How open source intelligence is shaping the Russia-Ukraine war

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Road service workers clean debris around a burnt Russian tank and vehicle on a road west of Kyiv, on April 7, 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. Six weeks after Russia invaded its neighbor, its troops have withdrawn from Kyiv and Ukraine's north and are focusing on the country's southeast, where desperate attempts are under way to evacuate civilians. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)
Road service workers clean debris around a burnt Russian tank and vehicle on a road west of Kyiv, on April 7, 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. Six weeks after Russia invaded its neighbor, its troops have withdrawn from Kyiv and Ukraine's north and are focusing on the country's southeast, where desperate attempts are under way to evacuate civilians. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

"Let me tell you  50% of our troops suffer from leg frostbites," a Russian soldier says in a phone call. "We arrived here, and it was freezing. We were supposed to have four tents, but we only have one. ... We dug up some trenches, and that’s where we live."

That call was intercepted and made public by Ukraine's security service. Private digital sleuths are intercepting calls, texts, and radio communications too — and allowing the world to hear a war unfold in real time. Is it voyeurism? Propaganda? Or urgent transparency about the truth and horror of war?

Today, On Point: Listening in on war.


John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab. (@jsrailton)

Andrei Soldatov, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. (@AndreiSoldatov)

Full Show Transcript

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: A Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine calls his wife back home. "There are just 10 of us left," he tells her. But his commanders do not want him to pull back.

"I thought you said you'd be OK," his wife says.

"Only time will tell," he says. Later in the call, the soldier asks about his six year old son.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: "His grandma says the little boy wants to decide everything for himself," the soldier's wife says.

To that, the soldier responds, "Make sure there's one thing he does not decide. ..."

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: "... Make sure the boy does not join the army."

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. That phone call between a Russian soldier and his wife was intercepted by the Ukrainian government, then released to the public three days ago. It's one of many such calls, radio communications, even text messages exchanged by Russian soldiers in Ukraine with their families or between Russian soldiers themselves as they attack Ukrainian cities. The Ukrainian government isn't the only one intercepting the communications. Digital sleuths are too and spreading them at light speed around the world on social media.

And this may be a first: the world able to listen in, at close to real time, on private wartime communications. But what exactly are we listening to? Pathos and propaganda, or the unvarnished truth about the realities of this war? How is it changing our understanding of what's actually happening in Ukraine? And to the public that listens to these snippets as we rapidly scroll through social media, what does that make us? A more informed public or more titillated voyeurs?

Well, John Scott-Railton, an expert on communications, security and information warfare at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, joins us to talk about this. Welcome back to the show.

JOHN SCOTT-RAILTON: Hi, Meghna. It's great to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: It's great to have you back. And also with us is Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist based in London. Andre, welcome back to you as well.

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Hello, Meghna. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: So, John, first of all, where are these communications coming from? I see them all the time in my Twitter feed now. Where are they coming from?

SCOTT-RAILTON: I think they're coming from a couple of places. In certain situations, it seems that Russian soldiers are using phones that they've picked up from Ukrainians. And that means that they're communicating across a network that of course, Ukraine can monitor. So they're very much inside a monitored domain. And then in other situations, their calls are probably being intercepted through some more esoteric and technical means.

CHAKRABARTI: Esoteric and technical, meaning what?

SCOTT-RAILTON: For example, the Ukrainian government and others can be using cell sites spoofers that are connecting phones, but they're are also intercepting the communications as they pass through them. It's a little bit different than just using the regular phone network. Similarly, there are probably also radio intercepts of some of these phone calls. This is a very monitored battle, and it means that lots of things are coming out of it. And we're catching little pieces of them that are being provided to us.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrei, I'll come to you in a second. But John, let me ask you: who are the group of others whose do it? Who are doing this?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well, given where this conflict is happening and how many governments are interested in it, I think you can assume that most of the NATO countries, either directly or with partnerships, are listening to large chunks of the sort of communication space around this conflict — radio transmissions and other things. And indeed, we've seen Germany and others coming out and saying that they've heard things on radio intercepts, so it's not even a secret.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Andrei, let me turn to you. First of all, let's just focus for another second on the fact that, as John said, many of these communications are coming from the fact that Russian soldiers are picking up phones from Ukrainians and using them.

