Ukraine war, October 8, 2022: Old technology and breaking through electronic curtains or firewalls

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To see a list of previous articles, enter “Ukraine” in the Search Box on the upper right, on The Trenchant Observer web site, and you will see a list in chronological order.


1) Editorial, “Can Elon Musk’s satellites beat Iranian internet blackouts? It depends,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2022 (7:00 a.m. EDT);

2) “Ukraine War, February 26, 2022: The current fighting; Playing “the China card”–again; Voice of America Russian-language short-wave broadcasts to Russia,” The Trenchant Observer, February 26, 2022.


The Washington Post editorial draws attention to the fact that Iran, Russia and other countries have been developing their capabilities to block news and other internet sites.

For the computer savvy, Virtual Private Networks or VPN’s may provide ways to circumvent the blocking of individual sites, but even VPN’s don’t work when the whole internet is shut down at critical moments (e.g., during demonstrations). Moreover, technology is developing that may permit the blocking of VPN’s or the identification of those who are using them. In police states like Iran and Russia, dire consequences may ensue for users.

In China, the Chinese firewall has effectively blocked Chinese users from accessing Western news and social media sites on the Internet.

Elton Musk’s Starlink system of low-orbiting satellites holds out the promise of anyone accessing the Internet through a satellite connection. This has proven enormously useful in Ukraine, where the government supports the Starlink service.

However, there are two major problems when it comes to countries like Iran, Russia, and China. First, the international telecommunications regulations probably require the authorization by the government of any country using the service. Iran, Russia and China are not likely to grant such authorization.

Second, the equipment required to communicate with the Starlink satellites is not easy to smuggle into a country, and the satellite antenna makes it easy for the government or an informer to identify the location of any user. In police states, the penalties for using an unauthorized internet connection can be severe.

To overcome the problem of electronic curtains, there is an old technology with which younger government decision makers may not be familiar: short-wave radio transmissions.

During the Cold War, broadcasts by the Voice of America and related services such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were successful in penetrating the electronic curtain in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and other countries.

These transmissions were stopped in 2008 as public diplomacy efforts shifted to the Internet.

Since February, Russia has shut down the websites of independent news sources like the Voice of America and other Western broadcasters such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany).

There is, however, a cheap and effective way to get independent newscasts into Russia, Iran, China and other countries: Short-wave broadcasts.

The U.S. should immediately resume its short-wave broadcasts to Russia, Iran, China, and other countries.

Pocket-sized short-wave radio receivers can be easily exported or smuggled into Russia, Iran, China, and other countries. They are easy to conceal, and leave no electronic trace of their use.

The U.S. should also urge Western countries to resume their broadcasts to these countries, while the U.S. and others build out and expand their broadcast capabilities (transmitters, antennas, etc.).

One of the reasons this is not being done is bureaucratic inertia. From 1953 to 1999 an independent federal agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), was in charge of the Voice of America and these short-wave broadcasts, under a charter to provide public broadcasts that were independent and not merely broadcasts of official U.S. government views.

The first head of the USIA was Edward R. Murrow, whose insistence on the independence of the USIA was legendary.

Under President Bill Clinton, the USIA was abolished and its functions assumed by the State Department. When that happened, it lost its independent voice to advocate for the VOA and for a non-political public diplomacy.

We are in a war-like confrontation with Russia which argues for the urgent reintroduction of short-wave broadcasts to Russia, and also Iran.

This should be done at once.

At the same time, the USIA or an independent agency like it should be reestablished or established, to give America a powerful and independent voice that can be heard behind today’s electronic curtains.

The Trenchant Observer

The author is a former summer intern in the Office of the Assistant Director for Europe of the USIA, in Washington.

He was also an avid Short-Wave Listener from age eight, and learned all about radio transmissions as an amateur radio operator or “ham” radio operator from age 11.

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1) “Can Elon Musk’s satellites beat Iranian internet blackouts? It depends,” The Washington Post, October 8, 2022 (7:00 a.m. EDT);

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.