Category Archives: Torture & Human Rights

War Notes: Catching Up

AP News: Detailed ‘open source’ news investigations are catching on – in Ukraine & Elsewhere

BY DAVID BAUDER – May 8, 2022
NEW YORK (AP) — One of the more striking pieces of journalism from the Ukraine war featured intercepted radio transmissions from Russian soldiers indicating an invasion in disarray, their conversations even interrupted by a hacker literally whistling “Dixie.”

It was the work of an investigations unit at The New York Times that specializes in open-source reporting, using publicly available material like satellite images, mobile phone or security camera recordings, geolocation and other internet tools to tell stories. Continue reading War Notes: Catching Up

War Notes, Monday Threefer: Hackers Attacking Russia; Ukraine’s female minesweepers; and Sketches from Ukraine’s “International Legion”

Washington Post: Hacking Russia was off-limits. The Ukraine war made it a free-for-all.

Experts anticipated a Moscow-led cyber-assault; instead, unprecedented attacks by hacktivists and criminals have wreaked havoc in Russia.

By Joseph Menn — May 1, 2022

For more than a decade, U.S. cybersecurity experts have warned about Russian hacking that increasingly uses the labor power of financially motivated criminal gangs to achieve political goals, such as strategically leaking campaign emails.

Prolific ransomware groups in the last year and a half have shut down pandemic-battered hospitals, the key fuel conduit Colonial Pipeline and schools; published sensitive documents from corporate victims; and, in one case, pledged to step up attacks on American infrastructure if Russian technology was hobbled in retribution for the invasion of Ukraine.

Yet the third month of war finds Russia, not the United States, struggling under an unprecedented hacking wave that entwines government activity, political voluntarism and criminal action.

Digital assailants have plundered the country’s personal financial data, defaced websites and handed decades of government emails to anti-secrecy activists abroad. One recent survey showed more passwords and other sensitive data from Russia were dumped onto the open Web in March than information from any other country.
The published documents include a cache from a regional office of media regulator Roskomnadzor that revealed the topics its analysts were most concerned about on social media — including antimilitarism and drug legalization — and that it was filing reports to the FSB federal intelligence service, which has been arresting some who complain about government policies. Continue reading War Notes, Monday Threefer: Hackers Attacking Russia; Ukraine’s female minesweepers; and Sketches from Ukraine’s “International Legion”

A New Idea to End Putin’s War

From: How to End the War in Ukraine, by Alfred McCoy

Alfred McCoy is Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A Question of Torture, and In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His newest book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. Full post at TomDispatch.

As the war in Ukraine heads for its third month amid a rising toll of death and destruction, Washington and its European allies are scrambling, so far unsuccessfully, to end that devastating, globally disruptive conflict. . . . [Their efforts] range from economic sanctions and trade embargoes to the confiscation of the assets of some of his oligarch cronies and the increasingly massive shipment of arms to Ukraine. Yet none of it seems to be working.

So while the world waits for the other combat boot to drop hard, it’s already worth considering where the West went wrong in its efforts to end this war, while exploring whether anything potentially effective is still available to slow the carnage. . . . Continue reading A New Idea to End Putin’s War

Ukraine’s Cossack Roots & It Sinks A Russian Navy Cruiser

Two from The Economist: “

Ukraine claims to have sunk a Russian warship

It is the biggest naval loss since the second world war


Three years ago The Economist’s defence correspondent was sailing back to Odessa on the Hetman Sahaidachny, then the flagship of Ukraine’s navy. A plaque in its wardroom honoured its former captains. Two names were scratched out—they had defected to Russia when it seized Crimea in 2014. In late February this year, as Russian forces approached once more, the Hetman Sahaidachny was scuttled in Mykolaiv, complete with its 1943-vintage gun.

Now Ukraine seems to have had its revenge. On April 14th Ukrainian officials said they had used Neptune anti-ship missiles to hit the Moskva, a 10,000-tonne Slava-class cruiser which was 60-65 nautical miles (111-120km) south of Odessa. The Moskva, commissioned in 1982, is—or, perhaps, was—the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in occupied Crimea. Itwas a “venerable, battle hardened, major surface combatant” which participated in Russian wars in Georgia in 2008 and Syria in 2015, notes Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College London. “This is one of the most severe naval losses since the Falklands war” of 1982, he adds.