I don't know how to put this, but that seems like a very undisciplined war fighting force, that it would be sort of a basic understanding that in order to keep your communications secure, don't use the phones of the people you're attacking. What does that tell you about the men who are fighting in Ukraine right now?

SOLDATOV: Oh yes, that's a good question, but unfortunately it's a tradition for the Russian army. They understand that communication devices provided by the army are not extremely good and not very reliable, so they pick up these phones left by the Ukrainians and use of them. And also, they still use radio sites. And they disable encryption out of fear that if there's encryption might make their communications even more unreliable.

So that is why we have teams of not only intelligence agencies, but also teams of digital activists and investigators, some of them Brussels, who are critical of the war, who are now there. And they are listening to these radio frequencies, and sometimes they talk to soldiers directly. So it's not only about digital, it's also about human contacts with these soldiers. And that is why we know so much about particular units and troops and where they are.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. I'm going to come back to that point in a few moments, Andrei, because it seems very, very important. But let's listen to a little bit more about what's been made public. These communications coming out of Ukraine between Russian soldiers. Because as we've heard, Russian troops have been accused of looting Ukrainian civilians' properties. And here in this intercepted call, we'll hear Russian soldiers seemingly bragging about stealing much more than food or water.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: So there they're talking about stealing a car. You hear one soldiers say "it's in a garage. There are keys to it. It starts." And the others say, "Oh my, what do you think of that?" I mean, Andrei, respond to that. What do you hear in that clip?

SOLDATOV: Well, it reflects that morale for the Russian army is not really a high, and to some extent, this kind of behavior is encouraged by commanders, because you cannot do that if you do not have a permission from your commander. And usually it starts with something very small. For instance, Russian troops might find themselves in some village, and the Russians might be running out like in two days. They are not given enough supplies. So if the commander would make a very logical decision, he would ask or issue orders to his soldiers to go find some food. So it would start with food then there would be something more and more and more. And after that, you do not have a proper discipline in your unit.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so we have another call here intercepted again by the Ukrainian government, where you hear a man asking a soldier, "Are they feeding you well?" And the soldier replies, "We butchered a dog and ate it."

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, so just at the beginning of that call, the man asked the soldier, "Are you are right? Not dead? Haven't lost your legs? Are they feeding you well?" And the soldiers says, "We butchered a dog, ate it. It's OK." The man says, "you said you ate a nutria?" And then the soldier says, "Huh?" "You said a nutria?" And then the soldier says, "We've run out of them."

So, John Scott-Railton, can you tell me when the Ukrainian government intercepts a call like this and makes them public to the world, what is the Ukrainian government's intent here, as far as you can see?

SCOTT-RAILTON: I think they have a number of objectives with the release of this material. In certain situations, they've released calls to do things like confirm that certain Russian officers were killed. In other situations, it's to do things like confirm that the Ukrainians have shot down a particular plane or had a particular impact. And then in other situations, it's more about this kind of texture, which is really showing morale issues, supply issues and painting a picture of Russia and the Russian forces as struggling with discipline. And I think obviously they must have dug around and found this call is a particularly stark example of that.

And then there's another thing that they're doing, which is increasingly relevant. They're releasing calls that document specific atrocities and specific things like killing of civilians. So in a sense, you know, the Ukrainian government has this giant palette of all the bad stuff that's happening in the conflict, and they choose when and how to release it.

To your earlier question, is this propaganda? I think they're certainly trying to achieve certain aims. They're trying to tell the public certain things, they're trying to portray Russia in a certain way. But what they're releasing is also a really interesting texture and window into what's going on, even if it is carefully selected and, of course, is going to have a selection bias as a result.

CHAKRABARTI: So Andrei, you're not only a fellow at the Center for European Policy and Analysis, but as I said earlier, you're an investigative journalist as well, so I think it's incumbent upon us to inject some more healthy skepticism into this. I mean, would you say that the Ukrainian government is, you know, using their carefully curated release of some of these, these calls as a form of, you know, information warfare or propaganda?

SOLDATOV: Yes, absolutely. And to be honest, it has done by and by both sides here. Unfortunately, I don't know what the proper word to use here, but this war has many signs of a civil war because lots of people in Russia has had some relatives in Ukraine, including my family. So you have a long history of prejudices about both sides. ... And you have this thing that the army is using these intercepts to build on these prejudices. The Russians come in, and they see [for] themselves that Ukraine is much better off. So it's part of disharmonizing your enemy, unfortunately.

