The Ukrainians used a smartphone on the eastern front to direct their fire; they mapped the battlefield and watched ‘Game of Thrones’. A pushbutton Nokia became the Kalashnikov of communication. How does the war in Ukraine become a digital war?
Publikujemy angielskie tłumaczenie tekstu Marty Panas–Goworskiej i Andrzeja Goworskiego "Smartfon idzie na wojnę. Jak technologia cyfrowa zmienia pole walki", opublikowanego w OKO.press 26 lutego 2023 r.
5 JUNE 2022 Ukraine played against Wales in the qualifications for the world cup finals. The blue-and-yellow team did not manage to make up for the own goal and the meeting in Cardiff, Wales, ended in a 1:0 win for the host team. The Ukrainians had high hopes for this match: postponed by three months because of Russian aggression, it was more than just a football event. Aside from the result, it became another expression of defiance against the barbaric invasion, a voice crying ‘we are here, we are fighting and we will not be broken’.
We could not find any information on how many people followed the struggle, although it is known that almost seven million Ukrainians watched the World Cup final on TV alone four years earlier, which was more than 15% of the country’s total population. When the promotion of the national team was at stake, there must have been even more of them, although we read in the comments under the reports that the majority watched the match on a laptop or smartphone. This was because people were cheering from shelters or, as in Kharkiv, from an underground station converted into a shelter.
This war actually started with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but we woke up to it on 24 February 2022 in the morning. It was a shock then; today it is part of everyday life. Thousands of people are dying in Ukraine, the country is in ruins, but it continues in solidarity, in magnificent resistance. Poland is helping, showing the strength of the civil society.
At OKO.press, we recall this time, analyse where we are and what can happen next: with the war, with Ukraine, with Russia. With Europe and Poland. Here is our series of A YEAR AT WAR
The war started by the Russians is highly mediatized. The term mediatization itself largely refers to media in the most popular sense of the word, namely the mass media, especially digital media, and was coined from the Latin mediare , meaning ‘to mediate’ and ‘to intermediate’. Mediatized war will therefore be mediated from a parallel world not encompassed by the conflict. And a world in which there is no need to hide from bullets on an everyday basis will import attitudes, behavioural models, technologies, but also verbal calques, for example, from the front. The trenches get through to the private sphere of the families of soldiers at the touch of a green handset button, while towns and villages outside the combat zone reach tranches that are under fire.
And returning to the smartphone, it is a source of entertainment for the combatants and, here, we can return to football analogies. Both the match in June and the World Cup playoffs in December were watched not only in Kyiv, Lviv or Karpivka, but also in the trenches. We, in front of our TVs, and the soldiers at the front simultaneously followed how the Frenchman Mbappé beat the Polish goalkeeper Szczęsny. FIFA’s promotional slogan for 2022 – Football Unites the World, is now bitter. After all, what is the use of ‘uniting’ when we are glancing at our smartphone while making our children’s afternoon tea in the kitchen and Ukrainian soldiers are crowding together in a dugout?
The smartphone can be the looking glass through which media scholars view the war. In itself, it is sometimes the subject of analysis and, in line with the French philosopher, Bruno Latour, is even referred to as ‘a non-human actor’. Meanwhile, the research conducted by scholars to date most frequently does not yet take into account the current iteration of the conflict. This is so for at least two reasons. Firstly, academic texts need to be peer-reviewed before publication. The second reason is military pragmatism. This is because it transpires that the smartphone has acquired new uses and has become an extremely useful tool in battle. Soldiers are reluctant to share this information precisely because it is effective and they do not want to disclose their patents.
The smartphone is sometimes referred to as the ‘true Kalashnikov of military communication’, which is used by both the defenders and the aggressors. We cite this term in line with the Ukrainian researcher from Stockholm’s Södertörn University, Roman Horbyk, who studies war and the media, among others, and is the author of ‘The war phone’: mobile communication on the frontline in Eastern Ukraine’ , which was published in October 2022.
However, not many academic papers have been devoted to smartphones in war, while those that have been written are mostly about U.S. or Israeli soldiers who have been ‘studied’ in peacetime conditions. Admittedly, there have also been articles on the conflict in Ukraine, including a 2018 paper by Irina Shkhlovskaya and Volker Wulf entitled The use of private mobile phones at war: accounts from the Donbas conflict . Their authors also tried to compare the situation of soldiers and civilians on the Russian side.