Russia’s defence ministry first acknowledged that the Moskva was “seriously damaged”, claiming that a fire had caused ammunition to detonate, but that the ship stayed afloat—a fact corroborated by the Pentagon. But magazine explosions tend to be devastating. Later it admitted that the Moskva had sunk. A Western official was unable to corroborate Ukraine’s claim, but described it as credible: “I am not aware previously of a fire on board a capital warship, which would lead to the ammunition magazine exploding.”

The strike is rich with symbolism. The ship was built in Mykolaiv, then a Soviet city but now a Ukrainian one which has repelled Russian ground assaults over the past month. It was also one of two warships that attacked Snake Island, west of Crimea, on February 24th, the first day of the war. When it ordered the tiny garrison there to surrender, the alleged reply—“Russian warship, go fuck yourself”—became an icon of national resistance, emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps. The Moskva’s apparent loss was “a massively important military event”, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, on social media. He cast it as the Russian navy’s biggest defeat since the second world war.

Of particular note was the weapon the Ukrainians used. The Neptune, though modelled on the Russian Kh-35 (or Kayak) anti-ship missile, was designed and built in Ukraine. It is not the first time that Neptune has been fired in anger. Oleksandr Turchynov, a former Ukrainian national security council chief, says that the missile was first used to hit the Admiral Essen, a Russian frigate, on April 3rd. The rockets entered the navy’s inventory only in January this year, after corruption scandals delayed their introduction. That the Moskva was parked so close to Odessa, well within the known range of the Neptune, suggests that Russia might have seriously under-estimated its threat. It is not the only example of home-made kit on the battlefield: local innovations in passive radar and helicopter technologies have also surprised the Russians, says Hanna Shelest, a security expert in Odessa.

The strike on the Moskva is more than just a symbolic act of revenge or a demonstration of indigenous prowess. It fits a pattern of bold Ukrainian attacks beyond the frontlines, known as deep strikes. On March 29th an ammunition depot in Belgorod, a key staging point in Russia, was blown up. Belgorod is vital to Russia’s effort to build up forces for an attack on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, now the focus of its war. A day later Ukrainian helicopters reportedly attacked a fuel depot there and, on April 12th, a railway bridge was destroyed. On April 14th Russia said that more Ukrainian helicopters had attacked its Bryansk region, which neighbours Belarus, causing seven injuries.

Such attacks—by helicopters, missiles and special forces—tie down Russian units that must defend rear areas. They also “add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistic chains”, according to British defence intelligence. Russia’s defence ministry is evidently fed up: on April 13th it warned that it would target command centres in Kyiv if Ukraine continued to attack its rear areas.

Though the war’s decisive battles have played out on land, around Kyiv and other cities, the apparent loss of the Moskva is also an important moment in the naval contest. By and large, on the water Russia has had the upper hand. It has cut Ukraine off from the Sea of Azov and maintained a blockade of its Black Sea coastline. That has devastated Ukraine’s economy and choked off grain exports, with wider consequences for global food prices. But Russia’s control of the sea is not absolute. Ukraine has now struck at least four Russian warships, including the Orsk, a landing ship which was hit by ballistic missiles and sunk in the port of Berdyansk on March 24th.

Ukraine’s ability to put Russian warships at risk changes the dynamics of the war at sea, says Ms Shelest. Russia has three Slava-class cruisers but the Moskva was the only one in the Black Sea. Russia cannot replace it because of Turkey’s decision to close the Bosporus strait to warships not already in the Black Sea or based there.

Moreover, the Moskva was not just an offensive platform, but also provided command and control, and air-defence, for a number of other ships. They will now be more vulnerable to Ukrainian missiles or drones; several Russian ships moved away from Ukraine’s coast in the aftermath of the incident on the Moskva, according to an American defence official. The threat of anti-ship missiles already appears to have forced Russia to delay or abandon plans for an amphibious assault on Odessa, which was widely expected in the first phase of the war.

