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KOMMERSANT
Kommersant ("The Businessman") was founded in 1989 as the first business newspaper in the Russia. Originally a weekly, Kommersant is now a daily newspaper with strong political and business coverage. It has been owned since 2006 by Alisher Usmanov, the director of a subsidiary of Gazprom.
Cyber War Chronicles: Meet The Hackers Taking On Russia
Future
Cameron Manley

Cyber War Chronicles: Meet The Hackers Taking On Russia

The war in Ukraine is not just being fought on the ground. The battle for dominance increasingly happens on the digital field, where a worldwide network of cyber-soldiers conduct attacks to disrupt Russia's war effort, from the outside and inside too.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian hackers have been fighting tit for tat on what we can call the "digital front line." To quantify the firepower involved, the number of ransomware attacks on Russian companies has tripled since Feb. 28, according to Kaspersky Lab, a Russian multinational cybersecurity firm that found a direct link between the uptick in online targeting to the breakout of military conflict in Ukraine.

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At the same time, developers of information security solutions such as Fortinet, ESET, Avast and NortonLifeLock Inc. have left the Russian market, making it harder for companies to protect themselves against external attack.

Earning cash through online ransoms and blackmail has often served as the motivation for carrying out cyberattacks. But prior to the war, cybercriminals had tended to keep news headlines in mind when going after their targets — for example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when users were faced with a large amount of spam and phishing emails.

The new motive for cyberattacks

In 2022, however, the face of cybercrime has evolved. Attacks are now driven more by personal motives and moral convictions than by a desire for financial gain.

The goal of new attacks is to block or complicate access to the victim’s data. Alexey Chuprinin, head of Application Security Softline, tells Russian business daily Kommersant that hackers are “not only targeting companies that are capable of paying a ransom, for example industry and finance — they are also targeting organizational structures, which can cause a public outcry.”

Using Russian ransomware against Russian companies seemed like the perfect '"f*ck you."

Immediately after the outbreak of war, Conti, a ransomware-as-a-service group, announced unequivocal support for the Russian government. In retaliation, a partner working from Ukraine, posted information about the identities of Conti members, as well as the source code of the ransomware program.

This “allowed hacktivists to use this family of programs against organizations in Russia,” said the head of the Group-IB digital forensics laboratory, Oleg Skulkin. It served as a means to protest against their own government anonymously.

Similarly, a representative of Ransomware group Network Battalion 65 (NB65) told Tech Novosti how a former member of the Russian group Trickbot leaked two years of chat logs as well as a host of operational data regarding their group.

“We took a copy of the source code and decided that it would be a good idea to use this ransomware against Russia. The irony of using Russian ransomware against Russian companies seemed like the perfect 'f*ck you,'" he said. "This is our way of saying 'Russian ship, Russian ship, this is Network Battalion 65. F*ck you!'"

Photo of a man looking at lines of code on a computer screen

War 2.0?

charlesdeluvio

Digital batallions

The Ukrainian government is welcoming this growth in hacking. Slava Banik, head of the IT Army Of Ukraine at the country's Ministry of Digital Transformation, tells Euronews that more than 300,000 people worldwide are using their computers to help disrupt Russia’s war efforts, as well as the everyday lives of Russian civilians.

It is a tactic that even ordinary non-tech-savvy citizens can resort to.

One way of doing this is to overload Russian websites with junk traffic, forcing them offline. It is a tactic that even ordinary non-tech-savvy citizens can resort to, and it can be used to target Russian banks, governmental websites and media.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army has grouped together around 3,000 IT specialists, divided in so-called digital "battalions," who carry out cyberattacks on Russian websites every day. All actions are coordinated with the main headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in Kyiv.

War from the bedroom

In its latest report, Kaspersky Lab backs its thesis that cyber-incidents are politically motived, as variants of encryption programs that are made exclusively in Ukraine are involved in attacks on Russian resources.

One of the malwares recently discovered by experts was the Freeud viper, developed by pro-Ukrainian supporters. The ransom note sent after activating the program states that Russian troops must leave Ukraine.

“The choice of words and the way the note is written suggest that it was written by a native Russian speaker,” Kaspersky experts say.

Yes, the enemy (on or offline) can be where you least expect him.

Russia Warns Finland Over Joining NATO
In The News

Russia Warns Finland Over Joining NATO

Sharing an 800-mile border with Russia, the Nordic country has seen public support for NATO membership skyrocket following the invasion of Ukraine. Neighboring Sweden also looks set to join the military alliance later this month. Both countries had for decades avoided NATO membership for fear of provoking Russia.

