Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, part 1

I began this diary two months ago when our everyday life started showing the signs of persistent militarization in response to the Russian troops building up near the Ukrainian border. Registering the nuances of this transformation seemed important. Like many, I thought the tension would dissolve, but this is a war diary now.

February 12-13, 2022

The war, they say, is scheduled on Wednesday, February 16th. It tells a lot.

I do not think the full-scale invasion will happen. The Western media escalate the panic, which did not made sense to me at first, but now it seems they are doing it strategically, to deliver a message to one person only, P.

If not Crimea and Donbas, I would have thought it is nonsense. But then, there were Crimea and Donbas.

There is a sense of disorientation among people. Nobody knows what to do or if anything should be done at all and at what point you slide into madness as you think about all this. Charter jets massively left the country yesterday, all our oligarchs are gone now, some people are really afraid it seems.

There are teams of territorial resistance assembling in every town – from the former military or those who served in the army.

I think of going there to see how training is happening and who those people are.

Two dimensions of life, suddenly: one is completely normal, “as usual”; and the other is a continuous militarization of everything.

The sense of fakeness is everywhere. The sense of reality is lifted.

Our mayor’s office released a map of shelters. According to this map, one is in my building, but nobody among my neighbours knows where exactly it might be.

February 14-16, 2022

During the night of February 13-14 over fifteen Ukrainian government websites, including the State Emergency Service, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were targeted by coordinated cyberattacks. The next wave on the afternoon of February 15 left the webservices of the Ministry of Digital Transformation along with at least two banks inaccessible for several hours. In the evening, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Federov stated the speed of the “unprecedented” (for Ukraine) attack grew to about six hundred thousand packets of malicious traffic per second (for comparison, the largest attacks, thus far, measured up to hundreds of millions of packets directed at a network or website). The attack was not critical and could have gone unnoticed by users if the information about it was not amplified by fake sms-messages disseminated by hackers or bots on behalf of banks, and then disseminated again on social media by concerned users. This and earlier attacks drew such attention because they preceded the announced date of the Russian invasion only by several hours. Cyberwar is broader than any isolated, sequential, or distributed attacks on digital or physical infrastructure. The attacks, destructive or symbolic, are only an element of cyberwar’s immersive theater. Cyberwar epistemology is like a cancer of sense-making, growing abnormally and beyond limits according to the logic of paranoia, the creation of which everyone plays a part, even you, by connecting the dots.

A possibility of war expanding from Donbas to other regions has been a frequently recurring topic in public discussions over the last eight years. But the announcement concretising the date and time of the offense created a novel atmosphere of suspense; this time, in the face of an “imminent” invasion, nothing is too small for a network’s power to amplify and weaponize a potential expansion of kinetic actions. The state of imminence, as it happens, splinters life into several simultaneous but decorrelated prospects of war and peace with their different versions of tomorrow. In everyday experience, it translates into a moment where you, the subject of consumption who always intends to remediate the unbearable by buying something, find yourself putting a bottle of wine, for a party you still intend to hold, and a portable transceiver, in case a cellular network collapses, in the same virtual basket.

This is not the first time when intelligence has been made public in order to prevent an invasion or warn an aggressor, but the intensity and scope of the ongoing efforts to publicize alleged Putin’s plans is yet unseen. In Ukraine, these Western media and government officials’ warnings about a full-scale invasion are perceived in many ways ranging between unnecessary alarmism and effective predictionism, partially or primarily driven by self-interest of involved parties. Writing about media coverage before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, media scholar Richard Grusin distinguished between prediction as getting the future right and premediation as “the proliferation of competing and often contradictory future scenarios” by constructing the public’s sense of the inevitability and manufacturing their acceptance of the future traumatic event, a war. The current coordinated pre-emptive strategy of making intelligence public is very similar in approach, but different in its expected outcomes. The goal now is averting every scenario of a future war by bringing these plans to public attention and making them hyper-visible, which, however, gives no guarantee that some of them do not get realized.

