Ukraine at D+512: Black Sea blockade.
N2K logoJul 21, 2023

Russia's imposition of a blockade on Ukrainian ports is consistent with a strategy of deliberately inducing famine. Russian security organs and their hacktivist auxiliaries continue action against Western targets.

Ukraine at D+512: Black Sea blockade.

Russia continued missile strikes against the port of Odessa overnight. The attacks form part of Moscow's strategy, implemented this week, to interdict grain shipments and induce famine to pressure Western countries into relaxing sanctions and forsaking support for Ukraine. The disruption of grain exports is expected to hit Africa especially hard. World grain prices have risen in response to Russia's newly announced blockade. The move carries risks for Russia, the principal risk being alienation of Moscow's shrinking number of already tepid international sympathizers. Expect the blockade to evoke a supporting Russian influence campaign.

In response to Russia's announcement of what amounts effectively to a blockade, Ukraine issued its own warning to mariners that they should avoid Russia's Black Sea ports. Kyiv calls out the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov as a region of particular risk. The US has accused Russia of mining the Black Sea approaches to Ukrainian ports, an implausibly deniable operation widely advocated and openly applauded on Russian state television. Russian naval units have emphasized the blockade by conducting anti-shipping missile firing drills in the Black Sea.

Wagner watch: Belarus and Africa, with the deal brokered by President Lukashenka representing a temporary truce.

In a telegram video posted on July 19th, Wagner Group proprietor Evgeny Prigozhin announced the company's move to Belarus. Recording from what looks like a field camp, Mr. Prigozhin announced that his employee (first name Segei, callsign "Pioner") would commanding the private military company during its stay in Belarus. Mr. Prigozhin explained that Wagner’s primary role in Belarus would be to train the Belarusian army into “the second best army in the world.” Should the need arise, he said, Wagner troops would follow the Belarusian army into combat. Prigozhin then handed the mic to Dmitry Valerievich Utkin, the GRU alumnus who founded the Wagner Group. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Utkin has a colorful background. He's an enthusiast for things Nazi, and an admirer of the composer Richard Wagner's antisemitism and neopagan style. He took the composer's name "Wagner" as his callsign; from there it became the name of the private military company. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Utkin's speech didn't disappoint. “This is not the end, the most important work in the world will begin very soon." He added (in English, significantly) "Welcome to Hell!” After the speech the leaders took a walk through a formation of contractors, one of whom asked, “Are we going to continue to kill the [slur for homosexual]?” to which Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Utkin replied, “We are obligated to extinguish the LGBT!”

Another Telegram post from an account associated with the Wagner Group offered a tally of the number of troops the mercenary company committed to Russia's war against Ukraine. The post puts the total number of those who fought in Ukraine at 78,000. 49,000 of these were recruited from prisons. By the end of May Wagner Group forces had lost 22,000 killed and 40,000 wounded. The Wagnerites now have some 25,000 available for duty. Of these, 10,000 are headed for Belarus (or are already there) and 15,000 are leaving the company. The point of the post was the debunking of Russian official media reports that 33,000 Wagner fighters were joining the regulars.

These contending claims lack independent confirmation, but the UK's Ministry of Defence noted this morning that Wagner's convict fighter program is coming to an end. "In the coming days, Russia’s Wagner Group is likely to release the last of its convict-recruits from their mandated service. Its Project K prison recruitment scheme peaked in early 2023 and at least 40,000 men served under it. A significant number of the now pardoned convicts are likely to take up the offer to continue with Wagner as professional contractors. Meanwhile, the Russian MOD has taken over Wagner’s prison recruitment pipeline. The end of the scheme marks a way point in the history of Wagner and of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The soldiers provided by Project K enabled Russia to seize Bakhmut: one of its few recent claims to success. The project grew Wagner into the organisation which, last month, directly challenged the authority of President Putin. It also marks one of the bloodiest episodes in modern military history: up to 20,000 convict-recruits were killed within a few months."

So whither Wagner? The company continues to offer its services to interested parties in Africa, the Atlantic Council reports. Beyond continued mercenary services in Africa, the Wagner Group's presence in Belarus has increased sufficiently that the government of Poland now regards it as a threat, its training grounds a few miles from the border a provocation. Poland had redeployed its own troops to counter the Wagnerite presence. A spokesman for Poland's Security Committee said, according to Reuters, "The Committee analysed possible threats, such as the dislocation of Wagner Group units. Therefore, the Minister of National Defense, chairman of the Committee, Mariusz Blaszczak, decided to move our military formations from the west to the east of Poland."

Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports that US Director of Central Intelligence William Burns told the Aspen Institute yesterday that President Putin hadn't forgiven Yevgeny Prigozhin for the Wagner Group's brief mutiny last month. "What we are seeing is a very complicated dance," Burns said in a fireside chat. "Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback.” Burns expects Mr. Prigozhin to suffer retribution at some point. He also says that President Putin is rightly wary, concerned for his own position.

CNN quotes the DCI's British counterpart, MI6 chief Richard Moore, who sees the temporary indulgence extended to Mr. Prigozhin as a ploy by President Putin to "save his own skin, using the good offices of the leader of Belarus." Moore puts the timeline of the march on Moscow like this: “If you look at Putin’s behaviors on that day. Prigozhin started off I think, as a traitor at breakfast. He had been pardoned by supper and then a few days later, he was invited for tea. So, there are some things and even the chief of MI6 finds that a little bit difficult to try and interpret, in terms of who’s in and who’s out.” In any case, Messrs. Prigozhin and Putin apparently aren't finished with one another.

Russian hacktivist auxiliaries continue DDoS against miscellaneous Western sites.

CyberScoop reports that Anonymous Sudan, which despite its name is run by Russian intelligence services, continued distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against a variety of Western organizations. The latest incident affected OnlyFans, the online subscription service used by a variety of content creators, but especially by adult entertainment creators. OnlyFans is merely a target of opportunity, disrupted because it was available for disruption. It has no independent strategic significance.

Mandiant yesterday summarized its research into the activities of Russian hacktivist auxiliaries. The researchers view Anonymous Sudan as essentially a subsidiary of the larger and better-known KillNet, and they regard the evidence of cooperation with Russian security services as circumstantial but nonetheless compelling. "KillNet has remained relatively consistent in its targeting of Ukraine’s supporters and prioritization of DDoS attacks since Russia invaded in February 2022, and despite new capabilities, the collective has hardly altered its targeting patterns," the report concludes. "While Mandiant cannot confirm collaboration or cooperation with Russian security services, KillNet’s targeting of victims consistently reflects the interests of the Russian state. The collective’s apparent significant growth in capabilities, demonstrated by Microsoft’s confirmation that Anonymous Sudan was responsible for the outages they experienced, potentially indicates a significant increase in outside investment in the collective, further suggesting a potential tie to the Russian state. We anticipate that KillNet and its affiliates will continue DDoS attacks and become more brazen in their targeting of organizations." 

Romania's SVR reports a pattern of Russian cyberattacks.

The chief of cyber for Romania's intelligence service, the SRI, said this week that Romania had received cyberattacks from all three of the major Russian intelligence services (SVR, GRU, and FSB) since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.