Ukraine at D+622: Shifting Kremlin narratives.
N2K logoNov 8, 2023

Russian influence operations take a pro-mobilization turn domestically, an anti-neocolonialist line internationally.

Ukraine at D+622: Shifting Kremlin narratives.

Ukraine appears to have moved a small number of armored vehicles across the Dnipro River. "Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian forces transferred a limited number of armored vehicles to the east (left) bank of Kherson Oblast and are continuing larger-than-usual ground operations on the east bank with a light infantry grouping of roughly battalion size" the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported yesterday. "Russian milbloggers amplified a picture on November 6 purporting to show a Ukrainian tracked amphibious transport (PTS) vehicle carrying an infantry fighting vehicle onto the east bank near Krynky (30km northeast of Kherson City and 2km from the Dnipro River). Other milbloggers claimed on November 7 that a Ukrainian amphibious infantry fighting vehicle crossed the Dnipro River on its own near Krynky and amplified separate footage on November 7 purporting to show a destroyed Western amphibious armored personnel carrier in an unspecified location on the east bank." At least one Ukrainian battalion-equivalent is over the river in strength.

Expecting missile and drone strikes against infrastructure, particularly energy infrastructure, this winter, Ukraine is strengthening air defenses around the facilities thought to be at risk, Al Jazeera reports. According to the Guardian, Ukraine's energy ministry says that in recent weeks there have been some sixty attacks against infrastructure.

Mobilization is trending in the Russian "information space."

The Russian milbloggers have tended to be critical of their country's war effort. They tend to be hard-war types, and they often excoriate the Ministry of Defense for what they consider tepid commitment and insufficient ruthlessness. But a new sobriety has crept into the posts of even the habitually supportive, optimistic, and gung ho milbloggers. Some are saying, according to the ISW, that Ukraine is committed to a long, wasting war, and that Russia's presently available resources aren't sufficient for victory. The mood has spread widely in what may be a trial balloon for the full mobilization the Russian government has so far resisted for fear of a popular backlash. (Indeed, several-hundred-thousand service-eligible men fled the country at the time of the last partial mobilization.)

Sabotage as a form of dissent.

"Seventeen months after the first incidents were reported, sabotage of Russian railways by anti-war activists continues to represent a significant challenge for the Russian authorities," the UK's Ministry of Defence wrote in this morning's situation report. "Research by independent Russian media outlet Mediazona suggests that, as of October 2023, 76 cases of railway sabotage had reached court since the invasion. At least 137 people, with the vast majority aged under 24, had been prosecuted. Since early 2023, notices have been stencilled on key pieces of railway infrastructure pointing out that, under the Russian Criminal Code, sabotage can be punished with up to life imprisonment. Russia’s military logistics, including supplying the war in Ukraine, remain reliant on the country’s 33,000km of railway line. With virtually all methods of overt dissent banned in Russia, sabotage continues to appeal to a minority of young people as a method of protest against the ‘Special Military Operation’."

Religion and irreligion in the service of the state.

The Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill, has given full-throated support not only to Russia's war, but to Mr. Putin's conduct of that war. This represents both institutional continuity--the Russian Orthodox Church has served the Russian state in its imperial, communist, and post-communist forms for centuries--and personal continuity--the Patriarch was closely connected with the Soviet KGB in the 1970s. Ukrainian religious leaders report widespread repression of other Christian churches and Jewish communities in Russian-occupied territories, with Muslim leaders also indicating a degree of discrimination. Some of the repression has been lethal, entailing the murder of leaders and their congregants by occupation forces, the Atlantic Council reports.

Abroad, France is investigating a recent wave of antisemitic graffiti as a direct Russian provocation. The campaign quickly followed the October 7th Hamas terror attack into Israel, and French security services, the Telegraph reports, think it represents an opportunistic attempt by Russian agents to destabilize French society.

Russian disinformation campaign seeks to influence Latin America against Ukraine and NATO.

The U.S. State Department yesterday accused the Russian government of running a large-scale disinformation effort in Latin America. "The Social Design Agency (SDA), the Institute for Internet Development, and Structura coordinated on the development of an information manipulation campaign targeting Latin America that aims to promote Russia’s strategic interests in the region at the expense of other countries by overtly and covertly coopting local media and influencers to spread disinformation and propaganda. These are 'influence-for-hire' firms with deep technical capability, experience in exploiting open information environments, and a history of proliferating disinformation and propaganda to further Russia’s foreign influence objectives."

The effort begins, the State Department says, with the organization of an editorial staff in the region (probably in Chile), with local agents of influence recruited locally in targeted countries throughout the region. Content is then created in Russia for subsequent transmission to local agents. Editors in Moscow proficient in Spanish play a central role in such content creation. The Spanish-language outlets Pressenza and El Ciudadano are central to dissemination of the content. A broader network is available for amplification of messages.

The campaign seeks "to launder its propaganda and disinformation through local media in a way that feels organic to Latin American audiences." Its goal is "to undermine support for Ukraine and propagate anti-U.S. and anti-NATO sentiment." The content aims generally to misrepresent Russia as a champion against neocolonialism, its war in Ukraine a just struggle against Western imperialism. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay are among the countries targeted.

Four cyber phases of a hybrid war.

Forcepoint analysts, looking at both Russia's war against Ukraine and the war unleashed by Hamas's assault on Israel, concluded that cyber operations in any hybrid war are likely to fall into four conceptually distinct, albeit temporally overlapping, phases:

  • "Phase 1: Increase in Scale and Impact of Attacks. In this initial phase, attacks increase in scope, evolving from hashtags to defacements and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks."
  • "Phase 2: Expanded Targeting and More Sophisticated Attacks. The emergence of state-linked proxy cyber threat actors typically bring about more sophisticated targeting strategies, including cyberterrorism."
  • "Phase 3: Ransomware Operations and False Flags. Ransomware groups and deceptive tactics become part of the cyber landscape, impacting virtual and physical infrastructures, as well as public perception."
  • "Phase 4: Coordination with Kinetic Operations. Cyberattacks are closely coordinated with kinetic operations, impacting not only virtual but also physical aspects of the armed conflict."

Of these four phases, the fourth has been least in evidence in both of the present wars. Wiper attacks have represented the closest approach to effective targeting coordinated with operations on the ground. Among these only the Russian attacks on Viasat networks in the opening hours of the invasion have had tactical effect, and even that effect was short-lived. Far more prominent have been the other three phases, and it's noteworthy that all of these involved deniable auxiliaries, false-flag operations, privateering, and co-opted criminal activity. None of these lend themselves to the sort of combined arms coordination historically seen with traditional electronic warfare.