“Encrypted messages are raining”, but everyone could be “heard”. How to communicate in the midst of war

How does António Costa speak with Emmanuel Macron? And Joe Biden with Vladimir Putin? For different relationships, different means, but with one condition always present: maximum security

Encrypted messages, return to the telegraph and rooms forbidden to cell phones. The Ukrainian war is the most publicized for many years, which brings several innovations, especially in terms of communications, in a much more technological era, but in which regressions are also carried out to attest to the safety of all operations . These are changes at the diplomatic level, in the relations between countries and their representatives, but also at the military level, on the battlefield and in the halls where the fate of war is decided.

How leaders talk to each other or not depends on each case. António Costa gets along better with Emmanuel Macron than with Boris Johnson, for example. The first two are closer, particularly because of European issues, which strengthens the relationship between them. Diplomacy specialist Tiago Ferreira Lopes explains to CNN Portugal that in the European Union almost all leaders speak to each other directly, depending on whether they are close or not.

“It is normal for António Costa to personally call Emmanuel Macron. He will no longer do the same thing with the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who has just been elected”, specifies the university professor.

Emmanuel Macron with António Costa (AP)

The closeness was also noticeable between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, presidents of the United States and Russia who shared four years of power. Trump’s relationship with Russia has led to a diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries, whose relations had cooled (again) in 2008, coinciding with the arrival of Barack Obama. It was at this point that the Washington-Moscow line, the so-called “red phone,” which was crucial to maintaining relations between the White House and the Kremlin during the Cold War, came to an end.

Today, explains Tiago Ferreira Lopes, the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia is different: “The United States Secretary of State communicates a desire for conversation to the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who brings this desire to Vladimir Poutine”.

Any interview proposal must include two mandatory steps: mention the points under discussion and the day on which the interview is scheduled.

“It’s not a common rule. This has not always been the case with Donald Trump. It’s been worse since 2008, but much worse with Joe Biden,” says Tiago Ferreira Lopes.

The same applies to relations between Germany and Russia. Despite much mistrust between them, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have always understood each other, and the departure of the Chancellor, who has been at the forefront of Germany’s destiny for 16 years, has made communications difficult. Tiago Ferreira Lopes says the conversations between the two were personal, both had each other’s number and called each other directly. Moreover, it is known that the German speaks Russian and that Putin speaks German.

“Merkel and Putin spoke to each other on the personal phone, starting with details of personal life. They came to power almost at the same time. With Olaf Scholz, there is no established relationship”Explain.

Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin (AP)

When there is this closeness, in the case of Merkel and Putin, or in the case of Costa and Macron, a language (usually English) is agreed upon in which the conversation will take place. In situations where the distance is greater, the existence of translators is common, which always happens in cases of greater formality.

Zoom, Whatsapp and… Telegraph

NATO, embassy or government meetings. All meetings that take place under strong security measures, which in today’s era also includes cybersecurity concerns. This is why, each time the French Council of Ministers meets, it does so without a mobile phone in the room. Ministers are required to leave these devices at the door before entering.

Francisco Seixas da Costa, Portugal’s former ambassador to that country, told CNN Portugal that the same thing happens in the halls of embassies in some countries, such as the United States or Germany, but not in Portugal.

And the same thing happens at NATO: “In the NATO meetings I attended, there was no chance of taking a mobile phone into the room,” he says, referring to the ” area where people live more rigorously”.

Apart from these meetings, there is a set of means of communication. Tiago Ferreira Lopes claims that the use of Zoom and Whatsapp has become more democratic, especially in the European Union. But Biden and Putin also spoke via Zoom, which “is important when you want to see each other face to face”, opting for the phone in “times of heightened tension”.

“In the European Union, communication is very accessible. This is often done by Whatsapp,” adds the professor.

Skype and Whatsapp are also the main sources of conversations between Russia, China or Iran, which may also use other similar programs, and which are chosen by them because they are easier to encrypt, but also by convenience.

Older media is also useful.

Wikileaks, an online platform that since 2006 has published confidential documents, mostly from the United States government, was the first major warning of a new era of communication. Since then, explains Tiago Ferreira Lopes, governments and other organizations have reintroduced, for certain communications, the telegraph or telex, older means that are more difficult for pirates to access.

The professor indicates that the use of these means must have increased further since the start of the war: “There must have been an increase in the telegraph and encrypted messages flowing in”.

Turing machine, essential for cracking German codes during WWII (AP)

Francisco Seixas da Costa even admits this scenario, but claims that “security in the field of communications is still a myth”, giving the example of Pegasus, a software created by an Israeli company that ended up being used to spy on hundreds of people, including heads of state and government from around the world.

“To be sure that we are not heard is a mirage”, underlines the diplomat, who affirms that the Portuguese ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, has encrypted machines to try to escape the problem.

However, explains the ambassador, “someone has made the machine, someone knows how to find the codes”: “I do not have the slightest confidence that we can be heard, and neither do the prime ministers”, he concludes.

Drones and cellphones, battlefield communication

Technological means have also changed the way we communicate in the midst of war. Colonel Mendes Dias recalls the use of drones on different platforms, in particular to identify enemy positions.

Between the troops of the same force, communications are mostly done by radio, but personal mobile phones are also used, which some soldiers even take into battle: “Not everyone has a phone, but they can , as long as they meet the security conditions. They cannot walk around taking pictures of their units”.

In the case of Ukraine and Russia, communications are also made regularly. Mendes Dias affirms that every day the secret services of the two parties speak, in addition to normal diplomatic relations, of combining the evacuation of cities and the creation of humanitarian corridors.

But conversations can reach the highest level. Mendes Dias believes that Volodymyr Zelensky has already spoken with Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the war, and says that this type of conversation can arise in the event of misunderstandings or other emergencies.

“Russia can talk about nuclear and Ukraine can be wrong. A high-ranking officer will try to talk immediately with the other side, who can reach presidents”he adds.

In the case of the Azovstal steelworks, the main point of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, liaison officers are appointed, who have superior authority to negotiate among themselves. Conversations are by radio, both sides knowing the channels used by the enemy.

Another way to interfere with communication is to destroy the antennae. This is what Russia tried, with localized attacks, notably on the television tower in kyiv. Some of these attacks ended up affecting important communication towers for the encryption of Russian conversations, explains Mendes Dias, who gives as an example some of the conversations in which Russian soldiers receive direct orders from their superiors.

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