CHAKRABARTI: John, I just want to push a little more because I think in the digital age we have to. You talk about the story that's being told, and if indeed so many of these recordings are intercepted and made public by the Ukrainian government, I mean, should we should we as the consumers of that information online — and I would ask this about anything in this day and age — be concerned that we really are seeing only a curated part of the story? And it's not in the Ukrainian government's best interest at all for them to release the recordings where the Russians are, you know, successfully taking over a territory or have a have a successful, you know, incursion into any particular location. The Ukrainian government wouldn't release those things. And so should we not listen with a somewhat skeptical ear?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well, these days we have to listen to everything with a skeptical ear. I think in general, if you look at the information that has come out of the Ukrainian conflict, it's overwhelming. There's a firehose, whether it's pictures of damaged Russian equipment, audio like this, drone footage, et cetera. But of course, whenever something comes out of a conflict, somebody has made a choice to select that material and provide it and get it to you. That means that they have an aim, no different than any of their media. But the stakes are really high in war, and that means that we have to be careful consumers, not sort of just generally skeptical, but to really understand the different motivations and pieces that are going into this, if we want to have a kind of an objective or a balanced understanding of what's going on.

For example, on Twitter, you often see footage shared of damaged and destroyed Russian tanks, missile launchers and so on. Fewer, of course, of Ukrainian armor that's been destroyed and damaged. Part of that is just who's pushing out material. But another thing is people want to see a certain kind of thing. They want to see more destroyed Russian stuff. And so the algorithm creates these little bubbles of open source information around us. And we have to discipline ourselves to expand out further and make sure we're not missing information. I mean, it's good that most people on Twitter don't have to make big, consequential decisions about where the conflict is going. But it is really important for people who are consuming this material to understand that it is being presented with specific objectives.

And there are two reasons for that. One is you want to know what's going on, and you want to have a good understanding of it. But the second is the American media consumer loves plucky heroes and quick wins and gets disappointed when that doesn't happen. And I'm a little bit concerned that in Ukraine, the conflict is going to go on for a while. And that means that there will be disappointing long periods that won't match the early story arcs. And I think if we're disciplined in how we consume the early story arcs, we'll be less disappointed when things go on for a while.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrei, would you like to add to that?

SOLDATOV: Well, just one point. I have been checking Russian Telegram channels for Kremlin about the war, and it's quite astonishing that the pictures we see in the West about the war — they do not end up on Russian Telegram channels, so they do not see what we see. It's absolutely different. Sometimes they report something, but only to debunk it and say, "Well, that was stolen from me." So they're using it for their propaganda. But it means that two societies, two countries are absolutely disconnected.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrei, let me just circle back to something I think you said a little earlier that both sides are doing something similar. So I should have asked earlier. But does that mean that the Russian government is also intercepting calls or communications between Ukrainians? Or am I misinterpreting what you said?

SOLDATOV: No, it's not what is happening and what the Kremlin is doing. They're mostly using very graphic footage and photographs of destroyed tanks and all of that. But I do not see them using intercepts. I don't know the reason, but they're not using it.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so one more thing about being knowledgeable consumers here, John. We're living in the era of, you know, being able to even deep fake videos. So how can we be sure — what's the process that that we need to go through? Or at least the organizations who are releasing or even repeating the sound like we're doing today to verify the truth of the communications?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Yeah, well, the good news is that there is sort of an accountability and open source ecosystem at this point. You have individual obsessives and hobbyists who are compiling information, releasing it, they're getting it from different sources. You have groups like Bellingcat, the digital forensics lab at the Atlantic Council and others who are working through material to try to do some validation. And then you have news organizations and visual investigations teams at places like The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times who really do kind of the heavy lift often around validating.

