The Asymmetric War in Ukraine – WSJ

Reports from Ukraine are full of stories about Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles knocking out Russian tanks and armored vehicles. The Biden administration has announced $800 million in defense weapons for Ukraine, including javelins, Stinger anti-aircraft weapons and switchblade drones. Even more amazing is what Ukraine has done cheaply too. And I don’t mean Molotov cocktails.

Wars are increasingly asymmetrical – the less armed side can fight a strong fight. The US learned this in Iraq from the use by insurgents of improvised explosive devices, basically roadside bombs set off with cell phones. Similarly, Ukraine has deployed inexpensive, almost home-grown weapons and used technology to its advantage.

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

When the internet went offline in Syria in 2013, enterprising technicians set up point-to-point Wi-Fi connections to allow internet access across the border in Turkey. You can do this with Pringles cans of potato chips and off-the-shelf $50 WiFi 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 to the Aerorozvidka squads, which come with antenna camouflage warnings. They typically cost $499 a piece and $99 a month for the service.

Ukraine has also effectively disrupted Russia’s long-aging wireless military communications technology, which appears to use a single-frequency channel to function. Former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus told CNN that Russians were then forced to use cellphones to communicate until Ukraine blocked the +7 country code for Russia and eventually shut down the 3G services that Russia considered safe uses connections. Russian soldiers were forced to steal Ukrainian cellphones to communicate with each other. That’s not how you fight a war.

Ukraine has also taken advantage of crowdsourcing. The Journal told the story of Russian tanks firing at the city of Voznesensk and then retreating a few hundred yards to avoid return fire. Civilians and Territorial Defense volunteers would then submit the new coordinates of the tanks via the Viber social messaging app.

The propaganda war is also being waged cheaply, from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Zoom call to the US Congress to Ukraine’s work spreading news in Russia. The Russians have blocked Facebook and Twitter,

Independent media have been shut down, and no one is allowed to say “invasion” or “war” on Russian television. But no country can completely filter and firewall real messages. The messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp 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 origins and restore service to Russian users.

Most surprisingly, after much hype and warning, Russian cyberwarfare was deemed to be quite ineffective. Hours before the invasion, someone, presumably the Russians, launched a Trojan.Killdisk attack, malware that wiped hard drives, hit the computers of the Ukrainian government and financial system, and took down the parliament’s website. The cyberattack tracking company Netscout called the attack “moderate”. A Ukrainian newspaper then published a file with details of 120,000 Russian soldiers, including names, addresses, telephone and passport numbers. Where the information came from is unknown.

But we have a clue. Ukraine is full of smart programmers, and the government created a telegram channel “IT Army of Ukraine” to coordinate digital attacks on Russian military digital systems. So far, 400,000 have volunteered. An official with Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications said they were involved in “cyber resistance.” This digital flash mob has shut down Russian websites, although I doubt we’ll ever fully know what damage it may have caused. This is definitely a conflict influenced by social networks.

Stories and disinformation swirl in the fog of war. 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 attacked by Russian missiles and could have been the reason for the destruction of the Mariupol Theater.

New technologies for use in commerce often emerge after the smoke of battle has cleared. World War I produced tanks, field radios, and improved aircraft. World War II brought radar, penicillin, nuclear power, synthetic rubber, jeeps, and even duct tape. What we are seeing in Ukraine is the asymmetric power of ubiquitous low-cost commercial technology, particularly social networking and crowdsourcing, empowering citizens. So far, these tools have changed the outcome of war. Welcome to 21st century warfare.

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Journal Editorial Report: The US President is trying to lead the alliance against Putin. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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