War has changed. The weapons and people fighting in today's mixed modern warfare are much different than those on history's many battlefields. And yet, war never changes. Because no matter if we use spears or nuclear warheads, one fact rings true – knowledge is power, and information wins wars.
So, how is it then that the entire world keeps listening in on Russia's military communications?
Today, we're taking a step back from our usual topic of cyber-warfare and dipping our toes into geopolitics to answer that question. We'll be looking at the situation in Ukraine, assessing the vulnerabilities of Russia's communication strategy, and explaining how they've been used to help Ukraine fight back.
Before we start, we must mention that much of the publicly available information is difficult to verify. Hence, the content of this article should be taken as educated suggestions rather than objective truth.
Russia has invaded Ukraine to claim it as its own, expecting a quick and easy conquest. And yet, that's not quite how it turned out.
From the very beginning, Russia's efforts have been hindered by poor planning and coordination, extending even to its communication strategies. According to local intelligence, despite being supposedly outfitted with advanced radio and jamming equipment, the invading army's comms suffer from poor quality and security.
This has led the soldiers to use unencrypted high-frequency radios (HF) and even mobile phones to communicate with their commanding officers. Thanks to that, Ukraine and the rest of the world have been able to intercept and locate enemy broadcasts, allowing for more effective resistance.
The question is: How could Russia, a country well-known for its state-of-the-art intelligence operations, let this happen?
Now, the truth is that this is a complex issue. However, for the sake of brevity and comprehension, we'll divide the problems into two parts – equipment and strategy.
First of all, let's look at the supposed advanced, military-grade equipment soldiers were supposed to receive. According to available information, the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) should be using tactical software-defined radios (SDRs) of the Azart and Akveduk “families”.
These are high-frequency (HF) and very high-frequency (VHF) radios with built-in encryption to provide the RuAF with secure and jam-resistant communications on the battlefield. As will be relevant later, these radios can facilitate comms up to 18km and 350km, depending on the type.
All of this sounds like a reasonable solution, right? And it would be - if it worked.
As it turns out, the manufacturers of the Azart and Akveduk radios were allegedly involved in corruption. Most of these devices were supposed to be created and shipped from China but they suffered various construction defects. So, effectiveness was the first problem.
The second problem was overall availability. Battlefield reports suggest that Russia's claims of its overall hardware surplus were largely inflated. In reality, only a limited amount of these radios were ever distributed, leading to the issue mentioned above of Russian soldiers using sub-par communication technologies.
Earlier in the article, we mentioned that Russia likely expected a “blitzkrieg” victory. Due to this fact, they made several strategic errors. The first was not destroying Ukraine's information networks. We can only assume that Russia decided not to go through with the bombardment because they wanted to keep as much infrastructure intact for themselves.
This allowed Ukrainian forces better communications. When the RuAF decided to change its approach and destroyed several 3G and 4G network towers, it also ended up hurting them due to the soldier's reliance on mobile communication.
The second mistake was deploying their troops too quickly, with little to no information on where they were going and what they were doing. Due to this fact, much of their army didn't have the chance to distribute encryption codes, which would allow them to communicate more securely.
The third mistake was creating too much distance between soldiers and commanding officers. According to information gathered from captured RuAF soldiers, at one point, their officers began to distance themselves from the battlefield physically. These divides became so great that, even if the troops had access to their high-quality radios, they could not contact their commanders. This only served to compound the issue of their using mobile phones.
The fourth and final error we'll discuss was not bothering with encryption and communication security (COMSEC). Unsurprisingly, the Russian military did figure out they were being eavesdropped on. But they did nothing to solve the issue. And while communicating false information over unsecured channels is a viable and frequently used military strategy, the Ukrainians claim they were able to take action based on the data they intercepted successfully.
All these vulnerabilities helped Ukraine's resistance in several ways. First, the lack of communication/transmission security made it very easy to intercept and jam Russian broadcasts. It also allowed Ukrainians to track troop movements using even rudimentary communication intelligence.
Second, when Ukraine learned how much the RuAF relied on mobile phones, they cut blocked all Russian numbers, further limiting enemy communications. The Russians tried to bypass this issue by stealing phones from locals. However, this backfired when locals reported their stolen devices, and Ukraine used those phone numbers to track and intercept their calls again.
As Dmitri Alperovitch, a leading cyber-security expert, said to the Russian forces: “If you're using phone calls, then the Ukrainians are listening to you.”
Thanks to the access Ukraine has had to their enemy's communication channels, they've been able to take preventive actions against their attacks, distribute false information, and undermine the soldiers' already low morale. And this is, in part, what's allowed the country's resistance to keep standing firm.
As the RuAF learned the hard way, wars are won by those who are prepared. And although their case was literal, it is a lesson we all can take to heart and adapt to our lives. Secure communications are a necessity. Especially in our digital age, when nations, corporations, and individuals wage information wars on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, it's too late to start preparing when a cyberattack does happen. That's why governments, in particular, should focus on setting up digital safety measures while there's still time. And that's where solutions like Silentel come into play.
Silentel is a secure communication app designed to afford its users all of the functionalities they've come to expect from other conventional chat apps while ensuring their privacy. It offers standard chat, call, conference call, and file-sharing options, all protected with a variety of security measures, including end-to-end encryption, private servers, no data logs, and more. There is even a Push to Talk (PTT) capability with dispatch for situations of great need.
Silentel works with all standard smart devices (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows) and is used by governments, organizations, and individuals in over 50 countries. It is also the first worldwide solution of its kind to be positioned in the NATO Information Assurance Products Catalogue (NIAPC).
If you'd like to learn more about why and how countries should prepare for today's digital threats, we encourage you to read our blog on How Governments Can Protect Their Sensitive Data.