At a glance.
- That's not Mr. Trump being collared.
- Depleted uranium is not a nuclear weapon.
- Diplomacy as disinformation.
- Recent Ghostwriter activity.
- Mr. Prigozhin's PR brinkmanship.
- Criminalizing criticism of forces involved in the special military operation.
Nope--that's not Mr. Trump being collared.
The founder of Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, asked the AI platform Midjourney to show him what it would look like to see Donald Trump arrested. The question, while a goof, done with what MAD Magazine used to call "satirical intent," was topical, since Mr. Trump says he expects to be arrested on various charges in New York. The AI came up with a picture, and then, at Mr. Higgins' instigation, went on to develop a pictorial narrative of Mr. Trump in an orange jumpsuit, in prison, escaping from prison the way the lead did in the Shawshank Redemption, and so on, BuzzFeed reports. “They kind of formed a narrative and I thought it was really amusing,” Mr. Higgins told BuzzFeed. “I put it out there. I didn't intend to do any clever criticism or anything like that. But then it kind of took on a life of its own.” He tweeted the pictures, because doing so was presumably just too technically sweet to pass up. And of course they enjoyed a limited virality on Twitter.
The proprietors of Midjourney didn't like the performance, and have banned Mr. Higgins from their platform. That's not out of any political animus, but rather an understandable skittishness about aiding and abetting what could become disinformation. Mr. Higgins doesn't hold it against them. “I suspect it was pushing my luck when I did the thread, let alone when it went viral.”
He also thought the faces in the images "looked a little weird," and WIRED explains at length some of the telltale weirdness that persists even the best of deepfakes, given the current state of the art. One of the more surprising tells is messy or even nonsensical text in the backgrounds.
Depleted uranium is not a nuclear weapon.
The tank ammunition the UK is supplying Ukraine includes depleted uranium rounds. These are, in armor lingo, "penetrators;" that is, solid, very dense slugs that penetrate armor by the kinetic energy of their impact, and not by the chemical explosion that would come from detonation of a high-explosive shell. (And a tip in watching video of the war--if an explosion is shown and attributed to "a tank firing," it's probably not a tank. Penetrators don't explode. There is some explosive tank ammunition, but not much. Odds are that any explosion induced by tank fire would be a secondary explosion on the target itself.) A depleted uranium tank round is in no sense a nuclear weapon, yet Russia (which, like every other advanced army, uses depleted uranium projectiles) has sought to represent it as such, darkly implying that Britain's provision of tank rounds has escalated the special military operation to the brink of nuclear war.
President Putin said Tuesday, at a joint media session with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi:
"Moreover, I have just been informed that while the Chairman and I were discussing the possibility of implementing the Chinese peace plan - and the Chinese President paid great attention to his peace initiatives during our face-to-face conversation yesterday - it became known that the United Kingdom through the mouth of the deputy head of the Ministry of Defense of this country, announced not only the supply of tanks to Ukraine, but also shells with depleted uranium.
"It seems that the West really decided to fight with Russia to the last Ukrainian - no longer in words, but in deeds. But in this regard, I would like to note that if all this happens, then Russia will have to respond accordingly. I mean that the collective West is already starting to use weapons with a nuclear component."
His Defense Minister, Mr. Shoigu, also explicitly called depleted uranium a dangerous approach to nuclear war. Reuters writes, "Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the British decision left fewer and fewer steps before a potential 'nuclear collision' between Russia and the West. 'Another step has been taken, and there are fewer and fewer left,'
The BBC published the UK's official reaction, which pointed out that depleted uranium is a standard component of tank ammunition, has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and presents no serious environmental hazard. Uranium is a heavy metal, and like most heavy metals is toxic if ingested. The Ministry of Defence addressed this hazard in its response: "Independent research by scientists from groups such as the Royal Society has assessed that any impact to personal health and the environment from the use of depleted uranium munitions is likely to be low."
Diplomacy as disinformation.
