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The Russian Comms Dumpster Fire
Goodness gracious. Easily the greatest military opsec failure of all time.
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There’s no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored how rapidly conventional warfare continues to evolve in tandem with human technology. The relationship has always been evidently symbiotic, yes, but I’m pretty sure this is the first time we’ve seen a group of IT nerds use crowdfunding to create tiny drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras and little 3 pound bombs to successfully paralyze a 40-mile column of military vehicles.
But. But. In my opinion, this conflict has accentuated the importance of another aspect of modern warfare that tends to go overlooked because that which is unquantifiable and hard to measure gets neglected.
I’m talking about the human dimension, and how complacency kills.
Russia’s Command & Control
What is C&C?
Command and control in some form or another is essential to success in any competitive or cooperative enterprise with multiple interacting elements. From a military angle, it helps to think of it as the glue that harmonizes all the functions and operations of large mechanized fighting forces—logistics, intel, armor, air assets, infantry, artillery, comms, strategic aims and objectives, timelines, mission intent, transpo, etc. Sometimes command and control occurs concurrently with the action being undertaken — like, for instance, in the form of real-time guidance or directions in response to a changing situation — but simply put, it’s what makes victory possible.
Warfare today is more kinetic and multifaceted than ever before, which is why poor C&C, especially as an invading force, is a recipe for disaster. Without it, a commander's situational awareness is deeply flawed, murky at best, and it’s basically impossible to make confident, decisive decisions if unable to accurately assess who, what, when, where, why at any given moment during a mission or operation. Easy enough to understand.
In a previous post I wrote about Russia (“Russia’s Soup Sandwich”), we established that, incredibly, it took like two days before Russia’s C&C was an absolute dumpster fire.
“We’re in shock at how dumb their behavior is,” said another member of the Ukrainian special-forces unit who has been going on missions in the area every night. His unit, he said, had lost two soldiers since the war began nine days ago, and killed more than 60 Russians in recent days. “Now, we mostly focus on hitting their rear, their supply convoys, because if they don’t get fuel, they can’t do anything.” — WSJ
I submit that, if Putin didn’t have the strategic acuity of a foot stool, he’d have paused his Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in Three Days™ after no more than the first week given how abysmal developments on the ground were. At a minimum, he should've pumped the brakes, gone “back to the drawing board,” and quit the sad attempt to imitate Hitler’s Blitzkrieg strategy; instead, he took like 50 gallons of gas and tossed all that petrol into his raging dumpster fire of a Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in Three Days™, leaving his command structure in disarray and his army overextended.
And the results thus far? Upwards of 15,000 Russian soldiers dead in little more than a month, a previously inconceivable KIA ratio.
Speaking of command structure, you’d think that even for a Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in Three Days™ it’d be sage on ol' Vlad’s part to have a single, unified chain of command whilst invading the largest country in Europe outside of Russia without an iota of the element of surprise. But Putin's faculties are utterly blunted by his inability to untether himself from the claustrophobic confines of his own skull, which is why he had the ingenious idea of rolling with four different command structures from four different regions in Russia.
The complications this boneheaded decision has wrought are too many to list, and they've been exacerbated by what is arguably an even more boneheaded decision: Using a bunch of disparate units with little, if any, coordination as part of a combined-arms, multi-axis invasion.
“Russia is increasingly seeking to generate additional troops to bolster and replace its personnel losses in Ukraine,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said this week. To do that, Moscow is redeploying forces from as far away as Russia’s “eastern military district, Pacific fleet and Armenia. It is also increasingly seeking to exploit irregular sources such as private military companies, Syrian and other mercenaries,” it said. — Financial Times
Many troops in the south of Ukraine appear to be professional soldiers previously deployed in Crimea. But elsewhere, especially in the north, Russian forces seem to have a lot of conscripts who’re definitely less motivated and less well-trained—a tangential issue requiring a separate, future Euphoric Recall post all it’s own, unfortunately.
The Comms Fiasco
Murphy’s law, folks. Murphy’s law.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Strong, reliable communications are necessary to fighting and winning a war. Calling in reinforcements, evacuating casualties, maneuvering units, and virtually anything else soldiers need to do rely heavily on secure, fast, and interconnected communications systems. Of vital importance is that this communication be secured, or encrypted.
During the second week of the Russian invasion, a phone call from an FSB officer assigned to the 41st Army to his boss, Dmitry Shevchenko, a senior FSB officer from Tula, was intercepted by amateur radio operators. How? Because it was made, unsecured, using a local Ukrainian sim card.1
In this phone conversation, the Ukraine-based FSB officer asked his boss if they could talk via Russia’s fancy and very pricey “Era” cryptophone system — introduced with much fanfare in 2021 and “guaranteed to work in all conditions” — because he had “lost all secure communications.”
“Negative, Ghost Rider,” his boss probably said. “She’s offline.”
There was an extended, awkward pause I interpret as a tacit acknowledgment between the two that their call was almost certainly being listened in on and that they should proceed cautiously.
Upon hearing the two FSB officers complaining about how the Era system had been rendered useless, Bellingcat, an internationally renowned investigative organization known for exposing Kremlin misinformation, became curious as to why and started digging. It didn't take long to figure out what happened. Turns out the Russians did Russian things and either destroyed most of Ukraine's 3G/4G cell towers or replaced them with Stingrays, eavesdropping devices that mimic cell towers and allow data to be intercepted—which is superduper great and all except for the fact that their fancy secure Era phone system requires 3G/4G in order to actually work.
Thus it was that the Ruskies committed easily the greatest military opsec failure of all time and subsequently found themselves stuck with unusable secure phones. And while it appears that some of the Russian units do have older analog radios, these radios don’t have the crypto required for secure communications. Apparently, the Russian Army is tiered. In other words, the important dudes (Spetsnaz/VDV) at the top of the totem pole get whatever gear and equipment they want while the dudes at the bottom of the totem pole are considered low priority peasants and get whatever’s stored in the rusty cupboard in the arms room where it lays entombed until something like a Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in Three Days™ comes up and they pull it out and dust it off and throw it in the back of the truck along with the MREs that expired in 2002.
Because their secure comms wouldn’t work, Russian troops were forced to go to “single channel,” which the Ukrainians have been jamming the hell out of—interrupting transmissions with recordings of the Ukrainian national anthem. The Russians then resorted to using their cell phones, but the Ukrainians blocked the prefix for Russia (the +7 code), rendering even their cell phones useless. And, for good measure, Ukraine went ahead and took down all remaining 3G.
The situation has deteriorated to the point where the Ruskies are essentially using unencrypted walkie-talkie radios from the sporting goods section at Walmart and communicating via analog as opposed to digital, which means their comms are unsecured and literally anyone and everyone can listen in—unencrypted traffic on Russian military frequencies can be picked up and heard by regular people operating what’s known as SDRs—software defined radios. These allow users from all over the world to tune into a website and listen to radio frequencies of all types, from the BBC to music to pirate radio stations to Russian infantry units getting royally pissed off about the fucking close air support being late.
"It's basically like tapping into a police frequency in the US. It's basically the Russians transmitting on analogue. So when they request air support, or any kind of support, you will hear the helicopter or the fighter planes. Through the hours of recordings we have over multiple frequencies, you will be able to hear fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery, heavy ballistic missiles talking analogue because not all the units have digital communication methods. It's such a huge vulnerability coming from Russia in such an operation. It's insane. Intelligence being intelligence, if a civilian has access to it then I imagine NATO planes or SBU [Ukraine security service] agents do." — Samuel Cardillo, ShadowBreak Intl.
Considering that we live in a day and age where young people like to pay money to watch video feeds of other people playing video games, it should come as no surprise that plenty of folks — “open-source volunteers and intelligence sleuths,” which is like a spiffy way of saying randos the world over who happen to have an internet connection and a lot of time on their hands — who’ve taken to eavesdropping and then posting about what they hear on social media. There’s already an entire community of people who’ve been “closely cooperating with radio amateurs & translators, across the globe, to document and gather intelligence.”
In one transmission on March 5, a Russian service member identifies himself as “Blacksmith,” rather than a call sign. “Don’t say the last names on air!” another responds. The transmission was provided to The Washington Post by Shadow Break International, an open-source intelligence consultancy based in Britain.
In another discussion, Russian soldiers appear to confuse one another by mistaking their call signs. One identifies himself as “Exchange.” Another then says that, in fact, that’s his call sign. “You got it all mixed up!” one of them explains. — The Washington Post
So now the Russians have been stealing cell phones from Ukrainian civilians to communicate amongst each other, which means Russian comms are entirely unencrypted and "in the clear" and the Ukrainians can intercept everything they're saying, making it very easy to pinpoint where high-ranking officers are located, which is why at least 15 senior Russian commanders, including 7 generals, have been killed, according to the Ukraine Defense Ministry.2 Those are astonishing numbers, nation.
Typically, such high-ranking officers wouldn't be anywhere near the front lines, but they’ve had to go further forward than normal to impose order and direct operations at the lower levels. As just one example, consider the epic traffic jams that have been holding up desperately needed supplies: Something happens at the front of the column; a general in the far rear of the column, pissed off and impatient, ventures up to the front to see what the problem is; because Russian comms are unsecured, these high-ranking officers are easily pinpointed, and the Ukrainians, who have excellent snipers — many of them elite foreigners who’ve come to help — have been picking them off like slaphappy kids playing “Shoot Out The Star” at the Georgia State Fair.