Almost a decade ago, the techniques of open-source intelligence, known as OSINT, came into prominence in association with the investigative journalist groups such as Bellingcat, who demonstrated how war crimes connected to the use of chemical weapons in Syria or the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that involved senior officers of the Russian Ministry of Defense and its military intelligence agency, the GRU along with the Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk oblast of Ukraine could be investigated from a remote location and by using publicly available data. After the war erupted in Donbas, using this technique, Bellingcat and Vice both reported the presence of the Russian troops in Ukrainian territories, then denied by Putin, who exposed themselves in the most awkward way – by posting their selfies taken in Ukraine on social media. In addition to raising awareness of total visibility, these reports also demonstrated how easily such visibility can be overlooked – even by the alert attention of soldiers. In 2022, the techniques of open-source intelligence are appropriated and weaponized by the aggressor. Everything that open data can reveal is exposed to the network’s hyper-vision, for which gaze the Russian troops parade.

February 17, 2022

I asked a friend to help me obtain a permission to observe the training of our territorial defence groups, for research mostly. Either he did not understand my request, or I did not understand him, but on Thursday noon we were riding a cab towards the fields behind the town for training with a former soldier, now a soldier of reserve, who has been through Donbas and much more. ‘Daniel’, his military nickname, carries a bag for training weapons, two AK-47s and several other guns, also a cask, a bulletproof vest, and a full-equipped military backpack with all sorts of tools for survival. We find a spot away from the road and set up there. I put on the headphones that amplify every tiny sound around me while flattening sharp and loud noises from claps to potential explosions and the yellow military glasses that turn a gloomy daylight into a bright sunshine. I feel like a cyborg. The vest is heavy. The cask, already after wearing it for only one hour, too, really hurts my neck. The gloomy day still looks bright through the glasses.

We talk through the nuances of hiding from shelling and snipers, spending the night in the fields; then we disassemble and assemble the guns, I barely cope with the task, but I definitely manage to learn how to check whether the gun is loaded. An AK-47 is more complicated to disassemble and assemble, thus far, but if I have another training session, I will master it for sure. A shooting pose – done. Learning the correct ways of holding the gun and aiming at a target – check. I feel uncomfortable to shoot, though, not sure why. My friend takes his first shot, and we quickly collect things and leave. A cab to town is already waiting for us on the side of the highway.

As we walk towards it, my father calls and tells me that police are searching for me. I am shocked. My father says they could not reach me for three hours and decided to place a missing person call. Then I receive a phone call from the police asking me where I am and whether I am safe. They ask me to come to my parents address as soon as possible. Walking to meet them, I wonder if they are going to give me a hard time or ask for a bribe, I absolutely have no idea what to expect. They ask me many questions and then ask me to show my phone so they can check my recent calls for their report; I refuse to show it. They say I need to write a statement and include the phrase that I refuse to cooperate and provide explanations about my “missing person case.” Another hour of wasted time goes by.

A summary of the day: a slow but persistent militarization, accompanied by growing anxiety, crawls into our minds and everyday life. But in the given circumstances, it seems more important to know how load and unload a gun and how to shelter yourself from shelling, than many other things that seemed important to me yesterday.

February 21-23, 2022

TikTok seems to be one of the major platforms where many videos of the Russian troops moving towards the Ukrainian border are posted. Short, in a TikTok style. Another fake date of announced invasion. An ironic tone of the commentators mentioning P. “showing muscle” instead of his promised blitzkrieg is becoming more common. My international colleagues ask what I think it means. I do not know.

On the 21st, after a meeting of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, P. announces his decision to recognize the DNR and LNR, but forgets to clarify in what borders – within their existing borders, which are less than the regions’ borders, or within the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk as whole regions? Earlier, around February 18th, Russian-backed separatists packed civilians onto buses out of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, which looked like a potential escalation. Was this “showing muscle,” or something else? In several hours, we learn that they recognize the so-called republics in the actual borders of the regions. From this moment, there is no “or.” The recognition of the so-called republics opens a possibility for a possibility for the Russian troops to enter the occupied territories openly and regularly and for their continued occupation of the region. Some note that the plan was not as publicized by foreign intelligence, and it looks like the Georgian scenario.

