At a glance.
- SSU dismantles an infowar botnet.
- HIMARS, atrocities, provocation, and disinformation.
- A Russian disinformation mouthpiece raises the prospect that there are highly placed traitors in the GRU.
- Rewards for Justice works toward securing elections from Russian meddling.
- The case that Russia's war is genocidal.
- The case that pan-Slavism has found wayward, but sincere, expression in Mr. Putin's war.
Ukraine claims to have taken down a massive Russian bot farm.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) says it dismantled a large Russian botnet operation that was being used to spread Russian propaganda and disinformation. The bots, about a million strong, were herded from locations within Ukraine itself, in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Vinnytsia, BleepingComputer reports. Their output took the form of social media posts from inauthentic accounts associated with fictitious personae. The SSU describes the operation as follows: "Their latest ‘activities’ include the distribution of content on the alleged conflict between the leadership of the President’s Office and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as well as a campaign to discredit the first lady. To spin destabilizing content, perpetrators administered over 1 million of their own bots and numerous groups in social networks with an audience of almost 400,000 users. In the course of a multi-stage special operation, the SSU exposed the leader of this criminal group. He is a russian citizen who has lived in Kyiv and positioned himself as a ‘political expert.’"
On the other side of the information war, BleepingComputer also reported earlier this week that Ukrainian hacktivists, "Torrents of Truth," were bundling instructions on how to bypass Russian censorship into movie torrents whose intended audience would be Russian viewers.
HIMARS, atrocities, provocation, and disinformation.
The killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka is by now clearly a Russian atrocity--the prisoners were apparently murdered by their captors. (And we note in passing that the International Committee of the Red Cross still has not been given the access to the prison international law requires.) The prisoners did not die in a Ukrainian HIMARS strike, as Russia claimed. Politico summarizes the conclusion of US officials who investigated the incident: there's no evidence of a HIMARS strike. Different weapons leave different signatures and debris behind, and these can often decisively identity what weapon was used.
The US-supplied HIMARS rockets continue to disturb Russian operations, and Russian planning and policy. The Telegraph reports that Russia's Defense Ministry has said that HIMARS employment makes the US a direct participant in the war. Misreporting an interview with a senior Ukrainian officer, the Defense Ministry said the US was providing precise, timely targeting information to the Ukrainian batteries. "This is the ultimate proof that Washington, despite the White House and the Pentagon’s claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine," a Kremlin spokesman said.
Sputnik tells the story of a claimed attempt to disrupt HIMARS production, shipment and use from the side of the threat actors, who in this case represent the front group KillNet. The Kremlin outlet quotes the group's leader, known by the nom-de-hack "KillMilk, "Starting today, defense industry corporation Lockheed Martin will be a target of my cyberattacks… I am against weapons! I am against merchants of death." Lockheed Martin produces HIMARS rockets. Newsweek quotes another statement by the group: "The notorious HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems, supplied to Ukraine by the aforementioned military-industrial corporation, allow the criminal authorities of the Kiev regime to kill civilians, destroy the infrastructure and social facilities of the still temporarily occupied Ukraine." KillNet has been talking their campaign up for some time. On July 22nd the group said, "We are using a new type of attack, we have no equal in this area. This is a new technology that we are using for the first time against the world's largest arms manufacturer—Lockheed Martin." Sputnik says the operation will be a "hack-and-leak" campaign, and that KillNet has invited other groups to participate. The claims are in all likelihood inflated, aimed at influencing opinion against Ukraine's use of the weapon.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which under international law inspects prisoner-of-war camps, tweeted over the weekend that it had yet to be granted access to the Russian-operated Olenivka prison. "Granting ICRC access to POWs is an obligation of parties to conflict under the Geneva Conventions," the ICRC pointed out. About fifty Ukrainian prisoners of war are believed to have been killed at Olenivka last week. According to Reuters, Russia claims the prisoners died during a Ukrainian rocket attack, which Ukraine denies conducting. Ukraine charges the Russians with responsibility for both killing the prisoners and staging a provocation. Yahoo News summarizes the evidence that the killings were committed by Russian forces with the dual purpose of killing prisoners they did not wish to exchange (many of them were taken during the fighting at Azovstal) and of discrediting Ukrainian forces.