So for example, if we look at where this radio content has been used beyond just sort of, you know, something gets released and there's a story about it, the New York Times did excellent work where they took a bunch of radio intercepts that had been collected ... and carefully put them together with maps and other material to try to correlate them with what was going on on the ground. So I think rather than subjecting ourselves to sort of a raw firehose and assuming that we're getting anything like a forest, not trees picture, we should really be looking to those groups that do careful, curated analytical work as where we get some of the analysis we need to understand what's going on. Otherwise we really are exposing ourselves to sort of, you know, the next breeze of information or direction. It's not that it may be wrong, but it may not be representative and the timing may be carefully chosen.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's listen to a little bit more of what has been coming out of this war. This is another call that happened between a Russian soldier and a relative he has back in Russia.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in that call, you hear the Russian soldiers saying, "It wasn't like this even back in Chechnya. It was a lot clearer for us." I actually think that's his relative saying that. His relative had fought in Chechnya. And the Russian soldier in Ukraine says, "It's such garbage here. Our aircraft dropped a bomb on us. It's a madhouse." This "special operation," Andrei, this particular recording. It goes on for quite some time. It really caught my attention because of the soldier talking to his relative about his relative's experience in Chechnya being very different. And they even talk about, you know, will this Russian soldier in Ukraine be welcomed home as a hero? Can you talk about what you hear in a call like that?

SOLDATOV: Yeah, it is a very interesting call, and to me, of course, as a journalist, I am immediately getting skeptical because I'm thinking, "Well, I remember the Second Chechen War because back then I was a journalist." But I mean, not a lot of people in the army remember that. I remember how it was like. Well, maybe the relative was there. But again, to compare something which was happening in Chechnya when the Russian army faced away from militants, rebels, but not a proper regular army, they're facing in Ukraine. It's quite old, but everything could happen. And I second opinion that in this case, it is better to rely on the judgment of people who prove themselves to be professional. Even for me as a Russian journalist, to be honest, I'm struggling sometimes too — I sort of I can understand the accents. I can understand that people are from Ukraine or from Siberia. But even for me, it's really difficult to understand what is going on.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's take another step forward there and sort of how the the — I was about to call it free flow — but the flow of this information coming out of a bit of a war zone so rapidly is affecting our understanding, you know, of that war. I mean, John, is it adding to our confusion, or do you — what are the steps that you go through to be sure that you're getting some clarity or deeper understanding from what you're hearing?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Oh, I think it can be adding to our understanding in lots of ways. And one example of this is around, for example, accusations that have been made about specific Russian criminal activity, like indiscriminately firing on civilian areas, killings, this kind of thing. Audio is tremendously powerful for getting some truth there. So one component of this information world is that we are getting information about human rights violations and potential war crimes, and Russia is doing its very best to deny those things. One piece of kind of countervailing evidence is audio. It's audio of Russian soldiers talking about, "Well, you know, you kill them." "Well, but this is a civilian area." "Well, shell it."

CHAKRABARTI: Well, actually, John, we've got one piece of that kind of audio right here. So hang on.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: So here in this tape, there's a Russian soldier saying he saw two people dressed as civilians ... And "Kill them all," he's told. "If there are civilians, slay them all." And we continue to hear the the interaction. One soldier says, "A car drove by, but I'm not sure if it was a car or a military vehicle. There are two people coming out dressed as civilians." The other voice says, "Kill them all for blank sake." "Got it, but there's a village here. There's a civilian. What is wrong with you?" "If there are civilians, slay them all." That's in that particular intercept. But John, go ahead.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well, what that's reminiscent of is the audio that was used in the investigations of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, where you had officials saying exactly that. "Kill them all. Kill them all in turn." Radio intercepts, audio intercepts can be tremendously powerful and giving us some truth into what's going on. These are people talking to each other in really difficult situations, and they really give the lie to some Kremlin disinformation about some of these cases. And of course, to actually use them as part of prosecutions and investigations, you have to understand sort of, are these really these people? Where did this happen? Where exactly did this happen? And these are really challenging problem sets and ones that won't get solved immediately. I think a lot of the information that we are getting from Ukraine has that feature. It's kind of early on in the pipeline of analysis, early on the pipeline of verification, and we're getting exposed to a lot of the raw stuff.

An interesting way to look at this is: For, you know, a long time governments that run large interception operations have been in possession of exactly this kind of material, and they have a huge analytical process before they turn that into intelligence analyses and assessments that they then provide to decision makers and even to their sort of military chain of command. We, as people watching this, don't really have exactly that process before the information comes to us. So we're sort of seeing it at all of its different levels. We might first find a piece of audio on Twitter a couple of weeks later. It shows up in a careful analysis or a visual investigations piece. And that's when we can really understand. And so we just have to be really careful. But at the same time, understand the tremendous value of this information in some cases of this audio to really give us the truth of what's going on, what intentions were, what decisions were made.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm making Chakrabarti. This is On Point . Well, here's another call in which a Russian soldier orders an artillery strike on two civilian areas that he believes Ukrainian soldiers, the Ukrainian military, is operating from.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: "Shell everywhere," the soldier says. "Shell, their settlements directly got it, and the other voice says, Got it. That's what I'm doing. Throw some to the West. Several shells to the one closer to me. Yes. Yes, yes. And another voice says Roger, that I'll pass the coordinates now and then the first voice says, Shell them, shell them a lot to erase these two villages to the ground.

