As Russia looks for ways of supplying its forces with basics (like ammunition, which it's been reduced to buying from North Korea), its diplomats try to fix the blame for their war on the Americans and (of course) Nazis. And its hackers may be turning their attention to healthcare providers.
Ukraine at D+302: Implausible insistence on Russia's blamelessness for the war.
Little has changed at the front. President Zelenskyy is back in Kyiv after his trip to Washington, and President Putin is considering ways of mobilizing without really mobilizing.
President Putin calls his war "war."
The Washington Post reports that Russian President Putin dropped, at least once, his euphemistic insistence on referring to Russia's aggression as a "special military operation." “Our goal is not to spin this flywheel of a military conflict, but, on the contrary, to end this war. This is what we are striving for," Mr. Putin said in a Thursday news conference. Technically, this is a violation of laws passed to prohibit the "defamation" of Russian military forces by calling the war they're fighting a "war" and spouting other fake news. No one expects Mr. Putin to be prosecuted, although others have been imprisoned under the statute. Reuters says that one opposition politician, Nikita Yuferev, has asked in an open letter to prosecutors that Mr. Putin be investigated and held accountable for breaking the law. Yuferev, who's asked Reuters not to disclose his location, is not so naive as to think Mr. Putin will be investigated, still less prosecuted, but he hopes to draw attention to the absurdity and injustice of the law.
And that war is really America's war (says the Kremlin).
Russia continues to blame the US and other Western governments for what President Putin has now called, in a slip or not, the "war." Anatoly Antonov, Russian Ambassador to the US, characterized the fighting as a "proxy war" the US is waging against Russia. He told TASS that "Today, everything is being thrown into the furnace of hatred against us: money, weapons, intelligence, utilization of US military satellites for the fight against the Russian Armed Forces. The slogan is obvious and clear: Russia must not be allowed to win the special military operation. If we summarize their demands, they become clear. First, to stop the special military operation. Second, withdraw troops from all pseudo-Ukrainian territories. Third, to pay reparations as compensation for damage to Ukraine."
This is unacceptable to Russia, which continues to deny the legitimacy of Ukraine as an independent state (cf. "pseudo-Ukrainian territories"). "In this situation," he added, "we have nowhere to retreat. We must go only forward." And he continued the official, implausible, insistence that Ukraine was a hotbed of unreconstructed Nazism. "If we allow the preservation of the roots of Nazism on Ukrainian soil, these sprouts will grow again after a while and we will have to fight to the death to save not only Ukraine but the entire world from this filth."
Ambassador Antonov also deplored to TASS the "ice age" into which Russo-American relations have fallen. That, too, is the Americans' fault. They don't talk any more, except to summon their Russian colleagues to deliver some demarche or protest, after which they dismiss the Russian diplomats as having used up their time. They won't, Mr. Anontov, even listen to what the Russians have to say about their side of things. (We're not diplomats, but perhaps the Americans have simply heard the Nazi schtick one too many times.)
Mobilization without mobilization.
The morning situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence offers perspective on the plans announced Wednesday for the expansion of the Russian military. "On 21 December, President Putin was presented with plans to expand the Russian military by around 30% to 1.5 million personnel. It isn’t clear when this level would be achieved. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shigou explained that the expansion would involve at least two brigades in north-western Russia growing to divisional strength. He cited the supposed threat from Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. This constitutes one of the first insights into how Russia aspires to adapt its forces to the long-term strategic challenges resulting from its invasion of Ukraine. It remains unclear how Russia will find the recruits to complete such an expansion at a time when its forces are under unprecedented pressure in Ukraine."
Not only are its forces under pressure, but Russia's economy is also under pressure. How a force larger by a third than the one presently fielded will be assembled and equipped is unclear, especially since President Putin said that full mobilization of the economy is unnecessary and won't be attempted. The 300,000-700,000 men of military age who fled the country at the time of the partial mobilization won't be available as recruits.
North Korea is said to be supplying ammunition to the Wagner Group.
US and Canadian authorities have accused Pyongyang of delivering ammunition to the Wagner Group's contract mercenary formations. North Korea denies having done any such thing, and Wagner Group capo di tutti capi Yevengy Prigozhin dismissed the reports as false, nothing but "gossip and speculation." But the US sources spoke clearly and on the record, with more corroborative detail than usually attends gossip and speculation. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters yesterday, "We can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment. Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner." Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly this morning condemned North Korea's delivery of weapons, which she said “clearly violates international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions.” Reuters draws attention to the story's suggestion that Pyongyang is playing a larger role in Russia's war, but more interesting than that is what the ammunition deliveries say about Russia's inability to produce enough to supply its own battlefield needs.
In his press conference Kirby estimated the Wagner Group's present strength in Ukraine at 50,000. 10,000 of these are contractor troops, conventional mercenaries. The remaining 40,000 are recently enrolled convicts, offered an opportunity for remission of their sentences if they perform at the front (and promised death if they flunk it).
KillNet goes after healthcare.
KillNet, the hacktivist auxiliary that has been perhaps the most publicly prominent Russian actor in cyberspace over the last few months of the war, has turned its attention to healthcare. The US Department of Health and Human Services, through its Health Sector Cybersecurity Coordination Center (HC3) has warned US hospitals and other healthcare providers that they should expect to receive attention from KillNet.
"KillNet has previously targeted, or threatened to target, organizations in the Healthcare and Public Health (HPH) sector," the HC3 Analyst Note says. Much of the activity (and it's worth noting that more has been threatened than has apparently materialized) has represented a threat to data privacy. "For example, Killmilk, a senior member of the KillNet group, has threatened the U.S. Congress with the sale of the health and personal data of the American people because of the Ukraine policy of the U.S. Congress. In December 2022, the pro-Russian hacktivist group claimed the compromise of a U.S.-based healthcare organization that supports members of the U.S. military and claimed to possess a large amount of user data from that organization."
In some cases, however, KillNet has threatened medical devices. "In May 2022, a 23-year old supposed KillNet member was arrested in connection with attacks on Romanian government websites. In response to the arrest, KillNet reportedly demanded his release and threatened to target life-saving ventilators in British hospitals if their demands were not met. The member also threatened to target the UK Ministry of Health."
HC3 says, with commendable realism, that KillNet does tend to do more woofing than biting. "It is worth taking any claims KillNet makes about its attacks or operations with a grain of salt. Given the group’s tendency to exaggerate, it is possible some of these announced operations and developments may only be to garner attention, both publicly and across the cybercrime underground." Nonetheless, US healthcare organizations are advised to keep their guard up, and HC3 suggests several steps they might take to protect themselves and their patients.