Ukraine at D+561: Ukraine's advance continues.
N2K logoSep 8, 2023

Ukraine's incremental advances continue in the south. Both sides exchange drone strikes, and cyber operations remain a continuing threat to both Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine at D+561: Ukraine's advance continues.

The Institute for the Study of War reports confirmed advances in both Bakhmut and the western Zaporizhia Oblast. In this case both Russian milbloggers and the Ukrainian general staff offer the same situation reports.

A Ukrainian drone strike hit the Southern Group of Forces headquarters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-the-Don, the New York Times reports. Russian drone and missile strikes continued to hit civilian targets, including targets in Odesa, Kyiv, and Krivih Rih. That last-named city is not close to the front, nor is it of any military significance. It is, however, President Zelenskiy's hometown.

A short primer on cluster munitions.

Ukraine is firing dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM) at Russian targets, and the New York Times reports that they're doing so with effect. The 155 mm artillery rounds, commonly called "cluster munitions" in the press, disperse either twenty-four or forty-eight bomblets each of which is roughly three inches by an inch and a half in size. They're effective against both personnel and the lighter top-armor of combat vehicles, hence the designation "dual-purpose." Russia has used comparable munitions since the early days of its invasion. DPICM is rightly described as "controversial," and many countries have banned their use. The issue isn't inaccuracy (the rounds are as accurate as any other artillery munition, and their dispersal pattern isn't much different from the fragmentation pattern of an ordinary high-explosive projectile). It's the submunitions' high dud rate and the subsequent sensitivity of those duds. Some of the bomblets inevitably fail to explode, and the duds represent a hazard that can endure for years. In general, the smaller the dud, the more sensitive and risky it is, and a DPICM dud is small indeed.

Grain export routes.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, when it was in effect, played a positive role in world food stability, the UK's Ministry of Defence writes in this morning's situation report. "It’s highly likely that the successful export of Ukrainian grain during the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) has helped reduce global prices and food insecurity. During the initiative more than 32 million tonnes of food reached the global market and the Food Price Index fell 23% from its peak in March 2022. Developing nations have especially benefited from lower prices as well as from direct imports of grain from Ukraine. Russia’s withdrawal from the BSGI has reduced Ukraine’s exports, a clear effort to degrade the Ukrainian economy and its ability to support the war effort. The agricultural sector made up 40% of Ukraine’s exports pre-war and remains vital; food exports earned $28bn in 2021. Ukraine has found success using alternative methods like river, rail and road to export its grain; however, it is unlikely that this will match the capacity of the Black Sea export routes."

SpaceX interrupted service to block a Ukrainian attack against Russian naval units last year.

The Washington Post reports, citing a new biography of Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson, that Mr. Musk directed SpaceX to interrupt local service to Ukraine in the Black Sea region with a view to interfering with a submarine drone attack against Russian targets last year. He relented in the face of appeals and protests by Ukrainian and US officials, but his actions reveal ambivalence about the war and about SpaceX's part in this and other conflicts. “'How am I in this war? Musk asked,' according to Isaacson. 'Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do peaceful things, not drone strikes.'” Mr. Musk is said to have feared that Ukrainian attacks would provoke Russian escalation, including, Computing writes, escalation to nuclear war.

US and Ukrainian officials warn of heightened Russian offensive cyber activity.

Speaking at the 14th annual Billington CyberSecurity Summit in Washington, DC, this week, Ukrainian and US officials cautioned against thinking that Russian cyber operations were a diminishing threat. In fact, they said, Russian activity in cyberspace was picking up. Illia Vitiuk, head of cybersecurity for the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said that Ukrainian resilience was high. "But the problem," the Voice of America quotes him as saying, "is that our counterpart, Russia, our enemy, is constantly also evolving and searching for new ways [to attack]." The operators, Vitiuk said, aren't enthusiasts or script kiddies, but rather fully employed 9-to-5ers working directly for the Russian security and intelligence services.

The US Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, David Cohen, dismissed Russian denials of hostile action in cyberspace, and said that Moscow was increasing both its capabilities and efforts in that domain. "This is a pitched battle every day," he said. He also observed that the cyber war wasn't one-sided, and that "The Russians have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of cyberattacks being directed at them from a range of private sector actors. There have been attacks on the Russian government, some hack and leak attacks. There have been information space attacks on the TV and radio broadcasts."

The International Criminal Court will prosecute cyber war crimes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmed to WIRED that it now intends to prosecute cyber war crimes. An ICC representative said, “The Office considers that, in appropriate circumstances, conduct in cyberspace may potentially amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and/or the crime of aggression, and that such conduct may potentially be prosecuted before the Court where the case is sufficiently grave.”

ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan explained the rationale for bringing cyber war crimes into the Court's jurisdiction in an essay, "Technology Will Not Exceed Our Humanity," published in Foreign Policy Analytics. "Cyber warfare does not play out in the abstract," he wrote. "Rather, it can have a profound impact on people’s lives. Attempts to impact critical infrastructure such as medical facilities or control systems for power generation may result in immediate consequences for many, particularly the most vulnerable. Consequently, as part of its investigations, my Office will collect and review evidence of such conduct. We are likewise mindful of the misuse of the internet to amplify hate speech and disinformation, which may facilitate or even directly lead to the occurrence of atrocities." He notes that cyberspace is commonly perceived as an ambiguous gray zone, where serious harm can be worked while the actors remain below a threshold that would generally be recognized as war. The ICC is interested in clarifying that ambiguity.

The ICC doesn't explicitly mention Russia, but WIRED reviews the many reasons for thinking that Russian activity is likely to provide the first cases. The GRU's role in pre-invasion attacks against Ukraine's power grid and in the NotPetya pseudoransomware incident are cited as examples of indiscriminate cyber warfare that may be construed as criminal.

Operation KleptoCapture extends to professional service providers.

The US Justice Department is expanding investigations under Operation KleptoCapture from its original targets--Russian oligarchs whose activities sustain Russia's war against Ukraine--to professional service providers--"lawyers, accountants and other facilitators"--who've helped the oligarchs evade sanctions. The Operation's inaugural director, Andrew Adams, who retired to private practice in July, told the Wall Street Journal that "the people who are on the list tend to be either key propagandists or tend to be people who are essentially pocketbooks for the Kremlin. Any ability to stifle the availability of that pocketbook is at least potentially useful, and I think in the mid- and long term, probably a worthwhile project."