Monitors find recently-developed complexes on the wrong side of the Russo-Ukrainian border
A brand-new electronic warfare system which the Russian Armed Forces brought into service this year has been identified in eastern Ukraine, along with several other modern systems.
The sighting underlines Russia’s increasing attempts to prevent drone-based monitoring of the conflict in Ukraine. It provides yet more proof of Russia’s ongoing military involvement in the conflict in its western neighbor, and its continued investment in attempts to mask that involvement.
Over the past four years, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine has observed and photographed a number of Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems in the conflict area. These systems are known to have targeted the SMM’s drones, hindering the monitoring group’s ability to observe violations of the Minsk accords.
Last week, the monitoring group published what is likely its most important discoveries related to Russian electronic warfare in the Donbas: sightings of four modern Russian EW systems, including the new RB109-A Bylina system, that was first deployed during the Zapad 2017 exercises and was only this year introduced to the Russian Armed Forces.
July 28 Sightings
Even though the OSCE SMM to Ukraine did not publish their findings until August 11, their short-range drone observed four Russian EW systems on July 28. It is unclear why the group did not publish the findings for two weeks.
In non-government-controlled areas, on 28 July, an SMM mini-UAV spotted four distinct electronic warfare systems (a Leer-3 RB-341V, a 1L269 Krasukha-2 and RB-109A Bylina, and an anti-UAV system, Repellent-1) near Chornukhyne (64km south-west of Luhansk), all seen for the first time by the SMM. On 2 August, during a flight over the same area, the UAV did not spot the same systems. On 9 August, an SMM mini-UAV spotted an armoured recovery vehicle (BREM-1) and an APC (BTR-80) near Luhansk city and three ACVs (type undetermined) near Lobacheve.
Chornukhyne is located just east of Debaltseve and firmly under Russian/separatist control, with the front line about a dozen kilometers to the northwest.
The Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation (formerly known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO) elaborated on the OSCE SMM to Ukraine’s findings in a August 12 Facebook post. The Ukrainian military group correctly noted that these four EW systems — the Leer-3, Krasukha-2, Bylina, and Repellent-1 — are all Russian and, in some cases, have only this year been rolled out from development. The post went on to assess the presence of these EW systems to be to jam drones flying over or near Russian/separatist-controlled territory.
Indeed, a range of Russian EW systems have had success in disabling OSCE drones in the past. The OSCE SMM to Ukraine told the AFP that their drones have been jammed “dozens” of times over the past few years.
Details on Observed EW Systems
Of the four Russian EW systems that the OSCE drone noted on July 28, one of them has been previously sighted in Ukraine — the Leer-3 — and the other three — the Krasukha-2, Bylina, and Repellent-1 — have not been officially observed before in eastern Ukraine.
Development on the Russian Repellent-1 concluded in 2016 and debuted at a defense expo that same year.
This system is able to disable drones 30–35 kilometers away, with a focus on repelling swarm drone attacks. This capability is especially important in 2018 after a series of high-profile small drone attacks, including an apparent assassination attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a successful drone swarm attack against Russian aviation in Syria.
Russia’s decision to deploy this state-of-the-art EW system makes sense in Ukraine in order to disable drones used by both the neutral OSCE monitors and the weaponized drones of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As the @DFRLab detailed in May 2018, Ukrainian forces used commercial drones to drop bomblets on Russian/separatist trenches near Mariupol. A system like the Repellent-1 would theoretically be able to neutralize these systems, along with hindering the monitoring capabilities of the OSCE SMM to Ukraine.
The Krasukha-2 is an older system than the Repellent-1 and Bylina, having been in service with the Russian Armed Forces since 2014. This system can jam a number of targets, including drones, missiles, and early-warning aircraft radar, with a range of hundreds of kilometers.
The more advanced Krasukha-4 system was deployed to Syria to protect Russian and regime assets. There are no confirmed sightings of the Krasukha-4 system in Ukraine, and the recent OSCE report marks the first confirmed observation of the Krasukha-2 in the Donbas.
The most modern of the EW systems observed by the OSCE, the Bylina was only rolled out in the last year and have not been observed in use outside of the Zapad-2017 military exercise. The system reportedly uses, or will use when fully developed, “artificial intelligence capacity based on machine learning” to prioritize and jam electronic signals. This cutting-edge EW system has been greatly hyped by Russian defense analysts, though it is unclear how effective it really is.
The above photograph is one of the only images known to exist of the Bylina, as the system was not photographed or filmed during the Zapad-2017 exercises. The image was taken from a 2017 report on electronic warfare in the Russian Armed Forces, saved and republished by the InformNapalm research collective here. It is unclear how the OSCE SMM to Ukraine was able to identify the Bylina system, considering how there is virtually no open source material on the complex’s appearance outside of the aforementioned photograph.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the OSCE’s discovery of the Bylina system in Ukraine, as it has not even been used in Syria yet, which is typically the conflict destination with modern Russian systems are openly deployed and tested. Ukraine and Syria have served as the “testing grounds” for advanced Russian military hardware for years; however, Russia’s deployment of a system as advanced as the Bylina was especially audacious.
