Ukraine at D+207: War crimes and threats of escalation.
N2K logoSep 19, 2022

Evidence of more atrocities surfaces in liberated Izium as Ukraine's counteroffensive continues. Hacktivists continue actions against the Belarusian regime, and Russian state television

Ukraine at D+207: War crimes and threats of escalation.

Evidence of war crimes in Kharkiv.

Atrocities left behind in the Kharkiv Oblast by retreating Russian forces--mass graves of civilians bearing the marks of torture and execution--have led to calls for an international tribunal to bring those responsible to justice. The New York Times puts the number of dead so far exhumed in Izium at more than four hundred.

The Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, called for the prosecution of war criminals. Czech Foreign MInister Jan Lipavský tweeted Saturday, "Russia left behind mass graves of hundreds of shot and tortured people in the Izyum area. In the 21st century, such attacks against the civilian population are unthinkable and abhorrent. We must not overlook it. We stand for the punishment of all war criminals. I call for the speedy establishment of a special international tribunal that will prosecute the crime of aggression."

Ukraine's counteroffensive and the war to date.

Ukraine's counteroffensive continues, with an increase in partisan action in the Kherson Oblast. Russian counterattacks seem to have been largely ineffectual.

Saturday's situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) describes Russian efforts to establish a defensive line to hold what they've taken in Luhansk. "Ukraine continues offensive operations in the north-east of the country while Russian forces have established a defensive line between the Oskil River and the town of Svatove. Russia likely sees maintaining control of this zone as important because it is transited by one of the few main resupply routes Russia still controls from the Belgorod region of Russia. In addition, this line sits along the border of Luhansk Oblast, part of the Donbas, which Russia aims to ‘liberate’ as one of its immediate war aims. Any substantial loss of territory in Luhansk will unambiguously undermine Russia’s strategy. Russia will likely attempt to conduct a stubborn defence of this area, but it is unclear whether Russia’s front line forces have sufficient reserves or adequate morale to withstand another concerted Ukrainian assault."

One of the challenges Russia faces as it attempts to organize a defense against Ukraine's counteroffensive is its continuing inability to achieve air superiority. "Russia has highly likely lost at least four combat jets in Ukraine within the last 10 days, taking its attrition to approximately 55 since the start of the invasion," the MoD wrote in this morning's situation report. "There is a realistic possibility that this uptick in losses is partially a result of the Russian Air Force accepting greater risk as it attempts to provide close air support to Russian ground forces under pressure from Ukrainian advances. Russian pilots’ situational awareness is often poor; there is a realistic possibility that some aircraft have strayed over enemy territory and into denser air defence zones as the front lines have moved rapidly. Russia’s continued lack of air superiority remains one of the most important factors underpinning the fragility of its operational design in Ukraine."

Various sources report that Russia's GRU military intelligence service is undergoing a shakeup, as the Russian government looks to assign responsibility for, and correct, what retrospectively look like intelligence failures. A Kremlin-associated journalist, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, tweeted Friday that General Yunus-Bek Bamatgireyevich Yevkurov, since July 2019 a Deputy Defense Minister, will be the new broom that cleans up the GRU, which she regards as leaky: "Bellingcat will have less sources in the GRU, many will be fired."

Russian difficulties in filling its ranks with replacements appear to continue.

Last week the US Congressional Research Service published a summary overview of the progress of the war, Russia’s War in Ukraine: Military and Intelligence Aspects. It provides a useful overview of how the combatants have fared since Russia's February invasion.

Belarusian Cyber Partisans work against the regime in Minsk.

The Cyber Partisans continue to operate as domestic opposition to the government of Belarusian President Lukashenka. Their activities, as described in an overview by the Record, have principally involved embarrassing the regime through doxing, with amplification of discreditable information through Internet memes and rough animation that's reminiscent of South Park's visual style. "Although made up mostly of young tech specialists and activists, the Cyber Partisans resemble an amateur intelligence service: they have a political agenda, clear goals, and put a lot of effort into collecting and analyzing sensitive data." A Bloomberg report earlier this summer described the Cyber Partisans as having “taken hacktivism to the next level.”

