March 28, 2022

The phones of Ukrainian president Zelensky


Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainian president Zelensky bravely leads his country in the fight against the Russian armed forces. As in any war, communications are of vital importance here too.

Among Zelensky's communication systems are some interesting telephone sets, which he also uses for frequent phone calls to foreign leaders, while there are separate secure phones that function as a hotline with US president Biden.


Ukrainian president Zelensky making a phone call



Office of the President of Ukraine

In 2019, former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky became the sixth president of Ukraine since the country's independence in 1991. As president he is supported by the Office of the President of Ukraine, or Presidential Administration, which is located in a massive office building on Bankova street in the center of the capital Kyiv.

The ceremonial residence of the Ukrainian president is the baroque Mariinskyi Palace, located in the Pechersk district of Kyiv. Other presidential residences include the House with Chimaeras and the House of the Weeping Widow, which are both in Art Nouveau style and are used for official visits by foreign representatives.


The building of the Office of the President of Ukraine on Bankova street
(photo: Håkan Henriksson/Wikimedia Commons - click to enlarge)


Two different offices

As president, Zelensky works in the building of the Presidential Administration, where he apparently has two offices, both richely decorated: one with green pilasters and a desk with a desktop and chair in green leather, the other office with wooden paneling and a desktop and chair in brown leather.

The function of these two offices is probably similar to those of the Russian president in the Kremlin, who has a very large and elaborate office for receiving foreign dignitaries and a somewhat smaller and a bit less ornate one for talks with domestic visitors and government officials.


Zelensky in his "brown" office at the Presidential Administration building, June 19, 2019.
(photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters - click to enlarge)



Phones large and small

Another similarity is the telephone system, which in the Kremlin consists of some old-fashioned white telephone sets without any buttons and somewhat newers models with key pads, as well as a large gray telephone device with numerous direct line buttons to government officials, lawmakers and heads of major companies.

The old white phones each connect to a separate network with only a select number of subscribers. They are a distinct feature of the Russian bureaucracy, but they can also be seen in the presidential offices of other countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union, like that of former president Nursultan Nazarbajev of Kazakhstan.


Dmitri Medvedev on his first day as Russian prime minister, May 8, 2012.
(photo: Russian government - click to enlarge)


A huge phone console

The eye-catcher in the office of the Ukrainian president is also an extremely large telephone, which is ivory-colored and has a rather small display, indicating that it may be over 20 years old.

The left part, next to the handset, has several function keys and direct line buttons, while the dialing pad is in the central black section, in which there's also a gold ornament that could be the trident from the Ukrainian coat of arms.

The right part of the phone is filled with 80 direct line buttons, so the president can make a call to almost anyone by pressing just a single button.


This phone console is most likely part of the internal telephone network of the Presidential Administration and can be used for all regular (non-secure) phone calls.

But as the phone is probably custom made it may also provide access to secure lines, just like the slightly smaller but still impressive telephone consoles of the US Defense Red Switch Network (DRSN).

In Zelensky's more recent video messages from his "green" office the huge white phone seems to have been removed, which is a bit strange as one of its functions is to symbolize the command and control authority of the president (update: meanwhile the white phone has been put back).


President Zelensky in his "green" office with the huge white telephone
(photo: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters - click to enlarge)


A phone without buttons

The Ukrainian president also has an old-fashioned telephone set without a key pad, similar to the ones used in the Kremlin. In Ukraine this phone is part of a special network that provides direct lines to a select group of top-level government officials, like the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.

In November 2019, the young minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, Dmytro Dubilet, proposed to abandon this old Soviet phone system, which is managed by the State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP), as it costs the state "literally billions of hryvnias" - at that time at least some 40 million US dollar.

Dubilet proposed that instead of these "ancient" secure landline phones, the leaders of the country should be given customized smartphones with a special app that encrypts voice and text communications with post-quantum cryptography algorithms. These phones should access the telephone network via secure wifi.


A phone of the dedicated network for the president of Ukraine
(photo: Telegraf - click to enlarge)


"It is more efficient to do peer-to-peer encryption (preferably without a transit server). We could encrypt data simultaneously with two algorithms (for example, Ukrainian Kalyna and foreign AES), which guarantees confidentiality even if one of the two is compromised" - according to Dubilet, who said that the old system could be left behind for military communications.

Dubilet continued: "Why do you need to issue special smartphones and not install an app on ordinary ones? To rule out hardware-level hacking as well as infection through other applications. [...] It's no secret that now top politicians mainly use standard messengers for their communication (including sensitive topics). Such [a secure] application could be an alternative to at least WhatsApp / Telegram."

It's not clear whether Dubilet's proposal has been realized, but in 2020, the SSSCIP began modernizing the government's communications system. This included expanding the functionality of the National Telecommunication Network (NTN) to "ensure the integration of existing special communication systems and unification of secure electronic communications of various government agencies in the general security circuit using modern digital technologies."


