhood.
- The stukach tradition.
Accusations of provocations.
Rocket fire last Thursday hit a civilian railroad station in the eastern Donbas city of Kramatorsk that was serving as an evacuation hub for refugees. Reports indicate that some 4000 people were in the station at the time of the strike, and that between thirty and fifty were killed, with a larger number maimed or wounded.
Russia says they didn't do it, that the rocket fire was a Ukrainian provocation in which Kyiv killed its own citizens in order to discredit Russia. Local authorities said the rockets used were Tochka surface-to-surface weapons (NATO name "Scarab") that carry an improved conventional munition (a "cluster bomb"). Without specifying the rockets they claim the Ukrainians fired, Russia's Ministry of Defense said that the weapons used were not in the Russian arsenal. (If they were indeed Tochkas, this is a lie. The Tochka is a Soviet-era weapon found in both Russian and Ukrainian inventories.) The Russian Ministry of Defense also said that the railroad station was on the schedule that day, which is risible: artillery fire can of course be scheduled, but it can equally well, and more often is, delivered in response to calls for fire. Even if true, the claim is meaningless as an exoneration.
The disinformation technique is essentially the same that Moscow has taken with respect to its other atrocities, and internationally the disavowal and misdirection seem to be finding few takers. The incident has attracted widespread condemnation.
Alternatively, accusations of fakery.
Russia's ambassador to the UN simply dismissed the video of Russian atrocities that Ukrainian President Navalny showed at the end of his speech to the Security Council. Foreign Policy sees, however, a growing tendency for Moscow to proffer a simulacrum of open-source intelligence (news media, social media, citizen testimony, etc.) to "muddy the waters" around the atrocity at Bucha.
There are also more elaborate attempts to stage video counter-narratives, such as one the Atlantic Council saw on the state-controlled Russian television station Rossiya 24:
"In the video, two men, one in a camouflage outfit resembling a military uniform and one in a green jacket, wrap a mannequin in tape. When Rossiya 24 aired the video, the anchor said it had been staged by Ukraine. 'This is how preparations are going for the theater, in the truest sense of the word, military operation in Ukraine,' the anchor explained. 'It seems everything is quite straightforward, two people in military uniform carefully wrap the mannequin with tape and, obviously, are going to pass it off as a corpse. However, this is not surprising, dozens of fakes with similar mannequins regularly appear in Ukrainian Telegram channels.'”
Thus, the station said, images of civilian dead were nothing more than pictures of mannequins. The station subsequently withdrew its reportage after it was found that the footage in fact came from the filming of a Russian television series.
Truth in SIGINT.
Correlation of satellite imagery with intercepted radio traffic has led Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the foreign intelligence service, to conclude, as Der Spiegel puts it, "that such atrocities were part of the strategy of Putin's army." Paraphrasing sources who heard a BND briefing to the Bundestag, Spiegel writes, "Some of the intercepted traffic apparently matches the locations of bodies found along the main road through town. In one of them, a soldier apparently told another that they had just shot a person on a bicycle. That corresponds to the photo of the dead body lying next to a bicycle that has been shared around the world. In another intercepted conversation, a Russian soldier apparently said: "First you interrogate soldiers, then you shoot them." Some of those responsible for the atrocities are believed to be contract soldiers from the Wagner Group, an organization that acquired a reputation for war crimes during its deployment to Syria.
At issue is whether the atrocities, which now seem undeniable, were a product of policy, of loose discipline and poor command, or of panic. The answer appears to be, in the Washington Post's account, all three. The radio intercepts indicate an easy willingness to discuss the murders that indicates the speakers were under orders. That discipline has been loose seems inarguable, and there's also evidence of panic. These last two factors exacerbate the malign effect of a policy that endorses killing noncombatants. The Telegraph reports one apparently representative exchange between an officer and a subordinate: “'Kill them all.' 'What are you waiting for, you a----f------?' the officer asks. 'This is a whole village of civilians,' the soldier replies. 'Shoot the civilian cars,' the officer says." And shoot they have. Most of the civilian dead in the regions around Kyiv died of gunshot wounds, not fragmentation or blast, and that too suggests deliberate execution, not carelessness with fire.
Russian disinformation sees domestic success but gains little traction abroad.
Russian domestic news seems to have succeeded in keeping up support at home for the war. Whether grief over losses (including grief over large numbers of dead retreating forces abandoned on the battlefield) will work for or against the Kremlin's line remains to be seen, but so far they seem to be succeeding in keeping rage high. When even Kremlin spokesman Peskov is denounced for disloyalty (admittedly from the very extreme point-of-view held by the strongly pro-Kremlin Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who's characterized the war against Ukraine as a "jihad," that is, a religious obligation), moderation is unlikely to get much traction. And effective dissent seems even more remote.
Western governments and groups are looking for ways around pervasive censorship, Foreign Policy reports. The US is reported to be paying for StarLink terminals being delivered to Ukraine in a move designed to bolster the resilience of that country's Internet service.
Mr. Nikonov discerns a "Fourth Reich."
Some of the disinformation would be risible if its intent were not so malign. A prominent member of the Duma, Vyacheslav Nikonov, who's also a television host, yesterday explained what was at stake in Russia's war by saying, according to Newsweek, that "The force that came against us in the Great Patriotic War is forming back up." The Great Patriotic War is what the Second World War is commonly called in Russia, and presumably the "imperialists" who invaded Russia in 1941 are getting the band back together. Since that invasion was almost entirely German, with a little bit of half-hearted Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Slovak support, with some largely independent Finnish resistance to Russian incursions in the north, it's hard to see that coalition forming again. In fairness to Russian culture, there's a tendency to see things through the lens of the Great Patriotic War (like an intensified version of the American habit of calling any unpleasant surprise "another Pearl Harbor") Mr. Nikonov's grasp of history seems tenuous at best, since there's no fascist coalition visible today.
Mr. Nikonov was particularly exercised by the prospects of NATO expansion. "The block of imperialist states will not be complete until it coincides with the Hitler coalition," Nikonov said. "We're talking about a Fourth Reich. And what kind of Fourth Reich would it be without Finland? How do you have a Fourth Reich without Norway? How do you have a Fourth Reich without Japan? It's all forming back up." (For historical literacy, compare Bluto Blutarsky's "When the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, was it over?")
Anyway, here's how Mr. Nikonov explained it to Russian television viewers: "What our heroic military forces are doing in Ukraine is putting a stop to these imperialists. Strength is in strength. Our task is right. Victory will be ours." He said, from a Moscow t.v. studio, and not, for example, from the deck of the Moskva.
"Pavel Morozov?" "Present, Teacher!" (Of course you are.)
Russian students are reporting their teachers to the organs if the teachers show insufficient enthusiasm for Russia's war against Ukraine, according to the Washington Post.