The Record puts the Cyber Partisans' numbers at about sixty, and it describes them as for the most part "self-taught." Their approach suggests the lines along which hacktivism might successfully be conducted: the goal is embarrassment, the means are doxing and ridicule, not demonization, supplemented by selected attacks against the regime's infrastructure. Ridicule is probably more productive against an authoritarian regime that depends upon fear and the projection of strength as its surrogate for legitimacy.

And on target selection, the Cyber Partisans are notable for their ability to pick both high value targets and to attack them in a discriminating fashion. "But foreign activists and cybersecurity experts have not objected to the group’s activity, Shemetovets said, because their attacks don’t harm civilians, the Record writes, and quotes Shemotovets as saying, "'We have a rule: to publish data only about those people who are connected with the dictator’s regime and committed crimes against the Belarusian people. We do not target their families and children.'" They look for targets whose disruption interferes with crucial operations of the regime, and they see their cyberattack against Belarusian rail traffic as a good example of this. It interfered with the movement of Russian matériel through Belarusian networks to invasion forces in Ukraine.

Rossiya-1's commentariat simultaneously denies responsibility for atrocities and calls for more of them. (Missile strikes show that more are indeed coming.)

Alexey Anpilogov, a political commentator and a frequent guest on Russian talk programs, made the case for unrestricted warfare on Olga Skabeeva's Rossiya-1 chat show. “We don’t need to be ashamed of our actions," Mr. Anpilogov said. "Either way, they say we are barbarians. ‘Russians are barbarians, a horde from the East.’ Victims of Ukrainian shelling they found in Izyum will be portrayed by the West as another Bucha." Bucha, is the town of about 37,000 in the Kyiv Oblast that was briefly occupied by Russian forces in the early days of the war, before Russia abandoned its initial attempt to take Kyiv. Bucha was the site of early Russian massacres of civilians: mass graves were discovered there, as they've now been discovered in Izyum, a recently recaptured town in the Kharkiv Oblast. The bodies exhumed from mass graves bear marks of torture and execution the Washington Post, the Guardian, and others report. These are not victims of shellfire.

Mr. Anpilogov sees unrestricted war against Ukrainian civil infrastructure as the path to victory. "For a long time there was no clear understanding of how we will deal with European sanctions. Turns out, there were only three phases. First, we sell gas only for rubles. Second, fix the turbine." This refers to the dispute over delivery of a Siemens turbine to Gazprom. "Third, there is no gas,and that’s it. Everything is very simple, easy to understand. Europe is now figuring out which body parts it can wash, where it will freeze, and which of its comforts it will have to go without, be it coffee or a warm bed." And now it should be Ukraine's turn, he says, conflating economic sanctions with missile strikes. "We need to do the same to Ukraine. Let me emphasize, it is my native country. It’s where I was born and lived for forty years. But our victory depends upon how fast we can destroy the entire critical infrastructure of that country. We’re all contributing to achieving it in any way we can. The power plants, the dams, the railways, the highways, these are all legitimate military targets because they’re being used by the Kyiv regime in its attempts to defeat us militarily."

The challenge, as he sees it, is to take the hard road and ignore the odium along the way. The West already considers Russians barbarians, so what is there to be gained by restraint? "Yes, it will be very painful. Yes, we will be accused of all deadly sins, but this is the path to our victory.” We note, again, that combat incompetence is not to be confused with humanitarian restraint.

