Ukraine at D+34: Disinformation in word and deed.
N2K logoMar 30, 2022

Apparently intensified artillery strikes count as "scaling back." Ukraine dismantles Russian bot farms. Cyber gangs are suffering from sanctions.

Ukraine at D+34: Disinformation in word and deed.

This morning's update from the UK Ministry of Defence tells a grim but now familiar story of Russian combat failure and compensatory indiscriminate shelling. "Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganise and resupply. Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganising its units in forward areas within Ukraine. Russia will likely continue to compensate for its reduced ground manoeuvre capability through mass artillery and missile strikes. Russia’s stated focus on an offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk is likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance." The MoD's situation map looks much as it has for the past week.

Recasting failure as humanitarian success (with an anti-humanitarian follow-through).

Neither Ukraine nor the governments sympathetic to its cause put much stock in Russia's announcement that it intended to suspend, or at least scale back, its attacks against Kyiv and other cities in the northern part of the country. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the Kremlin had decided to “fundamentally ... cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv” to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” This seems in large part a face-saving effort, and the skeptics seem to have been proved right. Russia has announced that its real objective is, and always has been, the Donbas, but that's not how Russian officials were talking when the invasion began, and the objection was the totalist one of "de-nazification," that is, destruction of Ukraine's government and installation of a puppet regime.

An Atlantic Council essay argues that the redefinition of objectives amounts to an admission of defeat. Russia has also halted or withdrawn maneuver forces while doubling down on artillery and air strikes against cities. “We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” the AP quotes President Zelenskyy as saying, in a video address to the Ukrainian people. “But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.” The targets of the shelling, Reuters reports, include some of the towns from which Ukrainian units have driven Russian forces.

Finding new sources of troops.

Russian forces in Ukraine will soon be joined by units from Abkhazia, a breakaway region belonging to Georgia whose independence has not been generally recognized naturally. They're also being joined by troops from South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian province. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are to Georgia as Luhansk and Donetsk are to Ukraine, as Transnistria is to Moldova.

Russia is also said to be pressuring Belarus to join the invasion of Ukraine with its own forces, a deeper commitment than the logistical support Belarus has already provided. But even as thoroughly compromised a Kremlin client as President Lukshenka is, he's proving reluctant to commit his country's forces. Such a move is thought to be unpopular in Belarus, with some military personnel, including some officers, having indicated that they won't go to war against Ukraine.

Taking down bot farms.

BleepingComputer reports that Ukrainian authorities have taken down five bot farms in Kharkiv, Cherkasy, Ternopil, and Zakarpattia that were operating tens of thousands of inauthentic social media accounts. The messaging was coordinated and consistent, with disinformation about the progress of the war aimed at discouraging further Ukrainian resistance. The items seized in the raids included:

  • "100 sets of GSM gateways,"
  • "10,000 SIM cards for various mobile operators to disguise the fraudulent activity," and
  • "Laptops and computers used for controlling and coordinating the bots".

Russia says the US is the aggressor in cyberspace.

Reuters reports, citing stories in Russian official media, that Kremlin officials are pointing with concern at cyberattacks they say the US is conducting against Russia. The cyberattacks are said to amount to "hundreds of thousands" every day. "The sources of attacks will be identified and the attackers will inevitably be held accountable for their actions in accordance with the law," Kremlin representatives said. Moscow appears to view Ukraine's semi-official, part-hacktivist, part-volunteer, and part-contractor IT Army as an American cat's paw.

Sanctions are also biting Russian cyber gangs.

Digital Shadows has been keeping an eye on cybergangs' chatter in the dark web, and the word on that particular street is that the hoods are taking a financial bath as the ruble collapses under sanctions. With transfers of money blocked, and with extensive restrictions on banking in place, criminals are finding it difficult to cash out cryptocurrencies, and are having trouble getting hard currency. Digital Shadows describes the underworld's difficulty deciding what to do:

"One user advised simply leaving the money where it was for six months, if the questioner did not need to use it urgently for other purposes. A different user mocked this suggestion, writing: “I hope you were joking about [holding the funds in rubles for] half a year? After half a year, your rubles will only be good for lighting a fire, they will not be good for anything else”. The user also questioned whether the Russian state could be trusted to allow the purchase of dollars after six months, and worried that many Russian banks would go bankrupt. Other forum members considered the advisability of buying gold, although some noted that this method would incur losses due to the high trade fees and storage costs and would involve “an expensive examination” during the transaction process."

What are hypersonic missiles, and do they matter?

They're very fast, and no, in Ukraine they don't seem to really matter.

Russian sources have said, and Western sources confirmed, that Russia has been using hypersonic missiles against Ukraine. Defense One has an account of the missiles' use, which the publication sees as a gesture intended to influence and intimidate. The article quotes the head of US European Command, US Air Force General Tod Wolters, as saying, "I think it was to demonstrate the capability and attempt to put fear in the hearts of the enemy. And I don't think they were successful." The air-launched Kinzhal ("Dagger") missiles are said to have been used against a Ukrainian ammunition storage site.

Hypersonic missiles are extremely fast, moving at Mach 5 or more, and are also designed to be highly maneuverable. Russia claims the Kinzhal is capable of Mach 10, or 7,627 miles per hour. Hypersonic missiles are built for use against well-defended targets, like warships armed with point missile defense systems.

So why use them against big, stationary, poorly defended targets like the ones said to have been struck in Ukraine? There's no real tactical reason. You might want a missile that could boogaloo like the Kinzhal if you were up against, say, an aircraft carrier battle group, and wanted to hit ships. But if you're striking ammunition bunkers (or apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, theaters, and so on) a Kinzhal is more than 7,000 miles-per-hour of supererogation. General Wolters probably has it right: this is propaganda of the deed, not fire support; it's an information op that tries to persuade through kinetic effect. It also represents the expenditure of some pricey ordnance.