Russian strikes concentrate on grain ports, a prominent mil-blogger is arrested, and a surveillance executive dies.
Ukraine at D+515: War against grain.
Russia has devoted particular attention to Odessa since its withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative last Monday. Over the weekend missile strikes against the city (a key grain port) continued, killing and wounding civilians and also severely damaging the city's historic Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration. A missile hit the roof directly and penetrated to the cathedral's basement.
In an article published early this morning Russian President Putin explained Moscow's withdrawal from the Grain Initiative. "The continuation of the 'grain deal' - which did not justify its humanitarian purpose - has lost its meaning," Reuters quotes him as writing. The demands he laid out last week, however, as Reuters also points out, have no obvious immediate humanitarian significance. They were:
- "readmission of the Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank) to the SWIFT payment system;
- "resumption of exports of agricultural machinery and spare parts to Russia;
- "removal of restrictions on insurance and access to ports for Russian ships and cargo;
- "reinstatement of a now-damaged ammonia export pipeline from Russia's Togliatti to Odesa in Ukraine;
- "the unblocking of accounts and financial activities of Russian fertiliser companies."
The conditions would benefit Russia's economy, increasingly stretched and stressed by international sanctions and the cost of an unexpectedly long and difficult war.
Russia continues to emphasize operations in the northern sectors of Luhansk and Kharkiv. The UK's Ministry of Defence reported Sunday morning, "In recent days there has been an increase in artillery fire along the north of the front line, in Luhansk and Kharkiv oblasts. This has likely been accompanied by some increase in Russian small-unit assaults, but the situation has been obfuscated by Russian disinformation. Russia has likely only achieved marginal gains, but its renewed activity in the north highlights its importance to the Kremlin, when it is concurrently facing significant pressure in the southern Zaporizhzhia sector. Russia’s Western Group of Forces is likely trying to advance back to the Oskil River in order to create a buffer zone around Luhansk Oblast, the possession of which Russia almost certainly considers one of its fundamental objectives of the war." Russian disinformation efforts have attempted to represent inconsequential actions as significant victories.
Wagner, Belarus, Poland, and "Stalin's gift."
Wagner Group units have now established themselves in western Belarus, where they are housed in camps and are said to be training Belarusian forces. The Russian mercenary forces, whose proprietor, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has established a "real estate management company" in the nearby village and disused garrison town of Tsel, are regarded as a threat by Poland's government, and Warsaw has responded to their presence by deploying its own forces closer the Belarusian border.
Belarus is sending mixed messages on rising tensions with Poland. On the one hand, Belarusian President Lukashenka, in St. Petersburg for a visit with Russian President Putin, indicated that the Wagnerites are proving a handful, but that he's doing his best to restrain them. "The Wagnerites are beginning to stretch us," President Lukashenka lamented. "I ask: ‘Why do you need to go to the West?’ [They reply:] ‘We want to go on an excursion to Warsaw, to Rzeszow’.” On the other hand, responding to President Putin's avowal earlier last week that an attack on Belarus would be treated as an attack on Russia, the Belarusian president presented his Russian counterpart with a map he said showed Poland's invasion plans. "As we can see, the ground is being prepared,” he commented.
The notion that Poland, animated by a revanchist desire to take Belarusian (and Ukrainian) territories the Soviet Union stripped it of at the end of the Second World War, is preparing to attack Belarus has recently been a theme of President Putin's ongoing narrative of a NATO plot to destroy Russian and its puppet Union States. “It is well known that they also dream of Belarusian lands,” the Telegraph quoted him as saying. “This is a very dangerous game and the authors of such plans should think about their consequences.” He added some veiled menace in a brief excursus into the history of the Second World War. The Guardian quotes him on the topic: “'The western territories of present-day Poland are a gift from Stalin to the Poles, have our friends in Warsaw forgotten about this? Putin said. 'We will remind you.'” What Stalin gave, Stalin's heir can take back.
It's worth recalling that Poland is a NATO member, and an attack from Belarus would trigger Article 5, NATO's collective defense agreement.
Russia arrests mil-blogger Girkin on charges of "extremism."
Mr. Girkin's offense has been to criticize the Tsar, not the wicked boyars around the throne. He went too far last Tuesday with a Telegram post in which the former FSB officer offered this assessment to his fellow Russians: "For 23 years, the country was led by a lowlife who managed to ‘blow dust in the eyes’ of a significant part of the population. Now he is the last island of legitimacy and stability of the state,” CNN quotes him as saying in his channel. “But the country will not be able to withstand another six years of this cowardly bum in power.” Note that Mr. Girkin, like Mr. Prigozhin (of whom Mr. Girkin disapproves--the ultras are a turbulent crowd) is no pacifist, no humanitarian, no liberalizing dissident. He's a hard-war man. President Putin's offense in Mr. Girkin's eyes is pussyfooting restraint in the prosecution of the war.
