Ukraine at D+15: Disinformation in the service of a stalled invasion.
N2K logoMar 11, 2022

Russia's economy suffers under the weight of sanctions as its army prepares for the brutal reduction of Ukrainian cities by sheer firepower. The world continues to look for the cyber offensive that never fully developed.

Ukraine at D+15: Disinformation in the service of a stalled invasion.

Ministerial-level talks between Russia and Ukraine this week have made little progress. Russia's talking to Ukraine, something it had said it wouldn't do until Ukraine laid down its arms, but it hasn't backed off from what amounts to a demand for surrender. Euronews quotes Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in a way that suggests how far the Russian view of the situation diverges from what most of the rest of the world regards as reality: "We do not plan to attack other countries; we did not attack Ukraine either. However, we just explained to Ukraine repeatedly that a situation posed direct security threats to the Russian Federation."

The situation on the ground.

The UK's Ministry of Defense (MoD) continues daily updates of the operations map it's using to cover "Russia's illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine." There's not been a great deal of movement of Russian forces as they concentrate on attempting to isolate and destroy Ukrainian cities. "Due to strong Ukrainian resistance," the MoD tweeted, "Russian forces are committing an increased number of their deployed forces to encircle key cities. This will reduce the number of forces available to continue their advance and will further slow Russian progress." The MoD adds that some signs of domestic Russian discontent with the war continue to appear: "Protests against Russian occupation have been reported throughout the week in the Russian-held cities of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk. 400 protestors were reportedly detained by Russian forces in the Kherson Oblast yesterday." (It would be unwise to overestimate the depth and commitment of Russian anti-war sentiment, however, and to underestimate Moscow's willingness to use extraordinary means and degrees of repression against it. Still, arrests of protesters are reckoned in aggregate at totaling more than ten thousand.)

The reduction of Mariupol continues, and, around Kyiv, there are, the AP reports, signs that the roadbound Russian armor has finally left (some of) the roads, and moved artillery into firing positions around the Ukrainian capital. The fight for Kyiv will probably consist of investment followed by reduction with heavy and indiscriminate artillery and air strikes. The Atlantic Council reviews NATO's options for responding.

Allegations of war crimes and Russian disinformation.

The US has endorsed the International Criminal Court's investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Newsweek has a summary of the allegations and their implications. Most of the alleged war crimes involve attacks against protected places (like hospitals) or protected persons (civilian noncombatants). In general the laws of armed conflict prohibit direct attacks against civilians, and they also prohibit waging war by indiscriminate means that render harm to civilians probable. Tactics should be discriminate (avoiding prohibited targets), proportionate (destruction should not outweigh the military advantage gained), and governed by military necessity (that is, they should be indispensable means to legitimate military end). Russian actions arguably have often violated all three of these basic principles. And, of course, there's the prior question of the legality of the Russian war itself. Aggressive war, and the UN General Assembly has condemned Mr. Putin's war as just that, is prohibited by the United Nations Charter.

The incident that's attracted considerable attention is the destruction of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, apparently by Russian airstrikes. An op-ed in CNN asks, "If bombing a children's hospital isn't crossing a red line--what is?" and the sentiment it expresses well represents international revulsion the attack has provoked. Russia's response to the general outrage has been instructive. The Kremlin has claimed (1) that the attack never happened, (2) that the hospital wasn't actually a hospital, but rather a Nazi headquarters, and (3) that the attack was committed by Ukrainian forces in an attempt to embarrass Russia, which is running a clean military operation. (It's not a war, and it's not, as Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted during talks in Turkey, an invasion, either. and complaints of atrocities are just "pathetic shrieks" from Russia's enemies.)

Russian disinformation now seems to be playing to a largely domestic audience; it remains to be seen whether it will continue to enjoy success even there. Panelists on a recent Russian talk show had to be brought to heel by the host, the Telegraph reports, for calling the situation in Ukraine "worse than Afghanistan," that is, worse for the Russian soldiers. WIRED's take on the failure of Russian influence operations abroad is that the invasion of Ukraine was simply too obvious to be obfuscated, and the positive lies told to justify it were too implausible to find any takers beyond a hard core of the already convinced.

