Russia pushes hard in the Donbas and tightens its blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports. Russian media steel the public for a long (but ultimately victorious) war as they ramp up official denials of any legitimate Ukrainian national identity. Chinese cyber espionage operations appear to continue against Russian targets. And Ukraine gets propaganda advice from the Lincoln Project: don't demonize Putin; razz him.
Ukraine at D+90: Steeling Russians for a big push in a long war.
This morning's situation report from the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) concentrates on the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. "There has been no significant merchant shipping activity in or out of Odessa since the start of the war. Russia's subsequent naval blockade of key Black Sea ports has deterred the commercial shipping industry from operating in the area. Ukraine’s overland export mechanisms are highly unlikely to substitute for the shortfall in shipping capacity caused by the Russian blockade. As a result, significant supplies of Ukrainian grain remain in storage unable to be exported. Fighting has already placed indirect pressure on global grain prices. While the threat of Russia's naval blockade continues to deter access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products."
The blockade (described in detail by the US Intelligence Community, the Washington Post writes) has attracted a great deal of international odium, and some discussion at Davos of steps (including naval steps, Bloomberg says) that might be taken to break it. Poland has asked for EU and US assistance in increasing its rail capacity, the Wall Street Journal reports, with a view to providing overland shipping alternatives for Ukrainian agricultural products in particular. Russia has profited from the food shortages its blockade has created, with buyers in the Middle East and Africa paying inflated prices for grain.
In the Donbas, Russia has begun a major push, the Times reports, with significant reinforcements (as "insane" levels of troops and equipment, as the Telegraph puts it move into Luhansk), to envelop the key town of Severodonetsk. Military Times, calling this "a decisive week," writes that Russian forces have succeeded in penetrating some Ukrainian defenses. Ukrainian counterattacks include not only the artillery counterfire we'd discussed before, but also, according to the Wall Street Journal, significant special operations in Russian rear areas.
Rossiya-1 sets expectations.
It will be a long war, but one that will end in complete victory, says Newsweek, citing Julia Davis, who's been watching Rossiya-1 so the rest of us don't have to. Television pundit Vladimir Solovyov put it like this, apostrophizing the Ukrainians: "We are telling people, come to your senses. We're telling people, remember who you are. Look who conquered you. Remember your great past. Wake up, stop lying to yourselves." Davis calls the chat on Rossiya-1 "genocidal," and indeed it's a throwback to an early twentieth-century form of panslavism that saw all Slavic peoples as essentially Russians (the farther west they lived, the more wayward they were, and the more in need of being well-advised). "Why are they making up a language," Mr. Solovyov said, "do you need that language that Zelensky is trying to speak? Look at the history that is being made up for you, the religion that is being made up for you. That is why the people are for us. Westerners say, 'they are not greeting you with flowers.' Yes, they are, despite their fear, they are welcoming us and they will welcome us even more when they understand we are never leaving." Mr. Solovyov is seeing flowers no one else can see. We have heard of no flowers being presented to Russian troops, unless you count the sunflower seeds a Russian woman offered invaders to plant on the graves they soon occupy.
More cyberespionage, probably of Chinese origin, targets Russian networks.
Malwarebytes researchers have posted more information on a cyberespionage campaign being run against Russian organizations. The operation implants a remote access Trojan (RAT) via phishing emails. The phishbait is a bogus security alert, "Ростех. ФСБ РФ. Роскомнадзор. Срочные сиправления уязвимостей,” that is, “Rostec. FSB RF. Roskomnadzor. Urgent Vulnerability Fixes,” and the emails caution recipients “not to open or reply to suspicious emails,” which seems a nice touch. A number of recipients appear to have been in the Russian media, notably working at RT TV. Malwarebytes is cautious about saying who's behind the campaign. There are some signs that point to Deep Panda, but there are also code overlaps with TrickBot and BazarLoader, and other "weak indicators" pointing to the Lazarus Group and Tropic Troopers, but some or all of these could be incidental, or even deliberate false flags. The researchers conclude, "Attribution is difficult, and threat actors are known to use indicators from other groups as false flags. The attribution of the APT behind these campaigns is ongoing, but based on the infrastructure used we assess with low confidence that this group is a Chinese actor."
Lincoln Project veterans visit Ukraine with advice on conducting an influence campaign against President Putin.
Mike Madrid and Ron Steslow, co-founders of the anit-Trump Lincoln Project (which they exited as the group became fractious) are talking with Ukrainian officials about propaganda techniques that might work against authoritarians like Russia's President Putin. They're not, Newsweek reports, taking money from Ukraine, but are simply discussing a campaign of mutual interest. Messrs Madrid and Streslow see the central weakness of an authoritarian regime as its dependence on an image of intimidating competence. "They way to beat these guys is to humiliate them, to turn them into a jester, turn them into a clown," they advise, and say it's a mistake to portray an authoritarian leader as demonic. Better to show them as a malign Bozo than Milton's Satan. Martin Luther would have got the point. The Reformer said, in his table talk, that "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn."