Ukraine at D+8: Weight of metal, not tactical ability; propaganda, not cyber ops.
N2K logoMar 4, 2022

Russia's army seems to be compensating for tactical and materiel ineptitude with brutally intense and indiscriminate fires. Propaganda has apparently eclipsed cyber operations, and sanctions bring more pressure on Russia's economy (and government).

Ukraine at D+8: Weight of metal, not tactical ability; propaganda, not cyber ops.

The big column approaching Kyiv still appears to be both roadbound and stalled, but Russia seems determined to push through and persevere until it succeeds in disarming and neutralizing—and probably partitioning—Ukraine. Logistical, planning, and possibly training and command failures may be responsible for the Russian army's lack of rapid success. A senior Russian officer, Major General Andrey Sukhovetskiy, is reported to have been killed in combat, and Bellingcat sees the loss as a "major demotivator" for Russian forces. (This perspective may be exaggerated. Senior officer deaths don't necessarily have the effect on soldiers' morale that civilians often expect high-ranking deaths to have. Morale is difficult to assess at a distance, but there have been reports of desertion and demoralization. Again, such reports are difficult to assess. Recall that Russia apparently discounted the Ukrainian will to resist before it began its invasion, and apparently expected a march of flowers, especially in such Russophone cities as Kharkiv. Wishful thinking can run in more than one direction.)

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met again, without much progress, but certain corridors are said to remain open for the use of refugees. President Zelenskyy offers to meet President Putin (and offers Mr. Putin a mildly insulting reassurance: "I don't bite). Belarusian President Lukashenka said today that his forces aren't participating in Russia's war, and that he won't be sending them into combat.

ICANN will not block Russia's access to the Internet.

CNN reports that ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has told the Ukrainian government that shutting down Russia's access to the Internet is beyond its power, both technically and as a matter of policy. "As you know, the Internet is a decentralized system. No one actor has the ability to control it or shut it down," ICANN CEO Göran Marby wrote authorities in Kyiv, adding that "our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the Internet regardless of the provocations."

The propaganda phases of a hybrid war. (Or, when you've lost Switzerland, you've lost the world.)

MIT Technology Review sees the propaganda war as having eclipsed the cyber war. Who's winning this phase?

Military Times gives a clear edge to Ukraine, whose messaging has held far more appeal than Russia's. Some of Kyiv's themes and memes are plausible (courageous old ladies giving Russian invaders pieces of their mind, old men volunteering for service, captured Russian conscripts asking their mothers to come and bring them home), others pretty dubious (like the cats who caught snipers), still others more myth than reportage (like the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian fighter pilot who's downed six Russian aircraft to become the first European ace since 1945—sure, there could be an ace, but the Ghost sounds a little like those Bowmen of Agincourt who were said to have succored the British Expeditionary Force during its retreat in 1914), to the frankly debunked (like the video the Ministry of Defense displayed that purported to be gun camera footage of a dogfight but turned out to be from the video game Digital Combat Simulator). The messages are "feel-good" stories that tell about good versus evil, and their effect has been augmented by President Zelenskyy's easy facility with the sound-bite and the one-liner. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” seems to have been particularly well-received, and the above-mentioned "I don't bite" will probably be equally well-received. “When even Switzerland is joining in the sanctions, you’ve lost that narrative battle,” New America political scientist Peter Singer told Military Times. (We offer this, by the way, as a neutral account of the relative success of government propaganda campaigns, by the way, not as approval of any official lying.)

Russian propaganda has had much less success, in part because of the lies' lack of their usual bodyguard of truth. Moscow has had little success in convincing the world that President Zelenskyy's government represents a cabal of unreconstructed Nazis, and clumsy attempts to blame Russian misconduct on Ukraine have fallen flat. After extensive Russian bombardment of Kharkiv, for example, the Telegraph reports that NTV explained, "In expert opinion it was the [Ukrainian] military who attacked the Kharkiv administration building with a Smerch multiple rocket launcher or an Olkha, its modern [Ukrainian] modification." This kind of story isn't flying, internationally at least.

Much of Russia's propaganda effort is inward-looking, focused on maintaining domestic order, and if possible active support for the war. The Telegraph goes on to report that Russian authorities are relying on tight narrative control, specifying in some detail how the war is to be reported. (If we were TASS or NTV, we'd be calling that war a "special military action.") Domestically, the Russian government is increasing its control over information. A new law imposes penalties of up to fifteen years for intentionally disseminating "fake" news about the Russian military, Reuters reports. Moscow has also blocked online access to the BBC and the Voice of America.

Hacktivists and cyber militias continue to score at a nuisance level.

Distributed denial-of-service attacks and doxing seem to have been the preferred modes of attack by both sides in the war, Check Point suggests. DDoS is easier to confirm than are claims of breaches, and hacktivists in particular have been prone to exaggerate the effects they've achieved. But it's undeniable that there have been nuisance-level successes.