The UK's Ministry of Defence in Saturday morning's situation report described the fate of the prominent mil-blogger. "Russian former intelligence officer and leading nationalist mil-blogger Igor Girkin was almost certainly arrested for 'extremism' on 21 July 2023. Girkin has long been a critic of the Russian Ministry of Defence's conduct of the war. However, in recent days his comments have turned to direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his time in power. The move is likely to infuriate fellow members of the mil-blogger community--and elements within the serving military--who largely see Girkin as an astute military analyst and patriot. He played a major role in Russia's war in the Donbas from 2014 and spent months on the front line in 2022. While Girkin is no ally of the Wagner Group, he was likely only prepared to push the limits of public criticism in the context of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s June 2023 abortive mutiny. The taboo against unmasked criticism of the Putin regime has significantly weakened."
So extremism may be the charge, but it's worth noting that official Russia is still o.k. with false flag operations and mass murder. Mr. Girkin has a record, which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reviewed after his arrest. He was convicted in absentia of murder and sentenced to life in prison by a Dutch court for shooting down Malaysian Air flight MH17 in 2014. All two-hundred-ninety-eight aboard the Boeing 777 were killed. Mr. Girkin, who had been leading some deniable Russian forces in the Donbas, briefly crowed over the mass murder in Vkontakte post he subsequently deleted: "We warned them not to fly in our sky." He and his colleagues shot the airliner down with a Buk surface-to-air missile. When the shootdown became an embarrassment to Moscow, Mr. Girkin decamped to Russia, beyond the reach of extradition. He's remained there ever since, apart from a few trips to occupied Ukrainian provinces. This spring he organized "the Club of Angry Patriots" to save Russia from disorder and collapse. The Club has expansive views of Russia's role in the world, a role it sees as dominant and limitless. And official Russian state television has over the weekend acknowledged Mr. Girkin's central role in the deniable operation that since 2014 has misrepresented itself as a popular uprising in the Donbas.
Noted Russian IT executive dies at the age of 40.
Anton Andreevich Cherepennikov, aged 40, has died, reportedly of cardiac arrest. He had been close to President Putin's administration, a tech "millionaire" who supplied key intelligence and surveillance capabilities to Russia's security and intelligence services. His company, Citadel, and its subsidiaries, were also believed to have developed, Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports, "software designed to steal financial and personal information from computer networks." Mr. Cherpennikov's death has been widely viewed as suspicious, for reasons Newsweek summarizes: his friends don't believe the official cause of death, other deaths of prominent figures linked to the Kremlin (mostly by defenestration), and, of course, official Ukraine hinks it was in all likelihood murder.
The US State Department had announced sanctions on Mr. Cherpennikov on February 24th of this year. The measures were related to his role in supplying technology the Russian government used to collect intelligence and suppress dissent:
"The Department is designating multiple individuals and entities associated with the manufacturing of hardware and development of software for Russia’s System for Operational-search Measures (SORM) capabilities, pursuant to Section 1(a)(i), for operating or for having operated in the technology sector of the Russian Federation economy, and other associated subsections. SORM enables Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence collection, monitoring and suppression of dissent, and has been installed on infrastructure in occupied parts of Ukraine to further aid Russia’s attempts to integrate Ukraine’s territory into Russia.
- "Limited Liability Company Citadel (Citadel) occupies approximately 60-80 percent of the Russian SORM production market.
- "Limited Liability Company Osnova Lab, Limited Liability Company Malvin Systems, Limited Liability Company MFI Soft, Limited Liability Company Tekhargos, Limited Liability Company Signatek, Limited Liability Company Bastion, Limited Liability Company ADM Systems, and Limited Liability Company Garda Technologies are being designated pursuant to Section 1(a)(vii) for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Citadel.
- "Anton Andreevich Cherepennikov (Cherepennikov) is being designated pursuant to Section 1(a)(iii)(C) for being or for having been the leader, official, senior executive officer, or member of the board of directors of Citadel. Cherepennikov is the ultimate beneficial owner and head of Citadel."
The US Department of the Treasury also added him to its Specially Designated Nationals List.
It is of course possible for a 40-year-old to die of cardiac arrest, but skepticism is understandable.
Military training for school children.
The British MoD this morning described new programs for military education in schools. "All Russian school children are to be taught the basics of operating combat drones. Russian Senator Artem Sheikin announced that the lessons will include how to conduct terrain reconnaissance and ways to counter enemy uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs). The UAV lessons join assault rifle training, hand grenade skills and combat first aid in the revised ‘Basics of Life Safety’ syllabus for year 10 and 11 students, due to be mandated from 1 September 2023. Russia’s renewed emphasis on military induction for children is largely an effort to cultivate a culture of militarised patriotism rather than develop genuine capability. However, the addition of UAV skills does highlight how Russia has identified the use of tactical UAVs in Ukraine as an enduring component of contemporary war." It also indicates how inexpensive simple drones have become.