The RF Security Council meeting was broadcast. Dreadful theater. Someone called it a public demonstration of castrating the independent opinion of the Russian officials (if there was one); the range of emotions on their faces was spectacular – from a repressed shock to uncontrollable stuttering and mumbles. But surely, many of them genuinely support P.

February 24, 2022

Asia texts me at 5:47am from Kyiv: “I hear explosions. I am shaking.” I am still in denial and try to calm her down. She says, “No, this is an invasion. It is all over Ukraine.” I open the news; this is an invasion, and it is all over Ukraine.

Around 5am this morning, major Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhya, Ivano-Frankivsk and more – east, west, north, and south – woke up to the sounds of airstrikes and shelling. The attacks were coming along the RU-UA border, targeting, for the most part, the Ukrainian military facilities and airports, but shot down drones, rockets and planes fall onto civilian buildings, and in the midst of cities causing death and destruction.

Putin’s operation to “demilitarise” Ukraine has begun; it expands by Russia moving military equipment and troops into the country’s southeast. The government introduces martial law. Several hours later, the Ukraine military report six Russian planes and a Russian helicopter shot down in Luhansk region. The Russian ground troops crossed the border north of Kharkiv and in Chernigiv region. The reports on causalities start coming around 10 am. From this moment on, things speed up.

Around 1pm, I go to town with Serhiy. Despite all intelligence, neither I nor him and his partner Natalka have got necessary meds or food / energy supplies at home. We are still not sure whether it is paranoia or we indeed should buy all this, away from the current frontlines. Soon we find out that there is no drinking water left at the store in my building, no bandages and no pills or heart medication in drug stores, antibiotics are almost gone; no power banks, no hand lights, and the stores do not accept cards. The lines to ATMs in town take about two hours to withdraw an amount now limited to1000 UAH = 34USD. The bank where I usually withdraw cash from my Canadian card now serves only their own clients. Privat Bank, my Ukrainian bank, is down.

Despite how it is imagined, cyberwar does not take place in a virtual realm alone, but unfolds where digital communications merge with kinetic actions. Technologically, it can be traced to the WWII automated systems of war games. Strategically, it inherits the methods of “Cold War nuclear deterrence to threaten an adversary about consequences if it takes or fails to take an action.” Cyberwar may actually begin as the theatricality of “thermonuclear” tension, such as the prolonged built-up of the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border throughout 2021 that mostly came to the media attention by the end of the year, when the intelligence about the “imminent” invasion was made public.

Cyberwar is fully realized when the action on screen transgresses the digital interface to territorialize itself as the intersection of the digital and the kinetic. Cyberattacks, from distributed denial-of-service attacks to drone strikes, social engineering, disinformation, and propaganda assist and coordinate military, economic, and social behavior. It reaches anywhere really. My father, who lives in the south-west of Ukraine and identifies himself as Ukrainian (he can even get mad at me when I speak Russian to my mother, who is Russian), watches Russian TV, which is free, while the Ukrainian channels have an associated fee, which he considers too high to pay. One day into a full-scale war, he thinks that the Ukrainian forces invaded Donbas, and this is all there is, while the radio at the kitchen keeps reporting, in a way that it hurts my ears (my parents are nearly deaf), about the situation at the front.

I sit down to finish the notes for the day but recall that I still have not packed that emergency backpack and everything I got for it today is either sitting on the couch or on the kitchen table and my documents with some cash in USD are somewhere else. I really do not want to get up and I tell myself that nothing will happen this night. But I go packing and I set all devices to charge, including my new power bank that I actually managed to find today. Then I think I better turn off the lights in my apartment on the top floor of the tallest building in town.

A call with Asia. It feels ages from our conversation in the evening a day before (within only hours of invasion). She says, “the world is different now,” “we are different.” But I hope not.