Ukraine at D+25: Digging in physically, and digging in with the narrative.
N2K logoMar 21, 2022

Russia looks to gather fresh troops and expel traitors and failures. Cyber conflict plays out in influence operations.

Ukraine at D+25: Digging in physically, and digging in with the narrative.

On Saturday Ukrainian President Zelensky called upon Russia to engage in "meaningful" peace talks. “It’s time to meet. Time to talk. It is time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise Russia’s losses will be so huge that several generations will not be enough to rebound. The war must end. Ukraine’s proposals are on the table.”

Russia's Defense Ministry gave Ukrainian forces defending Mariupol a deadline of 6:00 AM this morning GMT (8:00 AM local) to lay down their weapons and leave the city, the Telegraph reports. Kyiv rejected the ultimatum. Russia also announced that numbers of civilians had been "rescued" from Mariupol and evacuated to Russia, an operation Ukraine and others, the Guardian says, have characterized as forcible abduction and deportation. Mariupol's city council posted an account to its Telegram channel Saturday: “Over the past week, several thousand Mariupol residents were deported on to the Russian territory. The occupiers illegally took people from the Livoberezhniy district and from the shelter in the sports club building, where more than a thousand people (mostly women and children) were hiding from the constant bombing.”

The widely expected, intense Russian cyber campaign has yet to appear.

Apart from the widely reported distributed denial-of-service incidents and wiper attacks against Ukrainian targets, large-scale Russian cyberattacks have failed to materialize, although most governments remain on alert for some such campaign, which they fear would not remain confined to the combat theater. Security Affairs has a timeline of recent cyber activity in the war. Its most recent entries mention Chinese cyberespionage attempts against Ukraine's government, but these seem common, expected intelligence collection about an ongoing conflict, and not an extraordinary campaign. The Times of Israel describes a conflict in which hacktivists and deniable criminal organizations have played the most prominent roles. Anonymous has been active on behalf of Ukraine, and the Conti gang (itself infiltrated by Ukrainian hacktivists) on behalf of Russia.

The most significant incidents so far have been some disruption of Viasat ground station operations in Ukraine and some episodic GPS jamming. Both US and EU authorities have warned satellite communications operators to look to their defenses. So far, according to the Washington Post, Starlink has given Ukraine some surprisingly robust access to the Internet, and also the means of controlling some of its drones. Ars Technica reports that Western banks are also taking measures to protect themselves against Russian retaliation against the SWIFT interbank transfer system from which sanctions have excluded it, but again, so far no attacks have surfaced.

"Protestware" as a dangerous turn in hacktivism.

Hacktivists have generally favored the cause of Ukraine in the current war, and some of their methods have come under strong criticism.

Last week a hacktivist (npm maintainer RIAEvangelist) wrote source code for an npm package he called PeaceNotWar, and distributed it within the open-source by making it a dependency of a popular and widely used npm module, thus affecting the software supply chain. PeaceNotWar was designed for use against systems in Belarus and Russia, but, even if that form of supply chain attack were to be deemed legitimate, it seems indiscriminate and difficult to contain.

Since then Russian organizations have grown understandably warier of the possibility of software supply chain corruption. MIT Technology Review reports, "In response to the threat, Sberbank, a Russian state-owned bank and the biggest in the country, advised Russians to temporarily not update any software due to the increased risk and to manually check the source code of software that is necessary—a level of vigilance that is unrealistic for most users."

Hacktivism is susceptible to becoming indiscriminate and uncontrolled. It's also frequently criminal, albeit not usually criminal in the sense of being financially motivated. Computing points out that most Western authorities have discouraged individuals from engaging in hacktivism. "Participating in Ukrainian cyber-attacks from the USA or the UK could violate local laws, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the US and the Computer Misuse Act in the UK. 'Whilst I totally understand the sentiment behind the actions of many in this IT army, two wrongs do not make a right,' noted Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at Surrey University. He added that 'not only might it be illegal' but also runs the risk of playing into Putin's hands, who could use the attacks to spread anti-Western rhetoric."