Andrei, pick up on what John was saying about sort of this confirmation, or at least documentation, of the alleged war crimes that we're seeing and hearing a lot about.

SOLDATOV: Yeah, I think it might be a tremendous help for investigating war crimes. ... It's also about a lot of footage by drones and lots of photographs. And when you have everything in combination, it helps to identify who was there, who was in charge. I just think that we need to be extra cautious about — we need to understand it's all data. Yes. And still, I just remember what happened right after this horrible tragedy in Bucha became reviled, and there was a photograph of of a commander of a unit which was supported operation in Bucha.

And immediately everybody started like tweeting about him. This guy is main corporate, that he was in charge of everything. It might be he was. But the problem is that the only source of information that he was there [was] that he's a commander of his unit back in Siberia. And that means you do not know yet whether he was actually being sent to Ukraine. Maybe he was. Maybe he was replaced by another guy who was doing the same thing. Or maybe it was about this guy. So I mean, you need to be extra careful and just document ... everything and then to present it to the court. And what we are dealing with, unfortunately, it just all data, but extremely emotional.

CHAKRABARTI: So John, add more to that because, you know, when you mentioned Srebrenica, I think it's an excellent example because of the horrific crimes that took there. But as you pointed out, the audio was part of a years-long investigation, right by, you know, international human rights violations experts and investigators. So it came with all that — when we finally heard it as a public, it came with all the context that both you and Andrei are saying is needed to understand the raw stuff. And yet we're getting it now. So just just like help me understand if it's helping or hurting?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well, it's certainly neutering some of the Russian disinformation around some of these cases. It's not just audio that we're getting early, it's satellite imagery. So back in the day, for example, around war crimes investigations, states had to be leaned on and cajoled and persuaded to release satellite imagery. Well, now with Maxar and others, we're getting that extremely high resolution imagery, you know,  enough to see people's limbs from the sky days after the event. That's also transformative, but it means that we may be a long way to the kind of certainty that would hold up in a court.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrei, I want to talk a little bit more about the differences that you mentioned about what much of the world is seeing versus what the Russian public is seeing. So here's another piece of tape. This was intercepted by the Ukrainian government. And Russian soldiers in this interception are bemoaning their lack of progress capturing Ukrainian territory compared to what they were promised.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: So, the Russian soldier there says something to the effect of: We're moving forward, they say on TV. Well, we just drove through but didn't clear the villages. And now it turns out we're in all around defense mode because they're shelling us from all sides. We thought we'd ride in like a parade, and that's it. For now, we're standing still. So Andre, is any of this that the Ukrainian government is releasing — Is any of it getting to the Russian people?

SOLDATOV: No, unfortunately, not. It's absolutely unknown territory for the Russians, and I just checked before this program some of the most popular pro-Kremlin channels. No, they are not mentioned. Sometimes some people who positions himself as being ex-military, they might say something about lack of coordination. And maybe they might say something about the communications problem, but that's it. They never talk about major difficulties they are facing.

CHAKRABARTI: So, on Russian state media, it makes a lot of sense that these kinds of audio clips wouldn't be something that the Russian government would want to put out. But are there any other sources that are still available to Russians? You mentioned Telegram before. Nothing there?

SOLDATOV: Yeah, Telegram is a big source of information. Also, YouTube surprisingly is not blocked yet. The Russian government's been threatening YouTube for weeks now, but it's still available, and many Russians have actually been — they use YouTube as a news media because because most of the independent media, the news media, they completely blocked and shut down. But unfortunately, say, 70 percent of the Russians may still rely on Russian television and pro-Kremlin media, and they have this picture of this big victory in Ukraine and of all these Nazis running Ukraine. So that's that's what they get.