Should international inspectors, journalists, and other investigators gain direct access to Olvenivka, they're likely to encounter Russian-fabricated evidence that the prisoners died in a Ukrainian strike. The AP reports the US assessment of the likely Russian disinformation. A source in the US Intelligence Community says there's evidence that Russian forces are planting HIMARS rocket fragments collected elsewhere at the site. Euromaidan describes why the imagery Russian forces have provided in support of their claims of a Ukrainian strike shows damage that's not really consistent with a HIMARS strike.
A Russian disinformation mouthpiece raises the prospect that there are highly placed traitors in the GRU.
A disinformation shop run by the FSB suggested this week that GRU officers close to the office of the Russian president have turned traitor, and are being run by the news organization Bellingcat. The claim that Bellingcat has compromised the GRU comes from SouthFront, an English-language news service and Russian government front organization. The teaser for SouthFront's video report reads in part, "Independent journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva [founder of ArmsWatch and a SouthFront correspondent] appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. She says that the Putin’s elite inner circle is infiltrated by NATO informants. She asked for a meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov [boss of Chechnaya, and one of Mr. Putin's more intemperate and brutal political allies] to give him a list of names of identified infiltrated GRU agents." Ms Gaytandzhieva said, in her video, "According to my source, Ramzan Kadyrov is the only person in your circle who can be trusted."
"The idea that @bellingcat, of all organizations, would have spies breathing in Putin's neck and at the top of the GRU, feeding him disinfo and passing personal secrets to us, as flattering as it is, is so ridiculous it doesn't even warrant a serious rebuttal." Of course, Bellingcat would say that--the news organization has long been portrayed, by Russia, as a tool of British intelligence services.
Why SouthFront would take pains to single out the GRU is an interesting question. It may indicate that a purge of the GRU is in the offing. SouthFront is believed to operate from Crimea, and is probably run by the FSB. It's been on the US Treasury Department's list of sanctioned entities since April of 2021. Its singling out of the GRU as a source of leaks, deception, and disinformation seems significant. The FSB may be preparing the ground for a purge of its sister (and rival) service. If this proves to be so, the purge would be another throwback to the 1930s, when Stalin used the GRU and the FSB's predecessors to keep one another in check.
Rewards for Justice works toward securing elections from Russian meddling.
Those providing information on a troll farm and its master may be nicely compensated. The US has been looking toward the security of the upcoming midterm elections and is obviously interested in keeping Russian influence operators out of the mix. The State Department's Rewards for Justice Program tweeted an offer yesterday: "Do you work for Yevgeniy PRIGOZHIN and/or #InternetResearchAgency? Want to earn up to $10M? LET'S CHAT. Drop us a line on the Dark web." Mr. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch close to President Putin (he ran a catering business favored by the Kremlin, hence his nickname "Putin's chef") is known not only for his connection to the Internet Research Agency troll-farm and disinformation shop, but also as the proprietor of the Wagner Group, the private military corporation that supplies Moscow with deniable mercenaries under contract.
The case that Russia's war is genocidal.
Two pieces on Russia's war by academics, one American, one Ukrainian, offer some perspective on the myths that animate that war. Those myths come down to a form of pan-Slavism inherited from Tsarist Russia, shaped by eight decades of Soviet power, and revived by the long retreat from the civilized world Russia has passively endured during President Putin's rule.
The first, a long essay in Foreign Affairs by Kristina Hook (a US State Department alumna, presently Assistant Professor of Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University and a former Fulbright scholar to Ukraine) lays out a convincing case that Russia's war against Ukraine is genocidal in both intent and practice, aiming at expunging Ukrainian national identity, national memory, national language, at expunging an entire nation. The Russian official view is that "Ukrainian" is an artificial construct, Those who might call themselves, and whom others (the West in particular) might consider "Ukrainians," are really just Russians, either repressed by the regime in Kyiv or living in false consciousness, and should be brought back to their true historical identity as such. These are familiar elements that inform declared Russian policy, and as tropes they figure prominently in Moscow's influence operations. Those influence operations have gained little traction in the West (expansively considered to include the developed and democratic world--thus Japan and the Republic of Korea would be "Western" countries), slightly more in Professor Chomsky's "global South" (but where they still fall far short of conviction), and much more within Russia itself.
