Satellite images of Russian tanks fail to penetrate fog of war
Bloomberg News March 12, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Satellite images showing the dispersal of a now-infamous Russian military column north of Kyiv are proving both the extraordinary ability of publicly available technologies to track the war in Ukraine as it happens — and their limitations.
The high definition images from Maxar Technologies Inc., dated March 10, showed artillery pieces and tanks from the column in new positions in the surrounding woods, fields and towns, in particular Hostomel, the site of an airport that’s been fought over since the start of the invasion.
Yet despite the quantity of so-called open source intelligence, there no was reliable way to discern what the redeployment will mean. Some people saw an imminent assault on Ukraine’s capital, others an unforced Russian error that’s left the units vulnerable to Ukrainian attack.
“It’s probably a mixture of both and completely in line with Russian military doctrine, but why now, we really don’t know,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a research fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, focused on the future of war. “The fog of war still applies,” he said, regardless of the unprecedented levels of monitoring.
Even before the Feb. 24 invasion, officials, military analysts, journalists and data sleuths alike were poring over images and videos uploaded to social media platforms such as Telegram, YouTube and Twitter as they tried to assess the extent of Russia’s deployments near the Ukrainian border. Since then they have watched for clues on its advance, battlefield tactics and even maintenance practices.
In a disinformation-rife environment, open source intelligence — or OSINT — outfits such as Bellingcat and @OSINTtechnical trawl to weed out fakes through geolocation. They also gather data for potential future war crimes trials, and provide verifiable baselines for estimates of losses and casualties.
“We are seeing things within hours of them happening,” which is unprecedented for a conflict on this scale, according to Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Yet, because so much of the imagery is posted by Ukrainians to show Russian losses and weaknesses, he said, that also “tells a narrative of victory that may or may not be true.”
Just how differently the same data can be interpreted is clear from the latest updates from two widely watched, non-classified daily assessments of conflict.
The Institute for the Study of War — a Washington non-profit whose maps and updates have become staples for analysts of the conflict — changed its view on the near inevitability of a Russian military victory on Thursday. It concluded that “the likelihood is increasing that Ukrainian forces could fight to a standstill the Russian ground forces attempting to encircle and take Kyiv.”
The report said Russian forces had become bogged down around Kharkiv and Mariupol in the east, and Mykolayiv in the south, and continue to be hampered by planning and logistics weaknesses.
“There are, as yet, no indications that the Russian military is reorganizing, reforming, learning lessons, or taking other measures that would lead to a sudden change in the pace or success of its operations,” the update said, even if the sheer disparity of resources between the two sides could see that change.
On the same day, Poland-based Rochan Consulting warned “the strategic outlook remains negative for Ukraine. Ukrainian forces continue to be on the defensive. A major counteroffensive was planned but it hasn’t materialized yet. Southern sectors are in a particularly dire situation.”
Overnight, Russian long-range missile attacks extended to two airports in western Ukraine and a factory in the southeastern city of Dnipro. Russian forces encircle and are shelling key cities, control critical roads, and have taken control of the country’s largest nuclear power plant.
Gaps in tracking
There are critical gaps in what OSINT can do. There’s little if any hard evidence, for example, to confirm Ukrainian claims that its air force — rather than air defenses — is shooting down Russian planes. Among the images of Russian losses, there are also fewer examples of its latest equipment or elite forces, absences that could tell a counterpoint story, according to Gady.
The main thing about OSINT is that nothing on wartime social media can be trusted, but once someone spends the time to geolocate an image it becomes verifiable, the person behind @OSINTtechnical said by phone after being contacted through their Twitter platform. They asked not to be identified by name given the sensitivity of their work.
Still, none of those uncertainties should cloud the overall picture of the conflict, which shows no sign of abating. The U.S. said on March 8 it estimated Russia had lost 8% to 10% of assets deployed in Ukraine. That’s added to a growing consensus that with its entire assembled force already committed, Russia will need fresh reserves of manpower and equipment to maintain flexibility and avoid exhaustion.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed on Wednesday it had sent conscripts into combat, something it previously said was not the case. On Friday, President Vladimir Putin approved a plan to deploy 16,000 volunteers to join the fight from the Middle East.
More important is that the campaign so far appears to have been a demonstration of the Russian military’s inability to conduct the kinds of complex combined arms operations that a war on this scale demands, especially in the air, according to O’Brien, at St. Andrews.
He cited a Thursday attempt by a Russian Battalion Tactical Group to drive tanks and armored personnel carriers into a suburb of Kyiv, without infantry first clearing the area of defenders. It was a clear sign that tactical issues persist, even if it doesn’t mean the Russians will therefore lose, he said. A Ukrainian drone filmed the column’s retreat after several of its vehicles were destroyed in an ambush.
“We focus far too much on equipment” rather than on systems and morale, O’Brien said. “Once this army gets to 20-25% killed or wounded, it will become combat ineffective.”
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