CHAKRABARTI: The reason why I ask is because, you know, information warfare — let's call it the information front in modern wars — have multiple purposes, right? And I imagine that one of the purposes is to sort of counter what the attacking nation, the people of the attacking nation know to perhaps even if slightly undermine their support for the war. But it sounds like what you're saying is that the Ukrainian government in releasing, you know, this audio and the imagery of we've been talking about so far hasn't been successful in sort of penetrating broadly the consciousness of the Russian people.

SOLDATOV: Yes, absolutely. And I think the problem is that here the Russians are trying to find some excuse for themselves that they are supporters of war, that they're very afraid of the government. And the problem is that it's easier for them to find these excuses when they say, watch Ukrainian propaganda because we get this harmonizing from both sides. And of course, the Russians would say, "Well, it's absolutely fine for us to have our propaganda." But then if, say, the Ukrainians will do something stupid, immediately, it's picked up by the Russian media, and they're like playing it incessantly to saw that indeed, the Ukrainians are Nazis. They hate us, Russians and all of that. So the Russian media might be not really good at creating the narrative, but we know how to counter it and provoke more hatred towards Ukrainians.

CHAKRABARTI: John, do you want to add to that?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well, I think one of the things that's also worth noting is that both Ukraine and Russia are fighting multiple information wars. Not only are there sort of a domestic component and a component focused on English language speakers, but the rest of the world is in play too. And if we look at the rest of the world, there's good evidence that skepticism about the U.S., Ukraine, NATO, for example, is pretty high in some places. And so I think it's really important to see some of what both Russia and Ukraine are doing is also speaking to that broader world of potential audiences — places like India and Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, where viewers have really different views. And Russia is certainly not missing opportunities to try to score points there and get their narrative told. And so I think it's really important as we're thinking about this sort of world of information operations, that we remember that we're not the only target audience.

CHAKRABARTI: I understand. So it does make me wonder, though — let's just allow for a moment that the Ukrainian government in particular, when they release these things using Twitter — Twitter's almost like it seems like another tool for for the Ukrainian military and government here in this war — that they are successful in swaying public opinion with the addition of this audio that they're capturing. I do wonder, though, how is this, you know — do you expect to see some kind of cyber response, John, from, you know, the Russians, some kind of, you know, hack or something that the Russians might use to try to stop the Ukrainians ability to put, you know, these intercepted calls out there?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Yeah, well, there's been a big conversation in sort of cybersecurity land about — the question has been why haven't we seen more sort of cyber Armageddon from Russia? Pardon the goofy terminology. And I think there's a really interesting question about why more of sort of Russia's different tools for different kinds of cyber attack haven't been used in this conflict.

But one interesting observation is — at this point, what really matters in the conflict is sort of either public opinion or what's happening on the ground. One interesting sort of historical note here is that the Ukrainian government and Russia, neither one of them is new to releasing audio from Ukraine. So back in 2014, for example, the Ukrainian government released audio of separatists talking about the Malaysian Airways and MH17 Malaysia Airlines downing and taking responsibility for it.

Similarly, in 2014, we saw governmental phone calls from the U.S. to the American ambassador being released. And then more more recently, back in 2020, a Biden phone call was released by a suspected Russian agent. He even got retweeted by Trump. So Ukraine is kind of a place where everyone knows that a lot of people are listening, and it remains really interesting to me that people are still talking in these very open ways and it really points to issues of, as Andrei pointed out, resources, reserves, trust in equipment and so on.

CHAKRABARTI: Andrei, do you want to add to that?

SOLDATOV: Well, I will say that initially, I mean, for the first four weeks, it looks like there was a lot of confusion from the Russian side, and indeed we didn't see any big cyberattack happen, and it was really striking why. It made total sense, militarily speaking to do something, especially the first week of the war. You can spread panic, and you can jump all the roads, and it would make some sense if you are an invading army and they never did that. Also, in hopes of disinformation. To be honest, it was no more the what we saw in the fall 2014.

Back then, it was much more emotional, more graphic. Remember all these stories about kids crucified by Ukrainian Nazis, and it was a very strong message, and lots of people believed that. You don't see these things happening right now. But I would be very cautious to be optimistic here because we see that this week actually, they are starting — there's a new development. It looks like they are going into counter-offensive. And for instance, the most interesting story right now circulated by the Russians is that the the Ukrainian brigade, which is besieged in Mariupol, just issued a call. A desperate call like, "We are dying here. We have no supplies. We would be killed. There's a lost soldier and we have no support from our government."

