Russia claims victory in Soledar, but Ukraine says fighting continues. Industrial mobilization challenges the Kremlin. GitHub ejects Russian hacktivist auxiliaries.
Ukraine at D+323: Fighting in Soledar, and industrial mobilization.
Russia's Ministry of Defense has claimed victory in the fighting over Soledar, the salt-mining village near Bakhmut, the Wall Street Journal reports. This follows the Ministry's earlier refusal this week to confirm the Wagner Group's claim to have taken the town. The Institute for the Study of War argues that the Russian local successes are operationally meaningless:
"Russian information operations have overexaggerated the importance of Soledar, which is at best a Russian Pyrrhic tactical victory. ISW continues to assess that the capture of Soledar—a settlement smaller than 5.5 square miles—will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term. Russian forces likely captured Soledar after committing significant resources to a highly attritional tactical victory which will accelerate degraded Russian forces’ likely culmination near Bakhmut. Russian forces may decide to maintain a consistently high pace of assaults in the Bakhmut area, but Russian forces’ degraded combat power and cumulative exhaustion will prevent these assaults from producing operationally significant results." The key points are that any victory has been "highly attritional," that is, achieved with heavy losses, and will contribute to the Russian forces' "cumulative exhaustion."
An attempt at a partial solution to Russian military production difficulties appears to be prison labor. The UK's Ministry of Defence this morning wrote, "The Russian defence manufacturing sector is highly likely resorting to using convict labour in an effort to meet war-time production demands. In November 2022, Uralvagonzavod (UVZ), Russia’s largest tank manufacturer, told local media that it would employ 250 prisoners after meeting with the Federal Penal Service (FSIN). There is a long tradition of prison labour in Russia, but since 2017 forced labour as a specific criminal punishment was reintroduced. With one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, FSIN oversees a sprawling empire of over 400,000 inmates and has frequently been accused of extreme brutality and corruption. The prison population provides a unique human resource to Russian leaders to utilise in support of the ‘special military operation’ while willing volunteers remain in short supply. Convict labour will likely be particularly in demand from manufacturers of relatively low-tech weaponry such as UVZ, which are almost certainly under intense pressure from Moscow to increase their production."
Contracting and sourcing remain difficult for Russian military production. Helicopter engines, for example, were formerly purchased from Ukraine, and Russian efforts to shift production to domestic manufacturers are stalling. This is one instance of something President Putin regards as a larger problem. In a televised meeting of senior government leaders, the Guardian reports, President Putin berated Denis Manturov, deputy prime minister responsible for trade and industry, over contracting delays, and over his apparent lack of a proper sense of urgency. (He does indeed look pretty steamed in the video.) A portion of the official transcript of the conference shows the tone of the exchange:
"Dmitry Manturov: Here is the order, Vladimir Vladimirovich. We have contracts, as I reported, for the Ministry of Defense, and for the civilian sector, and for the GTKL, and other leasing companies - this is in terms of helicopters. And on the planes, we have everything laid out. This is taking into account the technical tests, certification and import substitution programs of the Superjet and MS-21. Everything is completely screwed up.
"Vladimir Putin: ... you have drafted, but there are no contracts. I'm telling you. Let's finish the meeting now. What are we going to dive with you here? I know that there are no contracts at the enterprises, the directors told me. What are you, really, playing the fool? When will the contracts be? Here's what I'm talking about. Directors of enterprises tell me: there are no contracts. And you have 'everything done'."
GitHub disables NoName057(16) accounts.
GitHub has taken down accounts associated with the Russian hacktivist auxiliary group NoName057(16). CyberScoop quotes a GitHub representative: "We disabled the accounts in accordance with GitHub’s Acceptable Use Policies, which prohibit posting content that directly supports unlawful active attacks or uses GitHub as a means to deliver malicious executables." Like so many other Russian auxiliaries, NoName057(16) has specialized in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and it's crowed high over them in its Telegram channel. The group's new year's greetings (quoted by SentinelOne from NoName057(16)'s Telegram feed) show some representative crowing:
"Did any of us know at the start of the year that something like this would happen? Did we, ordinary programmers and difficult guys from the darknet, know that we would need to go to the real and digital frontiers? Did anyone know that the issues of protecting the Motherland and the re-education of the 'civilized' world would be carried out by us as well? No. No one knew. But the current situation has divided everything into 'before' and 'after'. We don't know how long the NWO will last, how many spears we'll break, and how many bumps we'll hit. One thing we know for sure: we will win! We will definitely win! Even if the whole world is against us, they will lose for one simple reason: the right guys are not with them. And it's total! Holiday greetings! We all have strength, perseverance and perseverance! There is nowhere to retreat, there will be no other Motherland."
So much perseverance, indeed, that they persevere and mention it twice. The greetings provide some insight into the hacktivist auxiliary mindset. NoName057(16) is noteworthy in that its members are incentivized not only by their animus against the civilized world, but by alt-coin payments as well.
Russia dismisses reports of cyberespionage attempts against US National Laboratories.
Russia has taken exception to Reuters' report, last week, that the Cold River group, widely believed to operate on behalf of a Russian intelligence and security service (probably the FSB), had attempted to compromise workers at the US Brookhaven, Argonne, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. "The latest pseudo investigation was unfortunately published by Reuters news agency," Maria Zakharova, Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said yesterday in a press briefing. "There was no evidence given, no facts," she added, but did not further elaborate. In some respects this is a characteristic non-denial denial: show us the facts, Moscow will say, often adding, although not in this case, and we'll be happy to cooperate in an investigation. In any case, Reuters stands by its story, as indeed Reuters should.
Positive Hack Days and the growing isolation of Russia's cyber sector.
Brookings offers some reflection on last May's Positive Hack Days, the annual conference organized by the Russian security firm Positive Technologies, a company now under US sanctions for its cooperation with Russian intelligence services. The essay sees an increasingly isolated "cyber ecosystem" in which the Russian cyber sector has now become a closed system, with aspirations to autarky. The aforementioned Maria Zakharova called it the "creation of a multi-polar world," which is one way of looking at it:
"Maria Zakharova, the infamous spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs once dubbed Russia’s 'troll-in-chief' for her lies and what-about-ism, headlined a discussion on “Creating a Multipolar World.' The conversation was laden with nationalistic talking points about tech isolation: 'The internet is being segmented,' Zakharova told the moderator, and 'this is not being done by individual states that want to maintain their political, economic, or financial agenda, but we see it on the part of those who created the internet space as a commons.' Ignoring the Russian government’s numerous steps to control the internet at home and undermine the open internet globally, Zakharova stated that 'it is the countries and the corporations that regionally were talking about the need for a global approach who are pursuing that policy of exclusion.' She continued bluntly: 'we need to stop protecting the Western platforms and websites and hosting platforms. … Western monopolies act outside the rules. … They act aggressively towards our country and towards our people.'”
Ms Zakharova might have been writing copy for NoName057(16)'s Telegram channel.