Information operations and the persistence of independent channels of news.

Russian President Putin has vowed to purge Russia of "scum and traitors" insufficiently committed to the special military operation in Ukraine. The Kremlin has sought to crack down on both public protest and online dissent, (both now "fully criminalized," the Atlantic Council reports) but public protests, by Russian standards, have been surprisingly prominent. This suggests that news other than the official Kremlin line that the war is an ultimately defensive one waged against genocidal Nazis is getting through. Some of the channels in which it's circulating are surprising. Groups within the widely used Russian social media platform VKontakte ("VK," "In Touch") are serving as conduits for dissent and unofficial news. The groups involved are, according to Newsweek, "longstanding groups focused on common interests such as art, sports, music and celebrities." VKontakte is by no means a nest of dissenters: the executives who run it are close to the government and have themselves come under US sanction. The sharing of unofficial news on the war in Ukraine seems to be a function of the sheer difficulty of effective content moderation on a platform with more than ninety-million users.

The social media platform Telegram has surged in Russia, where it's continued to operate without the interruption and blockage experienced by Instagram, Twitter, and the like. Telegram originated in Russia, which may be why it's been permitted to operate. The Wall Street Journal quotes Ivan Kolpakov, editor in chief and co-founder of the now-blocked Russian independent media outlet Meduza (which is itself surviving in its Telegram feed) “Telegram isn’t perceived as a total enemy resource. It’s not perceived as a tool of information war against Russia. In Russia, a huge culture of uncensored journalism and so-called journalism appears on Telegram. Telegram itself told the Journal it didn't know why it hadn't been blocked, and it didn't know if it would be blocked in the future, but “We believe in freedom of speech and are proud we can serve people in different countries in difficult times.”

Russia's countervailing disinformation campaigns have not gained much traction internationally. They've been marked by opportunistic implausibility, much of it focused on misrepresentation of post-Cold War biological weapons disarmament programs. The New York Times has an account of Moscow's recent efforts, and Forbes runs a profile of the oligarch, Yuri Kovalchuk, who appears to be the de facto leader of Russia's disinformation campaigns.

Domestically, Russian propaganda has been aggressive in seeking to rally people under the sign of the cyrillic letter Z, used as a distinguishing mark on Russian armor entering Ukraine during the special military operation. Much of that rallying has a strongly xenophobic tone. CNN quotes some representative rhetoric from President Putin: "The West will try to rely on the so-called fifth column, on national traitors, on those who earn money here with us but live there. And I mean 'live there' not even in the geographical sense of the word, but according to their thoughts, their slavish consciousness."

Redressing battlefield failure by scapegoating.

Mr. Putin's purge has extended beyond media to senior officials, although in those cases the purge is for inadequate performance, not dissent. The Telegraph reports that the most recent official to fall is General Roman Gavrilov, deputy head of the National Guard, Russia's military internal security force. General Gavrilov was arrested Thursday, on what specific grounds remains unclear. The Wall Street Journal's follow-up on the earlier arrest of senior FSB foreign intelligence officials cites what appears to be a general consensus among US Intelligence Community. FSB Colonel General Sergei Beseda is thought to have fallen out of favor (and into house arrest) for telling Mr. Putin what Mr. Putin wanted to hear: an invasion of Ukraine would be a walkover, Kyiv would fall quickly, and the Ukrainian government would be swiftly decapitated. When reality obtruded into this strategic folie à deux, President Putin sought a scapegoat in expiation of what had become a costly and embarrassing war.

Stalled maneuver, intense and indiscriminate air strikes.

Russian ground forces are digging in, in place, along most of their avenues of advance, especially in the approaches to Kyiv, which suggests that the invasion continues to stall.

