KYIV, Ukraine — During the early morning hours of Feb. 24, as Russian missiles struck targets across Ukraine in the opening hours of the full-scale war, the Ukrainian military’s Army FM radio station went underground.
The team of seven army officers and about 10 civilian personnel abandoned their studio on the top floor of a downtown Kyiv building and relocated into a nearby basement. Inside the dank and dark underground space, they connected a mixing board and a couple of laptops to a mobile radio system, which the station’s reporters had previously used to report from the Donbas trenches.
“I just grabbed my Kalashnikov and went to work,” said Oleksandr Yurchenko, 32, a Ukrainian army second lieutenant assigned to Army FM.
While a Russian invasion force advanced to the outskirts of Kyiv in the war’s perilous first few days, the Army FM team stayed at their posts and worked in six-hour shifts to keep their programs running 24/7. They constructed makeshift beds from shipping pallets and stocked the basement studio with food and water. Body armor vests and Kalashnikovs occupied all available shelves and empty corners.
From this jury-rigged basement studio, Army FM continued to transmit information and entertainment programs to listeners across Ukraine — including into territories Russian forces invaded and occupied.
“We just kept doing our jobs,” said Andriy Davidov, a Ukrainian army first lieutenant with Army FM.
After a Russian missile struck Kyiv’s iconic TV tower on March 1, Yurchenko checked his personal radio and discovered that Army FM had gone silent in the Kyiv area. He immediately appealed to his commander to employ a portable radio transmitter on top of a tall building in Kyiv.
It was a risky move, since Russian electronic weapons systems are capable of targeting electromagnetic emissions. Yet, staying on air was worth the risk, and the Army FM commander approved the portable transmitter’s use until the TV tower was repaired.
“It was a weak signal, and it was dangerous, but we kept broadcasting,” Yurchenko told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Originally sponsored by the American nonprofit Spirit of America, Army FM began broadcasting in 2016. According to Spirit of America’s website, the station began as a way to counter Russian propaganda by “meeting the basic information needs” of Ukrainians living in the eastern war zone. In addition to nationwide radio broadcasts, Army FM also publishes its programs on the internet.
Now funded by the Ukrainian military, the station broadcast from 27 locations across Ukraine prior to the full-scale war. Some of those radio towers have since been destroyed or now fall within Russian-occupied territory, Army FM staff members told Coffee or Die.
From the full-scale war’s outset, Russian forces have tried to silence Army FM. Cyberattacks repeatedly targeted the station’s computers in March. And on the front lines, Russian forces reportedly jam Army FM’s radio transmissions.
“Russia knows we’re effective, and that people are listening to us,” said Sergio Zhukovskiy, 35, a Ukrainian army major assigned to Army FM. “We took the cyberattacks as a compliment.”
To counter Russian jamming, some Ukrainian front-line forces have used their radios to re-transmit Army FM radio broadcasts into occupied areas as part of a “psychological warfare operation,” Yurchenko said.
“In some areas, our radio station is the only source of accurate information,” he said.
Russian forces are equipped with mobile radio and TV studios, which they employ to establish information supremacy in the areas they occupy. Sometimes, the Russians have taken control of radio towers previously used by Army FM, Yurchenko said.
“Russia is trying to control people’s minds,” he said. “They invest a lot of money into propaganda.”
The Army FM team has long considered themselves on the front lines against Russian information warfare. The nature of that information war, however, has evolved since Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Prior to Feb. 24, Army FM’s programs included a broad range of topics, including Ukrainian history and geopolitical topics unrelated to Ukraine. These days, that lineup is almost entirely focused on transmitting constant updates about the war.
“It’s very important to tell the truth. Our listeners need to know the truth about what Russia has destroyed,” Zhukovskiy said.
Countering Russian propaganda with truthful information bulletins and talk shows remains a priority. Yet, with Russian land and air forces attacking every quarter of Ukraine, Army FM has become a primary means through which Ukraine’s armed forces inform the civilian population about the war’s latest developments.
“Our fundamental job didn’t change, we just began to transmit a lot more information,” Davidov said. “Now all people in our country understand that Russia is the aggressor. People have opened their eyes and seen the truth about what Russia is.”
As the war drags on and Ukrainian casualties continue to mount, the mission of sustaining national morale has increased in importance. Army FM’s programming includes prerecorded testimonials by civilians thanking soldiers for their service, as well as messages from soldiers on the front lines meant to assuage the worries of their families and friends. In the daily music lineup, Army FM now includes songs by Ukrainian artists that arose from the war — including a widely popular song honoring the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone.
“The soldiers love that music,” Davidov said. “They request the Bayraktar song all the time.”
As the war grinds on and Ukraine’s battlefield losses continue to mount, the Army FM team is well aware of the psychological importance of their work to the overall war effort.
“People listen to us. They know us and trust us,” Zhukovskiy said. “We don’t do propaganda. We tell the truth. That’s how we fight Russia’s lies.”
On June 24, the Ukrainian military announced that it was withdrawing its forces from the eastern city of Severodonetsk, which had been under a devastating Russian assault for months. The move marked a setback for Ukraine’s defensive campaign in the east, although it will likely spare the encirclement of a large number of Ukrainian troops in the face of Russia’s grinding, scorched-earth offensive.
“Yes, it’s hard. Many people are dying. But we have to continue to work,” Zhukovskiy said. “We have to tell the truth, but also find ways to improve morale, and give people reasons to have hope. Before Feb. 24, not everyone understood war. Now all Ukrainians understand what war is.”
Army FM continued to transmit from its underground studio until the beginning of April, when Russian forces retreated from Kyiv and the war’s center of gravity shifted to the southern and eastern front lines. Still, the Russian missile threat persists throughout all of Ukraine, and the importance of operational security is greater than in the preceding eight years, when the direct effects of combat were mostly quarantined to a static front line in the east.
“We are the front line on the information front, and we should understand that not all information needs to be transmitted,” said Maria Sobko, 20, a second lieutenant with Army FM. “We always tell the truth, but some information is sensitive, and we have to be careful about not transmitting anything that can help the enemy.”