‘The Ukrainians Are Listening’: Russia’s Military Radios Are Getting Owned

Russia’s encrypted military phones aren’t working. So they’ve resorted to stealing phones from Ukrainians.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A damaged TV tower is seen in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A damaged TV tower is seen in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A view of a damaged TV tower is seen in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2. Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia’s communications systems are failing at higher-than-expected rates during the nearly monthlong war in Ukraine, U.S. and European officials and experts said, forcing invading troops in the field to rely on open systems that can be readily intercepted by Ukrainian forces. 

U.S. officials and experts believe Russia did not prepare adequately for a grinding monthslong ground invasion of Ukraine, expecting to quickly topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv, and did not properly prepare communications to extend the length of the country, Europe’s second-largest nation by landmass.

Ukrainian units have exploited Russia’s lack of communications to jam and interfere with tactical messages—in some cases even pinpointing the location of Russian general officers for snipers that have been trained by Western militaries over the past eight years. 

Russia’s communications systems are failing at higher-than-expected rates during the nearly monthlong war in Ukraine, U.S. and European officials and experts said, forcing invading troops in the field to rely on open systems that can be readily intercepted by Ukrainian forces. 

U.S. officials and experts believe Russia did not prepare adequately for a grinding monthslong ground invasion of Ukraine, expecting to quickly topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv, and did not properly prepare communications to extend the length of the country, Europe’s second-largest nation by landmass.

Ukrainian units have exploited Russia’s lack of communications to jam and interfere with tactical messages—in some cases even pinpointing the location of Russian general officers for snipers that have been trained by Western militaries over the past eight years. 

“They just weren’t fully prepared for operations of this intensity for this long on so many different multiple lines of attack, and so we do see them having some command-and-control difficulties,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide a battlefield update, told reporters on Monday. “We’re seeing them use a lot more unclassified communications because their classified communications capability is … for one reason or another … not as strong as it should be.”

The senior U.S. defense official said Russia has also struggled to integrate air and ground forces and make real-time decisions on the battlefield. And Russia’s problems communicating among units have also been hampered by destructive bombing and shelling. Former U.S. officials and experts told Foreign Policy that Russia’s destructive campaign also took down 3G and 4G mobile communications towers necessary to operate encrypted smartphones near Kharkiv, Ukraine, forcing the invading troops to send out sensitive information in the open. 

“They didn’t intend on destroying as much of the communications infrastructure as they have,” said Gavin Wilde, a nonresident fellow at Defense Priorities and an expert on Russia and information warfare who previously served as a director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs on the U.S. National Security Council. “I think they’re probably loath to completely destroy so much critical infrastructure because their hope was that they could swoop in and have a more or less intact Ukraine.”

Russia’s communications problems have also been compounded by the lack of an overall field commander for the monthlong fight in Ukraine. On Monday, CNN reported that U.S. officials could not identify a Russian military official in charge of the hundreds of thousands of troops fighting in Ukraine, a force that includes Russian conscripts, Chechen units, and the paramilitary Wagner Group that is mostly fighting in the Donbass region in the east, where the Kremlin hopes to encircle Ukrainian forces. 

Russian troops amassed at the border were given little to no warning that they were to be sent to war in neighboring Ukraine, leading to widespread confusion among the ranks and compounding Russian forces’ communications challenges. 

“Given 24 hours’ notice, they weren’t able to do things like work out which units they were going to be driving next to and cooperating with and then exchanging encryption keys to their radios so they could use their encrypted communications—the result being they were speaking in clear, trying to use walkie-talkies,” said Jack Watling, a research fellow on land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. By broadcasting on unencrypted frequencies, everyone from amateur radio enthusiasts to Ukrainian and foreign intelligence agencies have been able to eavesdrop on aspects of Russia’s military communications with ease. 

“It’s very clear when you listen in to those conversations that they were under shock, that they didn’t know what was happening,” Watling said. 

Failures to communicate have also helped drive up the striking Russian death toll in the conflict, which already outstrips U.S. losses in two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ukraine estimates something on the order of 15,000 Russian casualties; U.S. and Western estimates aren’t much lower.

“There’s this old adage in the military that if you can’t communicate in the field, that all you’re doing is camping,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and CIA paramilitary officer. “It’s not really a military operation if you can’t communicate with people.” 

Ukraine’s Security Service, the government’s main counterintelligence arm, has intercepted dozens of calls among Russian soldiers, their higher units, and relatives. In one captured call, a Russian soldier told his mother that his unit had indiscriminately shelled a five-story apartment building and that many troops dreamed of fleeing the battlefield. Other troops admitted on intercepted calls that their units were exaggerating their strength in reports back to the Russian Defense Ministry.

One European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak about recent military intelligence, said the failure of Russia’s encrypted systems has also helped Ukrainian forces drive up the body count among opposing generals. In one striking example, internet sleuths at the investigative outlet Bellingcat discovered Russian reconnaissance officers in the field using unencrypted communications systems to send word of the death of Maj. Gen. Vitaly Gerasimov back home. Gerasimov, believed to be the nephew of Russia’s top military officer, was killed during fighting with Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv in early March. 

Ukraine’s stiffer-than-expected resistance to Russia’s invasion has also taken its toll on Russia’s communications system. Ukraine has banned all mobile numbers carrying Russia’s country code, experts told Foreign Policy, forcing Russian troops to take phones from civilians in extreme cases. But that still doesn’t prevent Ukraine from listening in and pinpointing where Russian troops are.

“If you’re using cell phones, the Ukrainians are listening,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, a cybersecurity expert at the Silverado Policy Accelerator. “It’s giving them enormous intelligence capability to understand the plans and locations of units.”

U.S. and European officials have repeatedly indicated that many of the 190,000 Russian troops that deployed to western Russia and Belarus for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion over the past several months were not told that they would be going to war. And experts believe Russia also did little to prepare Russian troops to communicate on the battlefield. 

Alperovitch said Russia did not provide troops with enough one-time pads, a provably secure encryption technique that can conceal messages that travel among troops but needs to be loaded into devices beforehand. High-frequency military radios are also difficult to operate across long distances, Alperovitch said, requiring continuous training that the Russian force of mostly conscripted troops does not appear to have. 

Russia’s communications challenges are coming as Ukraine is making some progress in pushing back invading forces, U.S. officials said today. A senior U.S. defense official said in a briefing that Ukraine is now “able and willing” to take back territory recently ceded to the Russians, including the eastern Ukrainian town of Izyum south of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, and in Mykolaiv, on the road to Odesa, where Ukrainian forces have repulsed a Russian onslaught for several days. 

“I think there is a big shock, to be honest,” said Mulroy, the former defense official. “Russia thought this would be much easier.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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