‘Kill your commander’: On the front lines of Putin’s digital war on Ukraine

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Many in the US military also worry about its own ability to deal with Russia’s hybrid warfare style. The Russian government’s digital capabilities have nothing to do with those the US military faced during the long wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Standing in a trench on a freezing February day, with the field phones and periscopes, I found sticks with strips of cloth tied to their ends to put out fires, brand-new collapsible stocks on early models of Kalashnikov rifles and handcarts with wire straps for transporting firewood: anachronisms that seemed strange in the face of this new type of warfare. As the soldiers waited for a possible invasion, the forward positions were calm and largely devoid of rifle and artillery fire. Yet a digital foray was underway, the war is already going on in silence.


In a billet a few meters back Trenches outside a mining town in Luhansk province, soldiers gathered behind a building whose windows had been blown out and replaced with mattresses and quilts piled into holes in the shattered glass. The group laughed and talked, sliding on slabs of ice in the mud under a camera tower perch raised several stories high in the air. A man strutted between the buildings in olive thermal underwear and flip-flops. The mercury dipped below freezing.

Another man approached in digital camouflage, his hands in the kangaroo pocket of a sweatshirt. He was part of a reconnaissance team. He ordered the soldiers who had activated the location of their mobile phones to turn them off immediately. “The separatists’ radios are plugged into the units and locate the phones,” he said.

Another soldier added, “There was a situation recently. A guy gets a call from his mom and dad saying they got a message saying ‘Your son is dead’. So people are afraid. It happens a lot.

The 24th Brigade first learned of the danger of carrying cell phones to the front lines years ago. On July 11, 2014, in the town of Zelenopillya, about eight kilometers from Ukraine’s border with Russia, the brigade had planned to cut off the supply line of Donbass separatists when electronic warfare took them by surprise. Witnesses described the scene to me: first there was the buzz of an unmanned aerial vehicle capable of cloning cellular networks to locate active cellphones, followed by cyberattacks on Ukrainian command and control systems . With their communications systems disabled, the Ukrainian forces were unable to coordinate with each other. Then short-range rocket systems from inside Russia disabled two battalions, including T-64 tanks and amphibious tracked vehicles. Three trucks carrying troops exploded. Stumbling from the carriage, a soldier grabbed her entrails and screamed for her mother. The attack killed 30 Ukrainians and injured hundreds and lasted about two minutes.

Andri Rymaruk, 41, who served for 18 months in 2015 and 2016 as a private in the Ukrainian armed forces, had told me a few days earlier how during his active service he had received text messages from separatists supported by Russia through no man’s land.

“Soldier, go home.”

“Soldier, kill your commander.”

“Surrender, we will defeat you anyway, this is our land and you are Ukrainian fascists.”

It was the last message Rymaruk received in the spring of 2016 as he stood on the outskirts of Horlivka, a mining and coke-producing town in Donetsk, along the frontline. At this time, Rymaruk was anticipating the end of his service. A few days after receiving the message, an endless firefight tore the unit apart. It was the first time Rymaruk had seen his comrades killed. “I went around collecting their body parts in a blanket, tying them up and putting them in the trunk of the car and taking them to the morgue,” he recalled in an interview. “The doctors couldn’t go there.

Russian-backed forces could deploy such personalized propaganda and location tracking through its use of drones, but also its control of cell towers and cellphone companies that cover much of Ukraine. While Ukrainian officials and soldiers said they have strengthened the security of their internal communications since 2014, such as with the incorporation of L3Harris secure portable radios sent by NATO and the United States, vulnerabilities remain.

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