Chris Formant, CEO of Avocado Systems, sees hacktivist success against what ought to be relatively well-defended networks as a mark of the difficulty of protecting any large attack surface. “Anonymous showed again, with the Russian Ministry of Defense, how rapidly sensitive data could be extracted from what was thought to be a highly secure environment," he wrote in an email. "Multi-tier environments, by their very nature, have points of exposure as information is moving laterally. The only known effective solution is to reduce the attack vector to the smallest possible threat surface area and apply deterministic zero trust in runtime. Essentially, catching the criminal in the act.”

Misinformation and scams related to Russia's war against Ukraine (as seen through Telegram).

Check Point Research has been watching Telegram traffic during the war, and it sees a mixed record. They're observing three broad classes of activity:

  1. "Cyber-attack groups against Russia that urge followers to attack Russian targets in different tools and ways, mainly DDoS
  2. "Groups urging followers to support Ukraine by fund raising, of doubtful authenticity, often suspected to be fraud
  3. "Numerous “news feed” groups, airing updated and “exclusive” news reports about the conflict, bypassing mainstream news outlets"

The company's findings include, as they summarized them in an email:

  • "On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, CPR documented a 6-fold increase in Telegram groups themed on the war.
  • "71% of Telegram groups observed by CPR push flash news of unedited and often unverified information.
  • "23% of Telegram groups are set up to coordinate cyber attacks on Russia, mostly DDoS.
  • "4% of Telegram groups request cryptocurrency donations to support Ukraine.
  • "Some Telegram groups coordinating cyber attacks on Russia boast more than 250,000 users

Much of the claimed hacktivism is bogus, either deliberate scams or the self-aggrandizing fantasies of those who wish to see themselves as self-importantly engagé. Check Point urges people to be particularly cautious when they're considering donating to an appeal for funds.

Oded Vanunu, Head of Products Vulnerabilities Research at Check Point Software, explains that Telegram has become an important medium during the war:

“Telegram has become a digital forefront of the conflict, where people are choosing sides online. We’re seeing people from all corners of the world organizing themselves and resources to support either Russia or Ukraine. Some groups are coordinating cyber attacks to target Russia. Other groups are serving as information and news hubs to report a raw side of the war. And other groups are requesting funds to either support Ukraine or commit fraud. All in all, we’ve seen a 6-fold surge in Telegram groups themed on the Russia-Ukraine war the day Russia invaded Ukraine. I strongly recommend people to watch their Telegram activity closely and the types of people you may come in contact with. There’s a side on Telegram looking to take advantage of supporters of either Ukraine or Russia. Right now, we’re sharing what we see on Telegram and our initial observations. We’ll continue to monitor Telegram activity in the weeks ahead.”

Check Point offers tips for Telegram users. They have broad applicability to users of any online medium:

  • "Don’t press random links. Don’t press on links that have origins unfamiliar to you, especially in times of crisis and extreme circumstances. Criminals might leverage and exploit the situation to try steal credentials, private details and other personal information by sending out malware or phishing links
  • "Beware of suspicious requests. If a message from an unknown source makes a request or a demand that seems unusual or suspicious, this might be evidence that it is part of a phishing attack.
  • "Think twice before sending money. Sending money to unknown sources requesting assistance may often result in fraud. Beware with whom you are communicating and what kind of information you are being asked to provide. Social media messages is not the platform for large financial transactions, especially to unrecognized sources.
  • "Verify your sources. Consume news feeds and seek 'truth' from reliable sources that you can trust."

Financial sanctions against Russia broaden, and are showing tangible results.

Reuters reports that rating agencies Fitch and Moody's have cut the rating of Russian sovereign debt to junk status: sanctions have called Moscow's ability to service its debt into doubt. Fitch explained, "The severity of international sanctions in response to Russia's military invasion of Ukraine has heightened macro-financial stability risks, represents a huge shock to Russia's credit fundamentals and could undermine its willingness to service government debt." Index providers FTSE Russell and MSCI have announced their intention of removing Russian equities from their indexes. MSCI earlier this week called the Russian stock market "uninvestable."

The Washington Post reports that Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have joined other nations in imposing stiff financial restrictions and export controls on Russia. Japan has been historically reticent to engage in punitive sanctions, and Tokyo's action is regarded as particularly significant.

According to the Load Star, "The impact of sanctions against Russia is beginning to be felt across its logistics sector, as transport options dwindle and payment systems lose support. A source closely tied to Europe’s forwarding and shippers community said that, while 'of course' trade with Russia continued, transport operations and financial aspects of the business were 'grinding to a halt', as efforts to persuade Putin to withdraw from Ukraine ratchet up."

Bloomberg calls the present state of the Russian economy "the end of the oligarch era." The publication sees the war as bringing thirty years of integration into the world economy to an end, and it gives the valediction to Ukraine's President Zelenskyy: “What do we hear today? It’s not just rocket explosions, fighting, and the roar of aircraft. This is the sound of a new Iron Curtain lowering and closing Russia off from the civilized world.” Some hope the oligarchs' disaffection will ultimately prove to be President Putin's downfall (they're the closest approximation to a check on a leader's power since the old Soviet Politburo) but whatever happens, it seems unlikely that Mr. Putin will go gently under any circumstances.