Russia's unsecured communications chatter reveals military secrets in Ukraine

Western officials say Russian troops are not using secure communications

A Ukrainian serviceman with a captured Russian tank in the village of Lukyanivka, near Kyiv. EPA
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Russian troops in Ukraine are exchanging military secrets on unsecured lines that make them vulnerable to interception by Ukrainian forces, media outlets and amateur radio enthusiasts, multiple sources have reported.

The lack of security has been credited with causing the death of at least one Russian general and adding to what western officials say is an overall sense of frustration in Moscow over the lack of progress in the invasion.

A Pentagon official said in a recent briefing that Russia’s command and control structure was faltering because the Kremlin’s forces “just weren’t fully prepared for operations of this intensity for so long”.

“We're seeing them use a lot more unclassified communications because their classified communications capability … for one reason or another, is not as strong as it should be,” the official said.

In some cases, Russian troops have even stolen personal phones from Ukrainians so that they can call their families back home, a European intelligence official told The Washington Post.

The lack of security has led to some Russian troops having their phones confiscated because of concerns they will give away a unit’s location, the official added.

Ukraine’s military intelligence service has released several batches of what it says are intercepted conversations between Russian troops showing low morale and discontent towards the top brass.

“Losses are big: equipment is blown up, boys die. And this repeats every day,” one Russian soldier was quoted as saying by the Ukrainian side.

Another recording purported to show a Russian soldier talking about being ordered to fire on civilians, as western powers and third parties collect what they say is evidence of war crimes committed by Russia.

Other radio chatter has been picked up by civilian analysts gathering open-source intelligence on the month-long war.

ShadowBreak Intl, a British company that collects geospatial data, said it had collected hours of recordings which suggest the Russian army was unprepared for the scope of the operation in Ukraine.

In one case, a Russian general and his entourage were killed when Ukraine’s armed forces used an intercepted call from his phone to locate his position, US officials told The New York Times.

Experts at the Rusi think tank said in an analysis this month that Russia’s radio communications appeared to be poor, with the reported use of basic walkie-talkies belying the impression created by Moscow of a state-of-the art military.

Russia had been expected to use more advanced hardware and the fact it may be in short supply suggests the Kremlin may not have “adequately considered its communications needs” for the invasion, the officials said.

Ukraine, in turn, was provided with equipment including secure communications and electronic warfare detection systems by the US before the Russian invasion.

Christo Grozev of investigative website Bellingcat published a video which he said showed Ukraine playing its national anthem over a radio frequency to obstruct Russian communications.

British military intelligence said on Monday that Russian logistical shortages were being compounded by “a continued lack of momentum and morale” among its armed forces as the war drags on.

But it said Russia had gained ground near the city of Mariupol as heavy fighting rages for control of the port.

Updated: March 28, 2022, 6:22 PM