Horbyk argues against this and emphasizes the incompatibility of the frontline and the distant facilities, and refers to the absolutely different realities of Ukraine and Russia. After 24 February, every day seems to confirm these reservations: for example, on 5 December, Russia fired more than 70 missiles into Ukraine, during which time the Ukrainians did not attack any civilian targets in Russia.
According to Horbyk, the right approach would rather be to closely examine the situation on the battlefield, seeing it as a unique reality, albeit one that is linked by a network of complex interdependencies with civilian space. Here, media scholars refer to comparisons with ecology and ecosystems, but, in line with Bruno Latour, Horbyk prefers to view the smartphone as the said non-human actor.
In the light of this concept, it would be a tool without consciousness, but contributing to higher-order networks. How should this be understood? The French philosopher used to say that airlines rather than aeroplanes fly, because without the whole complex network of dependencies, even the latest Boeing, would be a flightless tin can. And within such structures, a great complication, technologization, algorithmization arises, and it is difficult to distinguish between the human actor and the non-human actor, because both act and create.
Horbyk decided to look at mobile phones which, in the hands of the Ukrainians, co-create these higher-order networks. To do this, he spoke to 16 soldiers on the eastern front, ensuring that they represented the whole country, that they did not have the same qualifications (one had a PhD in science, another had just graduated from high school) and that they had different military experience.
They used the telecommunications infrastructure of the domestic GSM operators, so they logged on to civilian mobile networks directly from the trenches. They also happened to connect to the networks of Russian operators in the separatist republics. Horbyk recalls the story of an interviewee who, after inserting the SIM card of an operator from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, started to receive text messages urging him to switch to their side. In a return response, the soldier asked what to do to sign up with them, but the operator did not respond.
However, all telephony coverage outside the larger cities was poor and, other than voice calls, it was only possible to browse websites. This changed with the stabilization of the frontline around 2016. That was the time that antennas started to be installed to amplify the mobile signal and provide access to wireless internet in the trenches.
The smartphones themselves are also an important piece of this puzzle. The latest ones with large screens are unlikely to be suitable for direct combat operations. One of Horbyk’s interviewees recalls that he had already smashed such a mobile phone on the third day and was given an old Nokia with buttons. ‘Indestructible, with a battery that lasted five or six days,’ he emphasizes. This seems to be the standard and most combatants have two of these – a ‘war phone’ and a more modern one, taken out during breaks in battle.
There is almost never any mains power on the front line and the troops use generators. When they are activated, the soldiers plug in their devices and extension leads or multiple plug adapters that look like puffed up hedgehogs. Horbyk call them gambiarras. This Portuguese word originated in the Brazilian favelas and means something that was referred to in Poland in the 1990s as macgyveryism – an innovative DIY item named after MacGyver, the TV series character who was the embodiment of ingenuity and most frequently acted in conflict with the health and safety rules.
And it is precisely this soldier with a smartphone or an old mobile phone in his hand, depending on his role in the trench, who, according to Horbyk, now represents the new military. This is not a value statement; it does not refer to the method of fighting or the instrumentality of killing. Rather, it is about the relationships between him and his home, family and relatives. After 1945, servicemen sent to the front parted from the civilian world and had limited contact with it on the battlefield, this contact being strictly prescribed by the regulations. ‘It is different in modern times,’ claims Horbyk in ‘ The war phone’ , simplifying the story, however, soldiers used to go to the front and were followed by ‘whole families, wives, lovers and children’.
Today, with the mobile phone, the Ukrainian defender is becoming a ‘late modern’ or ‘post-modern’ combatant. Why? In war, ‘he is still physically uprooted, removed from the [former] social situation,’ explains the media scholar ‘but the distance from it is incomparably smaller, and the contact never stops.’
This peculiar bilocation of the soldier in the trench talking to his relatives, who are hundreds of kilometres away in a completely different reality, has created no small amount of confusion. Parents know how addictive a smartphone can be, simultaneously living a life of its own in the hands of their children. Sometimes it is even difficult to resist the impression that it is making up all sorts of excuses to be in constant use, only communicating them through the child’s mouth. Then the simplest solution is to tell them to turn it off or simply to take it away.
