Ukraine at D+435: Drones, hacktivists, and Mr. Prigozhin's discontents.
N2K logoMay 5, 2023

The Kremlin drone incident this week looks more like a Russian provocation, but the jury's still out. The Wagner Group may withdraw from Bakhmut. KillNet publishes its (ambitious) hack-for-hire menu.

Ukraine at D+435: Drones, hacktivists, and Mr. Prigozhin's discontents.

Russian shelling and drone strikes against civilian areas continue. In the most recent wave of Shahed strikes, a majority of which were intercepted by Ukrainian air defense forces, the Russian operators had chalked "For the Kremlin" on the drones' tails. That is, the drone strikes are retaliation for what Russia claims was the attempted assassination of President Putin.

Kremlin drone incident looks more like a false flag operation.

Both US and Ukrainian officials immediately denied having anything to do with Wednesday's harmless explosion of two drones over the Kremlin. But Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov doubled down on Moscow's wheels-within-wheels conspiracy story. "Attempts to disown this, both in Kyiv and in Washington, are, of course, absolutely ridiculous. We know very well that decisions about such actions, about such terrorist attacks, are made not in Kyiv but in Washington," Mr. Peskov said. "This is also often dictated from across the ocean. We know this well and are aware of this ... In Washington they must clearly understand that we know this."

The incidents increasingly look like the work of either a Russian dissident group or, and this is widely held to be the more probable explanation, of Russian security forces themselves, a false-flag provocation. Business Insider, relying largely on analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, reviews the reasons why observers are leaning in this direction. It seems unlikely (albeit not impossible) that the extensive air defense systems installed around Moscow would have failed to detect and respond to a Ukrainian drone attack. It's also surprising, although again not impossible, that the explosion over the Kremlin was caught in clean video. A surprise strike is unlikely to have been captured with such cinematic clarity. It's also noteworthy that official statements about the incident were quick, unambiguous, and consistent. When confronted with other, unanticipated, military setbacks, it's taken official Russia some time to get its story straight.

Both Lithuanian and Ukrainian officials express little doubt that the strikes were a Russian provocation. With little in the way of battlefield success to show the home front, Breaking Defense reports that officials in those governments see the strike on the Kremlin as fundamentally an attempt to shore up domestic morale.

Russian shortages of troops and matériel tell on the battlefield.

US DNI Haines testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, and said that Russia was unlikely to be capable of serious offensive operations for the remainder of 2023. The Institute for the Study of War describes her testimony: "US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines stated that Russian forces are likely unable to conduct a 'significant offensive' in 2023 due to munitions and manpower shortages regardless of the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Haines testified on May 4 to the Senate Armed Services Committee that it will be increasingly challenging for Russia to sustain 'even modest offensive operations' if the Kremlin does not initiate mandatory mobilization or obtain third-party ammunition supplies in addition to existing deliveries from Iran and other unspecified countries. Haines stated that Putin has 'probably' reduced his short-term goals in Ukraine to consolidate control over occupied territories and is unlikely to consider negotiations with Ukraine. Haines’ statements support and expand on ISW’s prior assessments that Russian forces are unable to conduct large-scale, simultaneous offensive campaigns on multiple axes."

DNI Haines's perspective is a longer-term one. More immediately, Russian units are struggling to hang onto their foothold in Bakhmut. Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said, in an intemperate video lecture, that inadequate support from the Ministry of Defense has forced on him the decision to withdraw his forces from Bakhmut. To limit the humiliation that will foreseeably attend the withdrawal, Mr. Prigozhin says that the troops will remain in the line until Victory Day, May 9th. “These are Wagner lads who died today. The blood is still fresh,” the Guardian quotes Mr. Prigozhin as saying while he walked through a field of some three dozen Wagner Group corpses. “They came here as volunteers and are dying so you can sit like fat cats in your luxury offices.” Among the fat cats he called out by name were theater commander and General Staff chief Gerasimov and Defense Minister Shoigu. “Shoigu, Gerasimov, where the f**k is our ammunition?” The BBC says the Kremlin declined to comment on Mr. Prigozhin's video.

Attacks on rail transport exacerbate Russian logistical problems.

"A recent uptick in Russian rail accidents in areas bordering Ukraine, attributed to sabotage committed by unknown actors, has almost certainly caused short-term localised disruption to Russian military rail movements," the UK's Ministry of Defence reported this morning. "Although its Railway Troop Brigades are capable of restoring lines quickly, these incidents will increase pressure on Russia’s internal security forces, who will highly likely remain unable to fully protect Russia’s vast and vulnerable rail networks from attack."

KillNet's reorganization continues.

The Russian hacktivist auxiliary KillNet continues its ongoing visioning exercise. Flashpoint reports that the group has remained committed to turning a profit. Flashpoint also argues that this isn't really new. "Flashpoint has pointed out several times that, for all of its nationalistic antics, Killnet has remained a primarily financially-motivated group that has used the media exposure provided by an eager Russian pro-Kremlin media ecosystem to promote its DDoS-for-hire services. Killnet has partnered with several botnet providers as well as the Deanon Club, a partner threat group, to target narcotics-focused darknet markets." KillNet hasn't shown any particular growth in terms of sophistication or effectiveness, and this reliance on ho-hum, commodity tools has attracted the ridicule of other players in the cyber underworld. "Killnet remains widely ridiculed on top-tier Russian-speaking forums," Flashpoint writes. "On Exploit, for example, a thread in which the group’s leader, Killmilk, was advertising the sale of Infinity, drew widespread mockery, with users offering a couple hundred dollars for what many of them saw as a lost cause."

We looked at what KillNet is offering. It's a more varied menu than one might expect. They promise to respond to all requests for missions in eight business hours (or sooner, if the request is especially urgent). 51% of the payment for a mission is required up-front, with the balance due at some mutually agreeable time. when both parties deem it acceptable. Here's a list of the commissions KillNet is offering to take:

  1. Develop campaigns focused on "legal entities and individuals in the judicial systems" of the United states and Europe. Specifically they listed disinformation campaigns, disruption of network infrastructure, industrial sabotage, artificial conflicts between company employees, and “killing reputation in official sources;”  
  2. Create autonomous UAVs, those with Intel gathering or suicide capabilities will be made only for the MOD and the PMC Wagner; 
  3. Create electronic warfare and electronic reconnaissance drones only for the MOD and Wagner;
  4. Create automated robotic systems for MOD and Wagner; and
  5. Create custom software for any individual wishing to buy it.  

In addition to their commercial mission, they of course remain patriots. The group has urged Russian citizens to refrain from launching any objects into the sky for Russia’s May 9th Victory Day. They explain that this could lead to an unintended "provocation," and that could paralyze Russia’s air defense system.