Ukraine at D+179: An assassination in Russia.
N2K logoAug 22, 2022

Russian forces remain stalled, and Ukrainian special operators continue to strike rear areas. Ukraine will be receiving advanced targeting systems from the US. A strongly nationalist supporter of President Putin's war was assassinated Saturday outside Moscow, and the FSB has blamed Ukraine. A Russian diplomat says he's been willfully misunderstood by abnormal people: he wasn't calling for genocide, but rather expressing his concern for the Ukrainian people.

Ukraine at D+179: An assassination in Russia.

Saturday's situation report from the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) looked back at last week and saw little change along the line of contact. "The last week has seen only minimal changes in territorial control along the front line. In the Donbas, after small advances from early August, Russian forces have approached the outskirts of the town of Bakhmut, but have not yet broken into the built-up area. Russia has not made any major efforts to advance in the Zaporizhzhia or Kharkiv sectors. In the south-west, neither Ukrainian nor Russian forces have made advances on the Kherson front line." The MoD sees the lines remaining essentially static this week, although Ukrainian operations in Russian rear areas may have a growing effect on Russia's ability to stage further offensives. "However, increasingly frequent explosions behind Russian lines are probably stressing Russian logistics and air basing in the south. It is unlikely that the situation will significantly change in the next week. Russian forces are, for now, probably only prepared to undertake limited local assaults, rarely involving more than a company of troops. However, over the coming months the initiative will go to whichever side manages to generate a credible, committed force for offensive operations."

Russian shelling in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia continued Saturday, Reuters reports, with both sides accusing the other of responsibility, and a nuclear plant in southern Ukraine--Pivdennoukrainsk--was also exposed to Russian indirect fire.

Sunday morning's report from the MoD described some discontent on the part of a high-profile if somewhat out-of-favor Russian operator in the Donbas. Igor Girkin, once the self-proclaimed defense minister in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, is unhappy over the continuation of high-profile military parades and ceremonies during what has become, for Russia, an increasingly difficult war. "Since the start of the invasion Igor Girkin, a Russian hard-liner and formerly an FSB officer and minister in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine. On 19 Aug 2022, Girkin posted a grudgingly admiring critique of President Zelenskyy’s conduct during the war. He contrasted this with Russia’s situation where 'at the end of the sixth month of the war as before [we] play tank biathlons and hold festivals of military bands’. The tank biathlon is the high-profile culminating event of Russia’s International Army Games which, as in normal years, took place near Moscow last week. A significant proportion of Russia’s military and security professionals probably believe that it is inappropriate to continue committing forces to peace-time military ceremonial events while Russian troops continue to suffer heavy casualties in Ukraine."

The New York Post ran an account back in May of Mr. Gurkin's earlier complaints, in the course of which it points out that he's wanted by the Netherlands for his (alleged) role in the 2014 shootdown of Malaysian Air flight MH17, an airliner legally and peacefully transiting a known route near Donetsk. The charge is murder.

Ukraine trolled the Kremlin over the weekend with a highly touted and well-attended military parade of its own. It consisted of destroyed Russian vehicles. Since the vehicles were disabled the parade was static, but it was well-attended nonetheless. The Telegraph reports the event as part of the celebrations surrounding Ukraine's independence day on August 24th.

Russian nationalist media personality Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina assassinated.

Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina, a prominent nationalist Russian media personality, was assassinated Saturday evening by a car bomb in the Moscow suburb of Bolshiye Vyazemy. Ms Dugina, regarded as an extreme supporter of Russia's war against Ukraine and an adherent of the Eurasianist school of geopolitics of which her father Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin is the intellectual leader, died on the scene;. The bomb had been placed directly under the driver's seat. The New York Times reports that Russian authorities have begun a murder investigation of what they regard as a contract killing. Who was responsible remains unclear. Russian media personalities were quick to denounce the bombing as a Ukrainian operation, but the Kremlin itself initially refrained from doing so. That changed this morning when TASS said that the FSB had solved the case:

"The murder of Russian journalist Darya Dugina has been solved, Russia’s federal security service FSB has said. It was prepared by Ukrainian secret services. The perpetrator - a citizen of Ukraine identified as Natalia Vovk - escaped to Estonia, the FSB’s public relations center stated.