Facebook has invoked an "ongoing-conflict" exception to its ban on violent speech, the Verge reports. Meta spokesperson Andy Stone told the Verge, “As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine we have temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.’ We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians.” Russia has denounced Facebook's corporate parent, Meta, for "extremism."

Chemical, biological, and radiological weapons disinformation.

Russian sources continue to push the story that Ukraine had prepared stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, or at least that it was working on acquiring them. The US has called such claims "preposterous," as indeed they are, and has taken China to task for amplifying them. Foreign Policy reviews this particular disinformation campaign, which many observers view as setting the stage for Russian use of prohibited weapons. Russian use of chemical weapons is regarded as more likely than either nuclear or biological strikes.

In a grisly story that should be received with caution, the Telegraph reports that Russian forces are stockpiling the dead bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action to use in staging some sort of provocation at Chernobyl.

Preparing for cyberattacks.

Security Scorecard has an account of the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks various Ukrainian assets have sustained. They identify three distinct DDoS attacks, but say that the attacks "appeared to have had a minimal, temporary impact on their targets. Government websites and banking services were quickly restored and customers' balances were not affected."

KrebsOnSecurity reports a significant increase in attacks against Ukrainian citizens, mostly phishing attempts, but these are still falling short of the widely anticipated destructive or disruptive attacks Russia had shown itself capable of.

Russian cyberattacks have not, so far, affected the world outside Ukraine at more than their customary, criminal-and-privateering level, but observers continue to think that may change. Task & Purpose mulls some of the reasons this may be so. The Russians might have been unprepared for cyberwar, which seems unlikely, or they may have believed that their invasion would be a walk-over, making cyber operations superfluous. Accenture's blog is following the state of play in cyberspace. Pondurance has a review of steps organizations can take to prepare for that widely expected eventuality. They will be familiar to many readers, but are worth quoting briefly:

  • "Validate all remote access into your networks and establish multi-factor authentication (MFA) for any accounts with increased privileges."
  • "Make certain that software is up to date and patched."
  • "Ensure that any ports and protocols not needed for business services are disabled and unavailable."
  • "Cybersecurity and IT members should quickly respond to and assess activity which appears out of the norm."
  • "Ensure that antivirus software has the latest signature updates."
  • "Any traffic from Ukrainian organizations or organizations with Ukrainian interests should be monitored with extra scrutiny."
  • "Examine your backup plan and make certain backups are properly isolated and available in the event of ransomware."
  • "Review the Known Exploited Vulnerability catalog  from CISA and ensure that patches or workarounds are applied."

Cyber operations against Russia.

Anonymous claims to have successfully gained access to internal files of Roskomnadzor, and has leaked 820 gigabytes of data taken from Russia's information governance agency. The files pertain for the most part to disinformation and censorship operations. The International Business Times says that the leaks deal primarily with Roskomnadzor's efforts to keep people from calling Russia's invasion of Ukraine an "invasion."

Russian defense firm Rostech has, BleepingComputer reports, shut down its website after sustaining a distributed denial-of-service attack.

Sanctions, two weeks into Russia's war.

In a further tightening of economic pressure on Moscow, US President Biden this morning revoked Russia's "most favored nation" trading status, and the other G7 nations have done the same. "Most favored nation" status is not, as the words might be taken to imply, an unusual favor granted to only a few trading partners. It represents, rather, the ordinary relationship the US has with the civilized world. Most nations are so favored; the status is also known as “permanent normal trade relations." Revocation of most favored nation status would permit the imposition of tariffs on goods imported from Russia.

The sanctions marshaled against Russia over its aggression against Ukraine are proving to be more extensive and punitive than sanctions have historically been. The World Bank says, the Telegraph reports, that Russia is "mighty close" to defaulting on its debts, and the International Monetary Fund regards Russia as on the brink of a "deep recession." Russian spokespersons have said the sanctions amount to "economic warfare," and in this case Moscow's line is probably accurate. In fairness to the Russian side, it's worth noting that effective sanctions have tended to be indiscriminate in their effects. While sanctions have undeniably succeeded in causing economic pain, the New York Times concludes in its review of the history of what it calls the "go-to tactic," they often fall short of achieving their goals.