Below is a pretty impressive New York Times (I know, I know; but give credit where/when it’s due) video-recording-transcript thing in which they translated an intercepted call and even geo-located the events described therein.
Abrupt Leadership Changes
The heavy losses incurred by Russia’s armed forces have triggered Putin's purge of top military and intelligence commanders. This, too, is extraordinary. You need not be a military savant to understand why trying to take your saddle and supplies off a horse midstream and ass deep in what's proven to be quite the current is a big no-no during war, and especially in the event that a butchered Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in Three Days™ turns into a meat grinder.
Vlad, buddy, you're supposed to change horses either before you get in the water or after you get out.
Most of the news coverage has focused on Russian general KIAs, but the loss of these head honchos isn’t nearly as big of a deal as the dozens of field-grade officers (Major to Colonel) who’ve been killed.
When an infantry Battalion CO is lost, it has a significant impact on the rank and file across the two or more companies within that entity. Battalions are typically the basic fighting units in an army and tend to be cohesive; naturally, changes to leadership at this level have downstream effects, potentially all the way to the squad level. And if the Battalion CO is a good one, his personality has a big influence on the men serving below him; he often assumes the mantle of “fatherly figure,” investing considerable time and effort in talking to his subordinates and building a rapport.
Generals, while obviously very important (especially symbolically), are sufficiently high up in the chain of command — they rarely, for example, train with soldiers — that their loss doesn’t have the same kind of earthquake effect on morale within fighting units.3 But the lower you go down the chain of command, the more disproportionately impactful a leader’s loss is. A unit’s persona, mentality, and even its philosophy depend on who the leaders are and how they operate; these intangibles percolate down to the rank and file, and the way a unit trains will give you a pretty good idea of its unique cohesive trinity.
Now consider how losing leaders, be they beloved or not, might impact the Ruskies given what we know of their travails thus far. For one thing, they’re getting their ass kicked. It’s as simple as that. You can’t take 40,000 casualties with upwards of 15,000 KIA in approx. one month while losing a visually confirmed and documented 300 tanks (as of March 26, mind you) — the equivalent of the entire French Army’s stock of tanks and about half that of the British Army — and call it anything other than getting worked, and let's not even mention the 10-1 advantage in combat power, the David vs. Goliath situation.
In no way am I suggesting Ukraine has triumphed or is on the brink of winning outright; there’ve been many historical examples where nations facing worse odds have continued fighting long after it made sense to do so, and if we’ve learned anything since February 24, it’s that just because common sense might dictate a specific course of action to be prudent doesn’t mean ol’ Vlad will find it particularly compelling.
I find it impossible to overemphasize how inimical each of the factors currently weighing on the average Russian soldier is to winning a war—to say nothing of the aggregate toll. As more comms are intercepted and reports of sea-level morale proliferate, I truly believe that posterity will look back on this as one of the greatest military blunders of all time.
In conclusion, a little levity:
According to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Victor Andrusiv, for the past few weeks, the Ukrainian national police have been identifying the phones used by Russian soldiers and sending them text messages about how to surrender. A few days ago, one Russian soldier named “Misha” responded. Turns out that the two other guys in Misha’s tank crew had “escaped home” and his commanding officer threatened to shoot him. But Misha still had the tank, a T-72B3, and said he would surrender, with the tank, if they promised not to shoot him.
Then he asked if they’d throw in £7,500 ($10k) and give him a chance to become a Ukrainian citizen. The police coordinated with Ukrainian military intelligence, said “deal,” and arranged a place to meet. Using a drone to make sure it wasn’t an ambush, the Ukrainians had Misha get out of the tank and prostrate himself, which he did, both sides remaining true to their word. And while it's true Misha’s a prisoner of war for now, the Ukrainian Minister is making sure that he spends the remainder of the conflict in “comfortable conditions with a TV, phone, kitchen, and shower.”
Misha said he was disillusioned with the war, and that they had “almost no food left, military management is chaotic and practically absent” and “demoralization is colossal.”
In the absence of secure communications, many soldiers and officers succumb to the temptation to use ordinary phones via Ukrainian SIM cards, allowing the Ukrainian military and intelligence to easily intercept the content of the conversations and determine the location of the caller.
For perspective, during the two decades we were in Afghanistan, we lost one general and it was an insider attack.
That’s not necessarily the case 100% of the time, though, and it doesn’t mean generals can’t have a powerful, positive influence on regular soldiers.