"'As a result of urgent detective measures, the federal security service has solved the murder of Russian journalist Darya Dugina, born in 1992,' the FSB stressed. The special service found that "the crime was prepared and committed by Ukrainian secret services." Its perpetrator was identified as a citizen of Ukraine, Natalia Vovk, born in 1979.

"She had arrived in Russia on July 23, 2022, together with her daughter Sofya Shaban, born in 2010. 'On the day of the murder, Vovk and Shaban attended the literary and music festival Tradition, where Dugina was present as an honorary guest.'

"'On August 21, after a remote-controlled explosion of the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado car Dugina was driving, Vovk and her daughter left through the Pskov Region to Estonia,' the FSB said.

"To plot the murder and gather information about Dugina’s lifestyle, Vovk and her daughter rented an apartment in Moscow in the same building where the victim lived. To spy on the journalist, the criminal used a Mini Cooper car. When entering Russia, the vehicle carried a license plate of the Donetsk People's Republic - E982XH DPR, in Moscow - a license plate of Kazakhstan 172AJD02, and when leaving - a Ukrainian license plate AH7771IP. 'The materials of the investigation have been handed over to the Investigative Committee,' the FSB said.

Newsweek and others report that Ukrainian officials were quick to deny any involvement in the bombing. "Ukraine definitely has nothing to do with this, because we are not a criminal state, which the Russian Federation is," Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. "And even more so, we are not a terrorist state." Actual responsibility remains unclear. One loosely organized group has claimed responsibility. Deutsche Welle reports that exiled Duma member Ilya Ponomarev ("the only lawmaker in the Russian Duma to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014," Deutsche Welle explains) said that an internal Russian opposition group, the "National Republican Army," was behind the operation. "This action, like many other direct partisan actions carried out in Russia in recent months, was carried out by the National Republican Army," said Ponomarev in a Russian-language broadcast. He claimed to be in touch with the National Republican Army. The nature of the National Republican Army is itself unclear, with some believing it to be a genuine opposition movement, others holding it to be a front operated by Russian security services. The Telegraph has a rundown of alternative theories of the assassination: foreign operation, domestic dissent, removal of an unwelcome voice pushing expansion of what the Kremlin realizes has become a difficult war, creation of a martyr to further radicalize Russian public sentiment in a nationalist direction, etc. Bloomberg notes that, wherever responsibility lies, one near-term effect of the assassination will be a stiffening of hardline views of special military operation.

Ms Dugina along with her father had been placed under US and UK sanctions earlier this year. The US Department of the Treasury, in announcing sanctions on March 3rd, 2022 against a range of influence operations, characterized their activities as follows:

"In 2020, media influence organization Project Lakhta, owned by Prigozhin, developed a new website, United World International (UWI). Since at least 2014, Project Lakhta has used among other things, fictitious online personas that posed as U.S. persons to interfere in U.S. elections, as the IRA did during the 2016 U.S. election. In 2022, UWI suggested that Ukraine would “perish” if it is admitted to NATO. UWI’s chief editor, Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina (Dugina), sought contributors to write articles on UWI. Dugina’s father, Alexander Dugin (Dugin), was first designated in 2015 pursuant to E.O. 13660 for being responsible for or complicit in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, or sovereignty or territorial integrity of Ukraine. Dugin was a leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, which actively recruited individuals with military and combat experience to fight on behalf of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and has stated that it has a covert presence in Ukraine.

"Dugin controls Geopolitica, a website that serves as a platform for Russian ultra-nationalists to spread disinformation and propaganda targeting Western and other audiences. For example, on February 8, 2022, Geopolitica published an article falsely accusing the U.S. and NATO of provoking war with Russia, in order to “further terrorize the American people in all sorts of malicious ways.”

"UWI is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13661, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13848 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Prigozhin. Dugina is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13661, E.O. 13694, as amended, and E.O. 13848, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, UWI. Geopolitica is being designated pursuant to E.O. 13660 for being owned or controlled by, or for having acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Dugin."