Finland looks certain to join NATO after the country’s president and prime minister released a joint statement saying they are in favor of joining the military alliance.

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“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance. Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” they said. NATO leaders indicated that the application would be approved rapidly.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned "corresponding symmetrical responses on our side," to Finland's accession to the military alliance.

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Territory Gains And Losses Point To Long War
In The News
Anna Akage and Emma Albright

Territory Gains And Losses Point To Long War

Russia says it has conquered new territory in Donbas, while Ukraine says it has retaken parts of the city of Kharkiv. The competing claims come as Vladimir Putin appears to be bracing for a long "protracted" conflict.

Some press reports come from the battlefield, some come from headquarters.

The latter was the source for the lead story in today’s The New York Times that declared “Ukraine War’s Geographic Reality: Russia Has Seized Much of the East,” based on an assertion of the Russian Defense Ministry that “its forces in eastern Ukraine had advanced to the border between Donetsk and Luhansk,” the two provinces of Donbas.

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The article continues with an important caveat: “If confirmed,” the report signals that Russia could soon gain control over the entire Donbas region, which could put Moscow in position to force Kyiv to agree to its terms at the negotiating table.

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Photo of a bus transporting a group of Mariupol residents heading for Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Irene Caselli, Bertrand Hauger, Cameron Manley and Emma Albright

Major New EU Sanctions Against Russia Include Ban On Oil Imports

Testimonies are emerging of civilians being evacuated from Mariupol and Lyman, as Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities continue. Meanwhile, the EU has revealed plans to enforce its sixth package of sanctions against Moscow.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced a new package of sanctions against Russia. Speaking to the European Parliament on Wednesday morning, von der Leyen unveiled plans to ban Russian oil imports as well as a proposal to ban three banks, including Sberbank, the country’s biggest, from the SWIFT international payments networks.

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Von der Leyen also announced that three big Russian state-owned broadcasters “that amplify Putin's lies and propaganda aggressively” would be banned from EU airwaves. The proposal needs to be approved by all EU member states to become effective.

The ban on oil poses a serious risk to the European economy, and will require countries to seek other energy sources after having long been reliant on Russian supply.

"Let's be clear: It will not be easy,” said von der Leyen. “But we simply have to work on it. We will make sure that we phase out Russian oil in an orderly fashion, to maximize pressure on Russia, while minimizing the impact on our own economies."

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Photo of a Russian tank destroyed during street fighting in Mala Shestirnya in Ukraine, with a white letter "Z" painted on the side.
In The News
Anna Akage and Emma Albright

Lavrov Reveals Slow Pace Of Russian Advances

Also: First Mariupol evacuations, Biden visit "matter of time," Lavrov's Jewish Hitler, Chechnya’s TikTok Fighters ... and more.

May 9 has long been an important day in Moscow, commemorating the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. Most Kremlin observers believed that Vladimir Putin’s new all-out assault in the southeast Donbas region was aiming to bring home at least a symbolic victory in time for what Russians call “Victory Day.”

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But on Monday, Moscow-based daily Kommersant reports that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cautioned that Russia is not going to force a "victory" by May 9, which looks like a de facto admission that the assault has not progressed at the pace the Kremlin had hoped.

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Photo of a man burying a relative
Geopolitics

UK-Russian Escalation As Ukraine Hits Targets On Russian Soil

As London and Moscow continue to exchange threats and accusations, targets in Russian territory were reported hit overnight.

Russia says that Ukraine was responsible for an explosion at an ammunition depot in Russia’s Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border, though Kyiv has yet to confirm. Moscow daily Kommersant also reports that Russian air defenses shot at unmanned aircraft in neighboring border regions Kursk and Voronezh.

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The Russian government has accused the UK of "provoking" Ukraine into attacking Russian territory, following the statement yesterday by a British cabinet member James Heappey that it was “legitimate” to strike targets in Russia. According to Russian state news agency TASS, Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Heappey’s declaration “a monstrous statement.”


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Firefighters walking in devasted streets in Odessa
Geopolitics
Anna Akage, Jeff Israely and Cameron Manley

The True Face Of Russia

Today is the 61st day of the war in Ukraine. While military attention is still very much focused on Donbas, where the main front of the war is now, the Russian army continues to launch missile strikes across Ukraine, targeting critical infrastructure, railway stations, and, most importantly, residential buildings, killing countless Ukrainian civilians.