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Military commanders have arrived at similar conclusions and mobile phones were banned in trenches in the region of ‘anti-terrorist operations’ in eastern Ukraine. Soldiers objected to these orders and they were eventually allowed them again in August 2017.
All the more so that the smartphone itself – as a non-human participant of participatory culture – not only engages the human, but also gives something of itself. Here, Horbyk mentions its selected military applications: communication during combat, tracking and eavesdropping on the enemy, as well as directing fire and mapping space using GPS.
In a way, the first appeared spontaneously, as the Ukrainian army did not have enough specialized communications hardware. As a result, walkie-talkies were a sign of prestige and were used by officers along the whole of the front. The privates were left with telephones. However, these could be traced and Horbyk’s interviewee recounted how an inexperienced soldier called his mother during combat operations and the Russians immediately shelled the trench where they were located. Another example was that of eavesdropping: when the letter denoting data transfer changed, e.g. from H+ to 4G, the soldiers claimed they were being ‘caught’ by the enemy. Military communications officers argue that it is unlikely that this is how phone interception appears, although it is a fact that devices are tracked and listened to on both sides of the front.
Further military applications of smartphones have become possible as a result of domestic and foreign computer scientists preparing special software for the phone (such as the already revealed Bronya, namely weapons). These are used to optimize battles – the commander controls the amount of available ammunition in real time and can direct the firing so as to make the best use of the resources. The artillerymen emphasize that the use of apps has shortened decision-making from about a minute to a few seconds, and this is of tremendous importance on the front. Another example of software being used on the Donbass front was interactive maps on which minefields were marked.
The full-scale warfare has meant that wartime smartphone apps are also increasingly finding application outside the trenches. E-Svitlo , or e-light, appeared in the autumn of 2022, with the escalation of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. This was initially a solution only for Kyiv, providing information on which neighbourhoods had electricity and which did not. The scope was also recently extended to include the whole of the Kyiv oblast and the city of Sumy with its suburbs. It is available in Google Play. E-Svitlo has already been downloaded by more than 50,000 people.
Other solutions that give the war a new total front in cyberspace are apps that inform the Ukrainian armed forces of new shellings. Interestingly, their users conduct their authentication through the official public administration services portal, Dija , the equivalent of Poland’s obywatel.gov.pl, to prevent the enemy from sending false information.
In addition to defensive solutions, offensive ones are also appearing – here an example would be the latest application prepared by Technari, an association of experienced computer scientists and high-tech industry professionals. This is Digital Cotton – the name refers to the humorous term for the white and grey clouds of smoke that rose in Crimea after the shelling by the Ukrainian drones. The app runs in the background, using economies of scale, and attacks Russian banks, railway or airline websites from every phone on which it is installed, which leads to their overload.
Interestingly, it also has a ‘human face’ and every morning ‘kindly’ provides a reminder to run it if it had been switched off. It also sends other motivating messages and reiterates that, the technologies used mean that its users remain anonymous to the servers being attacked – in which, in line with Latour, we could see the activation of a non-human actor again, fighting on Ukraine’s side.
A smartphone armed in this way, as well as other portable electronic devices, are sometimes valuable finds for the enemy and experienced soldiers take them very seriously. One of Horbyk’s interviewees even stated that he had witnessed a commander burning a military laptop during heavy shelling, which could have been followed by an assault. Apart from this, the soldiers themselves set an unwritten code here. The conversations they have among themselves during battle usually contain key words, slogans or phraseologisms which are more or less understandable by civilians, e.g. ‘450’ means ‘all clear’.
These rules were fairly widely adopted and telephone conversations between soldiers were, as far as possible, relatively safe. Slightly different rules apply to communicating with relatives. Text messaging is lowest in the hierarchy of methods and techniques. ‘When you get a text message, God only knows who is actually writing,’ stated a soldier asked by Horbyk. ‘When you write, God only knows who reads it along the way.’ Therefore, voice calls have taken on a new meaning. The content that is sent is quite schematic and callers have learned to communicate between words, intonation and silences. Meanwhile, in the Donbass trenches, there was a rule that calls should not be answered during combat and that calls should be disconnected when shelling starts; the soldiers called back later or reconnect at a fixed time.