Ukraine only has a division’s worth of Neptunes, says Ms Shelest, probably a dozen or so missiles. The factories where its components are made have been subject to heavy Russian attack. Fortunately for Ukraine, more such missiles may be on the way. After Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, visited Mr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9th, the British government said it would send anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. British officials will not say which ones, nor how many, but one possibility would be to improvise a coastal version of a ship-based missile—something that Argentina did, with success, with the French Exocet missile in the Falklands war 40 years ago. That would take time, training and ingenuity. But improvisation, it seems, is Ukraine’s strong suit.

It’s a Cossack thing
Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine is defined by self-organisation

Coming together is what Ukrainians do


All main roads in Kyiv lead to Maidan, the open space at the heart of the city—even if, at the moment, some of them are blocked by concrete barriers and tank traps. The central space is, most of the time, a busy urban miscellany. The metro station and a labyrinthine shopping centre wrestle for space below ground; the Stalinist buildings on the perimeter boast franchises like McDonald’s and one-offs like the jellyfish museum. And sometimes it is the heart of the nation.

It has had many names over the years: Dumskaya Ploshchad (Parliament Square), Sovetskaya Ploshchad (Soviet Square), Ploshchad Kalinina (Kalinin Square). When student protests demanding independence were first held there in 1990 it was still Ploshchad Oktyabrskoi Revolutsyi (October Revolution Square). It was only the year after, in the post-Soviet age, that it took its current name. No longer a Russian ploshchad, or a Ukrainian ploscha, it became a maidan—a Persian term introduced by way of the Tatars of Crimea which enriches the architectural notion of a square with the connotations of a communal meeting place. Specifically, it became Maidan Nezalezhnosti: Independence Square.

But nobody in Ukraine bothers with the qualifier. Since becoming the focal site of the Orange revolution, in 2004, and the revolution of dignity, in 2014, Maidan has not needed it. In the winter of 2013-14 it became a city within the city as diverse as the country itself, a place where tens of thousands of people cooked together on open fires, lived in tents, built barricades, pried loose cobblestones and died when fired on from the surrounding buildings. Today the name Maidan stands for independence in and of itself.

The identification of independence with a place for coming together gets to the heart of something very Ukrainian. Being Ukrainian is not rooted in a particular territorial claim, or a certain ethnic background, or an allegiance to a particular state and its institutions, or the profession of a given faith. It is instead about an ability to come together when you feel that you need to and to get things done. It is a way of depending on each other, rather than on institutions or hierarchies, whether over cold nights of winter protest or when pelting tanks with Molotov cocktails.

When Roman Romaniuk, a journalist for Ukrainska Pravda, declared that “This war against Putin is our final Maidan,” he was saying that, after two previous Maidans against Mr Putin’s placeman, Viktor Yanukovych, a battle against Mr Putin himself provided a fitting boss-level conclusion to the country’s struggle for sovereignty and democracy. But he was also saying that the self-organising spirit of those revolutions is animating Ukraine’s defence of itself. It goes a long way to explaining why a country which, when invaded, was widely expected to fold like a cheap suit has instead fought the aggressors to a temporary standstill.

Andrei Zorin, a professor at Oxford University, says that the unifying myth behind today’s resistance, the two Maidans and much more is that of the Cossacks of the Zaporozhskaya Sich. The Cossacks were, as Andrew Wilson, a professor at ucl, in London, writes in his book “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation”, “‘Free men’ who took advantage of the ‘wild field’, the no-man’s-land in the open steppe, to establish autonomous farming and raiding communities beyond the reach of the formal authority of the main regional powers—Poland, Muscovy and the Ottomans.”