The Atlantic Council wonders what's left to sanction, and offers a short list, with explanatory notes:

  • "Target oligarchs, cronies, wallets, and Putin’s assets. The West has tentatively stepped into crony/oligarch sanctions so far by only targeting a few tycoons, perhaps out of some hope of finally splitting off the billionaires from Putin’s orbit. The idea that the oligarch class in Russia will step up and on its own force better behavior out of the Kremlin, never likely, is increasingly doubtful. Nevertheless, these billionaires, especially those closest to Putin and the Kremlin, present attractive targets for sanctions due to their involvement in the Russian economy and in Putin’s peculiar kleptocracy. It may be somewhat symbolic—when stacked against the devastation in Ukraine—to see a six-hundred-million-dollar yacht seized by customs agents, but symbols can help sow uncertainty and panic in Russian markets and further diminish confidence in the Russian economy. These sanctions will show Putin’s cronies and subordinates that Putin is damaging their interests and those of their families."
  • "Extend sanctions on companies. Despite hitting the Russian financial and defense sectors hard since 2014, the West can still target many other entities that are either close to the Kremlin or otherwise vulnerable without carrying unmanageable spillover risk. The state-owned Gazprombank and Russian Agricultural Bank, as well as the private AlfaBank, are already subject to financing restrictions but could be next for full blocking sanctions, which would effectively lock them out of the international financial system. The same holds true for transportation companies Sovcomflot and Russian Railways, and diamond company Alrosa. Meanwhile, major Russian insurer Sogaz has been sanctioned by the European Union but not the United States. Carveouts might be needed to manage spillover effects, but there is a wide swath of the Russian private and state-controlled economy that remains an attractive target."
  • "Sanction Russian stock markets. If the West is seeking to further undermine domestic capital markets—having already largely severed Russia’s access to external markets—sanctions targeting the major markets, such as the Moscow Exchange, may provide a path to additional market turmoil. This would also address the possibility that some Western or Chinese firms could buy Russian assets at rock-bottom prices and hold onto them for years. While such purchases may not actually provide much capital to Russian companies (or otherwise dramatically shift the landscape), they would send an unseemly signal of corporate profiteering at the same time that many western enterprises are pulling out of Russia."
  • "Block the Russian government. This would amount to sanctioning all of Russia’s state-owned companies. While many are already sanctioned, a full blocking would further isolate Putin and his sources of power from the global economy and effectively place Russia’s government on par with those of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. This action would likely require wind-downs or other carve-outs to not roil energy markets—since oil and gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively, are both state-owned—but it could still be effective even with such accommodations."
  • "Ban new investment in Russia. While the White House banned new investment in Russian energy projects on Tuesday, the logical escalatory option could be to extend that ban to the entire Russian economy. The economy is relatively concentrated in a smaller number of key companies in the major revenue sectors, and if those targets are exhausted, a new investment ban may provide the middle ground for Western policymakers seeking a broad impact from the cooling effect a ban would have on any US businesses operating in Russia while stopping short of a full financial embargo. With the West’s tapering of energy purchases and a ban on exports of Russian commodities already affecting the key areas of Western trade with Russia, there may not be much spillover to the West from new investment restrictions."
  • "Enact a full financial embargo. This rests at the far end of the sanctions spectrum and would ban all transactions, exports, and imports with Russia. This would be the final significant step for the West to remove Russia from the global economy and would place the country under what is commonly known as “Iran-style sanctions,” which would impede just about all business. A few weeks ago, this would have been nearly unthinkable—but given the almost frantic escalation in sanctions it seems that the West may be approaching this faster than anyone could anticipate if Putin continues his ultraviolent extraterritorial ambitions."
  • "Hit sanctions evaders. Enforcing all these measures is critical to maintaining a sanctions regime. The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union must assume that Russians will attempt to evade punishment, including by creating shell companies to disguise sanctioned ownership. This will be an ongoing challenge, even with secondary sanctions in place for all sanctioned Russians courtesy of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and the Biden administration will need to maintain intensive and real-time consultations with allies and others about compliance and common approaches—possibly by establishing a standing sanctions consultations group. The US Senate also needs to confirm the administration’s nominee for State Department sanctions coordinator, James O’Brien, who is inexplicably still in the confirmation process despite the urgency of the issue. O’Brien is a veteran policy operator, the sort of skilled and respected Washington figure who knows how to make things happen in the foreign-policy world while being unknown to the general public."

