In June, Ukrainian army Lt. Sasha Bak finally got his hands on a drone.
He had been fighting in eastern Ukraine since March, and it was the first time he was able to get real-time imagery of the Russian-backed separatists and their trenches a little more than a half-mile away.
The aircraft? A small quadcopter more common in toy stores than combat zones, with a GoPro camera strapped to its underside. The drone flew one mission before its owner, a foreign volunteer, left with it.
Bak’s shortage of drones is just one piece of the many technological shortcomings he faces. His unit — the 7th Company of the 93rd Brigade — talks primarily on unsecure radios or field telephones left over from the Cold War that are frequently disabled when artillery rounds sever the wires that connect them. With no secure way to transmit data to other units, important messages such as company rosters and battlefield reports are delivered by hand.
The Russian-backed separatists in the trenches opposite Bak’s are much better equipped. Not only do they have numerous drones of their own, but the separatists — with significant assistance from Russia — have more-sophisticated communications and an ability to jam Ukrainian radios.
They have also knocked out Ukrainian radio and television towers and have repurposed them to broadcast their own programming — a key element in a parallel propaganda war.
This disparity in communications and surveillance technology has added to an already daunting task for beleaguered Ukrainian units trying to hold their lines. The imbalance persists despite pledges from the international community, including $220 million in aid from the United States, to train and equip Ukrainian forces.
“The Ukrainians have very bad communications and very bad command and control,” said John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “Russia has great advantages in drones and electronic warfare . . . and Ukraine has a limited capacity.”
The separatists fly drones constantly. Bak said he has seen ones the size of U.S. Predators while others, he maintains, are flown overhead simply to draw Ukrainian fire and reveal their positions.
Eduard Basurin, a deputy defense minister and military spokesman for the separatists in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said he would not comment on the use of drones by his forces. He did say, however, that the rebels are able to jam Ukrainian drones. “We have a possibility to stop them from flying,” he said. “What will you do when the enemy breaks into your house?”
Laura Seal, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the United States is in the process of supplying 3,000 radios with various levels of encryption to Ukrainian forces as part of the nonlethal military assistance the Pentagon started sending last year. The United States has also sent counter-
artillery radar that has helped Ukrainian troops respond more accurately to separatist shelling.
“This assistance is tailored to fill Ukraine’s capability gaps, as identified by Ukraine,” Seal said.
Bak’s 7th Company has yet to see an American radio, but the threat posed by an enemy that can disrupt and monitor communications hasn’t been lost on the men holding the line. The troops have said that if a major offensive happened, the Russians would first destroy their ability to communicate.
The separatists’ tactics have piqued the interest of defense officials in Washington who hope they can glean intelligence about Russia’s capabilities.
“We’re learning a lot from them,” said a senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “What we’re learning from Russia’s electronic warfare sets up our approach to their techniques and doctrines.”
Yet, Russia’s warfare extends off the battlefield as well. In an effort to control the flow of information around the front lines, Ukrainian television channels — except music and sports programming — have been blocked and replaced with Russian and separatist counterparts.
Almost immediately after hostilities began, the separatists took over a number of radio and television towers in parts of eastern Ukraine, according to Tetiana Popova, Ukraine’s deputy minister of information,
“The towers in this region have either been destroyed or captured” by the separatists, Popova said in an interview in Kiev, pointing to a cluster of concentric red circles on a map of eastern Ukraine. “Of the ones they have captured, we currently don’t have towers tall enough or powerful enough to counter them.”
Popova is attempting to procure new towers to help push Ukrainian channels back into the east.
For now, however, the lack of Ukrainian coverage means that both civilians and troops on or near the front get their news from separatist-controlled territory.
Although the programming is mostly Western movies and Russian sitcoms, there is a diet of news and battle reports. They are greeted with jeers and laughter from the Ukrainian troops.
“It’s propaganda,” Bak said. “But we watch it anyway.”
Yet for Ukrainian officials, Russia’s ownership of the airwaves is no laughing matter.
“This information front is no less important than the military front,” Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “This aggression not only threatens an offensive against our troops but destroys Ukraine from the inside.”
Julia Smirnova contributed to this report.