Ms Dugina had taken a hard line in Russia's war against Ukraine. A representative comment is, "We started this special operation very delicately and carefully, but we need to be tougher and less forgiving. We need to create more tribunals that will investigate the crimes of these sub-humans." How influential her father in fact is and has been is open to dispute, with some observers calling him "Putin's brain," or "Putin's Rasputin," while others argue that he's a fringe figure whose influence has been greatly overrated. Dugin's philosophy seems deeply rooted in late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth-century German thought, especially that of Martin Heidegger (Dugin's emphasis on authenticity and humanity's encounter with technology will evoke a familiar mood in anyone who's struggled through Heidegger's Being and Time or Introduction to Metaphysics) and Friedrich Ratzel (a founder of geopolitics, whose emphasis on space, soil, and the organic nation seems to have been adopted wholeheartedly by Mr. Dugin). Those interested in an introduction to Mr. Dugin's thought may consult his Fundamentals of Geopolitics. Google Translate's good enough if you don't read Russian.

Paramilitary forces show growing reluctance to serve under Russian army command.

The MoD's Monday morning situation report describes evidence of further difficulties Russian forces are experiencing in filling depleted ranks with irregulars and paramilitaries. "On 15 August 22, Ukrainian social media channels circulated a video which reportedly showed elements from a military unit of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) delivering a declaration outlining their refusal to be deployed as part of offensive operations in Donetsk Oblast. The fighters claimed they had fulfilled their duty in securing the LPR’s control over all of Luhansk Oblast, which was secured in July 2022, and were unwilling to fight in Donetsk Oblast despite threats and intimidation by senior commanders. Russia is likely increasingly struggling to motivate the auxiliary forces it is using to augment its regular troops in the Donbas. Commanders are probably resorting to direct financial incentives, while some combat units are deemed unreliable for offensive operations. A consistent contributing factor to these problems is Russia’s classification of the war as a ‘special military operation’ which limits the state’s powers of legal coercion." The final remark may impute more concern for procedural due process and legality to the Kremlin than is actually found there.

"No mercy for the Ukrainian population."

That's what a Russian diplomat in Vienna, Permanent Representative of Russia to International Organizations in Vienna, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted Saturday, in response to a tweet from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy thanking US President Biden for the US decision to provide more matérial to Ukraine. President Zelenskyy tweeted Friday, "I highly appreciate another [US] military aid package in the amount of $775 million. Thank you @POTUS for this decision! We have taken another important step to defeat the aggressor. [Ukraine] will be free!" To which Ambassador Ulyanov responded, "No mercy for the Ukrainian population." The ambassador quickly took down his tweet in the face of widespread outrage, complaining that people (abnormal people, he hinted) had deliberately misinterpreted him.

So, realizing that his audience lacked the hermeneutical skills to interpret him correctly, Ambassador Ulyanov was moved to offer clarification. Explained the ambassador, "I must apologise. I forgot whom I am dealing with. Of course, I meant the US with its weapons supplies and the President of Ukraine who stated just yesterday that he rejects any peace talks. Indeed, no mercy from their side to the Ukrainian population. That is what I said." Apology accepted, sir! He added further explanation: "Opponents are happy with sneaky interpretation of my words. Big mistake of mine. I forgot whom I deal with. They now cry: you won’t wash off! Internet remembers everything! They are who they are. But in order not to make them happy I indeed had to finish with'?' Instead of '!'”

The Internet does indeed remember, and Ambassador Ulyanov's tweeet received a great deal of engagement. To a commenter who suggested that the now-removed tweet was hate speech and a call for genocide, the evidently increasingly agitated ambassador replied, "Does not work with me, including because many relatives of mine are Ukrainians. And they are loved ones. Don’t try to make a clumsy case based on your sneaky interpretation. Every normal (I stress- normal) person would have big questions about such attempts."

The Ambassador continued to rise to the Twitter bait through much of Saturday. "Attempts to associate my words about Kiev’s policy with a call for genocide are outrageous and absolutely unacceptable. Dirty methods. Information war has no rules. My critical observation of the policy of pumping Ukraine with weapons combined with the rejection of diplomacy (leading to further suffering) is interpreted as a call for genocide. Sneaky interpretation which has nothing to do with me and my words. Meaning that Kiev does not care about its own population when it categorically rejects diplomatic efforts and concentrates exclusively on accumulation of weapons from the West."

We offer the Ambassador's remarks in full so they may be judged on their own merits. The best that can be said of his original tweet is that it was ambiguously worded. It's worth reviewing the preconditions for negotiation Russia has advanced. The least stringent of those conditions, as reported back in March by Reuters, have been:

  1. Cessation of Ukrainian combat operations.
  2. Demilitarization of Ukraine.
  3. A constitutional amendment committing Ukraine to perpetual neutrality.
  4. Recognition of the Russian conquest of Crimea.
  5. Recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk.

As Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, "And that’s it. It," that is the war, "will stop in a moment."

These are minimal conditions. Other expressions of preconditions for negotiation have been harsher (involving regime change and "denazification" in Kyiv, further territorial concessions, and so on) but even in their least demanding form the Russian conditions for a negotiated peace are as close to unconditional surrender as to make little difference. That, Russian combat performance (a cruel mixture of ineptitude and brutality), President Putin's denials that Ukrainians constitute a distinct people, the policy of Russification in the occupied territories, all supply additional context for Ambassador Ulyanov's remarks.

Ukraine has asked Vienna to expel Ambassador Ulyanov (who's best known for representing Russia at negotiations involving the International Atomic Energy Agency), Kyiv Post reports.

Roskomnadzor's Internet panopticon.

Citing Kommersant, BleepingComputer reports that Roskomnadzor, the Russian Internet "watchdog," has contracted for the development of a tool that will automate Internet scanning to identify objectionable material. The projected tool, "Oculus," is described as a neural network that will use artificial intelligence to scan websites for prohibited information.... The automatic scanner will analyze URLs, images, videos, and chats on websites, forums, social media, and even chat/messenger channels to locate material that should be redacted or taken down." Rozkomnador wants Oculus to be ready on December 12th of this year. The agency has lowballed the contract at 57.7 million rubles, or about $965,000, which observers think grossly inadequate to fund such an ambitious project.

Estonia deals with DDoS attacks.

Infosecurity Magazine speaks with Estonian officials concerned to mitigate the effects of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks the country has sustained this month. Tõnu Tammer, head of the incident response (CERT-EE) department of the Estonian Information System Authority (RIA), said that the campaign peaked last week, on the 16th and 17th. “The attack against the website of (home page of Estonian Tax and Customs Board) on August 17 had the most visible effect, with the website being unavailable from 12.30pm to 1.40 pm. After changing the settings and implementing additional defense mechanisms, it was possible to use the website again. Still, all the services were functional and only the web page was affected,” Tammer told Infosecurity Magazine. He credits defensive preparations and adequate resourcing with having given Estonia the means of mitigating the effects of the attack.

The campaign was claimed by Killnet, the Russian hacktivist front associated with nuisance-level attacks against governments sympathizing with Ukraine during Russia's current war. The proximate cause of recent attacks has been, as it was in 2007, Estonia's removal of Soviet-era Second World War memorials. There may be more pretexts for follow-on attacks: Russia's FSB has claimed that the assassin who killed Russian ultra-nationalist media personality Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina, has taken refuge in Estonia, from where Russia has demanded her extradition. (The identification of the assassin is unconfirmed, and there's no reason beyond the FSB's word to think that the assassin has taken refuge in Estonia.)

Latvia, undeterred by recent cyber operations against Estonian online resources, has begun dismantling a very large Second World War memorial in Riga. This one was erected in 1985, Bloomberg reports, near the end of Soviet power. It's come to be regarded as a symbol of Russian suffering and glory in victory over Nazi Germany, and hence a monument to Russian nationalism (which is why the Latvian government is taking it down--celebration of Russia hegemony over the Baltic states is unwelcome).