Many of these amount to enforcement of sanctions already in place. The US has said what it would take for sanctions to be lifted: full withdrawal of Russia from Ukraine, and Russian commitment to rebuild the country and repair the destruction its invasion has wreaked on its neighbor.

For its part, Russia has moved to seize the assets of businesses that have decided to exit the Russian market over their disapproval of the war against Ukraine. The measure under consideration would enable Moscow to assume control of businesses whose ownership is at least 25%. Companies like IKEA and McDonalds would obviously fall into that class. The BBC reports the US has condemned the contemplated seizures. The goal of the measure, Russian authorities say, is sale of assets as opposed to their nationalization, but how such sales might be accomplished in the short term given the sanctions under which Russia labors is unclear.

Russian oligarchs come up in discussion of sanctions, and the UK has recently mentioned seven of them in dispatches. Her Majesty's Government has singled these men out for particular attention in a sanctions system expected to exact a toll of £15 billion:

  • "Roman Abramovich owner of Chelsea FC and has stakes in steel giant Evraz and Norilsk Nickel
  • "Oleg Deripaska has stakes in En+ Group
  • "Igor Sechin is the Chief Executive of Rosneft
  • "Andrey Kostin is Chairman of VTB bank
  • "Alexei Miller is CEO of energy company Gazprom
  • "Nikolai Tokarev is president of the Russia state-owned pipeline company Transneft
  • "Dmitri Lebedev is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Bank Rossiya

This makes a total of twenty-three oligarchs now under sanction.

The Wall Street Journal has an explanation of who counts as an oligarch, and why they've assumed some importance in international sanctions. They are the very wealthy and well-connected beneficiaries of President Putin's rule, and are regarded as the principal supporters of Mr. Putin's regime, the closest thing to a check on his power since the dissolution of the Politburo at the collapse of Soviet power. (The Duma, the legislature, is a toothless creature of the executive, and represents no real check on the President.) Much of the oligarchs' wealth, in the form of cash, investments, posh real estate (much of that in London), yachts, private jets, and so forth, is maintained outside Russia, where it's vulnerable to seizure. The hope is that pressuring the oligarchs offers some prospect of pressuring Mr. Putin.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told CNBC, with an evident sense of injured merit, that Russia would be just fine, that it would prosper even after decoupling its economy from the civilized world (our phrase, not Mr. Lavrov's, but it seems apt), and that it had been "betrayed" by Western trading partners whom Russia would never again trust. “I assure you: We will come out of this crisis with a full bill of psychological health and a full bill of health regarding our awareness. We will not be under the slightest illusion that the West could be a reliable partner. We will do everything so as never, in any way, to be dependent on the West in those areas of our life which have a decisive significance for our people.” This is aspirational at best: how Russia will run its economy without trading partners or access to finance is unclear. 

Mr. Lavrov, not himself an oligarch except in a junior-achievement sense of the term that would include various bigshots who've enriched themselves during their tenure in public office, has been particularly aggrieved by sanctions leveled against Russian tycoons. “Whoever heard of private property rights being trampled over by a simple clicking of the fingers? Whoever heard of the presumption of innocence, the pillar of the legal system in the West, is simply ignored and violated most gravely?” Well, for starters, anyone who's seen the Russian legal system in operation would not only have heard of such things, but seen them in action, but we take it his question was rhetorical.

And hey, everybody: did you know Mr. Lavrov has a girlfriend? He seems an unlikely lover, but then the heart has its reasons which reason knows not. Anyway, apparently the House of Commons is convinced he does, and they want to sanction both her and her daughter as well. The Telegraph reports: "The Russian foreign minister’s alleged 'second family', including Svetlana Polyakova, his mistress, and Polina Kovaleva, her 26-year-old daughter, were identified as among those officials should look at. If they're involved in hiding or laundering Mr. Lavrov's assets, fine, but one hopes that any sanctions would be based on more than simple guilt by association.