The MoD's situation report on Sunday morning pointed out an increase in Russian missile strikes against civilian infrastructure, which suggests that in this case the commentariat has faithfully reflected official policy. "Russia has launched several thousand long-range missiles against Ukraine since 24 February 2022. However, in the last seven days, Russia has increased its targeting of civilian infrastructure even where it probably perceives no immediate military effect. This category of mission has included strikes against the electricity grid, and a dam on the Inhulets River at Kryvyi Rih. As it faces setbacks on the front lines, Russia has likely extended the locations it is prepared to strike in an attempt to directly undermine the morale of the Ukrainian people and government."

Early this morning a Russian missile strike hit the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant, Ukraine's second largest, the Telegraph reports. Energoatom says the missile landed some 300 meters from the nearest reactor and did some modest structural damage to buildings at the site. All three of the plant's reactors have maintained normal operations, but the strike suggests an increase in Russian attempts to damage Ukrainian infrastructure. Pivdennoukrainsk is located in the south, near Mykolaiv.

After US President Biden’s hypothetical appeal to President Putin not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine (“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” as he put it Friday on 60 Minutes), Mr. Solovyov put the question to the experts on his Rossiya-1 chat show, “What’s going on? What should we be ready for?” State Duma Deputy Andrey Gurulyov answered, “Our victory. Today I heard, ‘If we don’t win…’ That is not an option. We will win. I’ll start at the end. We will win. We will win and survive, no matter the cost.” He offered an estimate that Ukraine was running out of troops. “The presence of mercenaries, especially near Kharkiv, by our estimates is about 50%. It indicates they’re running out of resources. There is not enough manpower. There just isn’t.” 

Mr. Solovyov asked, with evident satisfaction, “Are there Ukrainian corpses piled up everywhere?” And Gurulyov answered, “That’s right. I’m not rejoicing that we’re grinding them up. All of us probably know people there. Many have friends and relatives there. But today there’s no other choice than to grind it all up. Biden said, ‘If Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine.’ Is he saying we might use nuclear weapons in Ukraine? We may use them, but definitely not in Ukraine. We still have to live there. We should be talking about this. A happy, well-fed German Burger, whose butt is already starting to get cold ahead of the coming winter, he should understand that if there’s a strike, against the decision-makers, the main decision-making center is Berlin. Not only will his house freeze up, but his entire nation will be in total chaos, which essentially means his own demise. Biden says there would be a reaction per their Article 5.” Article 5 is the collective defense provision in the NATO charter under which an attack on one member is to be regarded as an attack against all. 

“But if we turn the British Isles into a Martian desert in three minutes flat,” Mr. Gurulyov expanded, “using tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones, they could use Article 5, but for whom? A non-existent country, turned into a Martian desert? They won’t respond. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. If we compare the potential of Russia and NATO, NATO’s military is three times larger. We can successfully defend ourselves, but we can’t launch an offensive, and only an offensive prevails on the battlefield. If, God forbid, NATO goes in there, that’s what we should be talking about. God forbid they go in there, then we have to consider that option. We shouldn’t be shy about it or fear it. They need to know this. They really have to know this. They should tuck their tails in and keep on yapping.”

Back on September 12th, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy addressed the Russian government directly on this matter over his Telegram channel, anticipating the direction Russia's war has now clearly and avowedly taken, whatever claims of humane reluctance to take the gloves off that Ms Skabeeva's guests may be offering:

"Even through the impenetrable darkness, Ukraine and the civilized world clearly see these terrorist acts. Deliberate and cynical missile strikes on civilian critical infrastructure. No military facilities. Kharkiv and Donetsk regions were cut off. In Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Sumy there are partial problems with power supply.

"Do you still think that we are 'one people?' Do you still think that you can scare us, break us, force us to make concessions? You really did not understand anything? Didn't understand who we are? What we are for? What we are talking about?

"...Without gas or without you? Without you. Without light or without you? Without you. Without water or without you? Without you. Without food or without you? Without you.

"Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as terrible and deadly for us as your 'friendship and brotherhood.' But history will put everything in its place. And we will be with gas, light, water and food. And WITHOUT you!"