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It's been a week since the start of Russia's all-out offensive on eastern Ukraine — so are the Kremlin's forces anywhere near a breakthrough?

Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, told BBC that airstrikes on civilians shows the true face of Russian army. The fact the Russians aren't letting them rest, he continues, "is a sign of either stupidity or desperation".

"These soldiers that were taken out of Kyiv were defeated soldiers — they'd seen and they had committed war crimes, they had seen people die, they were exhausted, their equipment had gone," says O’Brien.

Saturday, a missile struck Odessa, where it destroyed an apartment building and killed eight people, including a three-month-old baby.

Russian shelling in Vinnytsia region has left an undetermined number of dead and wounded, while on Sunday airstrikes hit Lviv, with an explosion occurring near the railway station.

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​Photo of Russian social network VKontakte (VK) logo
Economy
Yuri Litvinenko and Valeria Lebedeva

Instagram Nyet! Russian Influencers Lose Mojo On Homegrown Platforms

It's a different kind of "migration" indeed, from Instagram to VKontakte, after U.S. social media were banned in Russia. It's yet another kind of difficulty for Russians trying to continue with daily life.

MOSCOW — Since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, access to international digital platforms and social networks within Russia has become virtually impossible. Facebook and Instagram were banned in late March, the activities of their parent company Meta were declared extremist and blocked, and Twitter was quickly added later to the hit list.

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The platforms themselves also set restrictions: in particular, YouTube prevented the ability to monetize content in Russia, Meta blocked certain advertisers' accounts, and TikTok limited the download of new videos and access to foreign content.

All this has resulted in another mass migration since the start of the war: this time, of a different sort. Russians who earn their living through Western social media must now move their online activity to domestic Russian platforms.

Expectations and Reality

Russian social networks have been busy boasting a growing audience. A representative of VKontakte, the Russian Facebook equivalent, told Kommersant that in March, the daily number of users in the Russian Federation increased by 9% and the total monthly audience in the country amounted to 72 million, the first time it ever exceeded 50 million. Other networks such as Odnoklassniki and Gazprom-Media, which owns the Yappy short-video service, have claimed similar growth.

The transition of the Facebook and Instagram audience to Russian platforms was facilitated not only by its unilateral blockage, but also by the lack of clarity regarding the consequences for those who continued to use the sites via VPN.

The decision of the Moscow Court on Meta states that judicial protection measures do not limit the use of social networks by users who are not involved in prohibited activities. The wording raised major questions, though. The office of the Prosecutor General was asked for clarifications as lawyers wanted to understand whether individuals and legal entities can be held administratively and criminally liable for posting links to Meta resources, “liking” posts, using platform symbols, as well as using the messaging tools that have become integrated into daily life.

No clarification has yet been given.

Lost In Translation

Mediascope notes that the Telegram messaging platform is growing the fastest of all Russian social channels: its average daily coverage has grown from 25% (for the period February 21–27) to 34% (April 11–15). The platform accounts for a significant portion of news content consumption, according to Mediascope.

The coverage of VKontakte has not changed so noticeably - from 38% to 41%, while Odnoklassniki has hardly changed at all. In comparison, the average Instagram reach fell from 32% to 12% and Facebook from 8% to 2%,

But for influencers, the change is not as easy as it seems at first glance. Indeed, Epicstars Communications Director Anastasia Yermoshina said that popular bloggers with an audience of more than 1 million subscribers will not be able to quickly transfer them to new platforms.

The Russian services themselves aren't ready to accept users from Facebook or Instagram.

When switching from Instagram to other social networks, bloggers can lose around 15-20% of the "legacy" audience.

As a result, neither bloggers nor advertisers “can immediately adapt to all the changes and are in no hurry to leave their usual platforms,” Ekaterina Bibik, head of Admitad Affiliate in Russia, emphasizes. Nor are the Russian services themselves yet ready to accept users from Facebook or Instagram.

Kirill Lubnin, vice-president of the CROS agency for strategy and development notes another issue. Users of VKontakte and Odnoklassniki discuss politics and topical issues less than people on Facebook and Instagram who bypass their blocking.

There is a lot of consumer and entertainment content on VK social networks, as well as "content with a regional or territorial reference," he noted. Russian social networks when compared to Instagram, are less aimed at the audiences of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and instead appeal to more rural ones.

Differences in user preferences are largely related to how the platforms were positioned in the early stages of development, Kirill Borisov explains: “Aesthetic content has a greater response on Instagram than on other platforms, since the philosophy of “sharing photos” is still alive.”

