Ukraine’s Asymmetric War – WSJ

Reports from Ukraine are replete with stories of Turkish Javelin anti-tank missiles and Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles destroying Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Biden administration has announced $800 million in defensive weapons for Ukraine, including javelins, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and Switchblade drones. More amazing is what Ukraine has also done on the cheap. And I’m not talking about Molotov cocktails.

Wars are increasingly asymmetrical – the less armed side can fight a bitter fight. The United States learned this in Iraq with the insurgents’ use of improvised explosive devices, essentially roadside bombs detonated with cell phones. Similarly, Ukraine deploys inexpensive, almost homemade weapons and uses technology to its advantage.

The Times of London reports that Ukraine is using $2,000 commercial octocopter drones, modified with thermal imagers and anti-tank grenades, to find and attack Russian tanks hiding between houses in villages at night. Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka, its aerial reconnaissance team, has 50 squads of drone pilots who need strong internet connections to operate.

When the internet was cut in Syria in 2013, enterprising technicians set up point-to-point Wi-Fi connections to enable internet access across the border in Turkey. You can do it with boxes of Pringles potato chips and $50 off-the-shelf Wi-Fi routers. Ukraine may be spared this ad hoc setup as Elon Musk and his company Starlink have donated thousands of satellite internet access terminals to Ukraine, including Aerorozvidka squads, which come with warnings to camouflage the antennae. They typically cost $499 each and $99 per month for the service.

Ukraine has also effectively jammed Russia’s long-lasting wireless military communications technology, which apparently uses a single-frequency channel to operate. Former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus told CNN that Russians were then forced to use cellphones to communicate until Ukraine blocked the country code +7 for the Russia and ends up removing the 3G services that Russia uses for secure connections. Russian soldiers were forced to steal Ukrainian cell phones to communicate with each other. This is no way to wage war.

Ukraine has also benefited from crowdsourcing. The Diary told the story of Russian tanks firing into the town of Voznesensk, then retreating a few hundred meters to avoid firing back. Civilians and Territorial Defense volunteers would then message the tanks’ new coordinates via the social messaging app Viber.

The propaganda war is also being waged cheaply, from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Zoom call with the US Congress to working Ukraine to spread information inside Russia. The Russians blocked Facebook and Twitter,

independent media have been shut down and on Russian television no one is allowed to say ‘invasion’ or ‘war’. But no country can completely filter and firewall real news. Telegram and WhatsApp messaging apps encrypt their communications. Ukraine has started using facial recognition to identify killed and captured Russian soldiers, even contacting their families and posting their photos on Telegram channels. Twitter is now using a service to disguise its origin and restore service to Russian users.

Most surprisingly, after much hype and numerous warnings, Russian cyber warfare was deemed quite ineffective. Hours before the invasion, someone, presumably Russians, launched a Trojan.Killdisk attack, disk-wiping malware that hit Ukrainian government and financial system computers and destroyed the website of the Parliament. Cyberattack tracking firm Netscout called the attack “modest”. A Ukrainian newspaper later published a dossier containing details of 120,000 Russian soldiers, including names, addresses, phone and passport numbers. The origin of the information is unknown.

But we have a clue. Ukraine is full of smart coders and the government has set up an “IT Army of Ukraine” telegram channel to coordinate digital attacks against Russian military digital systems. No less than 400,000 have volunteered so far. An officer from Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service said they were engaged in “cyber-resistance”. This digital flash mob destroyed Russian websites, though I doubt we’ll ever fully know the damage it may have inflicted. It is certainly a conflict influenced by social networks.

In the fog of war, stories and misinformation swirl. Most are impossible to verify. I’ve heard of foreign volunteers flocking to Ukraine and then posting photos on Instagram. Both Facebook and Instagram remove GPS location coordinates from smartphone photos, but they allow these volunteers to tag nearby locations, potentially revealing refugee hideouts. These could be targeted by Russian missiles and may have been the reason the Mariupol theater was destroyed.

New technology for use in trade often emerges after the smoke of battle has cleared. World War I produced improved tanks, field radios and aircraft. World War II brought radar, penicillin, nuclear power, synthetic rubber, jeeps and even duct tape. What we see in Ukraine is the asymmetrical power of ubiquitous and inexpensive commercial technology, especially social media and crowdsourcing that empowers citizens. So far, these tools have changed the outcome of the war. Welcome to 21st century warfare.

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