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Russian War Report: Russian hacker wanted by the FBI reportedly wins Wagner hackathon prize 

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As Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) is keeping a close eye on Russia’s movements across the military, cyber, and information domains. With more than seven years of experience monitoring the situation in Ukraine—as well as Russia’s use of propaganda and disinformation to undermine the United States, NATO, and the European Union—the DFRLab’s global team presents the latest installment of the Russian War Report. 

Security

Russian forces claim control of strategic Soledar

Tracking narratives

Russian hacker wanted by the FBI reportedly wins Wagner hackathon prize

Frenzy befalls French company accused of feeding Russian forces on New Year’s Eve

Former head of Russian space agency injured in Donetsk, mails shell fragment to French ambassador

Sputnik Lithuania’s former chief editor arrested

International response

New year brings new military aid for Ukraine

Ukrainian envoy to Georgia discusses deteriorating relations between nations

Russian forces claim control of strategic Soledar

Russia said on January 13 that its forces had taken control of the contested city of Soledar. Recent fighting has been concentrated in Soledar and Bakhmut, two cities in the Donetsk region that are strategically important to Ukrainian and Russian forces. Moscow has been trying to take control of the two cities since last summer. Over the past week, Russia has increased its presence on the fronts with the support of Wagner units. Russia wants control of the Soledar-Bakhmut axis to cut supply lines to the Ukrainian armed forces.  

On January 10, Russian sources claimed that Wagner forces had advanced into Soledar. Interestingly, Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin denied the claim and said the forces were still engaged in fighting. Wagner’s presence was established in a camp near Bakhmut. Soldiers from the Wagner Group and other special forces deployed to Bakhmut after other military units had failed to break through the Ukrainian defense.  

On January 11, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said that heavy fighting was taking place in Soledar and that Russian forces had replaced the unit operating in the city with fresh troops and increased the number of Wagner soldiers among them. The same day, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner forces had taken control of Soledar. The Ukrainian defense ministry denied the allegation. On January 12, Ukrainian sources shared unconfirmed footage of soldiers driving on the main road connecting Bakhmut and Soledar with Sloviansk and Kostyantynivka to as evidence that the area remained under Ukrainian control.  

Elsewhere, on January 11, the Kremlin announced that Valery Gerasimov would replace Sergei Surovikin as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. The unexpected move could be interpreted as evidence of a struggle for influence in Russian military circles. Surovikin is considered close to Prigozhin’s entourage, which has criticized senior officers recently, including Gerasimov. Some analysts believe that the change signals a possible military escalation from Russia. 

Furthermore, on January 8, Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian offensive the vicinity of Makiyivka and Stelmakhivka. Further north of Lysychansk, on January 11, Ukraine also repelled an attack on the city of Kreminna. In the neighboring Kharkiv region, aerial threats remain high. On the southern front, the city of Kherson and several cities across the Zaporizhzhia region remain targets of Russian attacks.  

Lastly, a new Maxar satellite image from nearby Bakhmut exemplifies the brutality of war on the frontline in Donetsk. The image shows thousands of craters, indicating the intensity of the artillery shelling and exchange of fire between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Brussels, Belgium

Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria

Russian hacker wanted by the FBI reportedly wins Wagner hackathon prize

In December 2022, the Wagner Group organized a hackathon at its recently opened headquarters in St. Petersburg, for students, developers, analysts, and IT professionals. Wagner announced the hackathon on social media earlier that month. Organizers created the promotional website hakaton.wagnercentr.ru, but the website went offline soon after. A December 8 archive of the website, accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, revealed that the objective of the hackathon was to “create UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] positioning systems using video recognition, searching for waypoints by landmarks in the absence of satellite navigation systems and external control.” Hackathon participants were asked to complete the following tasks: display the position of the UAV on the map at any time during the flight; direct the UAV to a point on the map indicated by the operator; provide a search for landmarks, in case of loss of visual reference points during the flight and returning the UAV to the point of departure, in case of a complete loss of communication with the operator.   

On December 9, Ukrainian programmers noticed that hakaton.wagnercentr.ru was hosted by Amazon Web Services and asked users to report the website to Amazon. Calls to report the channel also spread on Telegram, where the channel Empire Burns asked subscribers to report the website and provided instructions on how to do so. Empire Burns claims hakaton.wagnercentr.ru first went offline on December 9, which tallies with archival posts. However, there is no evidence that reporting the website to Amazon resulted in it being taken offline.   

