One year ago today, Russian tanks moved into Ukraine. What is happening with the conflict now and how is OSINT shaping the fighting?
A year ago today, at 3:15 a.m. local time, an open-source intelligence expert and professor, Jeffrey Lewis, tweeted, “Someone’s on the move,” in reference to a Google Maps traffic jam on the border of Russia and Ukraine. In retrospect, this would be the first known evidence of the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent year-long-and-counting conflict between the two sovereign nations.
A year later, what is the state of the war many academic predictions thought would be settled in days? And is there any end in sight for the citizens living among missile attacks and gunfire? We examine the lead up to the invasion and where the conflict may be headed, and the critical role open-source information has played in its outcome.
How TikTok and Google helped predict a war
Before the first missile struck or the first Russian tank could be observed moving across Ukraine’s eastern border, open-source researchers were sounding the alarm about the potential for conflict. Their sources included a variety of satellite imagery and other open sources, perhaps most notable of which was the video-focused social media platform TikTok. Videos unwittingly uploaded by Russian citizens showed a slow and steady tank buildup on the border. Trainloads of tanks and military equipment could be observed, geolocated to be seen moving westward.
Many open-source intelligence (OSINT) researchers spotted sign after sign of what looked like an impending conflict. Combined with the Russian ZAPAD 2021 drill, some researchers began to see an invasion as imminent, but just as many, if not more, dismissed those claims.
As U.S. agencies gathered more evidence of Russia’s strategy to invade, it made the unprecedented decision to declassify and publicize that evidence, an intentional strategy intended to take the element of surprise away from Russia’s many advantages. The move represented a new tactic in the U.S. information warfare with Russia. However, the original alarm sounding was met with skepticism by many European allies, including France and Germany. The cynicism represents a mistrust of U.S. intelligence as a result of inaccurate findings that led to the Iraq war.
Despite the cynicism, the warnings proved to be accurate. The disclosure may not have prevented the invasion, but the initiative to declassify materials may have obstructed a “false flag” narrative that intelligence officials believe Putin planned to use as a pretext for the invasion. It also could represent a new tactic for military officials in the information age.
Calling Ukrainian military forces “outgunned” and “overmatched,” many original predictions of the war thought the capital of Kyiv would fall within weeks, if not days, of Russia’s invasion. These estimates had historical precedent and statistical reasoning behind them. The annexation of Crimea, a formerly Ukrainian territory, by Russia in 2014 was swift and, for the most part, went internationally unchallenged. Russia’s military was also well-regarded at the time. It is one of the largest in the world when ranked by active military personnel. In addition, Russia has economic influence through oil exports and a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. So with nearly all the advantages on their side, how is it, one year later, they have lost ground?
The iron will of the Ukrainian people
First, the most profound and yet simplest mistake of all these predictions, seemed to be the underestimation of the will of the Ukrainian people. In the lead up to the invasion, Russia had launched a series of disinformation techniques targeted at instilling distrust of current leadership and invoking a sense of pride about the nation’s former Soviet Union days by erecting monuments dedicated to their “Russian heritage.”
“A collapse of morale can bring down an army faster than a virus. Stubborn courage can be equally infectious.”— Brian Michael Jenkins, Rand Corporation
The bravado of the Ukrainian people was met with international admiration, perhaps most fervently via the viral video of a local woman telling a heavily armed Russian soldier, “Put sunflower seeds in your pocket, so they grow when you die.” Other videos showed Ukrainian soldiers making a moving plea to the “young boys” of the Russian army, that if they lay down their weapons they could be fed and go home to their mothers. And photos of Ukrainian citizens taking up arms to defend their home, clad in pea coats and holding rifles, have captured hearts around the world.
The insistence that Russia may be “liberating” Ukraine was proven unfounded by the Ukrainians themselves, and the rest of the democratic west seemed to catch their infectious spirit.
A united Union
Much like Ukraine’s level of resistance on the battlefield was unpredicted, no one expected the European Union to impose sanctions on Russia in light of the invasion. For the most part, nations in Europe had sat idly by while Crimea was annexed in 2014. Ukraine has neither the protection of being a NATO member nor of the European Union. Many expected the leaders of Europe to glance at the conflict and avert their gaze elsewhere, willing the impending crisis not to be their problem.
But instead, Europe’s passivity seemed to reach a flashpoint. The trend of increasingly emboldened dictatorships around the world have been steadily threatening Western democracies, and the fall of yet another seemed to have struck a chord — especially one that would put Russian occupied territory adjacent to NATO countries. The sanctions were imposed in response to the “unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine” despite the cost to its own economy.
“Now we see him for what he is — a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest.”— former British Prime Ministers Boris Johnson
An overplayed hand
Miscalculations weren’t limited to Ukraine’s military. Ahead of Russia’s “Special Military Operation,” its military might went unquestioned. When the invasion began, pundits and intelligence officials alike thought Russia was headed toward an easy victory. In hindsight, many intelligence officials and outside analysts admit they overestimated Russia’s military power. The U.S. may not be the only one who overestimated. From most reports, Putin has and continues to overestimate his own military operations as well.