Ukrainians who would resist such assimilation (or rescue, in the official Russian view) are damned out of their own mouths as unreconstructed Nazis. ("Nazi," it must be stressed, is meant literally. It's not a mere figurative slander.) If such unreconstructed "Ukrainians" are unmasked in the "filtration camps" (an institution pioneered by Soviet Russia as it suspiciously screened returning prisoners of war for evidence of disloyalty), their fate is likely to be grim indeed. Over a million Ukrainians are believed to have been forcibly removed to Russia proper, and (this is particularly chilling) more than 300,000 Ukrainian children have been fast-tracked for adoption by Russian parents.
The author argues that genocide, as a matter of international law, is well-established as a crime. She argues that international efforts to investigate and punish genocide in Ukraine are wholly positive, and should be maintained. They should even be expanded. Leaders should certainly come under sanction from the civilized world, as they have, but the lower ranks, the operators down to the bottom links in the chain-of-command, should also be subjected to individual sanctions, like the denial of visas to travel abroad in the civilized world. She also draws some realistic conclusions for Western policy makers. Russian cease-fire negotiations, for example, should be treated with the utmost suspicion, as such cease-fires serve in the first instance as a gift to genocidal occupation forces more unmolested time on the ground to pursue their objective. And it's unlikely that genocide on the scale currently in progress will be stopped by anything short of military defeat. That need not require a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Equipping, training, and supporting Ukrainian forces offer, she thinks, a reasonable prospect of success, if the political will in the West to deliver such assistance continues.
The case that pan-Slavism has found wayward, but sincere, expression in Mr. Putin's war. (As sincere as such things get.)
The Ukrainians, Mr. Putin says (and some are prepared to think he may actually believe it) are really just Russians. The Slavic countries that have successfully put distance between themselves and the Russia that dominated them during the Cold War as either provinces or satellites, have been particularly aware of this, and have reacted to Russia's invasion of Ukraine with peculiar clarity. (Belarus is the lone clear outlier, with Serbia having opted for a more-or-less tepid neutrality. There's no such trimming in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Czechia, Croatia, Bulgaria, etc. They see what they have to deal with.)
The second essay, by Taras Kuzio (professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy), sees Mr. Putin as having permitted himself to be misled by his own propaganda. He assumed that he would find in Ukrainians the same passivity, the same "lack of agency," he's accustomed to finding among the Russians he rules. (And indeed such routine deference to political authority, such dismissive hostility to individual thought, action, and responsibility, are vividly on display, daily, in the political discussion shows that run on Rossiya 1.) That hasn't been the case. (We note, which Professor Kuzio does not, that some of the fiercest civil resistance to the Russian occupiers has come in cities with a large, perhaps majority, Russophone population, like Kharkiv, which suggests that insular Russian lack of agency hasn't traveled well.)
It's clear that differently constructed and contradictory historical memories are in conflict. Kuzio offers a touchstone for the difference: how Stalin and the Second World War are remembered: "The growing gulf between modern Russia and Ukraine is also evident in the contrasting attitudes of the two neighboring societies toward historical memory. The Putin era has witnessed the rehabilitation of Josef Stalin in Russia and the elevation of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany into something approaching a religious cult. In contract, Ukrainians have belatedly come to terms with many of the darkest chapters of the Soviet past such as the genocidal forced famine of the 1930s that killed an estimated four million people."
The cult of the Great Patriotic War goes back to Soviet times, and modern Russia is in this, as it is in so many other things, the historical heir to the Soviet Union. That's a heritage it claims in official statements. And it's a heritage its forces are enacting on the ground.