Intelligence: How Russia Lost The Cellphone War

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May 23, 2022: Recently a map of Russian cell phone users in Ukraine showed up online. It showed the concentration of Russian forces as already revealed via commercial satellite photos and news reports from Russia, Ukraine and world media. What was not explained was why the Russian troops were using their cellphones in Ukraine where they had to use Ukrainian SIM cards to do so. SIM cards work with only one cellphone service provider and, before the war, anyone visiting Ukraine or Russia needed to own or buy a SIM that would let their cellphone work in the foreign country they were visiting. In the parts of Ukraine Russia occupied in 2014 (the Crimean Peninsula and half of Donbas) Russian cell phone service providers replaced the Ukrainian ones. Russia considered these areas Russian and has been going the same in the few areas (like the cities of Mariupol and Kherson) the Russian occupation forces are replacing Ukrainian cellphone service providers as quickly as they can and outlawing the possession of a Ukrainian SIM card.

The original Russian invasion plan included leaving the cellphone infrastructure (towers and central facilities) intact because Russia would soon own them. That did not happen, or at least not long enough for the Russians to make any changes to Ukrainian cellphone operation. Soon Russian troops were told to find any Ukrainian SIM cards they could and turn them in so they could be distributed to officers and other essential personnel. The Russians did this out of desperation because the Ukrainians had much better battlefield communications, and part of that was because their cellphone network still functioned. This should have made Ukrainian forces vulnerable to Russian eavesdropping but that was not the case.

Between 2014 and 2022 Ukrainian and NATO signal experts studied the problem and came up with solutions, especially when it came to tracking and monitoring foreign troops in Ukraine using Ukrainian SIMs. Ukrainian troops have encrypted and reliable battlefield comms that don’t depend on cellphones. Ukrainian civilians still used them to report on any Russian activity they might encounter while Russian forces have to use cellphones for most military communications. Both Russians and Ukrainians use the encrypted Telegram cellphone app. This is text based, making it less effective for battlefield communications. It is used by Ukrainian and Russian journalists, especially popular bloggers, to report to the people back home what is going on.

The Russian military sponsored a lot of pro-Russian bloggers and allowed some to accompany combat troops and report from the combat zone. This worked for about two months but recently some of these Russian bloggers have been reporting the war effort is being mismanaged and getting a lot of Russian soldiers killed. While these Russian bloggers were still pro-Russian, they risked losing their online followers, especially those in the military or related to someone wounded or killed in Ukraine. These Telegram users could also report what they knew, witnessed or experienced but their reports spread more slowly. There were so many of these reports on the Russian language Internet that the pro-Russia bloggers were forced to confirm them and demand changes in how the war was being fought. Russian forces were still not advancing while the Ukrainians were, on several fronts. There were also Ukrainian partisans showing up in Russian occupied areas.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is still micromanaging operations and that means no use of initiative by Russian troops. This makes no sense unless you consider the possibility he does not trust the military and insists on direct control. For the Ukrainians, that is a major asset and more Russians are complaining about it.

 


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