“After nine months of fighting, the Russian military has shown itself incapable of seizing and holding a large part of Ukraine.”— Steven Pifer, Brooking Institute
The estimation of power came partially from Russia’s success with small scale military operations, such as in Crimea and the intervention with Syria. The assumption (in lieu of the availability of hard evidence) was that Russia would be able to scale their operations to wage a larger offensive. That assumption proved wrong.
The logistical shortcomings of carrying out an ongoing conflict have been presented through an inadequate supply chain and the economic realities of a long ground war. The launch of a three-front invasion of the second largest nation in Europe proved to be beyond any calculations of the Russian’s capabilities.
The other erroneous extrapolation came from the assumption of the quality of Russian forces. Many outsiders expected well-trained, disciplined soldiers. Instead, the military has been a mess of faulty operational security and lack of morale among its members.
A year in review
One year later, it is difficult for anyone to accurately calculate the death toll on either side. Norway’s defense chief estimates the Russian casualties to be near 180,000 compared to Ukraine’s 100,000. No one really knows. That’s because both sides have strategic reasons to downplay their losses and inflate their enemy’s numbers. Russia claimed to have only lost 15,000 soldiers as of August, when U.S. estimates put the figure as high as 80,000 at the time.
The war has taken a dire toll on the Ukrainian people. At least 30,000 citizens have been killed in the conflict. Another 7.5 million at least have been displaced due to the conflict, and those numbers are unlikely to be up to date. Ukrainians have been fighting to defend their home both defensively and symbolically from Russia’s attacks. Despite Russia’s floundering, atrocities such as those carried out in Bucha have shown that citizens pay the most devastating costs in the war.
War crimes in Bucha
On March 3, 2022, Russians indiscriminately killed Ukrainian citizens as they fled Bucha, Ukraine, in search of refuge. More than 400 Ukrainians were killed that day, some executed in the street. Many were buried in makeshift mass graves. Some remain unidentified, after their family and friends had already fled the area. The atrocities are being investigated as war crimes, and OSINT researchers are working to narrow in on the identities of those who committed them.
According to Reuters, more than 71,000 alleged war crimes have taken place since the invasion. Prosecuting these crimes in international court is a difficult and lengthy process to undergo, but it has been the focus of many OSINT groups, including Bellingcat, to compile as much evidence as possible for the day it may be brought to trial.
OPSEC failures and the state of Russia’s forces
The Russian military’s poor operational security continues to come at a fatal cost for its personnel. Ukraine’s military has used selfies and videos uploaded to social media sites, such as Telegram, to identify troop locations and mount deadly strikes. Unrestricted cell phone use has been an ongoing issue for Russian troops. A base was even struck after soldiers were catfished into sharing their location on a dating app.
To compound the issue, Ukraine also set up an online database for citizens to report troop sightings and snap photos of their locations. Even with the Russian forces making advances now, they are working to reclaim territory they once had, paving the way for a long conflict with numbers being vital.
Even with casualties being difficult to estimate, it’s clear Russia has suffered significant losses. The forces comprised mostly of the Russian Armed Forces (RAF), Russian National Guard and paramilitary groups, among some others, are losing numbers. The military cannot seem to produce trained and combat-capable soldiers to aid its invasion efforts and the man-power crunch will only get worse.
So far, Putin has not insisted on a full military mobilization. According to CEPA, that may be because such a move would require the Kremlin to delegate more powers to military leadership, and the oligarch has a long history of mistrusting its generals.
Putin’s recent announcement that he will be suspending Russia’s participation in New START, a nuclear arms treaty with the United States, could be an ominous sign of pending escalation. The purported reasoning was the accusation the U.S. was directly involved in an air base attack.
The treaty capped the number of nuclear weapons either the U.S. or Russia can deploy and has been in place since the Obama administration. It covered nuclear warheads, long-range missiles, bombers and ballistic missiles in its scope. It also ensured inspections of each other's nuclear weapon facilities. Both sides have emphasized that Russia has suspended the treaty but not left it entirely, leaving the door open for potential reconciliation.
What should we expect?
All attempts at negotiations have broken down. President Vladmir Zelensky has asked Russia to immediately leave all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, and pay restitution for the damage of the invasion, something Putin scoffed at. The European Union chief has called it “unthinkable” that Russia would be able to escape payment for reconstructing Ukraine, taking a hardline with Ukraine.
An end to the war seems nowhere in sight, and its outcome cannot easily be predicted. So far, it isn’t clear if Russia is learning from their OPSEC failures or simply perpetuating them. Thus far, too, even with economic hardship, public support of Putin remains firm. With both sides suffering losses, one RAND researcher suggests we could reach a point of frozen conflict, where fighting becomes prolonged but stagnant.
However, after a year of fighting, it seems unlikely that the predictions of a fallen Ukraine will come to pass. Ukraine will remain a sovereign nation. The uncertainty remains on where if any lines can be drawn for new annexations, or if the price Putin has paid with his citizens’ lives, economic hardship and geopolitical consequences was all for naught. For now, neither side seems likely to back down.
Whatever happens in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the role of OSINT on that outcome cannot be understated. From the first first tank rolling in, to the soldiers unwittingly sharing photos that would be used to geolocate their position, to the possible prosecution of war crimes in the future, open-source information has played an influential role every step of the way.