\u200bScreen of a smartphone displaying the logos of the social networks

Screen of a smartphone displaying the logos of the apps VKontakte, Twitter, RT News, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram.

Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/dpa/ZUMA

Telegram Is Different

The move to Russian platforms comes with another challenge. Here, the tools for advertisers are still geared towards groups: “In order to become commercially successful, a blogger has to create communities. For many, this is a new practice.”

The hype simply won’t last.

Originally conceived by the founder Pavel Durov as a means of secure messaging, Telegram has become something closer to a social media platform with the addition of “groups” and “channels”. This format, though, remains entirely different to that of Instagram, and bloggers who don't readjust their habits could be at risk of having their followers turn off notifications and therefore drop in audience reach.

While some influencers are taking the move in their stride, attempting to master Russian social networks as quickly as possible and avoid severe drops in earnings, others consider attempts to replace Western social networks with others as doomed to failure. Influencers “may try to build their following on the new platforms," says Yermoshina, "but in the long run, the hype simply won’t last."

Photo of a protest in support of Mariupol in Warsaw, Poland, on April 21
Geopolitics
Anna Akage, Jeff Israely and Cameron Manley

Signs Of Mariupol Mass Graves, As Russia Pounds Azovstal

Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boichenko has accused Russia of burying dead civilians in mass graves, a charge that appears to be confirmed by satellite photos released late Thursday of sites in a nearby village.

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Ukrainian sources report Friday that there are currently multiple wounded and dead people inside separated bunkers of the plant, which have room for between 80 and 100 people each. The entrances to some shelters are blocked by concrete slabs, which cannot be moved without heavy equipment. On Thursday, Vladimir Putin claimed Russia had “liberated” Mariupol, but acknowledged that the steel plant is still in Ukrainian control, and would be sealed off rather than attacked.

Kyiv-based Livy Bereg news outlet reports Friday that the Russian military continues to shell the Azovstal plant with warships and air attacks, capable of destroying Ukrainian bunkers.

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Satellite picture of Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol
FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War
Anna Akage, Emma Albright and Cameron Manley

Putin’s Mariupol Surprise, From Assault To Isolation Of Azovstal

The attention of Vladimir Putin and the rest of the world has zeroed in on the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, where several thousand soldiers and civilians have been holed up for weeks. While most had been awaiting an imminent Russia assault, Putin made the surprise announcement Thursday that his military would hold off on attacking the plant.

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Speaking on television with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian president said the army would instead seal off the industrial port area “so that not even a fly can escape.”

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Vladimir Putin greets Marine Le Pen for an meeting at the Kremlin
Russia
Lisa Berdet

Marine Le Pen’s Russian Ties: What To Know Before France's Presidential Election

What exactly are French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s past and present positions on Putin and Russia?

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has spent five years preparing for a possible rematch against Emmanuel Macron. Her dream, after losing to Macron in a 2017 runoff, was no doubt to hammer away on domestic issues like immigration and economic opportunity against a sitting president criticized for being out of touch with voters.

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But then, the war in Ukraine happened.

Le Pen, who is in striking distance from Macron ahead of Sunday’s election, has been forced to answer questions about her pro-Russia stance that dates back at least a decade.

The leader of the Rassemblement National party insists her views are being mischaracterized by Macron and other critics. But Le Pen also appears to be doubling down on her sympathetic views towards Russia and Vladimir Putin in a country that has largely rallied around the Ukrainian cause and a united Western front against Moscow.

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The Eternal Russian Art Of Isolation
Ideas
​Yury Saprykin

The Eternal Russian Art Of Isolation

Like from a Pushkin tale, Soviet embargo, or even a COVID lockdown, Russia is at home when it is proudly or despondently cut off from the external world. And after a post-Soviet pause of opening up, here we are again, says Russian writer Yury Saprykin.

-Essay-

MOSCOW — Our current state is ultimately more the norm than the exception: it's only taken a few days to return to this phase, now it seems that life simply took its natural position. Like the hero of a Russian novel, who overcame apathy and suddenly rushed somewhere, chased an unrealizable dream, only to immediately lose his strength and collapse on the old sofa.

This impulse took 30 or so years, which is not a long time for a Russian novel.

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Thirty years, though not a very long life is enough to witness the end of the previous cycle and the beginning of a new one. Old-timers have something to remember: “hostile voices” on a shortwave radio, the concept of “contacts with foreigners,” imported jeans bought from speculators, a bottle of French cognac from a “traveling” colleague.

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