Ukraine at D+607: Hacktivism and trolling online; raids and penal battalions on the ground.
N2K logoOct 24, 2023

A Russian elite organization becomes a penal battalion as Ukrainian forces continue their push in the south and their raids into occupied Crimea. Hacktivist auxiliaries and intelligence services operate in cyberspace.

Ukraine at D+607: Hacktivism and trolling online; raids and penal battalions on the ground.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) appraised the state of the war at the beginning of the week. Ukrainian forces have continued to make progress in the vicinity of Bakhmut. Russia resumed drone and missile strikes against grain facilities and other civilian targets, but without significant effect. And Russian domestic production of artillery ammunition, even augmented by North Korean shipments, will sustain a reduced rate of fire, "sufficient," perhaps, for holding actions, but not enough for a major offensive, and not enough to maintain the volumes of fire routinely achieved last year. Russia has also increased prosecution of citizens for "spreading misinformation" and "discrediting the armed forces."

Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty quotes the Russian-installed major of occupied Sevastopol as saying there's been a Ukrainian raid on the city he administers. "Loud sounds -- from an external raid -- the Black Sea Fleet is battling a probable attack by underwater diversionary forces." The Guardian reports that President Zelenskyy says Ukraine intends to keep the pressure on Russia's occupiers in Crimea.

Shtorm-Z: a force designed to be an elite becomes a penal battalion.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) describes the specialized units the Russian army depends on. "Russia largely continues to rely on specially designated ‘Shtorm-Z’ units for local offensive operations in Ukraine. These company-sized groups were likely first fielded in 2022. There is a realistic possibility that Russia originally envisioned them as relatively elite organisations which could seize the tactical initiative." Elites, however, usually disappoint. They tend to be unsustainable, and they tend to be not as effective as their press makes them out to be. That's been the case with Shtorm-Z. "However, since at least spring 2023, Shtorm-Z have effectively become penal battalions, manned with convicts and regular troops on disciplinary charges. Multiple accounts suggest the units are given the lowest priority for logistical and medical support, while repeatedly being ordered to attack. Russian troops have often conducted an effective defence. However, the existence of Shtorm-Z highlights the extreme difficulty Russia has in generating combat infantry capable of conducting effective offensive operations."

Ukrainian hacktivist auxiliaries compromise customer data at Russia's Alfa Bank.

TASS says it never happened, but apparently it did: Alfa Bank, Russia's largest private bank, was hit by Ukrainian hacktivist auxiliaries working in cooperation with the SBU. The Record confirmed the attack with the SBU. Alfa Bank is controlled by oligarch Mikhail Fridman, himself under US and EU sanctions in connection with his role in Russia's war economy. The SBU sees such hacktivism as a contribution to its intelligence collection effort.

Russian services increase collection efforts against Ukrainian war crimes investigators.

The cyberattack earlier this month against the International Criminal Court, not yet formally attributed but almost certainly conducted in the Russian interest, was preceded by a wave of other attempts to penetrate and collect against Ukrainian organizations investigating Russian war crimes. Digital Watch ("an initiative of the Geneva Internet Platform, supported by the Swiss Confederation and the Republic and Canton of Geneva") reported at the end of September that Ukraine's SSCIP has heightened activity by Russian intelligence services working against Ukrainian investigators. "According to an SSSCIP report," Digital Watch writes, "the Russian objective appears to be to identify war crime suspects, potentially aiding them in evading prosecution and facilitating their return to Russia. Additionally, the hackers are likely keen to ascertain the identities of elite soldiers and officers captured in Ukraine for possible exchange." The Russian intelligence requirements suggest a guilty mind, if not an uneasy conscience: Russia's ill-disciplined and poorly-led army has been an atrocity machine since the invasion of Ukraine began in February of 2022.

Trolls spread bed bugs.

The recent overreaction in France and elsewhere to reports of a bedbug infestation in Paris was curious. It seemed excessive, disproportionate to any real risk (or even any real inconvenience), and out-of-character for a culture that would normally have dismissed such worries as an instance of la délicatesse anglo-saxonne. Unpleasant, to be sure, but not really serious, and people who'd be up in arms over a few bed bugs would be the same types who don't like blue cheese because the blue is fungus, and they find the idea of eating fungus creepy.

The short-lived mania had some effect, both domestically (it was raised in the National Assembly) and internationally (Algeria, for one, announced plans to interdict the arrival of bedbugs aboard planes and ships coming from France). But the Telegraph reports that French intelligence services have traced the craze to Russian doppelganger trolling, Fake articles that misrepresented themselves as having been prepared by trusted media were circulated in social media. Case zero of the cognitive infestation seems to have been a bogus article said to have appeared in the regional newspaper La Montagne, which claimed (falsely) that the bugs were surging because effective insecticides had been blocked from France by the country's embargo on Russian chemical imports. Other phony articles of similar bent were misattributed to the left-wing paper Libération and the right-wing paper Le Figaro. They're all forgeries, the bed bugs were never a big deal, and in any case they were around long before France imposed any wartime embargoes on Russia.

The campaign seems to have been opportunistic. There were minor reports of bedbugs, which nowadays amount to a journalistic evergreen, and the Russian trolls ran with them, amplifying a non-story into a minor but recognizable disruption. As has so often been the case with Russian disinformation, it's at its best when its aims are entropic, seeking mostly to confuse. Any persuasion is just gravy.