Ukraine: How Moscow blames Makiivka attack on soldiers and their cellphones

Posted on January 5, 2023, 4:32 pmUpdated Jan 5, 2023, 4:44 PM

“Using your cell phone creates a strong signature. The radio frequencies emitted by the telephones can be seen on the network, which makes it possible to locate the telephone users geographically”, explains Stéphane Taillat, researcher at the research center of Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan. It is therefore possible that the Ukrainian artillery attack on December 31 against temporary military barracks in Makiivka was related to the use of cell phones by Russian soldiers.

The attack is the deadliest since the beginning of the invasion for Russian troops (among those that Russia recognizes): Moscow recognized a balance of 89 dead, when the Ukrainian military authorities estimated the carnage at 400 dead.

If the Ministry of Defense was slow to recognize the attack – the news on official Russian channels barely mentioned it at the end of the newspaper – it blames the dead soldiers for their deaths. In a telegram note, the ministry said that “it is already evident that the main reason for the attack was the massive use, and contrary to the moratorium, of cell phones for personal use, in an area within range of enemy artillery. This allowed the enemy to locate military personnel. [russe] and launch a missile strike.”

Russian soldiers’ communications on private phones can be easily intercepted by Ukrainians as they pass through the local mobile network’s ground infrastructure – while Ukrainians can benefit from communications passing over the Starlink satellite network, which is more secure as it does not requires any infrastructure other than a satellite dish.

An army dependent on phones?

While it’s not possible to know exactly how the attack was planned, that explanation has troubled pro-war bloggers in Russia. “They are careful not to directly criticize the Kremlin,” says RUSI British defense think-tank researcher and Russia expert Emily Ferris. “But they criticize the current military strategy and the generals. They are very popular in Russia. »

Many of these bloggers reject the Russian army’s injunction banning soldiers from using their cellphones. Blogger ‘Note from the Veteran’, in a post viewed more than 500,000 times on his Russian Telegram channel, argues that “fighting the use of telephones in the 21st century is as ridiculous as trying to fight prostitution in the 20th century”. He says that, faced with faulty communication devices, the army cannot do without telephones: “Sometimes I use my telephone to adjust artillery fire. It works better than radio communications. »

The “negligence” of the commanders

Blaming soldiers using their cellphones is an “easy” explanation for the Kremlin, according to researcher Emily Ferris, as it absolves generals and army strategists of any responsibility. The concentration of military personnel in an old technical school, and close to the ammunition stockpiles that aggravated the violence of the explosion, is all a strategic failure. And it sounds like yet another proof of the low value given by the Russian military hierarchy to the lives of soldiers sent to the front.

For the blogger “Note from the Veteran”, “the culprits are not the owners of the cell phones, but the negligence of the commanders, who I believe did not even try to transfer their soldiers to another location, knowing that they were in an area within range of artillery enemy. Could Russian bloggers become critical of Russia’s strategy of encouraging anti-Putin protests in Russia? Not anytime soon. “They support the war. You have to think of these bloggers as a group of right-wing nationalists,” comments Emily Ferris.

Russian propaganda argues that the war continues because of the Ukrainians. And the Makiivka strike was the occasion for family gatherings in the hometowns of the dead soldiers, where they showed their support for the state by waving Russian flags. Manifestations not necessarily spontaneous, for Emily Ferris. “It’s a safe bet that these rallies were organized by the government, to show that the population continues to support its army, despite the deaths. And despite the strategic mistakes.

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