The Russian Armed Forces are continuing their covert offensive operations in Ukraine, even as Moscow denies direct involvement. The use of sophisticated types of modern military equipment, however, clearly hints at who is behind the registered attacks. Indeed, the recently observed deployment of electronic warfare (EW) assets to Donbas reveals the extent to which Russia appears to be ramping up such activities at the moment.
Modern EW stations were used in the Donbas conflict as a tool for special operations primarily in 2014–2015 (see EDM, November 5, 2018). Since that time, there were almost no signs of them near the frontlines, except in minor skirmishes during the presidential elections in Ukraine in 2019 (see EDM, April 15, 2019). Recently, however, Russian EW stations have returned, appearing again near Ukrainian positions.
On February 27, Roman Burko, the co-founder of the private Ukrainian open-source intelligence network and conflict tracker InformNapalm, wrote that some Ukrainian individuals near the city of Schastya (Novoaydarsky District, Luhansk Oblast) received mobile phone text messages in Ukrainian that said, “Ukrainian soldier, fight like a man, do not hide behind children’s backs” (Facebook.com/burkonews, February 27). The same day, another source—Anatoliy Stefan, an officer in the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) —wrote that Ukrainian troops and civilians received multiple intimidating text messages, written in Russian. The texts claimed that UAF troops ostensibly use children and women as human shields to establish positions in civilian areas (Facebook.com/shtirlitzblog, February 27). According to Burko, these messages were sent by an international mobile subscriber identity-catcher (IMSI-catcher), one of the capabilities inherent to the Russian Leer-3 (RB-341V) EW station (produced by the St. Petersburg–based company Spetsialnyi Tekhnicheskii Tsentr). The same view is held by Heath Hardman, a former United States Marines signals analyst, who, in 2017, noted that the Leer-3 was a “pretty plausible” source of false text messages being disseminated at that time in Donbas (VOA, May 11, 2017).
According to a report from the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), the Leer-3 makes use of three Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and a truck-based command-and-control post (towed by a Russian Kamaz truck chassis). This complex is designed to suppress cellular communication base stations and replace them with the IMSI-catcher, acting as a virtual cellular base. To date, Leer-3s have been deployed primarily to independent EW brigades, where this system is used at the platoon level. At the same time, however, the complex has been used by Russian Special Operations Forces (Foi.se, October 4, 2018). The Leer-3 was initially showcased publicly in early October 2015, but it was first spotted being used in combat in Donbas even earlier, in spring–summer of 2015. In Burko’s opinion, this station was battle-tested in Donbas prior to its official procurement by the Russian Armed Forces (Facebook.com/burkonews, February 27).
The latest barrage of Ukrainian-language mass text messages targeting Ukraine’s troops and civilians notably suffers from several grammatical mistakes—a typical marker of Russian-made propaganda. Since 2015, the effectiveness of such efforts has decreased significantly, and they have nearly lost their negative psychological impact. Importantly, Ukrainian soldiers have been briefed on the origin and purpose of such texts (many soldiers even collect such texts for fun).
It is also important to point out that the time and place of the Russian text message disinformation campaign noticeably did not seem to coincide with any active battles or even deployments of UAF troops. This gives reason to assume that the false text message barrage was part of some kind of training for Russian forces. Traditionally, from Soviet times to today, February is a month when most military universities conduct practical training (before their graduation cadets join active military units to practice with real equipment and technologies). The text messages could, therefore, have been part of such practical training, leaving open room for mistakes and thus having no real tactical logic.
On the other hand, Schastya is one of the regions where the Ukrainian government recently agreed to make the next withdrawal of forces. Therefore, the deployment of EW-stations there last month could signal future Russian operational plans in the area, whether simply in the form of sowing local instability or potentially even armed attacks by Moscow-backed militants. This recent active combat usage of EW in Donbas has also been documented by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OSCE SMM). According to a series of SMM reports from late February–early March, its reconnaissance UAVs “experienced GPS signal interference, assessed as caused by probable jamming” mostly near non-government-controlled areas (Osce.org, February 27, 28, 29; March 2, 3). Most telling, however, was the daily report issued on March 12 (Osce.org, March 12): reportedly, two days earlier, an SMM mini-UAV spotted three Russian-made EW-systems: one Leer-3, one Sinitsa (R-934B) and one Svet-KU (RB-636) in the southern outskirts of Luhansk city (less than 50 kilometers away from the city of Schastya). All of these EW-systems are only manufactured in Russia and were neither purchased nor deployed officially to Ukraine.
International experts have so far paid limited attention to these developments, even though they can predict the level of capabilities Russia will bring to a potential future conflict. This point notably came up during the 11th Annual US-Ukraine Security Dialogue, which was organized by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and took place at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on March 5. One of the guests of this meeting, Dr. Michael Carpenter, formerly the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia and the Baltics, explained the importance of tracking Russian EW capabilities, noting, “[A]ll of this is of very high value to not just our intelligence community, but to our military, in terms of understanding what we need to do to prepare if we’re either facing Russian proxy forces […] or in the event that a NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] ally is engaged with Russian forces directly” (Military Times, March 7).