Winning: The Internet War In Ukraine


December 20, 2022: A few months after the Russians invaded Ukraine, they realized the Ukrainians always seemed to know what was going on in Russian occupied territory. It was the Ukrainian internet and the Diia app most Ukrainians had on their phones to keep and maintain their ID, driver’s license and similar items. As soon as the Russians invaded, Ukrainians used their cellphones and the Diia app to report sightings 0f Russian forces. Ukraine quickly added additional capabilities to Diaa that enables users to just point (at Russian activity) and click to automatically report the sighting to Ukrainian intelligence, along with an image and the location of the user and time when the report was made. What made all this work reliably was the willingness of satellite communications entrepreneur Elon Musk to turn on his new Starlink commercial satellite network for Ukraine and let them use it free-of-charge for the duration of the war.

The Ukrainians had other communication options. Much of the land-line phone lines were kept operational even though these lines were more difficult to defend. Another separate communications system was operated by the Ukrainian railway system. Each of the nearly 1,600 railway stations and facilities was connected by a land-line system that runs adjacent to the tracks. This is used by railway staff to control traffic and report any problems. Railway staff also have their encrypted apps and this played a major role in keeping the railways operational and able to carry personnel (military and civilian) as well as cargo.

It was Starlink that kept the Internet operational everywhere in Ukraine and, in combination with Diia, gave Ukrainian commanders a better picture of where Russian forces were than the Russians themselves had. For that reason Ukrainians in Russian occupied territory were soon being searched for Diia equipped cell phones. Russia threatened to treat any Ukrainian with Diia on their cell phone as being spies. In wartime, civilians are always an excellent source of information on what is going on in their area. The problem has always been communications and getting that information to those who could use it. Diia and Starlink changed that, as well as how the war was reported. Ukraine was more welcoming for journalists who wanted to visit the troops. Ukrainian and foreign journalists did, as did UN and Red Cross observers who were investigating any war crimes or atrocities. The Russians were often guilty of both and Ukrainian witnesses provided lots of images and videos of who did what, when and where. Reporting from Russian occupied Ukrainian territory or Russia itself was much more difficult. You needed permission and failure to abide by a growing list of things you could not broadcast or publish was illegal.

On the battlefield Russian forces invadingUkraine are at a disadvantage for many reasons, including inadequate or absent military radios and access to the Internet. While Western military radios have been using frequency hopping and software-defined operation for over three decades, Russian forces were way behind. Obsolete Russian military radios were a visible problem during the 2008 invasion of Georgia so their government ordered modern military radios be developed and issued to Russian troops as soon as possible. This didn’t begin to happen until 2017. By 2022 there were not enough of the new Azart radios available for all the Russian troops going into Ukraine. There were many units still using the old radios that the Americans, and most Western forces, replaced decades ago.

Azart was an effort to duplicate the U.S. Army SINCGARS series of radios introduced in the 1980s to provide a solution to jamming of radio transmissions on the battlefield, as well as the risk of the enemy understanding these messages. Russian jamming of tactical radios was a threat throughout the Cold War and SINCGARS was the first successful solution because it used effective frequency hopping (rapidly changing frequencies according to a pre-arranged pattern) when sending and receiving messages. The three radios in the SINCGARS family had a range of 8-35 kilometers. Unfortunately, these are FM (line of sight) radios that lose a lot of their range in hilly or urban terrain. Operators have also found that the range is halved when the frequency hopping was used. When a user finds the signal fading, they will switch to single frequency mode to keep the connection. This allows the enemy to jam the signal, and to listen in. The Russian military radios, especially the new ones, proved unreliable and often unavailable. In Afghanistan NATO forces could use satellite radios as well as FM tactical radios using airborne repeater aircraft.

Russia has none of this for its troops in Ukraine while Ukrainian forces had free access to the high-speed Starlink system. Within a week of the Russians invading, Starlink delivered the first truckloads of user kits (a small satellite dish and a “modem” to allow any PC user to connect. Since then thousands of user kits have been donated or purchased by Ukraine. Starlink engineers detected and defeated Russian efforts to disrupt its operation. This neutralized Russian efforts to destroy Ukrainian access to the Internet. Starlink advised Ukrainian users how to use Starlink to avoid the Russians detecting a user and their location for an air or missile attack. During March Starlink added several new features, like the ability to be used in a moving vehicle, using power from a battery or the vehicle electrical system. This enabled Ukrainian forces to use Starlink in combat.

Azart proved less capable than expected under combat conditions because there were not enough of them and these radios were unable to remain in contact with higher headquarters. In combat Russian support forces are supposed to erect temporary repeater towers or employ vehicles carrying mobile towers so that Azart users on the front line could stay in touch with other units and the chain of command that went all the way back to the Stavka (Great Staff) in Moscow that controlled all military operations. The repeater towers did not work because armed Ukrainians found and destroyed them. Some Russian commanders still had their cell-phones as well as Ukrainian sim cards that enabled use on the Ukraine cell phone system, which the Ukrainians kept operational. Most Russian troops were ordered to leave their cell phones behind because the Ukrainians could track cell phone users and, in the case of Russian troops, use that information for an airstrike or ambush.

