Russia is considered one of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to all things espionage, including covert and high-tech military communications.
For Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer, it is a particular source of pride. Yet Russia’s reputation has taken a major hit with the often clumsy way the military has handled communications in Ukraine.
Here is an overview of how the Ukrainians effectively countered the Russians on several fronts:
Q. Ukraine continues to publicly disclose what it says is intercepted Russian communications from the battlefield. Wouldn’t Ukraine want to keep this a secret?
Ukraine believes there are huge public relations benefits to releasing intercepted documents that are either embarrassing to Russia or indicative of Russian wrongdoing or even atrocities.
Ukraine’s military intelligence services recently broadcast a sound on social mediasaying that while two Russian servicemen were talking, one of them called for the execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
“Keep the oldest of them and let the rest go forever. Let them go forever, damn it, so no one will ever see them again, including loved ones,” a voice on the tape said.
NPR cannot confirm the authenticity, and there is no indication that the Russians acted on this statement.
But collectively, the continuous audio stream broadcast by the Ukrainian government and military indicates Ukraine’s enduring ability to intercept Russian military communications.
Although public announcements are limited, military analysts say the Ukrainians are certainly picking up additional calls that provide important battlefield intelligence that is not shared publicly.
Q. How do Ukrainians intercept these calls?
This probably happens in several ways. But at the most basic level, some Russian troops have apparently been far too flippant in their communications.
The Russians brought their own cell phones to Ukraine. When the Ukrainians realized this, they cut off Russian phone numbers from the Ukrainian network – so Russian phones stopped working.
Russian troops then began seizing cellphones from Ukrainian civilians, according to Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection.
“We call on Ukrainians whose mobile phones have been confiscated by representatives of enemy troops to inform the operator as soon as possible,” the Ukrainian agency said in a statement last month.
Ukrainian civilians obeyed, which allowed the Ukrainian government to know which phones had been stolen by the Russians – and became listening devices for Ukrainians.
Dmitri Alperovitch, a cyber expert who runs the Silverado Policy Accelerator, says this is just one of the ways Ukrainians are exploiting Russian communications. The overall result, he said, was a huge Ukrainian intelligence advantage.
“Intercepted phone calls are just invaluable in getting a sense of what Russians are thinking, the state of their morale,” Alperovitch said. “There was an intercepted phone call where the Russian officer was saying how half of his troops have frostbite on their feet, how they have no hot pans to feed on. They sleep in trenches.”
Q. If this has been happening since the beginning of the war, why don’t the Russians know how to prevent it?
This has been a real mystery, especially since the Russians have a long history of strong military intelligence and communications.
The Russians have a modern and secure radio system for the army. The Russian secret services have been extremely active in Ukraine for years. But Russia has so far squandered those benefits, military analysts say.
Inexplicably, analysts say, Russia in many cases used basic, off-the-shelf, unencrypted radio communications, which made it relatively easy for Ukrainians and others to listen in.
Moreover, it is not clear why Russia did not simply bomb Ukrainian communication networks to the rubble.
Russia expected a quick and easy takeover of Ukraine, and there was speculation that Moscow wanted to keep the telephone system, railways, power grid and other infrastructure in place so that the Russian forces can use them.
And, no doubt, Russia also exploits Ukrainian communications and wishes to continue these operations.
But whatever the reasons, Ukraine’s telephone and internet systems work in most places, contrary to what was predicted before the war.
Q. Are the Ukrainians receiving outside help?
The Ukrainians receive significant intelligence assistance from the United States and other NATO countries, according to US officials.
Most of this help remains secret, but some is easily visible on social media.
“If you look at the flight radar right now, almost constantly, you see US Air Force planes flying near the Ukrainian border, gathering intelligence,” Alperovitch said.
US planes do not enter Ukrainian airspace but are close in the skies of Poland, Romania and elsewhere in the region.
“I’m sure they collect radio communications and other forms of intelligence which they then pass on to the Ukrainians, which is invaluable in their pursuit of this fight,” Alperovitch said.
Q. Is this information sharing new or has it happened before?
There’s history here, and it’s dripping with irony.
Russia carried out a major cyberattack in Ukraine in 2015, destroying parts of the power grid, and then Moscow intervened in the US presidential election in 2016.
These Russian actions prompted the United States and Ukraine to work together to counter Russian cyber measures.
NSA Director General Paul Nakasone doesn’t say much in public. But he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on US cooperation with Ukraine on March 10, just weeks after the war began.
“The intelligence we share is accurate. It is relevant and actionable,” Nakasone told the committee.
CIA Director William Burns offered a similar assessment in a rare public address earlier this month.
“We are also committed to sharing intelligence quickly and effectively with our Ukrainian partners throughout the fighting and for months before that,” Burns said.
Putin probably doesn’t appreciate this irony, but his cyber actions against the United States and Ukraine several years ago helped forge a partnership that is now being used very aggressively to undermine his war in Ukraine.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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