At a glance.
- The Kremlin's narrative of a forever war.
- Nuclear talk as a tool of persuasion.
- De-anonymizing Telegram?
- Censorship, civil society, and transnational repression.
The Kremlin's narrative of a forever war.
With a stalled offensive, and no prospect of victory for months or even years, Russian official rhetoric concerning its war over Ukraine has shifted from talk of quick reconquest of lost territories and self-determination for ethnic Russians to a narrative of national survival, with an explicit acknowledgement that the special military operation (increasingly called "war" in government-controlled media) involves an indefinite commitment to combat. The Guardian quotes Alexander Dugin, geopolitical philosopher and prominent nationalist hawk: “Not everyone in this country yet understands what we’re going to have to pay to win this war. People in our country have to pay for their love for Russia with their lives. It’s serious and we weren’t ready for this. I don’t think people in this country fully understand what is happening after a year. Of course there’s full support from the president but it hasn’t fully come into the hearts and souls of all our people … some people have woken up, some people have not. Despite the year of war, it is going very slowly.” This does not represent a change of heart on Mr. Dugin's part, a softening of his own commitment to President Putin's war. It's rather a call for hard war, for, as some observers have characterized it, a "forever war."
Nuclear talk as a tool of persuasion.
Russia announced over the weekend that it intends, in the near future, to stage tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. The announcement is disturbing as an escalation of Moscow's nuclear saber-rattling, but it's unlikely to deliver any tactical advantage or additional deterrent effect. Diplomatically, it will tend to slave Belarus even more closely to Russian policy and military operations. It also represents heightened disinformation: a Russian response to the news that the UK will supply depleted uranium tank ammunition to Ukraine along with Challenger tanks. Russia has suggested, falsely, that depleted uranium is a nuclear weapon, and that therefore Russian nuclear moves are purely defensive actions forced upon it by the collective West. Ukraine has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to address the Russian announcement.
Russian officials quoted in Rossiyskaya Gazeta amplified President Putin's Saturday announcement of plans to move nuclear weapons to Belarus. Kremlin spokesman Peskov said Western adverse reaction to the announcement would have no effect on Russian actions, and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that, while the Americans provocatively believed they could execute a first strike against Russian strategic forces, that's a dangerous illusion. Russia, Mr. Patrushev said, is a threat to no one, but it wants the world to understand it can and will destroy any country in the world, including the United States, "in the event of a threat to its existence."
The announced deployment may be, for now, more gesture than practical reality. The Guardian reports that there are few signs of the sort of preparations that moving nuclear weapons to Belarus are generally thought to require. (But a reservation: there's no reason tactical nuclear forces can't be maintained deployed in the field for an extended period of time without the sort of construction the Guardian's sources are looking for.)
Rostec, a Russian state-owned defense conglomerate, is reported to have developed a way of de-anonymizing Telegram channels, BleepingComputer reports. The capability is expected to be delivered to the FSB and other security organs this year. In the account by the dissident Russian outlet Bell, the effort amounts to a heavy-handed campaign designed to align Telegram feeds with the government line. The tool Rostec has built to do so, "Охотник" (that is, "Hunter") "is said to use over 700 data points to make associations and correlations that can lead to unmasking otherwise anonymous Telegram users." Hunter casts a wide net, if it indeed operates as advertised. "The data points are drawn from social networks, blogs, forums, instant messengers, bulletin boards, cryptocurrency blockchains, darknet, and government services, and concern names, nicknames, email addresses, websites, domains, crypto wallets, encryption keys, phone numbers, geolocation info, IP addresses, and more."
Such is the public account of the capability by Rostec and the Russian government, who compare Hunter to Palantir, but the story seems unlikely to at least some observers. "But for identifying channel owners," the opposition activist group RosKomSvoboda writes, "one cannot with certainty assume that the scheme could work without mixing in either some kind of 0day vulnerability in the Telegram API, or without the cooperation of someone with administrative access to the messenger servers." That is, there's either a vulnerability in Telegram's software or a compromised insider with considerable access. RosKomSvoboda ("Russian Communications Freedom") was denounced last year by the Russian Ministry of Justice as a foreign agent. The group describes itself as "the first Russian public organization active in the field of protecting digital rights and expanding digital opportunities," and says it's in favor of privacy and opposed to censorship.
Censorship, civil society, and transnational repression.
Any move to deprive Telegram users of such anonymity as they may enjoy is preparation for action against dissent, and against any aspects of civil society the regime may regard as insufficiently aligned with the government line. This would represent a relatively minor but still significant action of the kind several nations addressed Thursday in a "Joint Statement on the Strategic Dialogue on Cybersecurity of Civil Society Under Threat of Transnational Repression." The statement is brief enough to quote in full:
"We, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, recognize that civil society organizations, human rights defenders, dissidents, advocacy groups, journalists, and cultural institutions play an essential role in global democracy. The expression of civil rights and free speech without fear is a cornerstone value that we share. Authoritarian governments are increasingly using cyber means to target these groups, both within their countries and across international borders, including in acts of transnational repression to censor political opposition and track dissidents.
"Over the coming year, we commit to identifying actions that our governments can take to help defend these groups within our respective countries. To support this important mission, the Strategic Dialogue on Cybersecurity of Civil Society Under Threat of Transnational Repression has been established among participating governments. This forum will convene on a regular basis to share information about what each participating country is doing to support the cybersecurity needs of high-risk communities, to share insights on the threat landscape impacting these communities, and to identify opportunities for collaboration on efforts to advance cybersecurity for civil society around the world. In addition, we commit to engaging with civil society and industry in our efforts."