89 Russian service members killed in strike just after midnight on New Year's Day
Russia's explanation that dozens of their soldiers were killed in a strike earlier this week as a result of troops divulging positions through their use of cellphones is being questioned by some observers who believe bad military planning was the ultimate cause.
The use of cellphones by Russian soldiers may have played some role — it has been a significant military problem for the Russians during the war — but according to experts, it's also an indication of the lack of training and discipline among the troops.
"This is kind of an endemic issue to the current Russian military in that their forces are so poorly trained and poorly disciplined that they really don't practise good operational security measures at all," said Karolina Hird, a Russia analyst on the Russia/Ukraine portfolio at the Institute for the Study of War.
The strike that killed 89 Russian service members occurred just after midnight on New Year's Day — on a school that was converted into military quarters in Makiivka, in the Moscow-controlled parts of the Donetsk region.
In a statement Wednesday, Russia's defence ministry said it was "already obvious that the main reason" for the attack was due to "the switching on and massive use — contrary to the prohibition — by personnel of mobile phones in a reach zone of enemy weapons."
According to the statement, that was the factor that "allowed the enemy to track and determine the co-ordinates of the soldiers' location for a missile strike."
DESCRIPTION: WARNING: Graphic images In a rare admission, Russia is blaming its own soldiers for a New Year's Eve rocket attack that killed 89 of its troops, saying the unauthorized use of cellphones allowed Ukraine to locate them. Experts say it's just another indication of problems with the Russian military.
Concentration of troops showed lack of training, planning
Hird agreed that the use of cell phones by Russian soldiers likely played a role in the strike, as it seemed to be timed after Russian President Vladimir Putin's New Year's Eve speech, when many of the soldiers would have likely been on their phones, texting their families to wish them a Happy New Year.
"Three hundred, 400 cell phone signals just light up in one spot," she said. "That is an element, that could have guided the strike."
However, she noted that any sort of adequately trained, professional army wouldn't have had such a concentration of personnel so close to the front line in non-tactical positions within artillery range of the enemy.
"Cellphone use, yes it played a role. However, it is relatively immaterial because the fact that cellphone use was able to kind of provide the Ukrainians with the edge in conducting the strike is more indicative of the military failures and the command failures."
Jake Harrington, an intelligence expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said cellphone use potentially played a role, but he was skeptical that it was the main cause of the attack.
In this case, he said it was possible that someone saw the consolidation of personnel and reported it back to the Ukrainian military, noting it was a "significant leadership failure" to allow that many troops to gather in one spot so close to the front line in a building containing ammunition.
Technology provides new tracking opportunities
Still, Harrington said that throughout the war, Russian troops have been using personal cellphones that the Ukrainians have been able to track.
The Ukrainians "still own the infrastructure that those calls are riding on. They can listen to those calls as well," he said, noting it's a huge problem for the Russians.
"The fact that they've shown the risk to their lives that they're incurring by using these phones in places where they can be tracked down and they're still using them, I think, is just a sign of a force that's poorly trained, poor morale, poor leadership."
Hird said there have been a few instances where Russian soldiers have posted footage to social media that's very easy to locate that is then hit, noting a recent incident where a Russian serviceman posted a photo in front of an identifiable location in Oleshky, a town in the Kherson region.
"And of course, that place was then struck."
John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, which studies communication technologies and spyware at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, said cellphones have become the Achilles heel of modern militaries and have been giving away military positions ever since soldiers started using them.
"Nothing there has changed except the fact that there are now many, many more ways that information can be emitted."
There's the "old school stuff" of signal triangulation, he said, but noted that there's now also advertising and apps people use that contain location data.
"It's their search behaviour, it's what they post," Scott-Railton said. "There are lots of different ways that cellphones can be tracked."
Cellphones huge problem for modern militaries
John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said despite their potential risk, Russians continue to use cellphones in part because they're needed for operational use.
He said that in many cases, Russia's military communications either weren't working, the troops weren't trained to use them or there weren't enough radios and they had to rely on cellphones to communicate on the battlefield.
Hardie echoed the idea that cellphone use by soldiers has become a huge problem for every modern military.
"You see the amount of cellphone footage coming out from the Ukrainian side, for example. You know, this is a concern," he said, noting that the Ukrainians sent orders and guidance to troops around cellphone usage along with precautions they should take. "But you're never going to be 100 per cent on this."
Still, he said it's a big operational security concern for Western militaries. "And the U.S services, for example, really try to hammer this home."
According to Harrington, the U.S. Defence Department and intelligence agencies are looking into the issue of what's known as "signature management" — figuring out ways to ensure troops aren't emitting signals that can be tracked by the enemy.
Until that can be managed, Hardie says it often comes down to which troops have the most discipline.
"And I think as we've seen from the Russians, that's not exactly their strong suit."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.
With files from Reuters
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