How does Ukraine keep intercepting Russian military communications?
ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:
Russia has a reputation as one of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to spying, and that includes secretive, high-tech military communications. That notion has been shattered by how Russia has handled its communications in Ukraine.
For the details, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rob.
SCHMITZ: Ukraine keeps releasing what it says are intercepted Russian communications from the battlefield. Could you give us just one example?
MYRE: Yeah, sure. Ukraine's military put out some audio on social media a few days ago, and it said this was a Russian military official calling for Ukrainian prisoners to be killed. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED RUSSIAN MILITARY OFFICIAL: (Through interpreter) Let them go forever so that no one will ever see them again, including relatives.
MYRE: Now, we can't confirm the authenticity, and we don't know that anybody acted on this, but Ukraine keeps releasing these communications. And collectively, they do point to something that is very definitely happening, and that is Ukraine is intercepting Russian communications, releasing tapes that suggest Russian wrongdoing, while keeping secret other information that they collect that might point to Russia's battlefield plans.
SCHMITZ: That's interesting. So how are the Ukrainians intercepting these calls?
MYRE: Well, several ways, it seems. But let's look at the most basic. The Russians brought cellphones into Ukraine when they invaded. Now, when the Ukrainians figured this out, they cut off the Russian cell numbers from the Ukrainian network. So the Russian phones stopped working. But then the Russians seized cellphones from Ukrainian civilians. And the Ukrainian government asked civilians to report their stolen phones, and they did. So Ukraine then knew which phones to tap into, and they've apparently been doing this quite effectively. I spoke about this with cyber expert Dmitri Alperovitch.
DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: The intercepted phone calls are just invaluable in getting a sense into what the Russians are thinking, the state of their morale. There was an intercepted phone call where the Russian officer was saying how half of his troops have frostbite on their feet, how they don't have any stoves, hot stoves for food. They're sleeping in trenches.
SCHMITZ: Wow. That's really interesting. They're sleeping in trenches. They got frostbite on their feet. You know, Ukraine's forces have been listening in on the Russians since the war started. Why can't the Russians figure out how to stop this?
MYRE: Yeah, this has really been one of the mysteries because Russia is very good at gathering intelligence. It has modern, secure radio systems for its military. It knows Ukraine very well. But in many ways, it seems it's just been very, very sloppy and unprepared.
Inexplicably, Russia has used off-the-shelf, unencrypted radio communications that have been widely intercepted. And equally puzzling is why Russia hasn't simply bombed Ukrainian communication networks to rubble. Now, there's speculation that Russia expected a quick takeover and wanted to keep the phone system and the railways and the electric power grid in place so Russia could use it.
MYRE: Also, Russia is certainly tapping into Ukrainian communications at some level and wants to keep doing that. But whatever the reasons, Ukraine's phone and internet systems are functioning pretty well, and that's certainly not what was expected before the war.
SCHMITZ: That's interesting. Are the Ukrainians getting any outside help?
MYRE: Absolutely. They are getting significant help from the U.S., information that they can use on the battlefield in real time, or more or less real time. Now, Dmitri Alperovitch talked about one way, which anyone can see by simply looking at flight-tracking systems on social media.
ALPEROVITCH: If you look at the flight radar right now, you see U.S. Air Force planes that are flying near Ukrainian border, collecting intelligence. And I'm sure that they're collecting radio communications and other forms of intelligence that they pass on to the Ukrainians that is invaluable in their prosecution of this fight.
SCHMITZ: Huh. So is this U.S. help new, or has this happened before?
MYRE: Well, there's some history here, and it's literally dripping with irony. Now, Russia waged major cyberattacks against Ukraine in 2015. It took down the electricity. Then the next year, 2016, Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election. Now, these Russian attacks prompted the U.S. and Ukraine to work together to counter Russia in the cyber world. And the National Security Agency chief, Paul Nakasone, doesn't say much publicly, but he did testify to Congress about U.S. cooperation with Ukraine just last month, just a couple of weeks after the war started. And Russian leader Vladimir Putin probably doesn't appreciate the irony, but his cyber actions against the U.S. and Ukraine several years ago helped forge this partnership that's now being used very aggressively to undermine Putin's war in Ukraine.
SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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