Ukraine at D+417: US leaks and Russian elite conflict.
N2K logoApr 17, 2023

The strange risk posed by online communities: the cool frenzy of social media renown and the transactional gift economy that drives it.

Ukraine at D+417: US leaks and Russian elite conflict.

The savage bloodletting in and around Bakhmut continues, as both sides engage in a battle whose only strategic point is attrition.

Prigozhin denounces Russia's "lazy elite."

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, the private military corporation that's shouldered much of Russia's offensive against Bakhmut, said Friday that Moscow's "lazy elite" had set the special military operation up for failure, and that the coming Ukrainian offensive was likely to succeed. The Telegraph quotes him as saying that, “mired in luxury and bureaucracy,” that elite has grown essentially defeatist. They want to declare victory and negotiate a way out of the war, when they should be pushing to the Polish border. "Their focus is not on a country or a people, their focus is on their own positions in society, their own comfort and their own capital.” Some sources erroneously reported that Mr. Prigozhin himself called for Russia to negotiate an exit and end the special military operation, but that's incorrect: he imputed that view to the lazy elites. He wants a hard war to the point of victory.

Nuclear saber-rattling.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has announced, Defense News reports, that Russia has finished training its Belarusian allies in the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This is an escalatory gesture rather than a serious enhancement of Russia's military position. There's little to be gained from giving nuclear weapons to Belarus (which Russia hasn't yet done) that couldn't be equally or better served by keeping them in Russian hands. And there's relatively little additional training required to be able to deliver a tactical nuclear weapon, beyond what's already necessary for the delivery of conventional weapons.

Russia's conscription registry.

"On 11 April 2023, the Russian State Duma adopted a law establishing a unified registry of individuals eligible for military service," the UK's Ministry of Defence said in Saturday's situation report. "The key implication of the measure is that in future, the authorities will be able to serve call-up papers electronically, rather than by letter, removing one obstacle which has previously allowed some to dodge the draft. With individuals’ call-up data now digitally linked to other state-provided online services, it is likely that the authorities will punish draft-dodgers by automatically limiting employment rights and restricting foreign travel. The measures are reported to be coming into force later in the year; they do not specifically indicate any major new wave of enforced mobilisation. Russia is, for now, prioritising a drive to recruit extra volunteer troops. However, the measure is highly likely part of a longer-term approach to provide personnel as Russia anticipates a lengthy conflict in Ukraine." President Putin signed the bill into law on Friday, Radio Free Europe reports. The new system amounts, some observers say, to a "hidden mobilization."

Restoring Russian airborne forces?

Colonel General Teplinsky, dismissed in January, may have been recalled to service in Ukraine. "General Colonel Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of Russia’s corps of airborne troops, the VDV, has highly likely returned to a major role in Ukraine. He was previously dismissed from the theatre in January 2023," the UK's MoD wrote in Sunday's situation report. "Teplinsky is likely one of the few senior Russian generals widely respected by the rank-and-file. His recent turbulent career suggests intense tensions between factions within the Russian General Staff about Russia’s military approach in Ukraine." One of his tasks may be the restoration of Russian airborne forces' reputation. "It is unlikely Teplinsky’s remit will be limited to VDV units, but he is highly likely to promote the corps’ traditional role as an elite force. In recent days, the VDV have resumed a key mission in the battle for Bakhmut, and likely undertaken novel integration with TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers in the Kremina sector."

Other Russian military organizations regarded as elite have also taken heavy losses as they've been fed into the line as ordinary infantry. The Spetsnaz, Russia's special operations forces, roughly equivalent to US Army Rangers or US Navy SEALS, have been particularly hard hit. Task and Purpose, citing leaked US intelligence, says that reconstitution of Spetsnaz is likely to take up to a decade. "Russia is overusing its special operations forces, constantly putting them into combat, and as a result leaving many exhausted and understrength. And they’re also being put at the front line in direct combat. As a result they, like regular troops, are taking heavy casualties due to the brutal war of attrition going on."

Civilian casualties from mines are expected to rise.

