Creatures of Habit
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
It was raining, but Stan slipped on his running shoes anyway, and headed out the door a little before 6:00am to get in a morning run before the start of his hectic workday.
He slipped in his ear buds, turned on some of his favorite running music and punched the start button on the Strava app on his watch, as his feet began to rhythmically hit the pavement.
Stan’s route was a familiar one, and after running through several blocks of his congested residential neighborhood, he emerged into the peaceful greenery of a large park situated along the river.
The park was filled with the color of summer flowers and an array of refreshing green hues from the trees, shrubs, and grass.
Because of the steady rain, the park was nearly empty, enhancing the mixture of relaxation and exhilaration Stan felt as he ran through the midst of the park’s beauty.
However, Stan’s run was cut short when a man he had not noticed came up behind him and fired a suppressed Makarov pistol twice into his back.
As Stan hit the pavement, the man pumped several additional 9 x 18mm rounds into his chest to ensure he was dead, before calmly walking away.
Stan was Stanislav Rzhitsky, the former commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet submarine Krasnodar, who at the time of his death was serving as the deputy mobilization officer for the Russian armed forces in the Krasnodar region.
Rzhitsky’s watch and headphones were found next to his body, indicating the motive for his killing was not robbery, but rather assassination.
Rzhitsky had allowed himself to become a creature of habit—and those habits had allowed him to be targeted for an assassination.
Potential Suspects – Ukraine
Ukraine will of course be the primary suspect in Rzhitsky’s July 10, assassination.
The media outlet Meduza reports that Rzhitsky’s name appeared on a list of Russian submarine captains who fired cruise missiles into the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on July 14, 2022, a strike that resulted in the deaths of 27 civilians and the wounding of scores more.
While some reports indicate Rzhitsky left command of the submarine before the attack on Vinnytsia, pro-Ukrainian social media accounts celebrated his death.
Rzhitsky’s assassination also coincided with the release of a video published on official Ukrainian armed forces’ social media accounts that referenced a “day of reckoning.”
Kyrylo Budanov the chief of the Ukrainian defense ministry’s main directorate of intelligence, GUR, has denied that Ukraine was responsible for the assassination.
Other Potential Suspects
There are several other actors who could be responsible for Rzhitsky’s assassination.
One possibility is the anti-Kremlin partisans who have carried out several attacks against infrastructure across Russia, including attacks specifically targeting mobilization offices in several different cities.
The assassination could also have been the result of a grievance.
Corruption is rife among Russian military commanders, and assassinations using suppressed Makarov pistols are very common in Russia’s criminal underworld.
It is also possible that he angered someone by his actions in the mobilization office, or even regarding a romantic relationship.
But no matter who is ultimately responsible for his death, Rzhitsky may have greatly aided them in targeting him due to being a creature of habit—and by broadcasting the patterns of his life for the world to see.
Many of the reports on Rzhitsky’s assassination have noted that he used the fitness app Strava, that he used an account in his own name, and that the account was open for the world to see the times, dates, and locations of his runs.
Several pro-Russian Telegram channels have posted screenshots from Rzhitsky’s Strava account that demonstrate how vulnerable he was.
It is also quite likely that the starting point for his runs was his residence, allowing any would-be assassin to identify its location.
Note although posts on social media accounts show that a Strava account belonging to a “Kyrylo Budanov” was following Rzhitsky’s Strava account, there is no way the real Budanov (the above-mentioned chief of Ukraine’s GUR) would follow Rzhitsky’s account in his own name.
The Budanov account is clearly the work of pro-Ukrainian trolls.
However, by posting his daily run times and routes on Strava for the world to see and considering that he was shot during a morning run, it is not difficult to understand how his Strava account could have been used to target him.
The security threat posed by Strava and similar apps is not a new one.
In 2018, a number of media outlets reported how Strava users in the U.S. military were revealing the locations of classified U.S. military bases in Syria, Djibouti, and Afghanistan.
However, even if Rzhitsky had not been using Strava, his pattern of morning runs would have made him vulnerable to anyone conducting surveillance on him to plan an attack.
It is even possible that his assassin was unaware of his Strava account.
But whether Strava was indeed used by the assassin targeting Rzhitsky during the initial phase of attack planning, the app alone would not have been enough to plan the assassination.
The shooter would have been forced to conduct some degree of physical surveillance of Rzhitsky to determine his vulnerability to an attack and select an attack site.
Just having a route and time would not tell the shooter if Rzhitsky ran alone, if he had protection, if he was armed, or even if someone was conducting surveillance detection during his runs.
Those details would have to be seen in person.
The fact that Rzhitsky was targeted in a section of the park where there was no surveillance camera coverage would also point to the fact that the attack site was deliberately selected after a period of physical surveillance.
Denial is a Killer
Given that he was posting his runs on Strava, ran with headphones in, and ran predictable routes and predictable times, it is obvious that he did not feel threatened, and that he did not believe he could be targeted in Krasnodar.
It very likely kept Rzhitsky from practicing good situational awareness and looking for hostile surveillance during his runs.
The state of denial also likely kept him from having the discipline to resist falling into a predictable pattern that allowed him to be targeted.
It is also noteworthy that Rzhitsky was wearing earbuds that prevented him from hearing his killer approach from behind.
Devices and other distractions can pose a significant threat to situational awareness.
The Rzhitsky assassination is a great reminder that people must be careful with how they use lifestyle and social media apps and take steps to limit what information these apps reveal about them.
This is not just a warning for Russian military officers and high-profile personas.
Domestic violence victims, stalking victims, and other ordinary citizens should also be very careful with apps that track and publicize their daily routines.
Rzhitsky’s assassination is also a timely reminder of the danger of denial.
We are all potential targets for some sort of bad actor, so we need to fight against denial and ensure that we practice a proper level of situational awareness and look for signs of hostile surveillance—especially while we are conducting activities at a predictable place and time.