Ukraine at D+363: A pep rally for the special military operation.
N2K logoFeb 22, 2023

Shellfire, speeches, and a very big nationalist pep rally mark Russia's activities on the eve of the first anniversary of Mr. Putin's war.

Ukraine at D+363: A pep rally for the special military operation.

Fighting on the ground continues, mostly in the form of heavy rocket attacks and other artillery strikes. Much of the shelling has been reported in the vicinity of Bakhmut. For the moment, however, the ongoing destruction has been overshadowed by Russian morale-building rallies and high dudgeon over US President Biden's visit to Kyiv. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of Russia's special military operation.

More assessments of President Putin's state-of-the-nation address.

The UK's Ministry of Defence devoted this morning's situation report to a review of Russian President Putin's speech. It's an annual event, but he skipped it last year. "On 21 February 2023, President Putin made his first State of the Nation speech since 2021. He made it clear that he intends to continue with the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. He characterised Western elites as having “become a symbol of total unprincipled lies” and suspended Russia from the New START treaty. Putin continued the bellicose tone he has adopted in speeches over the last six months but did not reveal any practical measures which might relieve Russia’s current deadlock on the battlefield. Putin continues to present a contradictory narrative of existential struggle, while insisting everything in Russia is fine and going to plan. This renders both messages ineffective."

Mr. Putin's tone was intransigent, but also somber and elegiac. "The spitting with fury, cod-history spouting, blood-crazed nationalist who began the war a year ago was taking a day off," as the Telegraph put it. He may be offering a more upbeat performance today: the President is currently whooping up a big, bussed-in crowd at a rally in Luzhniki stadium. The Financial Times' Moscow bureau chief, Max Seddon, calls it "Invasionpalooza," which isn't a bad way to describe it. It's effectively a pep rally on a grand scale, one that any American high school student with school spirit could imagine, complete with singers, dancers, gymnasts--a well-organized, thoroughly planned spontaneous demonstration.

On Mr. Putin's suspension of Russian participation in the START treaty, the Guardian polls expert opinion and reports a consensus that the move was intended to divide American public opinion over support for Ukraine. That may well be the intention, but it seems unlikely to be a particularly successful tactic, if only because American public opinion lacks the sort of granularity, historical awareness, and attention to detail that would conduce to strong views on START. Those interested in a refresher on START may consult the Telegraph's summary of the treaty.

Mr. Prigozhin continues to object.

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to accuse the Russian Ministry of Defense of willfully and deliberately withholding ammunition from Wagner Group combat units. Al Jazeera reports that Mr. Prigozhin yesterday, in an unusually intemperate voice message posted to his Telegram channel, said, “There is simply direct opposition going on [to attempts to equip Wagner fighters]. This can be equated to high treason. The chief of the general staff and the defence minister are giving orders right and left, not just not to give Wagner PMC [private military company] ammunition but not to help it with air transport.” The Ministry of Defense denies any such actions, saying in response, “Attempts to create a split within the close mechanism of interaction and support between units of the Russian [fighting] groups are counterproductive and work solely to the benefit of the enemy.” Thus relations between the Russian military and its principal private-sector competitor remain frosty at best. Al Jazeera sees the exchanges as a sign that Mr. Prigozhin's influence in the Kremlin may be waning. "High treason" is a strong accusation against Defense Minister Shoigu and his senior commanders. It will be worth watching whether Mr. Prigozhin is allowed to get away with it.

Disrupting Mr. Putin's speech, online.

The IT Army of Ukraine claimed credit for briefly, periodically disrupting online services that carried President Putin's state-of-the-nation address. "We launched a DDoS attack on channels showing putin's address to the federal assembly," the IT Army posted in its Telegram channel, specifying its targets as 1TV, VGTRK and SMOTRIM.

The IT Army is the most prominent representative of Ukrainian hacktivists operating as a cyber auxiliary of Ukraine's intelligence and security services. The Ukrainian government freely acknowledges the support it receives from the IT Army, but both the government and the IT Army deny that the hacktivist organization receives orders directly from the government.

The future of cyber auxiliaries.

Newsweek is running a lengthy appreciation by Shaun Waterman of lessons the present war holds for the future of cyber auxiliaries like the IT Army. It points out, first, the capabilities that the private sector, both hacktivist volunteers and security companies, brings to the battle in cyberspace. The IT Army seems to have provided a template for the sort of rapid wartime augmentation of cyber capabilities that many in governments and industry have mulled for several years.

It also highlights some of the remaining ambiguities and uncertainties such auxiliaries will inevitably bring with them. The IT Army is aware of international humanitarian law, and the laws of armed conflict, and says it scrupulously follows them, especially with respect to the norms requiring "distinction," that is, proper discrimination of legitimate targets from protected, noncombatant targets. It also says it aims at the disruption of the Russian economy insofar as that economy supports the war against Ukraine.

Some of the ambiguity surrounding cyber auxiliaries follows directly from the ambiguity inherent in the grey zone that cyber operations tend to occupy. Are cyber operations acts of war when they achieve destructive kinetic effects? Almost certainly. What about wiper attacks? Russia has tried these extensively against Ukraine, as Wired notes, to the extent that they've become almost a defining feature of Moscow's cyber campaigns. Possibly. Are they acts of war when they're merely disruptive? Perhaps. What about influence operations? Arguably not, although states like Russia are likely to disagree when they find themselves on the receiving end. In any case, the cyber phases of the present war will undoubtedly clarify the application of international law in cyberspace.