Ukraine at D+488: Join the Army or go to Belarus. Or just go home.
N2K logoJun 27, 2023

As the mutiny sorts itself out, influence operations seek to reach a domestic Russian audience.

Ukraine at D+488: Join the Army or go to Belarus. Or just go home.

Ukrainian forces continue to make small gains on the ground, but these now include some territory occupied by Russia since 2014. From the British Ministry of Defence morning situation report: "Ukrainian Airborne forces have made small advances east from the village of Krasnohorivka, near Donetsk city, which sits on the old Line of Control. This is one of the first instances since Russia’s February 2022 invasion that Ukrainian forces have highly likely recaptured an area of territory occupied by Russia since 2014. Recent multiple concurrent Ukrainian assaults throughout the Donbas have likely overstretched Donetsk People’s Republic and Chechen forces operating in this area."

Pro-Russian Telegram accounts are reporting, according to the Guardian, that Ukrainian forces have crossed the Dnipro River in the Kherson oblast. The advance appears to represent a push toward Crimea.

Russian obstacles, especially minefields, are said to be impeding the Ukrainian advance. But obstacles must be covered with fire to be militarily effective, and minefields can be breached. Ukrainian commanders continue, the New York Times reports, to urge patience.

Sorting out the aftermath of the Wagner Group mutiny.

Russia's leaders seek to reassure the nation and return to normal conditions. In the course of a speech to the nation, President Putin addressed the Wagnerites directly, offering them a choice and a promise. "Today, you have the opportunity to continue serving Russia by entering into a contract with the Ministry of Defense or other law enforcement agencies, or to return to your family and friends. Whoever wants to can go to Belarus. The promise I made will be fulfilled," he said to the Wagner Group's fighters. "I repeat: The choice is yours." President Putin also hinted that there was a Western hand behind the Wagner Group's mutiny, warning that the West wanted to see Russians kill Russians. (Bloomberg reports that US President Biden disclaimed any US involvement in the Wagner Group's actions.)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group's disaffected boss, is believed to be in Belarus, and he too had a statement. He disclaimed any intention of overthrowing the Russian government, saying, according to Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty, that his march on Moscow was intended to redress the injustice inflicted on his troops. "We started our march because of an injustice,” he said, meaning an attack he claims the Russian regulars made against his contract mercenaries. "We went to demonstrate our protest and not to overthrow power in the country." He added that the Wagner Group as it's been constituted would cease to exist on July 1st, but that dissolution may be confined to the Ukrainian theater of operations. The Wagner Group has mercenaries in the Middle East and Africa, and the Washington Post reports that they may continue to operate under the direction of a new corporate headquarters in Belarus.

Mr. Prigozhin gave a desire to avoid spilling Russian blood as his reason for calling off the march. There seems to have been no fighting between Wagnerites and regular ground forces (who seem largely to have stood aside during the march). But the Wagner Group is believed to have shot down at least one fixed-wing aircraft (an IL-22 communications platform) and several helicopters, killing about fifteen aircrew, so the mutiny wasn't entirely bloodless. Mr. Prigozhin has said he regrets the deaths.

What of the Internet Research Agency?

The Wagner Group isn't the only private enterprise that furnishes deniable support to Russian policy, POLITICO reminds its readers. There's also Mr. Prigozhin's Internet Research Agency, the notorious St. Petersburg troll farm that drew widespread attention for retailing disinformation aimed at influencing elections in the US and elsewhere. How it will fare in the aftermath of its corporate sister's mutiny remains unclear. "The Russian oligarch’s empire reaches far beyond a paramilitary mercenary group to also include “troll factories” used to spread Russian propaganda," POLITICO writes. "Prigozhin has claimed on Telegram to have founded the U.S.-sanctioned Internet Research Agency, and on another occasion said he has interfered in U.S. presidential elections through the spread of disinformation." In any case, the mutiny's sequelae can be expected to include heavy influence operations, directed for the most part at Russian opinion.

The Intercept offers a brief history of Mr. Prigozhin's experience in this regard. Much of his organizations' activity shades into marketing, particularly in the African countries where his forces remain active. Lawfare yesterday blogged an assessment of how effective the Internet Research Agency has actually been. The group's influence has been easy to overestimate, but it can't be written off, either. The troll farm remains in business.

Microsoft warns of a rising threat to infrastructure.

Yesterday Microsoft offered an appreciation of Russia's likely courses of action in the cyber phase of its war against Ukraine. "This what we are experiencing now has become a hybrid war – both a kinetic and digital. The recent and ongoing cyberattacks have been precisely targeted, with the aim to bring down Ukraine’s economy and government. Microsoft Digital Defense Report showed that the number of cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure had grown significantly. The level of sophistication of cyberattacks is permanently evolving." The continuing convergence of IT and OT networks represents an increasing risk, especially given the relative "fragmentation" and impoverished security of operational technology. "Microsoft identified unpatched, high-severity vulnerabilities in 75% of the most common industrial controllers in customer Operational Technology (OT) networks." The company's report concludes with a set of recommendations that provide organizations with an eight-step approach to improving infrastructure security.

"The equivalent of a cave man with a club" (but getting more dangerous).

One of the experts cited by the Washington Post in a story on the growing sophistication of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, made the Alley-Oop comparison, and indeed DDoS has for some time been both a commodified nuisance and one of the defining features of Russia's cyber campaign against countries sympathetic to Ukraine. “In the world of cybersecurity threats, it’s sort of the equivalent of a cave man with a club,” Cloudflare CEO and co-founder Matthew Prince told the Post. “It’s not particularly sophisticated, but can obviously do a lot of damage. … What we have seen is that the clubs continue to get bigger, and the cave men have gone from knocking down your website, which is embarrassing but may not be all that harmful, to now going after what can be much more critical.” Attacks against the Domain Name System (DNS attacks) and layer 7 attacks (which hit the application layer of a network). The newly emergent sophistication isn't confined to Russia's cyber auxiliaries, but it can be expected to manifest itself in that quarter.