"Mine-related civilian casualties continue to be reported daily in Ukraine," the UK's MoD said in this morning's situation report. "The most affected areas are Kherson and Kharkiv oblasts: areas Russia has previously occupied. With the arrival of spring, and more people involved in agricultural activities, the risk of civilian mine incidents will increase. Over 750 mine related casualties among civilians have been reported since the start of the invasion - one in eight has involved a child. It will likely take at least a decade to clear Ukraine of mines."

The alleged Discord Papers leaker has been charged.

Jack Teixeira appeared Friday in federal court in Boston to face charges under the Espionage Act. The AP reports that he's accused of two counts of unauthorized retention and transmission of classified national defense information. He did not enter a plea, but a federal magistrate judge ordered him jailed until a detention hearing next week. The motivation of the alleged leaker was, by all accounts, not ideological, but simply a desire to show off in the disinhibited online world. The Washington Post cites a friend of Mr. Teixeira's who knew something of his online followers (Mr. Teixeira was evidently a leader and influencer within his small Discord circle) as explaining his alleged motive. "A friend of Teixeira described his motives to The Washington Post as wanting to share — and show off — the secrets he knew to a small circle of online friends who bonded over video games."

A life lived online as a security risk.

Foreign Policy has a reflective essay on the role social media have come to play in espionage:

"The likely motivations of the leaker—on Friday, prosecutors charged Airman First Class Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old working in the intelligence wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, with two violations of the Espionage Act—are impossible to understand without digging into the deepest layers of internet culture. This leak is not a strange one-off but a harbinger of a future where secret statecraft meets an online world in which, for many people, the virtual is replacing the physical as a source of companionship, camaraderie, and social clout. This online world is fast replacing traditional espionage as a source of intelligence leaks—a shift that has profound implications for the future of spycraft, especially counterintelligence."

Online relationships can combine both a much-sought intimacy (especially tempting, Foreign Policy writes to people who can't talk about their work IRL, in real life) and a sense of safety, of being at least one remove away from the direct risks of personal contact. That sense of safety is of course misplaced, but it comes very easily. And the transactional nature of online relationships, which amount to a "gift economy," also conduces to the sharing of secrets better left unshared. "Internet communities operate as gift economies, where one’s status is largely determined by the valuable content one brings to the community—spicy memes, obscure videos, interesting links, or secrets."

Many of these online communities, like those hosted by Discord itself, are formed of gamers, and this hasn't gone unnoticed by military and intelligence services themselves. The US Department of Defense has sought to use Discord as a recruiting resource, for example, the Washington Post reports, much as earlier recruiting campaigns had used television ads and high school visits to connect with potential recruits. And hostile intelligence services haven't been a slow study either. Games Industry quotes Microsoft president Brad Smith as commenting that the company's researchers have observed Russian services spending more time and effort to penetrate, compromise,and manipulate online gaming communities for traditional espionage and influence operations.

How the Discord Papers' spread online.

The Discord Papers apparently spread with the help of another online fantasist, the self-styled "Donbas Devushka" ("Donbas Girl") who claimed to be from Luhansk. In some personae she gave her first name as "Mila," but in fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, is allegedly one Sarah Bils, a 37-year-old from Vorhees, New Jersey, a US Navy veteran who now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Donbas Devushka has for some time blogged and podcast pro-Russian memes and topics (the podcasts are said to have been delivered in an implausible, Ensign-Chekhov-style Russian accent). She collected and reposted much of the stuff that was circulating in the Thug Shaker Central Discord channel. Her motives appear to be the increasingly familiar desire for influence and place in the online social world.

The business side of KillNet.

An advertisement has appeared on KillNet's Telegram channel offering "gigabytes of NATO Documents." The ones they show are training PowerPoints of the lowest classification. They were charging 3 Bitcoin for the files. Apparently they haven’t received their asking price, as the gang has recently repackaged and sharply discounted its offerings: “The price for 1 log is 1 dollar.” 

KillNet now claims to have the private information of 17 thousand students, 26 thousand usable administrative credentials, and a database of weapons, medical supplies, and electronics.  The hacktivist auxiliary announced Sunday that it’s now using TITANSTEALER which, as the Hacker News reports, is “a Golang-based information stealer malware… capable of stealing a variety of information from infected Windows machines, including credential data from browsers and crypto wallets, FTP client details, screenshots, system information, and grabbed files.”