Some veteran Russian officers and troops, especially those who had served in Syria, obtained Chinese walkie-talkies similar to those often used by Islamic terrorists and irregular forces worldwide. In Syria the Russians eventually banned soldiers from using modern (4G) cellphones that could be used to post photos and videos to social media. In addition, some major bases in Syrian had jammers going 24/7 to prevent any use of 4G phones, especially by local Islamic terrorists who were constantly trying to kill Russians, often with the help of cell phones that could provide a target beacon for swarms of quad-copters armed with explosives. Many Russian troops and civilian contractors carried their 4G phones anyway and when outside the range of the jammers powered them up and sent accumulated emails and photos home and to social media.

The problems Russia had with cell phones in Syria were also taking place in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian forces invaded in 2014, a year before Russian troops showed up in Syria. The communications problems in Donbas were worse because the Ukrainians quickly mobilized and halted the effort to take two Ukrainian provinces. The Russian advance halted and was stalled until 2022.

In Syria the Russians tried to exploit the enemy use of cell phones but found that more difficult than expected. At the same time Russian troops with cell phones became a major intelligence problem, and that continued in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine as well. For example, in late 2017 the Russian-run “government” in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) sentenced a local man to ten years in jail for distributing a cell phone photo via twitter that showed Russian Army vehicles and other equipment in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Russia denies they have troops there but it has been an open secret because of cell phones, Internet access and most Ukrainians in Russian occupied Donbas wanting the Russians gone. Sending one man to prison and publicizing it was supposed to make the population less ready to do this sort of thing. That didn’t work.

Russia used Ukraine as a test site for new Cyber War tactics and techniques. In late 2016 Ukraine accused Russia of employing hackers to insert trackers into cell phones used by Ukrainian military personnel fighting in Donbas. Ukraine has also found evidence of the same or similar hackers, usually civilian groups working as contractors for the Russian government, going after numerous government and commercial networks in Ukraine. Some of these hackers were also identified as going after targets in the United States. The hacking of cell phones used by military personnel is believed to be the cause of several accurate and fatal attacks on Ukrainian troops in Donbas. The hackers made it possible to track the location of the phone owners and accurately fire shells or rockets at them.

These capabilities had already attracted the attention of the U.S., which was supplying Ukraine with military equipment and technical assistance. American and NATO electronic warfare experts paid close attention to what the Russians were up to in Donbas and the cell phone hack was not unexpected. When it did arrive, it was scrutinized and dissected. That led to countermeasures that were ignored by the Russians and used by Ukrainian forces fighting the 2022 invasion.

Their poor communications capability significantly degraded Russian combat capabilities and made Russian troops much more vulnerable. For example, the Russians have to be careful using air strikes or artillery fire near their own troops because there is no way for ground forces to communicate with aircraft or distant units providing the shell, rocket or ballistic missile fire to report they or the target had moved. This is one of the reasons for the Russians shifting most of their artillery fire to cities, because these targets don’t move, like the Ukrainian soldiers and irregulars do.

At the same time the Ukrainian forces have reliable, and often encrypted, communications. This was because the Ukrainians kept their cell phone system operational by quietly making changes to it that made it more difficult for Russian hackers or military forces to shut the system down. Where there was cell service Ukrainians could use encrypted apps to communicate while Russian forces used their pre-Azart military radios or Chinese walkie-talkies, where communication is all in the clear. Nearly all Ukrainians can speak Russian as well as Ukrainian and have methods or equipment to detect and locate Russian troops communicating without encryption. Azart has modern encryption but using it reduces the range of the radios by up to 50 percent. Because of that Russian troops rarely use the encryption. The Ukrainians knew all about Azart because soon after Russian troops began receiving them in 2017, many also showed up on the black market, where anyone could buy one. The Ukrainians did so and, along with NATO, discovered what Azat could do and what its weaknesses were. Ukrainian and NATO tech experts concluded that, with proper countermeasures, the Azart radios would become a major liability for Russian commanders and it was. Some Russian troops got Ukrainian sim cards for their cell phones so they could call home and the Ukrainians exploited this by harvesting those messages and postings to social media to monitor Russian morale and operations, and sometimes use location information for attacks.

Russian commanders, unable to communicate, must stay on the roads and are often stalled because they have not received new orders, cannot report that they are under attack or that a unit has suffered heavy losses and requires assistance, especially evacuation of the wounded. Local civilians are no help because they move away when Russian troops are near but are very helpful to any Ukrainian forces who ask for information. This is one reason Russian troops were told, soon after the invasion began, to loot at will to obtain supplies. This enraged Ukrainian civilians even more, so they made cellphone images of Russian troops looting and abusing civilians which quickly spread worldwide, including to Russia, where civilians had been told that Ukrainians welcomed their Russian liberators.

Ukraine had a vibrant app developer community as well as world-class software systems developers. Many of the key apps quickly developed were the result of civilians taking the initiative and the government accepting and using these apps. Pictures and videos of the damage the Russians have done to infrastructure and Ukrainian civilians are quickly and widely spread around the world. Because of the Ukrainian Internet, Russian troops and politicians get all their mistakes broadcast to the world. This is an Information War defeat of epic proportions.




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