The Sich was the self-organised military democracy through which some Cossacks asserted their autonomy in the early modern era. Its capacities have been romanticised and lionised ever since. “[The Zaporozhian Cossacks] were not a standing army,” Nikolai Gogol wrote in “Taras Bulba”, a 19th-century novella. “But in case of war and general uprising, it required a week, and no more, for every man to appear on horseback, fully armed, and in two weeks such a force had assembled as no recruiting officers would ever have been able to collect.” In the 1920s Nestor Makhno, an anarchist who found common ground with peasants who hated all kinds of state control, created a similar army to resist all those who sought to claim the wild field between Donbas and Kryvyi Rih where the Zaporozhskaya Sich had once held sway.

Decentralised does not mean divided

Last year Arena, a project based at Johns Hopkins University and the London School of Economics, reported on what united Ukrainians after 30 years of independence. The researchers concluded that the most important things were not attitudes or values, but “shared, near-unconscious behaviours that have been shaped by the many centuries of Ukraine’s pluralistic history.” In his book “The Gates of Europe”, which has become a standard text in Ukraine since its publication in 2015, Serhii Plokhy describes a nation defined not by its people’s pre-existing identities as by its willingness to negotiate them, crossing and recrossing the “inner and outer frontiers” between regions, faiths and ways of life.

As well as distrusting states imposed on them by others, the Ukrainians have not been very keen on states dominated by any one faction within the country. Mr Plokhy, who teaches history at Harvard, points to the way that, after the fall of the Russian empire in 1917, the primacy some nationalists placed on the Ukrainian language and its associated culture lost them allies among Jewish and Polish minorities worried by such ethno-nationalism. In 1991, on the other hand, Ukrainian sovereignty was supported by all the country’s people. Soviet repression had forged an alliance between Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish dissidents, among others.

Attempts to make capital out of the country’s regional and ethnic differences since then have ultimately proved fruitless, whether encouraged by Russian provocateurs or by factions in Ukraine itself. When Viktor Yushchenko, the president who was brought to power by the Orange revolution, hailed the mid-20th-century nationalist, anti-Semite and sometime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera as a Ukrainian hero he alienated not just the Russian-speaking east but also the liberal intelligentsia across the country.

The war is laying all thought of division to rest: as Sergei Rakhmanin, a journalist and politician, wrote recently, it “has stitched us together without any anaesthetic”. Russian-speakers, Jews, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian-speakers are fighting as one for survival and their right to be who they want to be on their own land. It is Russian speakers in the south and east who, stalwart in resistance, are paying the heaviest price. The war which Mr Putin launched on the basis of a belief that Ukraine does not exist and should not exist is proving the opposite.

Military improvisation has always been part of Ukrainian self defence. The tachankas—machineguns on horse-drawn carriages—fielded by Makhno’s army were the forerunners of the armed Toyota pick-ups, or “technicals”, now seen in low-intensity conflicts around the world. In a Facebook post Anton Kolumbet, a fighter in Ukraine’s territorial defence force, described the self organisation of the defenders in today’s “wild field”:

In one small forest next to a village being fought over you can see the following: the Ukrainian army, the national guard, territorial defence units, the police, a few glorious patriotic fighters, military intelligence, the secret services, some other strange military professionals and some dodgy types jumping about with weapons…Whenever the enemy tries to enter the village, he is obliterated. When he is obliterated, dodgy-looking guys run under the shelling to get their hands on trophies drenched in blood. Some kick Russian helmets. Some take photos of the corpses. Others write combat reports. Suddenly, a tank appears and goes after three Russian armoured personnel carriers. It destroys them, and then trundles off somewhere else….Where are all these people coming from? How are they armed? Where are they headed? The people don’t know themselves…No military academy anywhere in the world can teach you how to fight such a thing.

“We are a very chaotic nation,” says Andriy Khlyvnyuk, “A nation of musicians and warriors.” The lead singer of a group called BoomBox, which is hugely popular in Russia as well as Ukraine, Mr Khlyvnyuk was on tour in America on February 24th. He immediately cancelled the rest of the tour and returned to Kyiv to join the territorial defence force. A viral video of him singing “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”, a protest song from 1914, in front of Kyiv’s St Sofia cathedral, rifle slung over his shoulder, has been embellished in mash-ups by Lithuanian opera singers, a South African producer and satirist called The Kiffness and, in their first new song for 28 years, Pink Floyd.

Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian before he was elected president in 2018, fits the same “you do what you can” picture. “The first thing that I understood,” he said in a recent interview with The Economist, was “that we the people have agency. People are leaders and political leaders are losers, some of them.” (The Arena research found that politicians were the group Ukrainians like least.) As with everyone else, his wartime role has been to do what he does best—communicate with his people and with the world. He is not trying to run the country so much as letting the country run itself.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the army, where Valery Zaluzhnyi, a charismatic 48-year-old, enjoys free rein as commander-in-chief. Unlike older officers, General Zaluzhnyi never served in the Soviet army; on taking over last year he told his officers to “turn your face to the people, to your subordinates.” He has allowed local commanders to take a lot more initiative than is normal in post-Soviet armies; he listens to the advice of his senior officers.

How the self-organising spirit will fare after the war’s end will depend a great deal on what sort of end it is. If Mr Zelensky survives in office he is likely to be the most powerful politician for generations. The machinations of the country’s oligarchs, which have held the country back for 30 years, will matter much less. Giving in to the predilection to just let things sort themselves out once the crisis is over will look more culpable. That all argues for the possibility of reform.

But there will be a risk of backsliding on democracy and liberalism in a country which will be focused on its security as never before. “It is unlikely that Ukraine will have political elections in the next few years,” one observer of Ukrainian politics says. That may make eventual integration into the Europe of the eu harder. “Absolutely liberal, European—it will not be like that,” Mr Zelensky told journalists on April 5th. “It will definitely come from the strength of every house, every building, every person…We will become a ‘big Israel’ with its own face.”

The tank traps that have replaced occasional uprisings and everyday bustle on Maidan will in time be taken away. What the Ukrainian people will put in their place remains to be seen.

Welcome to Spring; the Massacre of Mariupol; and a New Hello Kitty

“I’ve been writing about Ukraine in this space nonstop for a month. I’m exhausted by it. I suspect you are, too.”

That’s not me saying that. It’s Jonathan V. Last (aka JVL). He’s a never-Trumper ex-Republican, who blogs & podcasts for The Bulwark, one of the key ex-GOP-Save-Democracy-if-we-can media shops which I follow.

But in Quaker-talk, I affirm it: this friend speaks my mind.

My sense is that the American public’s attention span for disasters and even wars, except maybe our own, is no more than a few weeks; and we’re approaching our limit with Ukraine. (And in “our” I’m including myself.)

Sure, Putin is still awful, we really hate the invasion, the razing of cities, killing of civilians, especially kids, the flood of refugees. Zelensky is a surprise megahero, the citizen resistance has been epic, even Biden seems to be doing the job right of fighting back without loosing the nuclear furies on us (so far).

And yeah, it’s grimly fun to watch Putin’s Fox News pals squirming and trying to cover their bloody tracks. For a few minutes, anyway. Continue reading Welcome to Spring; the Massacre of Mariupol; and a New Hello Kitty

Elon Musk? Ukraine Freedom Fighter?? (Well, Virtually . . .)

Elon Musk’s Starlink is keeping Ukrainians online when traditional Internet fails

Musk sent terminals for the satellite Internet service after a Ukrainian official tweeted at him

Excerpted from the Washington Post: By Rachel Lerman and Cat Zakrzewski
— March 19 2023

Elon Musk recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to a one-handed fistfight for the future of Ukraine. But the entrepreneur’s real defense of the besieged country is his effort to keep Ukrainians online with shipments of Starlink satellite Internet service.

Starlink is a unit of Musk’s space company, SpaceX. The service uses terminals that resemble TV dishes equipped with antennas and are usually mounted on roofs to access the Internet via satellite in rural or disconnected areas.

When war broke out in Ukraine, the country faced threats of Russian cyberattacks and shelling that had the potential to take down the Internet, making it necessary to develop a backup plan. So the country’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted a direct plea to Musk urging him to send help. Musk replied just hours later: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”
 Continue reading Elon Musk? Ukraine Freedom Fighter?? (Well, Virtually . . .)

