Ukraine at D+428: Ready for the spring offensive.
N2K logoApr 28, 2023

Russia resumes missile strikes against civilians as Ukraine says its preparations for a spring offensive are essentially complete. Ukraine advocates prosecution of cyber war crimes, and dismisses the idea that there are any genuine Russian hacktivists.

Ukraine at D+428: Ready for the spring offensive.

Russia resumed long-range strikes last night against civilian targets in Uman and Dnipro, neither of which cities are close to the front. At least nineteen civilians have been killed.

Ukrainian officials say their preparations for the spring offensive are now essentially complete, but they understandably won't say when or where the attacks will come. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said today, “Preparations are coming to an end. Equipment has been promised, prepared and partially delivered. In a global sense, we’re ready." The AP reports that NATO has delivered more than 1500 combat vehicles to Ukraine, along with large stocks of ammunition, and completed training nine combat brigades.

The Institute for the Study of War reports tension between rival Russian private military corporations operating in and around Bakhmut.

"Competition among Russian private military companies (PMCs) is likely increasing in Bakhmut. A video appeal addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin by personnel of the 'Potok' PMC (reportedly one of three volunteer detachments from Russian-state owned energy company Gazprom) claims that Gazprom officials told members of 'Potok' that they would be signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) but then forced personnel to sign contracts with PMC 'Redut.' One Potok soldier claimed that Gazprom created two other units — 'Fakel' and 'Plamya,' which were attached to the Russian MoD. A Russian milblogger claimed that 'Potok' is not a PMC, but a BARS (Combat Reserve) unit, however. The 'Potok' personnel also reported poor treatment by Wagner fighters who threatened to shoot 'Potok' personnel if they withdrew from the line of contact. A Wagner fighter claimed in an interview published on April 26 that 'Potok fighters abandoned Wagner’s flanks at night. A Russian milblogger claimed that 'Potok' fighters abandoned their positions in Bakhmut due to a lack of ammunition. ISW previously assessed that Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin likely views the proliferation of PMCs around Bakhmut as competition, and it appears that the increased prevalence of other PMCs around Bakhmut may be causing substantial friction."

Such tension is in addition to the periodic friction between the Wagner Group and the Ministry of Defense over logistics and what Wagner Group capo Prigozhin regards as insufficient official zeal for an expanded war à outrance.

Russia cancels its annual International Army Games.

Russia has canceled its annual International Army Games, presumably because they would be perceived as a frivolity in wartime. "Last week, Russian media reported that the annual Russian International Army Games will not take place in 2023," the UK's Ministry of Defence reported this morning. "Pitched as the ‘War Olympics’, the games have symbolised Russia’s attempt to re-establish the military at the heart of popular culture. The festival-like event is particularly known for the Tank Biathlon. Russia has likely cancelled the games mainly because it is concerned the event would be seen as frivolous in wartime. Russian nationalist commentators, including former intelligence officer Igor Girkin, fiercely criticised the Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD) for going ahead with the 2022 iteration." There's also a good chance that team Russia would have been embarrassed by losing. "There is also a realistic possibility that due to losses in Ukraine, the Russian MOD is concerned a shortage of tanks, tank crews and other skilled personnel will risk the Russian team’s usual domination of the medals table."

Ukraine argues that cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure should be classified as war crimes.

Speaking at RSAC this week, Illia Vitiuk, Ukraine's head of the Department of Cyber Information Security in the Security Service of Ukraine, urged that cyberattacks against civilian infrastructure should be treated as war crimes. “I do believe that military commanders that are in charge of special forces and special services like the [Russian] GRU or SVR who are responsible for cyber-attacks on civilian infrastructure should also be convicted as war criminals,” Infosecurity Magazine quotes him as saying. Such attacks would presumably violate one or more of the principles that underlie the laws of armed conflict: proportionality, discrimination, and military necessity.

No genuine hacktivists on Russia's side?

Vitiuk also presented the case, CyberScoop reports, that there are no genuine hacktivists working in the interest of Russia. “More than 90% of all cyber attacks targeting Ukraine are either conducted by special services or by state sponsored groups,” Vitiuk said. “I do believe that there is no so-called ‘hacktivism’ in Russia at all.” He described a brief wave of pre-war Russian arrests of cybercriminals as effectively an intimidation campaign: work for the security organs or face the consequences. The arrests of some REvil members in the weeks before the war were an example of that kind of strong arm recruitment. Noting that the prosecutions had all stalled by May, Vitiuk added, “This was an attempt to intimidate them and others to show that you need to work for us. And now you need to work against Ukraine.” Recruiting auxiliaries to work as fronts for Russian security and intelligence services would not have been particularly difficult. The ties between the organs and the underworld have been close for a long time.

The most prominent Russian hacktivist auxiliary, KillNet, which this week announced that it would henceforth act as a private military hacking corporation, a kind of Wagner Group for cyberspace, has just announced that it would be unavailable for seventy-two hours while it reorganized.