Ukraine at D+113: More attrition, and an interesting espionage attempt.
N2K logoJun 17, 2022

Russia continues to expend troops and matériel in the Donbas, and Ukraine considers a more extensive counteroffensive along the South Coast. New British sanctions address war crimes and crimes against peace. Belarusian and Ukrainian hacktivists form a de facto alliance. Dutch counterintelligence authorities stop a GRU illegal from taking an internship with the International Criminal Court.

Ukraine at D+113: More attrition, and an interesting espionage attempt.

This morning's situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence notes continued Russian efforts to reduce Sieverodonetsk. "Over the last 24 hours, Russian forces have likely continued to attempt to regain momentum on the Popasna axis, from which they seek to surround the Sieverodonetsk pocket from the south." Russian formations are reported by the Telegraph, citing various Western intelligence estimates, to have been "severely depleted" during the campaign.

The MoD's situation report moves on to a consideration of the domestic effects of the special military operation within Russia itself. "In Russia, the war has accelerated the state’s long-term trajectory towards authoritarianism. In recent weeks, the Duma has started the process to introduce a 20-year sentence for Russians who fight against the Russian Federation. Speaking out against the invasion is also being criminalised. Despite the majority of Russians telling pollsters they support the ‘special military operation’, elements of the population both actively and passively demonstrate their opposition. The “Freedom for Russia Legion”, recruited from Russians, has almost certainly deployed in combat alongside the Ukrainian military. Some high profile Russian officials have highly likely been side-lined after criticising the war. Scepticism about the war is likely also particularly strong amongst Russia’s business elite and oligarch community. Migration applications suggest that 15,000 Russian millionaires (in US dollars) are likely already attempting to leave the country. Motivations highly likely include both personal opposition to the invasion and an intent to escape the financial impact of the sanctions imposed on Russia. Should this exodus continue, it will likely exacerbate the war’s long-term damage to Russia’s economy."

The Ukrainian commander in charge of the defense of Mykolaiv, in the south, Major General Dmytro Marchenko, has said he regards the bridge that connects Crimea to Russia as a legitimate target. The bridge over the Kerch Strait is a major conduit for Russian forces operating from occupied Crimea.

Varying strategic assessments of Russia's war against Ukraine.

The Guardian reports that Admiral Sir Tony Radikin, Britain's senior military officer, has said that Russia has already “strategically lost” the war in Ukraine, trading personnel and matériel for relatively limited and insignificant gains. Russia is, he argued, now a “more diminished power,” and that diminution is a direct consequence of its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov offered counterpoint in an interview he gave to the BBC. “We didn’t invade Ukraine,” Mr. Lavrov explained. “We declared a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way of explaining to the west that dragging Ukraine into Nato was a criminal act.” He dismissed credible accounts of Russian atrocities as "fake news." “It’s a great pity,” the Foreign Minister said, “but international diplomats, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN secretary general and other UN representatives, are being put under pressure by the west. And very often they’re being used to amplify fake news spread by the west. Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are.”

Newly imposed British sanctions address crimes against peace and war crimes.

The British Foreign Office yesterday announced a new round of sanctions against Russian organizations and individuals. Some are aimed at punishing supporters of what the Foreign Ministry characterizes as "Russian military aggression in Ukraine," including the government of Myanmar, for its purchases of Russian military equipment. Other sanctions target individuals said to be complicit in war crimes, including the abduction and forced adoption of Ukrainian children. The Foreign Office listed some of the individuals now under sanction:

  • "Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova sanctioned for the forced transfer and adoption of Ukrainian children."
  • "Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, sanctioned for his support and endorsement of Putin’s war."
  • "Sergey Savostyanov, the deputy of the Moscow city Duma and member of Putin’s political elite, sanctioned for publicly supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine."
  • "Alexey Isaykin, President and Board Member of Volga-Dnepr Group, a Russian transport company with significant air operations that is contracted by the Russian Government to create air bridges that carry critical goods."
  • "Four Military Colonels from the 64th Separate Motorised Rifle Brigade, a unit known to have killed, raped, and tortured civilians in Bucha, have also been sanctioned for the Brigade’s role in Ukraine."

Evidence of Russian war crimes continues its heartbreaking accumulation. The New York Times describes heavy civilian casualties in the Donbas.

Russian influence operations appear to fall short of their objective.

CyberScoop reviews the operation and results of Russian attempts to isolate the portions of Ukraine it's occupied and "canalize" the information they receive. This has been done by routing Internet and telecommunications traffic to and from those regions through Russian providers, controlling content and subjecting comms that transit the network to deep packet inspection. The ability to survey Ukrainians' communications in the occupied regions serves the general goal of controlling the population, but it also serves specific operational security needs, since Ukrainians have regularly reported Russian troop movements and other activities they observe, and that information finds its way to Ukrainian military intelligence.

Content moderation and communications restrictions have other objectives. Victor Zhora, deputy head of Ukraine's SSSCIP, said, "we understand that the objective is to sow disinformation, to sow panic and instability." The propaganda is tailored to the specific audience of each occupied region. “It is to make people understand that they have been forgotten,” Zhora explained, adding that the hopelessness the occupiers seek to instill serves the longer term goal of Russification. “The Ukrainian army is losing their last chance to return to normal life, so please get these Russian passports, continue collaborating, etc.”

Information, while restricted, continues to reach contested regions of Ukraine, and observers give SpaceX's StarLink a good bit of credit for maintaining a degree of connectivity in those areas.

Hacktivism continues to represent a problem for Belarus.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek has a summary account of hacktivism in Belarus. Dissidents oppose both the war against Ukraine (in which Belarus has played a soft supporting role) and President Lukashenka's regime. The Belarus Cyber Partisan have formed an alliance with their Ukrainian counterparts, the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance, a connection the Cyber Alliance describes as "natural" given the alignment of the groups' interests. Their activities have concentrated on doxing Russian and Belarusian agencies and companies, and on disrupting Belarusian rail traffic. Belarusian railroads have played a role in delivering logistical support to Russian forces engaged in the invasion of Ukraine.

Putting the Service into service learning.

The Netherlands' General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) announced yesterday that they'd stopped a Russian GRU illegal from taking a position, an internship, with the International Criminal Court in the Hague. AIVD gave a brief account of the legend the illegal had created as part of his cover: "The Russian intelligence officer purported to be Brazilian citizen Viktor Muller Ferreira (born on 4 April 1989), when in fact his real name is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov (born 11 September 1985). Cherkasov used a well-constructed cover identity by which he concealed all his ties with Russia in general, and the GRU in particular." AIVD has published documents giving more details on the legend; some of them seem to have been written by Mr. Cherkasov himself as an aide-memoire.

They tell a touching story of a mildly hard-scrabble life Senhor Ferreira led growing up in Brazil, a little bit global South, a little bit Horatio Alger, and supplying what Gilbert and Sullivan would have called “Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” He was pained when the other kids called him "gringo" because they thought he looked German, for example. ("Gringo" is typically reserved for anglophones, but then English is a Germanic language, so maybe close enough for the playground.) Another fun fact: Senhor Ferreira reminds himself that he likes clubbing only where they play trance music, a detail we confess wouldn't have screamed "GRU hood" to us, but then we don't get around much anymore. The legend as a whole receives a great deal of literary criticism (perhaps amateur, perhaps professional, but in any case fairly sharp and sometimes catty) in this Twitter thread.

The Washington Post notes that Mr. Cherkasov passed himself through the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies between 2018 and 2020, earning a master's degree with a specialization in “American foreign policy.” The Post also reports the general consensus as to why the GRU wanted to place him in the International Criminal Court: they're interested in intelligence about war crimes investigations Russia faces in the ICC. Setting up an illegal with an elaborate, plausible legend is expensive and time-consuming, and that the GRU thought this worthwhile suggests that they consider the ICC a target worth infiltrating. Mr. Lavrov may say war crimes stories are just Western "fake news," but the GRU knows better.

The Johns Hopkins professor who wrote him a letter of recommendation is commendably frank about how he was gulled. "After the graduation he asked for a reference letter for the ICC. Given my research focus it made sense. I wrote him a letter. A strong one, in fact. Yes, me. I wrote a reference letter for a GRU officer. I will never get over this fact. I hate everything about GRU, him, this story. I am so glad he was exposed." He shouldn't feel too bad. It's not his job to be a counterintelligence officer, after all, and illegals have fooled the best. Congratulations to AIVD for smoking this one out. The Dutch authorities sent him back to Brazil, by the way, which seems a nice, literal-minded, ironic touch. Let the Aquarium pay for Mr. Cherkasov's passage home.