We Might as Well Know: What are Switchblade Drones?

These drones are produced by  AeroVironment Inc., an unmanned weapons maker based in Arlington VA.

A PR release at their website added some details:

“Switchblade drones are single-use weapons. U.S. army officials have described them as akin to flying shotguns, meant to explode when hitting their targets and not recoverable once launched.

“Kamikaze drone is quite an apt description: the technology is much the same as the hand-launched tactical reconnaissance drones also supplied by AeroVironment, except that it’s on a one-way mission with an explosive warhead,” David Hambling, author of Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World, told Newsweek.

Part of a PR release from AeroVironment, with claims about the Switchblade’s potential.

They can be fired from tubes and launched in the air like mortar shells, and they are able to hit Russian targets from 25 miles away. They can be programmed to hit targets automatically and they are quite fast at doing so, dashing at speeds between 100 and 115 miles per hour.

Once the drone reaches its target, it detonates its warhead containing explosives. Any strike can be blocked by a “wave-off” option that allows operators to abort a mission if civilians are close to the target.”

The U.S. could be sending Ukraine either or both of two types of Switchblade drones that are available to the country: the Switchblade 300 and the 600.

The drones would allow Ukrainian forces to hit beyond-line-of-sight targets with lethal effects, and “neutralize multiple-launch rockets and artillery units,” according to Hambling. . . .

“They were permitted in situations where other less discriminating weapons would have caused too much risk of collateral damage,” Hambling added. But despite “thousands of them been used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria,” Hambling said, “the U.S. military never discusses their use and no video has ever been released as far as I know.”

From the Washington Post:

By Jennifer Hassan, Dan Lamothe and Annabelle Timsit — March 17 2022

Special Notice for NC readers!: Stand With Ukraine rally in Fayetteville NC

President Biden is ramping up efforts to help Ukraine fight back amid Russia’s invasion, announcing an extensive new package Wednesday that he said would “provide unprecedented assistance” to the country. The increase in military aid includes a delivery of 100 Switchblade drones, small and precise weapons packed with explosives that are able to strike targets in “kamikaze” fashion, according to a U.S. official.

What are Switchblade drones?

They are single-use weapons — small, unmanned aircraft that are launched from a tube, and that experts say are capable of inflicting significant damage. The drones have blade-like wings that emerge and unfold when the device is launched.

Switchblade drones are cheaper than most U.S. drones, and come in two sizes, according to AeroVironment, the manufacturer. The Switchblade 300 model weighs about five pounds, flies up to 15 minutes at a time, and is designed to be carried in a backpack, assisting small infantry units tracking the Russians’ movements.

The Switchblade 600, by comparison, weighs about 50 pounds, flies up to 40 minutes and is known as a “loitering missile” that can target armored vehicles. It is not yet clear which version the United States will be sending to Ukraine. . . .

How do Switchblade drones work?
“

The tube is set up like a little mortar on the ground,” Steve Gitlin, who served as AeroVironment’s chief marketing officer, said during a 2020 interview in which he described the product. Continue reading We Might as Well Know: What are Switchblade Drones?

The Pope Scrambles; The War Exacerbates Orthodox Church Troubles

But First, the New Moby Dick Hunt has snagged another big [Russian] white whale:

NYTimes-March 16 2022-MADRID — Spain, which has pledged to seize the suspected superyachts of Russian oligarchs targeted for sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on Wednesday impounded the third such vessel, one of the world’s biggest superyachts, in Spanish territorial waters this week. Continue reading The Pope Scrambles; The War Exacerbates Orthodox Church Troubles

A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony

My fate was heavily shaped by a small card that came in the mail in late September 1965.

That card, and fate, are back on my mind now, 57 years later.

I was in Selma, Alabama when the card arrived, still working with the civil rights movement. A few weeks earlier the endurance, courage and determination of the Black people of Selma and many other places in the South had been vindicated by passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Application of the act was just beginning. But after the nine long, tumultuous months of witness leading up to its enactment, full as they had been, my attention was turning elsewhere. Continue reading A Quaker Reconsiders His Peace Testimony