The Council on Foreign Relations describes and assesses a proposal for an international information security convention Russia has brought before the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group on Security of and in the Use of Information and Communications Technologies (OEWG). The Council evaluates the Russian proposal as both disingenuous and authoritarian in motivation. "Russia aims to legitimize extensive domestic surveillance to bolster regime security and crack down on dissent." The proposal's omissions are, the Council says, equally significant. "It is not just about what the document contains, but also what is left out. There is no mention of the applicability of international human rights law, explicit mention of the normative framework of responsible state behavior, the threat of ransomware and the active role of multistakeholders." Many other nations (the Council mentions Sweden, South Korea, Colombia, Austria, and the United States) regard international law as already providing adequate coverage to activities in cyberspace, requiring only clarification, not replacement. Finally, the Council tasks Russia with bad faith. "The Russian concept note calls for sovereign equality, the territorial integrity of states and noninterference in the internal affairs of others through propaganda and other means. Considering Russia’s countless cyber operations against Ukraine and its trolling activities abroad this is pure hypocrisy."
Ghostwriter remains active in social engineering attempts to target Ukrainian refugees.
The Ghostwriter threat group has resumed a campaign in which bogus emails misrepresenting themselves as originating with the governments of Latvia, Lithuania, or Poland are hitting the in-boxes of organizations working with Ukrainian refugees. The content of the emails warns that the Ukrainian government is about to undertake mass conscription of military-age men with the intent of feeding the conscripts into combat against Russia. Bloomberg writes, "Ukrainian men of military age, the emails warned, were scheduled to be rounded up and sent home. They would then be forced to fight against Russian troops, according to a supposed agreement between Ukraine and its allies. People who received the emails should immediately provide personal information and any known whereabouts of Ukrainians living nearby, the messages said." The goal is to inspire fear and mistrust. Mandiant attributes Ghostwriter to Belarus, Russia's one reliable ally in its war against Ukraine.
Mr. Prigozhin's PR brinkmanship.
"He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted," said one of Damon Runyon's characters. Mr. Prigozhin seems to be taking up the spirit of that advice, but he's tooting in a risky direction. On March 16th the Institute for the Study of War wrote:
"Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed that he received a press question exposing a plot spearheaded by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev to undermine and 'neutralize' the Wagner Group. Prigozhin’s press service published a claimed request for comment on March 16 from Russian outlet Nezavisimaya Gazeta asking if Prigozhin was aware of alleged discussions between Putin and Patrushev regarding the future of the Wagner Group. The press comment claims that information on these discussions has recently circulated on Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels and alleges that Patrushev suggested to Putin that there will be 'nothing left' of Wagner in 'one and a half to two months.' The post goes on to claim that Patrushev suggested that upon Wagner’s destruction in Ukraine, Prigozhin will try to 'unite the former and remaining active Wagner fighters under a far-fetched pretext,' arm them, and 'send them to the territory of Russia in order to seize power in the regions bordering Ukraine with a possible advance inland.' The post concludes that Patrushev has already ordered observation and control over the movement of former Wagner fighters and that Putin reportedly agreed with this step and thanked Patrushev for his efforts to 'neutralize Wagner in general and Yevgeny Prigozhin in particular.' Prigozhin posted an audio clip in response to the claimed press comment saying that he had not heard about these supposed negotiations or observed speculation on Telegram channels, remarking that Russian special services should work to neutralize threats to Russia regardless of where they come from."
The Institute for the Study of War thinks the absence of any chatter about this in "the Russian information space...suggests that Prigozhin has fabricated the alleged plot to further several information operations on behalf of Wagner and his own reputation. First, this exchange clearly identifies Patrushev and possibly the Russian Security Council as enemies of the Wagner Group. Prigozhin appears to be setting careful information conditions to blame Patrushev for Wagner’s failures and potential crackdowns against the group, as well as introducing an invented scenario wherein Wagner poses a direct threat to Russia domestically. This effort appears to be the next evolution of Prigozhin’s campaign against the Russian military establishment, and Patrushev could become Prigozhin’s next target after his concerted informational campaigns against the Russian Ministry of Defense and General Staff." The trope of wicked advisors around the throne has a long history in Russian politics ("It only the Tsar knew," etc.) and Mr. Prigozhin would seem to be attempting to cast Mr. Patrushev as the next such evil courtier.
Criminalizing criticism of forces involved in the special military operation.
It's now formally a crime, in Russia, to slander any participant in the special military operation. TASS reports that under a law President Putin signed at the end of last week, "the public discrediting of all participants in the special military operation, including volunteer units, organizations and individuals facilitating the Russian Armed Forces’ missions, will now be punishable under the law, with the maximum penalty increased from five to seven years in prison." There's an additional penalty for "spreading fake news about volunteers participating in the special operation," which can be punished with fifteen years in prison.
A question: where do the Wagner Group's press releases fall, with respect to current Russian law?