Snapshots of hakaton.wagnercentr.ru from the Wayback Machine show the website was created in a Bitrix24 online workspace. A snapshot captured on December 13 shows an HTTP 301 status, which redirects visitors to Wagner’s main website, wagnercentr.ru. The Wagner website appears to be geo-restricted for visitors outside Russia. 

On December 23, a Wagner Telegram channel posted about the hackathon, claiming more than 100 people applied. In the end, forty-three people divided into twelve teams attended. The two-person team GrAILab Development won first place, the team SR Data-Iskander won second place, and a team from the company Artistrazh received third place. Notably, one of Artistrazh’s co-founders is Igor Turashev, who is wanted by the FBI for his connection to computer malware that the bureau claims infected “tens of thousands of computers, in both North America and Europe, resulting in financial losses in the tens of millions of dollars.” Artistrazh’s team comprised four people who won 200,000 Russian rubles (USD $3,000). OSINT investigators at Molfar confirmed that the Igor Turashev who works at Artistrazh is the same one wanted by the FBI.  

Wagner said that one of the key objectives of the hackathon was the development of IT projects to protect the interests of the Russian army, adding that the knowledge gained during the hackathon could already be applied to clear mines. Wagner said it had also invited some participants to collaborate further. The Wagner Center opened in St. Petersburg in early November 2022; the center’s mission is “to provide a comfortable environment for generating new ideas in order to improve Russia’s defense capability, including information.”

Givi Gigitashvili, DFRLab Research Associate, Warsaw, Poland

Frenzy befalls French company accused of feeding Russian forces on New Year’s Eve

A VKontakte post showing baskets of canned goods produced by the French company Bonduelle being distributed to Russian soldiers on New Year’s Eve has sparked a media frenzy in France. The post alleges that Bonduelle sent Russian soldiers a congratulatory package, telling them to “come back with a win.” The post quotes Ekaterina Eliseeva, the head of Bonduelle’s EurAsia markets. According to a 2019 Forbes article, Eliseeva studied interpretation at an Russian state security academy.  

Bonduelle has issued several statements denying the social media post and calling it fake. However, Bonduelle does maintain operations in Russia “to ensure that the population has access to essential foodstuff.”  

French broadcaster TV 5 Monde discovered that Bonduelle’s Russia division participated in a non-profit effort called Basket of Kindness, sponsored by the Fund of Presidential Grants of Russia. Food and supplies were gathered by food banks to be delivered to vulnerable segments of the population. However, during the collection drive, Dmitry Zharikov, governor of the Russian city of Podolsk, posted on Telegram that the collections would also serve military families.   

The story was shared on national television in France and across several international outlets. The Ukrainian embassy in France criticized Bonduelle for continuing to operate in Russia, claiming it was “making profits in a terrorist country which kills Ukrainians.”

Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Brussels, Belgium

Former head of Russian space agency injured in Donetsk, mails shell fragment to French ambassador

Dmitry Rogozin, former head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, said he was wounded in Ukrainian shelling on December 21, 2022, at the Shesh hotel in Donetsk while “celebrating his birthday.” In response, Rogozin sent a letter to Pierre Lévy, the French ambassador to Russia, with a fragment of the shell.   

In the letter, Rogozin accused the French government of “betraying [Charles] De Gaulle’s cause and becoming a bloodthirsty state in Europe.” The shell fragment was extracted from Rogozin’s spine during surgery and allegedly came from a French CAESAR howitzer. Rogozin requested the fragment be sent to French President Emmanuel Macron. His message was relayed by Russian news agencies, and on Telegram by pro-Russian and French-speaking conspiracy channels.  

At the time of the attack, Rogozin was accompanied by two members of his voluntary unit, “Tsar’s wolves,” who were killed in the attack, according to reporting from RT, RIA Novosti, and others.  

Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Brussels, Belgium

Sputnik Lithuania’s former chief editor arrested

On January 6, Marat Kasem, the former chief editor of Sputnik Lithuania, was arrested in Riga, Latvia, on suspicion of “providing economic resources” to a Kremlin propaganda resource under EU sanctions.  