The British Ministry of Defense's Friday evening spot report simply said, "President Putin continues to wage war on the people of Ukraine by striking dense urban areas, killing and displacing innocent civilians with non-precision weapons." The tweet includes a video illustrating what they mean by "non-precision weapons," essentially dumb bombs and cluster munitions ("improved conventional munitions," in US Army jargon). British Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey met with members of Ukraine's parliament to discuss assistance to Ukraine. Early Saturday the MoD summarized a record of Russian combat failure: "The Kremlin has so far failed to achieve its original objectives. It has been surprised by the scale and ferocity of Ukrainian Resistance. Russia has been forced to change its operational approach and is now pursuing a strategy of attrition. This is likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis. Putin has reinforced his control over Russian domestic media. The Kremlin is attempting to control the narrative, detract from operational problems and obscure high Russian casualty numbers from the Russian people."

The MoD's regularly updated situation map shows little Russian progress, but their forces have continued to push, slowly, into the center of Mariupol, the New York Times reported. President Putin continues to arrest senior officials as Russian forces fall short of expectations. Failure to gain air supremacy has been an obstacle, the MoD says, to more rapid advance: "The Ukrainian Air Force and Air Defence Forces are continuing to effectively defend Ukrainian airspace. Russia has failed to gain control of the air and is largely relying on stand-off weapons launched from the relative safety of Russian airspace to strike targets within Ukraine. Gaining control of the air was one of Russia’s principal objectives for the opening days of the conflict and their continued failure to do so has significantly blunted their operational progress." There's a growing consensus among Western military observers, according to the Washington Post, that with casualty rates running at about a thousand a day (including both killed and wounded), a breakdown of logistics (particularly in deliveries of fuel and rations), high rates of equipment loss, and (this last is most difficult to assess) increasing signs of morale problems among the troops, Russia's war against Ukraine is headed for a stalemate.

Augmenting combat forces with units from an increasingly reluctant ally?

Russia is said to have been seeking to augment its overtaxed ground forces with private military contractors, mercenaries, and militias. Kyiv fears another augmentation of Moscow's combat potential, and that augmentation would come from Belarus. For all the support it gave Russia in staging its invasion of Ukraine, Minsk has since then been a pretty reluctant dragon, especially as the Russian advance has stalled. Its senior military officers are thought to be particularly unwilling to join the war.

But the Financial Times reports that Belarusian President Lukashenka is coming under pressure from Moscow to field combat forces in Ukraine. According to Fox News, Ukraine's Defense Ministry sees a risk of invasion from Belarus into Ukraine's western provinces. "The direct involvement of Belarusian troops in the Russian armed aggression against Ukraine, contrary to the will of the military and the vast majority of the Belarusian people, will become a fatal mistake of Alexander Lukashenko," the Ministry of Defense said. For his part, President Lukashenka denied any intention of entering Russia's war. Al Jazeera reports that he told a gathering of his country's soldiers, "There’s nothing for us to do there, and we haven’t been invited. I want to emphasise again … We are not going to become involved in this operation that Russia is conducting in Ukraine.”

Logistical support from Belarus has also fallen off, and, if Ukrainian rail officials are to be believed, that's happened in part because Belarusian railroad workers are slow-rolling and otherwise interfering with shipments. Radio Free Europe | Radio Liberty cites Ukrainian media sources who quote Oleksandr Kamyshin, director of the Ukrzaliznytsya state railroad, as saying, “I recently appealed to Belarusian railway workers not to carry out criminal orders and not transport Russian military forces in the direction of Ukraine. At the present moment, I can say that there is no railway connection between Ukraine and Belarus. I cannot discuss details, but I am grateful to Belarus’s railway workers for what they are doing.” He added, “I believe that among the Belarusians -- and particularly among the rail workers -- there are still honest people. I don’t want to betray them. I am grateful to them for what is [happening] today…. And I am sure that the honest people in this organization will be able to stop the work of Belarusian railways regarding the transfer of military equipment in the direction of Ukraine.”

To return to deniable military contractors, Kyiv has accused Russia of sending Wagner Group fighters into Ukraine on assassination missions whose targets are said to be President Zelenskyy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, and the presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak. 

Social media as an opsec problem.

The Daily Mail says the Royal Army has told its troops to stay off WhatsApp, regarding the platform as receiving too much attention from Russian intelligence services. Troops are chatty, and people tend to be disinhibited online.