And an interesting thing about this statement is that for that, the Facebook page of his brigades was hacked, and the statement was posted on the official page of his brigade. And it was translated back into Ukrainian. So lots of people took it as a real thing. So you see this, things are getting more and more complicated.

SCOTT-RAILTON: So there has been some Russian hacking and hacking on the interests of Russia. One of the things that is is quite relevant to what Andrei is mentioning: Since the conflict began, a particular group of government linked hackers from from Belarus have been working really hard to compromise the social media pages of prominent Ukrainian government officials and military officials to post things like surrender messages. And they've done it a few times, and it hasn't really landed. But that doesn't mean that there couldn't be a scenario where maybe [Volodymyr] Zylenskyy's incommunicado for a while, or things are a little bit bleaker — and that kind of thing might land. So there's certainly, you know, a blending of hacking and leaking and disinformation. This is happening. It's just not happening at the scale that I think a lot of people expected, which in some ways is also true of the Russian military offensive. It's perhaps not happening at the scale or speed that I think a lot of people expected, either.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's interesting because in some of these intercepted communications we hear Russian soldiers even reacting to, I guess, we can call the disinformation that they hear from the Kremlin regarding, let's say, death tolls of of Russian soldiers. And here's one moment.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]: (Speaks in Russian)

CHAKRABARTI: So here you hear a Russian soldier saying, "I wonder what they say about the brigade," and the other voice on the line says, "Seven to eight persons killed in the brigade. Yes, I was told this the day before yesterday." And the Russian soldier says, "Seven to eight killed? ... From only among the people I know, it's 12 to 13 killed, eight in just the recon company." The other voice says, "Are the corpses taken somewhere? Where are they? Where are they taking the bodies?" And the soldier says, "They're taking them to Kherson from there to Russia. A guy told me about 40. Those are the numbers that have been brought."

You know, we only have three minutes left, and to be honest, I'm not quite sure how to to wrap up this conversation, right? Because I mean, this is absolutely a new front in modern warfare, and we the public are being implicated. We're being pulled into this front by virtue of being plugged in to the digital world. So. Andrei, first of all, let me just ask you: In some of these calls, we've heard voices, soldiers talking to people back in Russia, family members or friends, you know, refuting some of the information that those very family members or friends are hearing from the Russian government. Do you think that might have any longer term implications?

SOLDATOV: Well, to be honest, for me, it's the most depressing thing about this war. We all think that we live in a global war. We use the same social media, same telegraph, same on Twitter or Facebook. And that to some extent makes us think that we all consume the same information. And unfortunately, it is not what is going on. Unfortunately, the Russian society is getting more and more distant from the world, and it's not only about the Kremlin, it's also about the prejudices, and it's also about what people thought before the war about Ukraine. So you have a lot of psychology, all of his problems, social and cultural in the society, which prevents people to actually to hear, to understand what they hear, and they just chose not to hear some things.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we have about a minute and a half left. And John, I'll ask you the last question because there's a thought that I haven't been able to shake this whole time, and that is in every single one of the pieces of tape we played, there are people. These are human beings. Of course, the human beings were being attacked by the Russian military, but also even the soldiers themselves. We hear about their suffering. We hear them being ordered to make immoral choices. I mean, aren't we not as the public who's like doing the thumb-stopping content and listening to this stuff, engaging in a kind of voyeurism? And there's a danger to that. Is there not? I mean, is there any argument at all for this information — raw in the format that both you and Andre have pointed out — to not be put out there in the way that it is?

SCOTT-RAILTON: Well. I think one of the things that is challenging here is that horrible things are happening in Ukraine, and it's important that we witness those things. And it's also important that every generation understand the horror that is war, and understand it's very human parts. And although I think that means sometimes we're going to be subjected to carefully chosen, curated things. It's really important that we know what's happening. And it's terribly important that we remember that war is hell, and it hurts humans and families and rips them apart.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, John Scott-Railton, senior researcher at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. Thank you so much for coming back to the show.

SCOTT-RAILTON: Thanks so much.

CHAKRABARTI: And Andrei Soldatov at the Center for European Policy Analysis in London. Andrei, my thanks to you for coming back as well.

SOLDATOV: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.

This program aired on April 11, 2022.


Headshot of John Ringer

John Ringer Freelance Producer, On Point
John Ringer was a freelance producer for On Point.


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Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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