The Thornbush Is In Bloom: Crowdsourced Spectrum Dominance in Ukraine
On the democracy of electronic arms
When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy began tweeting video challenges from Kyiv, cocky and winking at the camera, it struck me as more than an audacious act. As long as Russian columns were stuck to the roads in spring mud, pushing forward with maximal useless destruction at the end of their logistical tether, they remained vulnerable to flanking attacks in depth.
Through a series of relentless, phased counterattacks, Ukraine has indeed cut off and destroyed one formation at a time. Eastern Ukraine did not embrace Russia like a mother. Instead, the Russian army is trapped in a thornbush — терновий кущ, in Ukrainian. That sly wink was a PSYOP: Zelenskyy wanted an angry, vengeful Vladimir Putin to keep his army inside the thicket of thorns where Ukrainians can destroy it in detail.
As a public-facing doctrine, “thornbush strategy” emerged out of the Baltics in response to earlier Russian aggressions in Ukraine. Through “resistance and resilience” an invaded territory becomes “indigestible” to the enemy. Democratized dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum has been a key component of the force mix built into this strategy.
Viewed as an electromagnetic event, the war in Ukraine has been one-sided and unfair, which is exactly the point of electronic attack. This invisible force multiplier is playing a key role in the ongoing defeat of Russian formations.
As usual, the electronic battle preceded the material one — in fact, it never stopped after the initial Russian invasion of 2014. “A constant nuisance for years has also been the daily Russian - Ukrainian radio war on 7050, 7055 kHz and other frequencies,” the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) reported in November. “Music, vilest insults and disturbances of all kinds are heard daily. It's a shame what's going on.”
To be clear, the Russian side of this psychological war was aggressive inside Donbas. As Russians have advanced into Ukraine, however, formations were subject to radio broadcasts jeering at them, calling on them to surrender, warning them of imminent death, and so on without any Russian response.
Although this has been a decentralized, amateur effort, the signal interference and broadcast propaganda work on Russian forces because they are still using more or less the same tactical radio technology that Stalin put into the T-34 tank. Underlining just how backwards and feeble Russian tactical comms have become, Ukrainian armed forces are winning with a (relatively cheap) combination of western military tech and commercial smart phones to operate safely within the thicket of resistance.
For example, the United States has provided thousands of SINCGARS radio sets to Ukraine. These are NATO’s late Cold War solution to Russian electromagnetic attacks. By constantly hopping between hundreds of frequencies, a radio network becomes very difficult to exploit. Emitters are impossible to locate by normal triangulation methods. Transmissions can only be collected in such fragmentary states that no coherent information can be gleaned from them even if one has broken the signal encryption.
All of this capability is already built into everyday smart phone architecture: towers are built to do direction-finding, your phone encrypts and divides the signal across a segment of the spectrum, etc. As long as you make a serious effort to keep Russia out of your data networks, this is a perfect electronic weapons mix for defending a thornbush.
Ukrainian squads advance until they contact Russian defenders, whereupon they are ordered to withdraw. Higher echelons are probing for the weak points. Meanwhile, a mix of military drones and adapted civilian drones buzzes overhead, picking out the juiciest targets. Russians seem helpless to do much about it.
Contrarily, we are seeing how poorly adapted Russian forces remain in the 21st Century. Russian commanders are sitting ducks for exploitation and targeting as soon as they begin using their radios. Amateurs can do direction-finding and identify call signs; indeed, any HAM radio operator already understands how to do traffic analysis and triangulate source locations. Between reservists armed with Radio Shack surplus and regular Ukrainian military assets, it is little wonder so many Russian generals have been confirmed as combat casualties. Their tactical headquarters are practically begging for rocket strikes: here I am, a sitting duck!
Worse, any operational movement instantly becomes visible to spectrum surveillance. A well-trained armored formation can move out in daylight, or even a well-lit night, through visual signaling; Russian units are not that well-trained, however, and ill-equipped. Soldiers are afraid to move in the dark and unable to convoy even in the daylight without giving their movements away through radio signals.
Their tactical channels are full of noise — propaganda and interference — creating an environment of constant psychological stress for any Russian on radio watch. Claustrophobic commanders and terrified common soldiers: this is a recipe for inaction and moral disaster. It magnifies the effect of other points of friction on the battlefield, such as cheap tires that blow out in soft soil. It makes units fragile.
Electromagnetic dominance in the thornbush induces paralysis. The success of this strategy has become obvious enough that government ministers are openly embracing it.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov urged citizens to target Russian electronic warfare and communications systems in a statement late Wednesday.
Saying that in addition to targeting fuel and ammunition, "The next priority goal is Russian electronic warfare (EW) and electronic intelligence systems. In war a lot depends on modern technology...This will significantly weaken Russian troops and provide an advantage for our soldiers."
Reznikov emphasized previous instructions made on March 2 not to engage enemy tanks and other armored vehicles, and to leave them to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
"I emphasize once again that our army will meet tanks and armored vehicles. The task for all citizens who can is to destroy the support columns and EW systems.”
Like the French radio warfare success at the Marne in 1914, which took four years to unfold as final victory, the conflict in Ukraine seems open-ended, but is unlikely to finish well for Putin or Russia. Their army is trapped inside a thornbrake full of electromagnetic Cossacks, slowly getting picked to pieces.