Ukraine at D+43: Intercepts, imagery, and evidence of atrocities.
N2K logoApr 8, 2022

Russian retreat and reconstitution are confirmed, along with fresh and independently corroborated evidence of Russian atrocities. Microsoft disrupts a GRU operation and shares its findings with Kyiv.

Ukraine at D+43: Intercepts, imagery, and evidence of atrocities.

US Secretary of Defense Austin offered an appreciation of Russia's war against Ukraine to the Senate Armed Services Committee, to whom he confirmed the now clear Russian pivot to the Donbas. “Putin thought he could really rapidly take over the country of Ukraine, very rapidly take over the capital city; he was wrong,” Defense News quotes him as saying. "I think Putin has probably given up on his effort to capture the capital city and is now focused on the south and east of the country.” In accompanying testimony, General Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an estimate of the quantities of weapons the US and its allies had supplied to Ukrainian forces: 60,000 anti-armor weapons (including shoulder-fired Javelins) and 25,000 air-defense weapons (including shoulder-fired Stingers).

Fire, yes. Maneuver? Not so much.

The British Ministry of Defence's situation map shows complete Russian withdrawal from the northern regions of Ukraine its forces had formerly occupied. The MoD's situation report explains, "In the north, Russian forces have now fully withdrawn from Ukraine to Belarus and Russia. At least some of these forces will be transferred to East Ukraine to fight in the Donbas. Many of these forces will require significant replenishment before being ready to deploy further east, with any mass redeployment from the north likely to take at least a week minimum. Russian shelling of cities in the east and south continues and Russian forces have advanced further south from the strategically important city of Izium which remains under their control."

Some points worth noting. First, the evidence suggests the Russian army's inability to take and hold ground. Its maneuver elements (infantry and armor) have been pulled back from ground they'd occupied in the northern parts of Ukraine. Second, the continuing artillery fire and air strikes are not principally in close support of combat operations. They're directed at the reduction of cities and the infliction of terror. Most recently, rocket fire hit a civilian railroad station in the eastern Donbas city of Kramatorsk that was serving as an evacuation hub for refugees. Reports indicate that some 4000 people were in the station at the time of the strike, and that between thirty and fifty were killed, with a larger number maimed or wounded.

Russia says they didn't do it, that the rocket fire was a Ukrainian provocation in which Kyiv killed its own citizens in order to discredit Russia. Local authorities said the rockets used were Tochka surface-to-surface weapons (NATO name "Scarab") that carry an improved conventional munition (a "cluster bomb"). Without specifying the rockets they claim the Ukrainians fired, Russia's Ministry of Defense said that the weapons used were not in the Russian arsenal. (If they were indeed Tochkas, this is a lie. The Tochka is a Soviet-era weapon found in both Russian and Ukrainian inventories.) The Russian Ministry of Defense also said that the railroad station was on the schedule that day, which is risible: artillery fire can of course be scheduled, but it can equally well, and more often is, delivered in response to calls for fire. Even if true, the claim is meaningless as an exoneration.

The disinformation technique is essentially the same that Moscow has taken with respect to its other atrocities, and internationally the disavowal and misdirection seem to be finding few takers. The incident has attracted widespread condemnation.

Russian atrocities near Kyiv appear to have been planned, ordered, and reported.

Correlation of satellite imagery with intercepted radio traffic has led Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the foreign intelligence service, to conclude, as Der Spiegel puts it, "that such atrocities were part of the strategy of Putin's army." Paraphrasing sources who heard a BND briefing to the Bundestag, Spiegel writes, "Some of the intercepted traffic apparently matches the locations of bodies found along the main road through town. In one of them, a soldier apparently told another that they had just shot a person on a bicycle. That corresponds to the photo of the dead body lying next to a bicycle that has been shared around the world. In another intercepted conversation, a Russian soldier apparently said: "First you interrogate soldiers, then you shoot them." Some of those responsible for the atrocities are believed to be contract soldiers from the Wagner Group, an organization that acquired a reputation for war crimes during its deployment to Syria.

At issue is whether the atrocities, which now seem undeniable, were a product of policy, of loose discipline and poor command, or of panic. The answer appears to be, in the Washington Post's account, all three. The radio intercepts indicate an easy willingness to discuss the murders that indicates the speakers were under orders. That discipline has been loose seems inarguable, and there's also evidence of panic. These last two factors exacerbate the malign effect of a policy that endorses killing noncombatants. The Telegraph reports one apparently representative exchange between an officer and a subordinate: “'Kill them all.' 'What are you waiting for, you a----f------?' the officer asks. 'This is a whole village of civilians,' the soldier replies. 'Shoot the civilian cars,' the officer says." And shoot they have. Most of the civilian dead in the regions around Kyiv died of gunshot wounds, not fragmentation or blast, and that too suggests deliberate execution, not carelessness with fire.

UN General Assembly expels Russia from the Human Rights Council.

Military culture, which varies from army to army, contributes powerfully to a disposition to commit atrocities. An essay in Foreign Policy argues that Russian army culture is built for war crimes, and this is becoming increasingly well-known internationally. Russia's conduct of its war resulted, yesterday, in its ejection from the UN Human Rights Council. In a vote of 93 to 24, with 58 abstentions, the UN General Assembly removed Russia from the Council for its "gross and systematic violations of human rights." This is only the second time a member has been voted off the council. The earlier expulsion came in 2011, when Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya was ejected. After the vote Russia's representative said his government protested the anti-Russian bias and that it resigned from the council, The Ukrainian representative commented that you don't get to resign after you've been fired.

Some of the delegations who abstained had earlier condemned the Russian atrocities in Ukraine, and their abstention (which Russia announced in advance it would regard as just as hostile as a vote for expulsion) may be motivated by uneasiness over international war crimes prosecutions.

Microsoft disrupts GRU cyber operations.

Microsoft says it's blocked GRU cyber operations directed against US, European, and Ukrainian targets. Redmond calls the group "Strontium," in its metallic naming convention for threat groups, but the threat actor is also known as APT28 and, of course, Fancy Bear. The disruption was a familiar (and entirely praiseworthy) takedown. Microsoft explained, "On Wednesday April 6th, we obtained a court order authorizing us to take control of seven internet domains Strontium was using to conduct these attacks. We have since re-directed these domains to a sinkhole controlled by Microsoft, enabling us to mitigate Strontium’s current use of these domains and enable victim notifications."

This particular GRU campaign isn't the only one Microsoft has observed during Russia's war against Ukraine. Microsoft characterized Strontium's use of its now sinkholed infrastructure as follows: "

"Strontium was using this infrastructure to target Ukrainian institutions including media organizations. It was also targeting government institutions and think tanks in the United States and the European Union involved in foreign policy. We believe Strontium was attempting to establish long-term access to the systems of its targets, provide tactical support for the physical invasion and exfiltrate sensitive information. We have notified Ukraine’s government about the activity we detected and the action we’ve taken."

Hate breeds hate.

Ukrainian authorities say they're investigating a video that shows the execution of Russian prisoners of war by Ukrainian soldiers. Kyiv says it's an isolated incident, but how it handles its investigation will be important for Ukraine's future.