Early in their invasion of Ukraine, some Russian fighters stopped in the capital Kyiv, making calls with cellphones and uploading videos to TikTok, betraying Ukrainian disguises with their location.

According to Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, the Ukrainians used cellphone signals to launch missiles at their location – to devastating effect.

Now, almost a year later and despite the ban on personal cellphones, Russian soldiers in war zones are still using them to call wives, girlfriends, parents and each other, and still more so for Ukrainian attacks. Exposing themselves. After an attack that killed dozens – possibly hundreds – of Russian soldiers this week, one of the deadliest since the invasion began, the Russian military itself acknowledged the problem, using it to explain heavy losses .

“It is already clear that the main reason for what happened was the massive use of personal mobile phones in the enemy’s range of weapons, contrary to the ban,” said the Russian Defense Ministry. a statement, The cellphone data allowed Ukraine, it said, “to determine the location coordinates of military service members in order to provoke a rocket attack.”

both a Ukrainian official and A group of Russian pro-war bloggers Tell Other factors contributed to the strike, and that the ministry was trying to deflect blame from military leaders by placing the blame on the soldiers. Russian commanders kept large numbers of troops together rather than dispersing them, stationed them near detonating ammunition in the attack, and failed to adequately conceal their movements, he said. .

But the use of personal cellphones has plagued both Ukraine and Russia in particular throughout the war, leaving soldiers vulnerable to a piece of technology so mundane and ubiquitous in daily life, in modern warfare. could pose an existential threat.

Ukrainian officials say Russian-backed forces have used cellphone data to target Ukrainian troops since at least 2014, when pro-Kremlin separatists began fighting Ukrainian troops in Ukraine’s east.

Ukrainian officials say the separatists introduced some of Moscow’s latest forms of electronic warfare, and Ukrainian troops became convinced they were being targeted because soldiers – often in groups – were using their cellphones in close proximity to each other. Were staying An artillery barrage on their position would soon follow the call.

Nearly a decade later, both Ukraine and Russia have improved their skills at using cellphones and radio signals as an effective targeting tool. While some Russian and Ukrainian units follow strict rules and ensure cellphones are not anywhere near frontline positions, social media posts from the battlefield show cellphones are common among soldiers on both sides, and that that efforts to keep them away are haphazard at best.

The extent of Ukraine’s resulting losses is unclear, but they appear to be less severe than Russia’s.

New York Times interviews and recorded phone calls with Russian soldiers intercepted by Ukrainian law enforcement throughout the war and obtained by The Times show that Russian commanders repeatedly ordered phones to be kept away from the battlefield. have tried.

Just before the invasion, Russian soldiers stationed in Belarus were asked to give up their phones, two soldiers interviewed said. In intercepted calls, Russian soldiers can be heard saying that commanders confiscated their phones in February.

But often, soldiers found ways to circumvent the rules. Analysis of call logs show that they stole the phones of the Ukrainians they killed, and passed around phones available to call home. In several calls intercepted, Russian soldiers can be heard complaining that they don’t trust or feel abandoned by their leaders, and can be heard saying they don’t care about rules .

Some Russian soldiers made comments that suggested they knew Ukrainian intelligence could listen in – and that they should choose their words carefully, to avoid giving away their locations. But what the soldiers didn’t know was that cellphone data alone could potentially betray them, giving the Ukrainians enough to pinpoint the phone’s location beneath an apartment building.

“Fighting against front phones in the 21st century is as useless as fighting against prostitution, for example,” a widely followed, pro war russian blog said on Wednesday on the Telegram app. “It was, it is, and it will be.”

The anonymous blogger said the use was not necessarily trivial – for example, Russian soldiers used their phones to direct artillery fire to post messages on Telegram.

Some Russian generals spoke on unsecured phones and radios early in the war, enabling the Ukrainians to find and kill at least one general and his staff through an intercepted call, according to current and former US military officials.

But analysts say generals changed tactics after those attacks, and high-ranking commanders appear to be using secure communications more than ordinary soldiers, an analysis of call logs shows. The phone numbers of commanders and their family members, for example, are conspicuously absent from call logs obtained by The Times from the Kyiv region in March, and Ukrainian officials say the commanders use an encrypted network. .

Ukrainian soldiers believe that Russians seek Ukrainian cellphones “handshaking” with individual cellphone towers. Once both sides establish a pattern or detect the concentration of forces on their phones by other means such as drones, artillery strikes often follow.

In April in the eastern village of Husrivka, then just three miles from the front, a group of civilians found a spot in their small enclave where they could get cellphone service. But shortly after a dozen or so residents gathered there to take the call, artillery shells began raining down.

The pattern repeated itself to the point that nearly everyone in the city kept their phones off or in airplane mode, and avoided gathering in any one place for too long.

Soldiers on both sides are busy on their phones despite constant threats. Ukrainians often use Starlink satellite internet near the front line, which means calls don’t use cell towers and are generally secure.

But even without Starlink, the pull of being connected to home and family – especially in such a brutal conflict where even the home front is targeted by Russian missile strikes – is sometimes too powerful for Ukrainian troops to resist. Is.

The United States and its allies have viewed the breakdown of discipline with some concern. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the locations of American troops and their allies were largely known to their enemies, who did not have the long-range weapons that dominated the war in Ukraine.

There were only hints of the havoc personal technology might accidentally wreak, as in 2018, when data from a fitness app revealed the locations and habits of US military bases and personnel, including US troops in Iraq and Syria.

“Something we didn’t worry about so much about 30 years ago is what you’re emitting every time you push a button,” Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger said in remarks to the Defense Writers Group last month.

He said the commanders were acutely aware that young service members grew up with cell phones, and that their habits were deeply ingrained.

“They don’t think about pushing a button,” he said. “It’s what they do all day. Now we have to completely undo 18 years of day-to-day communication and tell them this is bad. That’ll kill you.

john ismay And Masha Frolic Contributed reporting.

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