The situation on the front, from which a call can be made in real time to the safe reality several hundred kilometres away, is conducive to both unusual and sometimes even pathological behaviour. Horbyk cites the story of a young ‘Hutsul from the Zakarpattia Oblast’ [most probably a Wallachian highlander – author’s note] who called his wife Hala and despaired that he had been sent to a real hell and did not know if he would live to see the morning. Indeed, a single mortar shell fell a few hundred metres from the dugout where the soldiers were sleeping and the caller steered the conversation so as to ‘raise his authority and make himself a victim or a hero’. The soldier telling the story added that ‘there are many like him’.
And from there it is one step to the phenomenon of war porn. This shock of death, of gunshot wounds, frequently still appropriately composed, as in classic pornography, was intended to arouse unhealthy excitement and was stigmatized among Ukrainians. Taking such photos or videos and distributing them was frowned upon.
But here we reach the limits set by the invasion of 24 February.
With full-scale war, new uses for mobile phones had to emerge. New Scientist , Wired and Rice University’s Baker Institute wrote about this. The authors draw attention to the intensification of the tracking and eavesdropping of soldiers by the Russians and Ukrainians, as well as the problems of the infrastructure being rebuilt as the aggressor is being pushed out. The Baker Institute quotes a twitter post by Ukraine’s largest telephony company, Kyivstar, which reads that 195 base stations in the Izum area were restored in a week. It proudly declares: ‘We go where the armed forces go!’
This resonates with Horbyk’s words, who we asked about the differences between the previous and current phases of the war. ‘The Russians are primarily reacting to the Ukrainian tactic of using smartphones for combat purposes and are trying to adapt to this,’ the researcher wrote in response. In his opinion
the aggressors ‘have simply decided to destroy the infrastructure, base stations and power grids that supply power to them,
to prevent the use of smartphones in the vicinity of the war zones, they have also specially developed and modernized new means of radio-electronic warfare’.
The Ukrainians are now mainly using Starlinks for communicating, which is securer satellite internet. With the connectivity provided by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ‘soldiers on the front mostly switch their smartphone to airplane mode’, writes Horbyk, and so continue to use the device for military purposes.
So far, neither the Russian media nor Russian online analysts have boasted examples of major actions initiated after the targeting of enemy mobile phones, a positive indication of the hygiene of their use by Ukrainian forces. Meanwhile, Kyiv can demonstrate a number of such attacks; the latest and most spectacular was the 31 December 2022 shelling of the military base in Makiivka , in the occupied region of Donetsk, during which nearly 500 Russians were killed. Shortly afterwards, the newly appointed commander of the combined grouping of Russian troops attacking Ukraine, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, prohibited soldiers from using their own mobile phones and tablets.
Three new military applications of smartphones, in a broad sense, that were not widespread until 2022 can be mentioned. The first is the documentation of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Photos and video recordings are being taken not only by soldiers, but also by civilians. We should emphasize that, in occupied territories, such activity carries deadly risks. The second is based on intercepting private conversations of Russian soldiers and publicizing them. This is how the whole world found out about the degenerate wife who allows her husband to rape Ukrainian women, but orders him to do it with a condom. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of such examples.
The third of the new uses seems to be even more significant.
The Ukrainians use the phones found on prisoners of war and have them call their families from them.
There are many examples of such calls online, but their main recipients are not the international community, but Russian mothers, fathers or wives. Here, we should recall Horbyk’s reservations, who claimed that Ukrainian civilians cannot be compared with Russian civilians. The new applications of smartphones have started to change this. The war, in its whole bluntness, has not reached Russian cities, but has started to call to them.
Somewhere on the borderline of the military application of the smartphone are also Ukraine’s ‘Facebook, Twitter and TikTok skills’. Ukrainians are highly capable of using photographs and videos taken on the battlefield in the social media. They also find it easy to breathe new life into characters from global memes, such as doggies or local kitties like the cat from Borodyanka or Stepan from Kharkiv. And it is through the social media that the brave dog-minesweeper, Patron, has become a celebrity, with whom the mighty of this world take photographs.
Thousands of viral materials are being created, which reinforce the positive image of Ukraine and Kyiv’s soft power is increasing; this was described well by Szymon Opryszek for OKO.press in his article The art of meme-making . And it is not just the work of volunteers – the best of the best work for official government and military profiles.
In this media war, Ukraine has left Russia far behind since the start of the full-scale conflict.
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09 czerwca 2023