ISSN 2330-717X

Communication Breakdown: How Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine Bogged Down – Analysis

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By Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov*

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(RFE/RL) — “We have no communication. We don’t have walkie-talkies. Nothing,” a bedraggled Russian soldier tells his interrogators in another of the videos published by Ukrainian defenders this month posted to YouTube.

A mere three weeks into the war, such statements, along with intercepted chatter, captured equipment, and images of cheap, handheld transceivers, suggest that an inability to communicate — up and down the chain of command and across branches of the Russian military — are impeding Moscow’s war plans.

And while military fortunes can swing quickly, in even major offensives like the one launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24 to “demilitarize” and subdue Ukraine, many Western military experts suggest that the Kremlin and its planners botched key aspects of the early weeks of the invasion.

In Russia’s case, the predicament has been on display over the first 24 days of this war through statements by captive troops, tapped conversations and other clues posted by Ukrainian intelligence or others eager to highlight perceived weaknesses in the much larger invading forces, and reports suggesting an unsecured call might have aided Ukrainian forces in targeting at least one of four Russian generals who have reportedly been killed in the conflict.

Evidence suggests that some of the roots of the Russian communication lapses lie in mismanaged development and procurement processes for things like tactical military radios, undertrained and underdeployed specialists, and the challenges of operating on foreign soil, where the enemy controls not only cellular networks but also wired communications that frequently serve as a reliable backup channel.

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One of the results has been varying complexity among the systems used by troops for voice and data communications, multiplying challenges particularly because they involve mixed air, land, and naval forces. In such cases, all troops are forced to use a system that’s common to the least advanced among them.

“If you’re forming a mixed formation and part of the formation is comprised of older vehicles like the 90th [Guards Tank] Division approach into Kyiv we saw recently,” said Stanimir Dobrev, an independent military expert who specializes in telecommunications, “you have to resort to the lowest common denominator.”

In other words, mixing so-called open and encrypted systems makes them only as strong as their weakest link.

Some of those Russian forces’ older equipment, Dobrev said, “can be decrypted almost in real time and thus it’s not useful to add the extra layer of complexity to operate the equipment when there’s little benefit.”

He says those and other factors potentially point to why Russia’s ground offensive has bogged down, and air operations become less effective over time, as targets identified and communicated to Russia’s air force early on have moved.

‘Lessons Learned’?

Russia’s five-day war in Georgia in August 2008, over two breakaway Georgian regions Moscow has since occupied, laid bare some of the Russian armed forces’ most pressing battleground problems: tactical communications.

Some units were unable to communicate with the command structure, mobile phones and even “courier mail” was used instead of military radios, and in one extreme example an air force officer flew by helicopter to hand out orders personally.

A deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, Yevgeny Meychik, responded in 2009 with an announcement that, under orders from Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, the Defense Ministry would thoroughly revise its approach to the military command-and-control system — “and particularly the communications systems.”

He pledged that “by the end of 2011, we plan to bring a radio station to every serviceman, to every combat vehicle.”

But while Meychik’s plan presupposed use of the main tactical-level army radio system at the time, known as Akveduk, the Defense Ministry instead opted to pursue the development of a wholly new, sixth-generation system that came to be known as Azart. An upstart manufacturer, Angstrem, one of whose owners had been an adviser to Medvedev, was chosen for the project.

By early 2012, boasting that Russia had employed the NATO concept of “lessons learned,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin appeared with one of the Azart handsets and declared, “This connection works!”

Years of promises and many unmet deadlines to deliver the phones, dubbed “green crocodiles” by troops because of their half-meter-long antennas, followed, their use at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics notwithstanding.

Thirteen years later, despite more repeated promises, thousands of the Azart phones are in the hands of Russian troops.

But it is hard to describe the process as a success.

It has been the subject of multiple criminal investigations, including an ongoing one focused on a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, Colonel General Khalil Arslanov.

Reviews on radio forums like Radioscanner.ru, while impossible to independently corroborate, appear to suggest the Azarts are unpopular among troops.

Military expert Vladimir Orlov described the use of Azart phones among Russian troops deployed to Syria and said that “outside the bases of the Russian armed forces in Syria, everyone uses mobile phones and Chinese ‘balalaikas,'” a reference to civilian walkie-talkies manufactured by China’s Baofeng.

Moreover, the most generous estimate of the total number of Azart handsets deployed is only around 60,000, based on the 18 billion rubles ($171 million at the current rate) allocated for their purchase and the estimated cost of around 300,000 rubles per device. That is only around one-third the number of Russian troops thought by NATO and Ukraine to have been deployed in Ukraine.

Knock-On Problems

Analyst Dobrev points to the Russian military’s failure to ensure modern and secure communication channels as a major stumbling block.

But he emphasizes the importance of the knock-on effect of such a problem — poor coordination among the various ground, sea, and air forces involved in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And he says that the Russian military’s failure to implement a modern, automated command-and-control system is another problem.

“By 2020 it was planned to equip just 45 brigades of the Russian ground forces with such a system, but Russia hasn’t managed the task,” Dobrev said. “The situation is even worse with the coordination between ground forces and the air force,” which, he says, operates on its own command-and-control system.

The resulting problems in coordination present another problem, Dobrev says, that seems to have manifested itself as the war ground on. “At the beginning of the war, the Russian Air Force acted quite successfully because the positions of the enemy were known to it,” he said. “Now this doesn’t always work.”

He pointed to documents that appear to show the Russian Air Force operating by making sorties to designated targets with little or no ability to communicate with ground forces who, for instance, might otherwise request a change of targets or air support.

Dobrev also says that forward detachments in the early days of the war appeared to have outrun their communications support. “The Russian battalion tactical groups immediately went a much greater distance from the border [and] at the same time, we didn’t see equipment that could provide secure communication with the command post along with them,” he said.

He says repeater cars and new communication towers need to be installed along the way, and their set-up and use require experienced operators. “Indirectly, this indicates that the Russian offensive groups didn’t expect to stay on the road for a long time,” Dobrev said.

He and other observers also note that clear signs have emerged of interception of communication between Russian special services and other troops that should otherwise be on encrypted channels.

Christo Grozev, of the open-source sleuthing group Bellingcat, cited a “super expensive cryptophone system” introduced by Russia in 2021 seemingly being intercepted because it requires a 3G or 4G cellular network to operate.

“The cellular networks are still controlled by Ukraine, which means that for the Ukrainian military they remain a relatively secure means of communication from eavesdropping,” Dobrev said.

Not so for Russians using those same networks, or, obviously, Ukrainian fixed lines.

“In the absence of special, secure army communications, many soldiers and officers succumb to the temptation to use ordinary phones,” Dobrev said, “they simply take out Ukrainian SIM cards and call Russia, allowing the Ukrainian military and intelligence not only to easily intercept the content of the conversations, but also to determine the location of the caller.”

The BBC reported in the first days of the war that audio messages purportedly including Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov suggested that a commander in his guards corps was traveling to Moscow on the eve of the war to obtain “clean Ukrainian SIM cards,” presumably leaving communications with those devices vulnerable to Ukrainian high-tech eavesdropping.

More recently, The New York Times quoted U.S. military sources as saying many Russian generals talk on unsecured phones and radios, and in at least one case Ukrainians geolocated a call and killed him in an attack on his location.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov of RFE/RL’s Russian Service

  • Sergei Dobrynin is one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia’s political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. He joined RFE/RL in 2012.
  • Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia’s political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.

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