The system is so new that the Russian Armed Forces have barely been able to use it; the fact that they deployed it in the Donbas reveals Russia’s priorities in their targeting of Ukrainian forces. Sending in thousands of soldiers and tanks is a very conspicuous way of intervening in the Donbas, but deploying a highly-advanced EW system is somewhat more discrete and provides valuable information and experience to the Russian Armed Forces for future conflicts.
The one system that the OSCE recently spotted that has previously been observed in the Donbas is the Leer-3, an advanced Russian system that can wreck havoc on telecommunication systems. As the @DFRLab detailed back in May 2017, Russia has used the Leer-3 system, which uses Orlan-10 drones, in Ukraine. Part of their electronic warfare in the Donbas involved sending threatening SMS messages to Ukrainian forces on the front lines:
As reported by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian-made RB-341V “Leer-3” electronic warfare systems use three Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) connected to a KamAZ-5350 truck that serves as the command and control post to affect a six-kilometer (3.7-mile) radius. The UAVs jam nearby cellular communication towers through a combination of jammers installed on the UAVs and disposable jammers that are dropped on the ground. The UAVs are then able to send SMS text messages and audio messages, effectively hijacking nearby cellular transmissions. Though originally designed to function with GSM networks, the Leer-3 is known to more recently be used with 3G and 4G networks.
This system was photographed in Donetsk back in 2016, as reported by Ukraine’s delegation to the OSCE.
Numerous Orlan-10 drones, which are used in the Leer-3 complex, have been shot down in the skies over the Donbas, as detailed by the @DFRLab. These drones are manufactured in St. Petersburg and not used by any branches of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, making it clear that their presence in Ukraine is a product of ongoing Russian involvement in the conflict.
Other Russian EW Systems in the Donbas
These four EW systems are just the most recently observed ones in the Donbas, and the OSCE SMM to Ukraine has previously published photographs showing Russian EW complexes deployed near the front lines.
As early as 2015, the OSCE started publishing materials proving the presence of advanced Russian EW systems in eastern Ukraine. In October of that year, an image from an OSCE drone showing a a Russian R-330Zh Zhitel system was published.
— UK Delegation OSCE (@UKOSCE) October 21, 2015
In June 2016, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine published images taken by a UAV showing the deployment of a Zhitel system south of Donetsk.
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) June 20, 2016
Two months later, another Zhitel jamming station was photographed by a drone.
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) August 5, 2016
Additionally, a mysterious jamming device that has not yet been identified was used to disable a monitoring drone used by a Ukrainian NGO in March of this year. As the @DFRLab wrote in analysis of the event, a counter-drone system was used to temporarily disable a drone, employing some sort of light or laser in the process.
The OSCE SMM to Ukraine has frequently reported that their drones have been jammed after observing flagrant violations of the Minsk accords in non-government-controlled territory. While the monitors are often restricted in directly assigning blame, they — especially Alexander Hug, the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the mission — have made it clear that readers know who the guilty party is through their phrasing.
Hug: SMM UAV jamming took place on Weds after it recorded 20 infantry fighting vehicles, fuel & military-type trucks in “DPR”-cont. Horlivka
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) May 27, 2016
Restrictions are violations in themselves but also reveal other violations, when they shoot or jam or deny access, they’re always hiding something. Immediately before #UAV jammed in Pikuzy, it spotted a T-72 tank in the village #FactsMatter #Ukraine
— OSCE SMM Ukraine (@OSCE_SMM) August 3, 2018
Understandably, many have been frustrated that the OSCE SMM to Ukraine did not specifically name Russia as the provider and operator of the four advanced electronic warfare systems observed in July of this year. The monitors are not allowed to identify the origin of the equipment that they observe, but tried to make clear the operators and origin of the equipment when possible. In this case, they were not able to outright state that Russian military personnel provided and are operating these jamming stations, and instead tried to provide as many details as possible to emphasize how Russia was the only possible origin for the advanced EW hardware.
In August, the OSCE SMM to Ukraine has taken a more aggressive approach to publishing information, including their first ever video showing illegal border crossings of military hardware between Russia and Ukraine. While it took the monitoring mission about two weeks to reveal their findings to the world, the presence of the new EW systems, namely the Bylina, have not been reported by any other monitoring or state organizations, including the Ukrainian Security Services or any open source monitors. The short and long-range drones employed by the OSCE SMM to Ukraine continue to be one of the most valuable resources for understanding and observing the war in the Donbas, which also explains Russia’s escalations in deploying modern systems to disable these same drones.
Follow the latest Minsk II Violations via the @DFRLab’s #MinskMonitor.
For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the AtlanticCouncil’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Or subscribe to UkraineAlert.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.