Ukraine at D+466: Battle handover.
N2K logoJun 5, 2023

With continued skirmishing in occupied territories and inside Russia itself, the Wagner Group hands the battle in Bakhmut over to the Russian Army. Moscow moves to secure its IT systems.

Ukraine at D+466: Battle handover.

Russian missile and drone attacks against Ukrainian cities continued over the weekend, for the most part ineffectually, but with a sad toll in civilian casualties. The UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) early this morning reported on the progress of Russia's drone campaign. "Over the course of May 2023, Russia launched over 300 Iranian Shahed series one way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles (OWA-UAVs) against Ukraine: its most intense use of this weapon system to date. Russia is probably launching so many OWA-UAVs in an attempt to force Ukraine to fire stocks of valuable, advanced air defence missiles. Russia is unlikely to have been notably successful: Ukraine has neutralised at least 90% of the incoming OWA-UAVs mostly using its older and cheaper air defence weapons and with electronic jamming. Russia has also likely been attempting to locate and strike Ukrainian forces well behind the front line. However, Russia remains very ineffective at hitting such dynamic targets at range because of its poor targeting processes."

Partisans claiming to belong to the Free Russia Legion conducted more raids into the Belgorod area, and claim to have taken some Russian soldiers prisoner, Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty reports. The Institute for the Study of War believes the "dissonance" of the Russian response to the partisan raids suggests that Russia has yet to arrive at an official, coordinated response to these operations.

Russian commentators increasingly say that Ukraine's counteroffensive has begun, and that the minor drone hits in Moscow as well as the raids into Belgorod are in fact the start of Ukraine's big push. This doesn't appear to be an attempt to minimize the Ukrainian effort. Instead, the commentators view these incidents (which they commonly represent as being done by NATO, with Ukraine acting as a cat's paw for the collective West) with alarm. The AP reports Russian accounts of repelling Ukrainian attacks in Donetsk; Ukrainian officials denied that any attacks occurred, and dismissed the Russian claims as propaganda.

Implications of continued fighting in Bakhmut.

Notwithstanding Russian claims of having secured Bakhmut, the AP reports that Ukrainian forces continue to contest the dead city, holding Russian units in place.

On Saturday the UK's MoD described the implications of Russian redeployment around Bakhmut. "Russia has continued to redeploy regular units to the Bakhmut sector, as Wagner Group assault detachment complete their withdrawal to rear areas. Russian VDV (airborne forces) have assumed an increasingly important role in Bakhmut: elements of the 76th and 106th divisions and two additional separate VDV brigades are now deployed to the sector. The VDV is much degraded from its pre-invasion ‘elite’ status. However, Russian commanders have likely attempted to maintain some of these still relatively capable units as an uncommitted reserve. Because they have instead been forced to deploy them to hold the front line in Bakhmut, the whole Russian force is likely to be less flexible in reacting to operational challenges."

The battle handover from Wagnerites to regulars hasn't gone smoothly. Friday Wagner Group capo Prigozhin complained publicly, in his Telegram channel, that Russian army troops had placed minefields to block the Wagner Group's withdrawal from the sector. Reuters quotes him as saying, "We assume this was an attempt at a public flogging." In justice (perhaps) to the Russian regulars, this seems unlikely. Mines laid in the rear of the Wagner Group were probably placed there incompetently, and not in any effort to stall or kill Wagnerites as they redeployed. A minefield isn't, despite what one sees in the movies, a booby trap writ large. It's an obstacle. It's placed, marked, and recorded, put down to shape the battlefield, to channel an enemy attack into kill zones where direct fire weapons like tanks and machine guns can do their damage. The low levels of training exhibited by Russian regular forces make it likely that the Russian sappers simply botched their minelaying, especially the marking and recording part.

In any case, Mr. Prigozhin has continued his public complaints about Russia's Ministry of Defense, threatening to withdraw the Wagnerites from the fighting in Ukraine if there aren't reforms of the "clowns who turn people into meat," as he referred to the leaders of the defense establishment.

"Operation Triangulation" offers an occasion for Russia to move closer to IT autarky.

The Record reports that, in response to FSB claims that Apple colluded with the US National Security Agency (NSA) to facilitate NSA access to Russian users' iPhones, Russia is moving to equip officials with phones running Rostelecom's Aurora operating system. Apple has denied working with NSA or any other intelligence service to compromise the security of the devices it sells. "As described on its website," the Record explains, "Aurora gives customers complete control over data processing and complies with Russia’s government security guidelines." The move toward greater autarky has a dual motivation. The first is concern for security. The second is concern to maintain a national IT capability in the face of international sanctions levied in response to Russia's war against Ukraine.

"Operation Triangulation," as Kaspersky researchers called a campaign they say they detected in iOS devices, presumably the same campaign the FSB complained of, remains mysterious. ComputerBild offers a rundown of how the campaign may have unfolded, and notes some possible similarities to other operations using commercial spyware.

KillNet seems to say it's disbanding.

Citing chatter in the hacktivist auxiliary's VKontakte channel, Cybernews reports that KillNet says it's disbanding. The reasons are unclear, but the group's admin posted, “I do not intend to single out the rest, no one deserves an acclaim and a comment. Killnet has been completely disbanded.” The announcement came after resignations and expressions of dissatisfaction. How seriously the announcement should be taken remains to be seen, in some ways the announcement looks more like an adios to a disgruntled member than a dissolution.

Blue-and-yellow banned.

"Some local Russian security officials are likely interpreting Russia’s draconian wartime legislation to mean that public display of blue and yellow items is outlawed because it might evidence discreet support for Ukraine," the UK's MoD wrote Sunday morning. "On 09 May 2023, a care home worker was reportedly arrested after wearing a blue and yellow jacket to work. In recent days," but the ban's enforcement can be awkward, given that the colors are used for many other purposes, or for no purposes at all. "Russian National Guard troops arrested a 22 year old man in Volkhov near St Petersburg for displaying what was eventually determined to be the blue and yellow flag of Russia’s own Aerospace Forces. The clampdown highlights uncertainty within a paranoid Russian officialdom of what is and is deemed permissible within an increasingly totalitarian system. Criticism of the arrests has come from an unexpected quarter: the ultra-nationalist, pro-war Liberal Democratic party. The party’s own branding features yellow on a blue background."

There does appear to be a wave of suspicion attended by arrests of suspected traitors. The Guardian calls it "spymania," and reports that the arrests have taken up many who might have been thought to be above suspicion, notably elderly scientists raised in the Soviet system whose background and training dispose them to trust that system's successors. It's especially poignant, and very Soviet in style and spirit, that a number of those arrested have informed on colleagues, as if this were a purge from the 1930s or 1940s.