The following day, pro-Kremlin journalists held a small demonstration in support of Kasem in front of the Latvian embassy in Moscow. Russian journalist Dmitry Kiselyov and politician Maria Butina attended the event. 

The demonstration was filmed by Sputnik and amplified with the Russian hashtag  #свободуМаратуКасему (#freedomForMaratKasem) on Telegram channels operating in the Baltic states, including the pro-Russian BALTNEWS, Своих не бросаем! | Свободная Балтика!, and on Butina’s personal channel. The news of Kasem’s arrest also reached the Russian Duma’s Telegram channel, which re-shared Butina’s post. 

Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Brussels, Belgium

New year brings new military aid for Ukraine

International efforts in support of Ukraine are continuing in full force in 2023. On January 4, Norway announced it had sent Ukraine another 10,000 155mm artillery shells. These shells can be used in several types of artillery units, including the M109 self-propelled howitzer. On January 5, Germany confirmed it would provide Ukraine with Marder fighting vehicles and a Patriot anti-aircraft missile battery. German news outlet Spiegel also reported that talks are underway to supply Ukraine with additional Gepard anti-aircraft guns and ammunition. 

In addition, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the British government would supply Ukraine with military equipment capable of delivering a “decisive” strike from a distance. At the end of 2022, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace discussed the possibility of transferring Storm Shadow cruise missiles, with a range of up to 250 kilometers. Finland also reported that it is preparing its twelfth package of military assistance to Ukraine.  

US aid to Ukraine is also being reaffirmed with a $2.85 billion package on top of weapon deliveries. Additionally, the US plans to deliver fourteen vehicles equipped with anti-drone systems as part of its security assistance package. The company L3Harris is part of the Pentagon’s contract to develop anti-drone kits. This equipment would help protect Ukrainian civil infrastructure, which has been a frequent Russian target since October 2022.  

On January 6, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would supply Ukraine with units of the light AMX-10RC armored reconnaissance vehicle. These vehicles were produced in 1970 and have been used in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Mali, Kosovo, and Ivory Coast. The French defense ministry also announced that the country was to deliver twenty units of ACMAT Bastion armored personnel carriers. 

On January 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Presidents Andrzej Duda of Poland and Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania in Lviv. During the visit, Duda announced that Poland would deliver fourteen units of the much-awaited German Leopard combat tanks, and Nauseda announced that his country would provide Ukraine with Zenit anti-aircraft systems. 

Meanwhile, the largest manufacturer of containers for the transport of liquified natural gas has ceased operations in Russia. French engineering group Gaztransport & Technigaz (GTT) said it ended operations in Russia after reviewing the latest European sanctions package, which included a ban on engineering services for Russian firms. The group said its contract with Russian shipbuilding company Zvezda to supply fifteen icebreakers to transport liquefied natural gas was suspended effective January 8.

Valentin Châtelet, Research Associate, Brussels, Belgium

Ruslan Trad, Resident Fellow for Security Research, Sofia, Bulgaria

Ukrainian envoy to Georgia discusses deteriorating relations between nations

On January 9, Andrii Kasianov, the Ukrainian Chargé d’Affaires in Georgia, published an article discussing the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. The article stated that the top issues affecting relations were military aid to Ukraine, bilateral sanctions against Russia, visa policies for fleeing Russians, and the legal rights of Mikheil Saakashvili, the imprisoned third president of Georgia, who is also a Ukrainian citizen. 

Kasianov noted that Tbilisi declined Kyiv’s request for military help, specifically for BUK missile systems, which were given to Georgia by Ukraine during Russia’s 2008 invasion. The diplomat said that the weapons request also included Javelin anti-tank systems supplied to Georgia by the United States.  

“Despite the fact that the Georgian government categorically refused to provide military aid, Ukraine opposes the use of this issue in internal political disputes and rejects any accusations of attempts to draw Georgia into a war with the Russian Federation,” Kasianov said. 

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian Dream-led government has accused Ukraine, the US, and the EU of attempting to drag Georgia into a war with Russia.  

Eto Buziashvili, Research Associate, Tbilisi, Georgia

The post <strong>Russian War Report: Russian hacker wanted by the FBI reportedly wins Wagner hackathon prize</strong>  appeared first on Atlantic Council.

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