Oleksandr Potiy from the SSSCIP with at least six phones
for dedicated networks, November 13, 2020
(photo: Instagram - click to enlarge)


Videoconferencing systems

Already in 2016, the SSSCIP had developed a new system of secure videoconferencing. When he tested this new system, former president Petro Poroshenko explained:
"In late 2013 and early 2014, the situation was terrible. We had completely Russian software. We had completely open access of the aggressor country to all our state secrets and, in fact, from scratch, we had to develop technical and software tools for protecting information, to provide a radical re-equipment and reboot of confidential communication systems."

Current president Volodymyr Zelensky uses both a commercial Cisco DX80 videoconferencing system and the custom-made secure one, which includes quite bulky equipment, indicating that it is TEMPEST-shielded to prevent electromagnetic emanations:


President Zelensky using the secure videoconferencing system, May 12, 2020.
(photo: Presidential Administration - click to enlarge)


Addressing foreign parliaments

Another kind of videoconferences are the virtual addresses to foreign parliaments which Zelensky started to deliver and included the British House of Commons and the US Congress. In these addresses he dramatically pointed out their responsibility to support the people of Ukraine in their fight against the Russian military agression.

Zelensky usually delivered these speeches from a nondescript room, probably in a bunker. The photo below shows him in a very improvised setting, with the Cisco DX80 videoconferencing screen, an Avaya B149 conference phone, an Apple MacBook, camera equipment and an old-fashioned Soviet-style telephone without rotary dial:


President Zelensky delivering a speech from an unknown location
(photo: DPA vía Europa Press - click to enlarge)



Calls with foreign leaders

In February 2022, when the Russian military threat became imminent, president Zelensky had phone calls with a range of foreign presidents and prime ministers in which he urged them to impose sanctions against Russia and requested arms to defend his country.

For these calls he either used the huge white phone console or a commercial Avaya B149 conference phone, like in the photo below, showing Zelensky when he was talking to Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte on February 23:


President Zelensky talks to Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, February 23, 2022
(photo via Instagram - click to enlarge)


Calls with US president Biden

Zelensky also spoke to US president Joe Biden several times, but for these calls a different telephone set was used: a Cisco 7975G Unified IP Phone. This is a common high-end executive phone which was also used for the secure telephone network of the White House until it was replaced by a newer model from Cisco's 8800-series in 2017.


President Zelensky during a phone call with US president Biden, January 27, 2022.
(photo: Ukrainian Presidential Press - click to enlarge)


In the photo we see Zelensky during a long telephone conversation with Biden on January 27, 2022, discussing diplomatic efforts on de-escalation of the Russian threat. A close look at the Cisco phone shows that the wallpaper of the display has an image of the White House, clearly indicating that it's for calls to the president of the United States:




So here we have a rare occasion in which we can see dedicated telephone equipment for a hotline between heads of state. The connection between Zelenksy's office and the White House was probably relayed by the US embassy in Kyiv, like other secure communications between the Ukrainians and US officials, as was reported by CNN.


Secure satellite phones

In February 2022, as fears mounted about the Russian invasion, the US prepared to evacuate its embassy and provided the Ukrainian government with a secure satellite phone to maintain regular contact with president Zelensky, who now moves around to multiple locations in Kyiv that are protected with a significant security presence.

On March 5, Zelensky used this satellite phone for a 35-minute call with his American counterpart on what more the US could do to support Ukraine without entering into direct combat with Russian forces. A similar phone had been provided to Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.

CNN reported that these satellite phones require electricity but can operate off of a generator or energy from a car if needed. Initially it took a few days for the Ukrainians to get the satellite phones up and working because the instructions on how to use them were in English.


The US embassy in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
(photo: Andrew Kravchenko/AP)


Zelensky's smartphone

Finally, Ukrainian president Zelensky also has a smartphone, which he uses to record some of the messages to his people, like the famous one in which he showed that he hasn't left the capital and can still stay in the building of the Presidential Administration on Bankova street (see below).

For a president and other top government officials, a smartphone imposes the risk of being hacked and tracked, but in Zelensky's case we can assume that, besides other security measures, it only connects to a secure base station or a secure wifi router that merely provides access to a sufficiently secured internal network.


Video message by Ukrainian president Zelensky, March 7, 2022.



Links and sources
- CNN: US in contact with Zelensky through secure satellite phone given to him by the US (March 1, 2022)
- The Guardian: The phone has become the Ukrainian president’s most effective weapon (February 28, 2022)
- Telegraf: Страна в смартфоне: как чиновники перейдут со спецсвязи на приложение в телефоне (November 11, 2019)

See also: Comments at Hacker News

Some older articles on this weblog that are of current interest: