Ukraine at D+501: Auxiliary or privateer?
N2K logoJul 10, 2023

Russia goes over to static, positional defense against Ukraine's counteroffensive. The final resolution of the Wagner Group mutiny remains unclear. KillNet has PMC aspirations.

Ukraine at D+501: Auxiliary or privateer?

Russian strikes continue to kill civilians in Ukrainian towns. Lyman has been a recent target. Ukraine's counteroffensive continues to show progress along the line of contact, but that progress is slower than Kyiv would have wished, Al Jazeers reports. The Wall Street Journal summarizes the reasons for the slow advance: resource shortages (of ammunition especially), extensive Russian field fortifications (First-World-War, Western-Front style), and Ukraine's operational choice of probing, attritional, force-preserving tactics.

The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) on Saturday reported that Bakhmut is again the site of intense fighting, as Ukrainian forces make progress toward enveloping and ejecting Russian forces in the ruined city. "After a lull during June 2023, over the last seven days Bakhmut has again been the site of some of the most intense fighting along the front. Ukrainian forces have made steady gains to both the north and south of the Russian-held town. Russian defenders are highly likely struggling with poor morale, a mix of disparate units and a limited ability to find and strike Ukrainian artillery. The Russian leadership almost certainly see it as politically unacceptable to concede Bakhmut, which has a symbolic weight as one of the few Russian gains in the last 12 months. However, there are highly likely few additional reserves to commit to the sector."

The MoD's Monday situation report focused on Russian difficulties with combat medical services. "Russia is almost certainly struggling with a crisis of combat medical provision, after suffering an average of around 400 casualties a day for 17 months. The influx of military casualties has likely undermined the normal provision of some Russian civilian medical services, especially in border regions near Ukraine. It is likely that many dedicated military hospitals are being reserved for officer casualties. As claimed by the head of the Kalashnikov company’s combat medicine training division, it is likely that up to 50 per cent of Russian combat fatalities could have been prevented with proper first aid. Very slow casualty evacuation, combined with the inappropriate use of the crude in-service Russian combat tourniquet, is reportedly a leading cause of preventable fatalities and amputations." The AP reports that a study by independent Russian news outlets Mediazona and Meduza, in collaboration with a data scientist at Tübingen University, have placed the number of Russian deaths in the war so far at between 40,000 and 55,000. The number of dead and wounded together are estimated to amount to some 125,000.

Marking the 500th day of Russia's war.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy marked the 500th day of Russia's war with a visit to Snake Island in the Black Sea, whose defiance of Russian overwhelming force came to be a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Russian naval forces took but ultimately abandoned the island shortly after attacking it.

Saturday marked the 500th day of Russia's war against Ukraine, and governments friendly to Ukraine marked the occasion with expressions of continued support. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly noted the milestone. "500 days ago, the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine," he tweeted. "Ukrainians have fought bravely to defend their country, freedom, and right to determine their own future. The U.S. will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes to achieve a just and durable peace."

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also marked the day with a public statement on the war. "It’s now 500 days since Russia launched their brutal and cowardly attack on Ukraine, whose people have fought harder and with more courage than their adversaries could have ever predicted. Let’s not forget what’s at stake, the people of Ukraine are fighting not just to repel an illegal invasion on their sovereign soil, but for every citizen of Europe and the World who believes in the values of freedom and democracy, their fight is our fight. That is why we will continue, without falter, to support Ukraine, for as long as it takes."

Mr. Prigozhin's mansion, his continuing war on REMFs, and a comparison and contrast with President Putin's presentation of self.

The line on Yevgeny Prigozhin, sometime head of the Wagner Group and leader of the mutinous march on Moscow, is hardening. Russian state television (which we watch courtesy of the Russian Media Monitor) has been showing video of raids on his property, with stacks of cash stored in an expensive mansion along with such expensive possessions as a private helicopter. Also on display are an array of handguns, sledgehammers (ceremonially packed in felt-lined boxes the commentators say are "coffin-like"), and, of course, the disguises we saw last week. Mr. Prigozhin is being framed as a criminal, a crook, and this assessment is offered as an ironical take on the denunciations of Ministry of Defense corruption the Wagner Group leader posted as he announced his march on Moscow. Mr. Prigozhin, the analysts say, is not only a crook now, but he's always been a crook, and he should be dealt with by investigation and prosecution. The sniffish mention of the sledgehammers is interesting. The Wagner Group's association with sledgehammers as tools of execution and intimidation had formerly been treated favorably. They were taken as a sign of uncompromising commitment to a hard war, a good thing.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) describes the phases of the official Russian information response to the mutiny. "Russian state-approved media has responded to the 24 June 2023 Wagner Group mutiny in three phases. Outlets were almost certainly initially surprised by the mutiny and were not prepared; Russian TV maintained its usual schedule. After the insurrection was defused, Russian state outlets sought to ‘correct’ claims that security forces had been passive. Narratives promoted the idea that President Vladimir Putin had triumphed by thwarting the insurrection, while avoiding bloodshed, and sought to unite the country behind the president. Nearly a week later, the state started to play down the significance of Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin and the mutiny, while tarnishing his character. Wagner Telegram channels have largely gone silent, almost certainly due to state intervention." State intervention or not, Mr. Prigozhin did return to his Wagner Group PMC channels this weekend to denounce the media REMFs who've been slanging him on television. As quoted by @JuliaDavisNews, his remarks read in part: "[R]eading the current media stories on t.v., I feel very sick, television b*st*rds who only yesterday admired the guys from the Wagner PMC, are now pouring all possible slops...Remember, television creatures, that it was not your children who fought in our ranks, not your children who [were] dying, and you b*st*rds are rating yourselves with such stories."

For all the harsh rhetoric, Newsweek reports signs that the agreement that ended the march on Moscow "may be in flux," that is, softening, as there are few signs of Wagner Group movement to Belarus, and several signs that Wagnerites remain free to move about Russia, to associate with one another, and so forth. Mr. Prigozhin was close to Russia's most senior leaders during his years in favor, as his appointment calendar reveals, and some degree of access seems to have continued even after the mutiny: Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reported this morning that the Wagner Group chief had a private meeting with President Putin on June 29th, five days after the march on Moscow. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a media availability today that the meeting also included some of Mr. Prigozhin's lieutenants, and that the Wagnerites conveyed their continuing support for Russia's war against Ukraine. So the signals remain mixed; the story continues to develop.

To return to President Putin's new look, the UK's MoD goes on to note that President Putin is working the tame media to increase his public stature. "By contrast, Putin has undertaken unusually prominent public engagements, almost certainly aiming to project strength." That projection of strength includes evidence that Russia's president is also no stranger to luxury, although this is being pointed out not by Rossiya 1, but by the hostile press of what he would call the "collective West." President Putin, for example, uses an armored train for domestic travel. The Telegraph has an account, complete with pictures. It's pretty posh, with a spa, cosmetological treatment suite, a gym, and other amenities. The conference and dining rooms look equally smart but curiously retro, as if inspired by James West's secret agent train from the old Wild, Wild West t.v. show, that Pullman car where Agents West and Artemus Gordon used to meet President Grant to get their marching orders. (Unlike Jim West's Pullman, however, Mr. Putin's train is armored, for his protection.)

KillNet's aspirations to develop into a private (hacking) military corporation.

KillNet has continued to call for people interested in hacking in Russia's interest to join them, and the hacktivist auxiliary says it's offering training to those willing to sign up. The Record reports that the individual who claims to be the group's founder and leader (known only by his or her nom-de-hack "Killmilk") is interested in transforming itself into a private cyber military corporation, one that could be hired to attack NATO targets under Russian orders. This seems unlikely to happen in the near term. Killmilk's own conduct during the Wagnerite mutiny was sufficiently ambivalent to open the door for reasonable doubt concerning his or her political reliability. Unlike the criminal gangs who have made financially motivated attacks against targets in unfriendly states (Cl0p, for example), KillNet's mix of brag and DDoS may not be easily monetized.

Telegram's role in the war.

The Verge describes how Telegram, with its small staff, tolerant moderation practices, and its large user base (especially in Russia and Ukraine) has enabled an outsized contribution to the sharing of war news. It's been permitted to operate relatively unmolested by Roskomnadzor, Russia's Internet regulation body, at least since the last round of attempted censorship was abandoned in 2020. Instead, the social platform has been the locus of free speech, sound information, disinformation, contending narratives, and a range of conspiracy mongering. The Russian organs seem to be leaving Telegraph largely alone because they believe they may be able to break its anonymity and track its users, if they haven't already done so.