- Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine has revealed its own military’s shortcomings.
- One of the Russian military’s major failings in the conflict has been securing its communications.
- Ukrainian forces, with outside help, have been taking advantage of that vulnerability.
The war in Ukraine has revealed the embarrassing shortcomings of the Russian military.
Russia still has significant military capabilities — it has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world — but the quality of Russia’s conventional military forces and whether they are a near-peer adversary of the US are in question.
One of the most serious problems plaguing the Russian forces in Ukraine is the inability to communicate with each other reliably and securely.
Major vulnerabilities, poor execution
During the war, Ukrainian military and security services have repeatedly intercepted communications between Russian units in the field and even discussions between senior officers on the ground and their superiors in Russia.
The Ukrainians aren’t the only ones tuning in. The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart to the US National Security Agency, has been listening to the Russians talk about their low morale and their friendly-fire incidents.
These intercepts are possible for several reasons.
First, Ukrainian electronic-warfare capabilities are notably good, and they’ve been bolstered by generous assistance from the US, including real-time intelligence and an unprecedented level of information-sharing, which may make it easier for Ukrainians to know where and when to listen in on Russian forces.
Another explanation is that Russian capabilities are truly bad, having been eroded by years of corruption and sanctions. Ukrainian forces have captured Russian prisoners and vehicles and found them to be using commercial radios or even cellphones that were taken from Ukrainian civilians.
“It appears that our information on Russian capabilities is outdated or inaccurate,” likely because the US and its allies weren’t able to get physical access to the systems Russian forces use prior to the war, Herm Hasken, a partner and senior operations consultant at MarkPoint Technologies, told Insider.
“I am certain that is changing now that Ukrainian farmers are dragging a lot of completely intact Russian equipment off the battlefield. I would imagine much of it will be brought to a rail yard and shipped out to a western European nation or to the US for intense evaluation,” added Hasken, who has extensive special-operations and intelligence experience and served as chief cryptologist for US Special Operations Command.
Moreover, it appears that the Russian military still hasn’t mastered operational security. Russian troops’ social-media activity led to high-profile security breaches before the war, and if those troops don’t maintain electronic or digital discipline in the field, entire units are in jeopardy.
“If the Russian soldier is poorly trained, I am certain Russian operational security is equally poor, if non-existent,” Hasken said.
Military missteps and poor coordination between Russian agencies appears to have introduced other communications challenges.
Russian troops advancing on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, destroyed cellphone towers, which meant officers of Russia’s FSB, a domestic security service roughly equivalent to the FBI, couldn’t use their Era telephone-encryption system, which requires a 3G or 4G data connection, to communicate securely.
That hindrance revealed when open-source researchers intercepted a call in which an FSB leader told an officer in the field that the Era system wasn’t working.
“The Russian army is equipped with secure phones that can’t work in areas where the Russian army operates,” Christo Grozev, executive director of the Bellingcat research group, said of the incident.
These shortcomings overlap and compound each other, worsening Russia’s communications struggles. “The vulnerabilities are based on quality of equipment and quality of training, but also poor execution,” Hasken said.
The Ukrainians have used their intercepts of Russian communications adroitly, deploying them through social media bolster their victories and narrative, Hasken said.
Ukrainians and other groups have started many social-media chat rooms for “reporting on Russian movements and highlighting Russian failures in Ukraine,” Hasken added. “There is tremendous amount of open-source material to derive a baseline assessment of Russian performance, particularly the amount of physical losses (tanks, helicopters, etc.) left as burned out hulls on the battlefield.”
Broader communications woes
Russia’s military communications failures in Ukraine reflect broader challenges to the security of military and civilian communications.
Some Russian units use encrypted devices, but most use non-encrypted high-frequency radios. This incompatibility forces the units with the more secure devices to downgrade in order to communicate — a problem that could also hinder more capable militaries.
It doesn’t matter if a special-operations unit has the latest encrypted comms if it can’t communicate securely with the artillery battalion that is supposed to be covering its operation.
Technological advances, including the introduction of 5G, pose other problems. While it has advantages, 5G’s spread means many existing pieces of technology, from cellphones to cars, are less effective or outdated.
5G also brings security concerns. Malicious state and non-state actors could exploit vulnerabilities that emerge when networks jump to 5G. The prominent role of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei in the spread of 5G technology has already raised US concerns about Beijing using that to its advantage.
Compromised 5G networks in countries where US troops are present could be a serious vulnerability, allowing malicious actors to collect information about who those troops are, what they’re doing, and how they operate.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.