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Increased visibility

Modern satellite data gives Ukraine a wartime advantage over its Russian adversaries. by LEONID BERSHIDSKY BLOOMBERG | May 28, 2023 at 2:01 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration by John Deering.

The "first TikTok war," as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been called, could have been expected to become the most transparent military conflict in history, given the wealth of satellite images and social media posts from the front lines. Yet the overall picture of the fighting is as murky as ever; it may be unclear for weeks if a belligerent party has gone on the offensive or not.

This paradox is a manifestation of a fundamental computer science concept: garbage in/garbage out. It's not the quantity of available information, but its quality that matters.

The two relatively new contributions to the transparency of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict are widely available satellite imagery and social network posts. They were already useful to analysts, military and civilian alike, during the Syrian war; this time around, they're even more pervasive.

Frequently updated satellite shots of pretty much anywhere on Earth are available so cheaply from the likes of Sentinel Hub--used, for example, by Jane's OSINT analysts--that they can be considered free. Both Russia and Ukraine are far ahead of wartime Syria in terms of their social network exposure, too.

The ready availability of satellite data from private Western providers has lent Ukraine a powerful advantage since the invasion's first days: Russian troop movements were completely transparent. Russia, with about 200 observation satellites compared with 350 for U.S. private companies alone, has had much lower visibility into Ukrainian movements and facilities.

The gift of satellite intelligence keeps on giving for Ukraine, which now is receiving missiles with a progressively longer range from its Western allies and can still target them efficiently. For OSINT analysts, too, they're useful in locating specific Russian units and equipment types. But this transparency only works one way, mainly because no Western satellite data providers or OSINT analysts are willing openly to help Russia. In many ways, Ukrainian troop movements are still as opaque as in the pre-satellite era.

On the social networks, Russian soldiers initially gave thousands of clues about their command's plans and maneuvers. Since the war was planned as a blitzkrieg and servicemen weren't told until the last moment that they'd be invading the neighboring country, nobody seemed to care about operational security; Russian units could easily be located using posts on Vkontakte, the Russian Facebook clone. Ukrainians, for their part, were posting images of the damage done by Russian bombs and missiles; their outrage got the better of them.

As the campaign went on, however, the Russian military and semi-regular units clamped down on the front line use of mobile devices, and soldiers largely cooperated, realizing that indiscretion could help target them. You can still trace which units are being pulled out of battle by bursts of servicemen's social media activity, but that information often comes too late to be of military use.

Ukrainians, for their part, have cracked down on the unauthorized publication of footage showing Russian missile strikes so as not to let the Russians know whether they'd been able to hit their targets. Some photos and videos still appear on Telegram, but these exceptions are quickly smothered by a chorus of indignation. Ukraine's grass-roots civil society has been diligent at reporting any Russian activity that private citizens witnessed, and at the same time vigilant not to provide valuable information to the enemy. Russia's nationalists, by contrast, are too fragmented for that kind of powerful self-organization.

Increased caution on both sides of the front line means that the social networks should be considered primarily as disinformation channels. Consider the case of Russia's military bloggers: Western analysts--even the most knowledgeable ones like those at the D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War--rely to some extent on them because, despite the milbloggers' rabid support for the invasion, they are critical of its execution, like loyal fans of a losing football team.

But these bloggers also tend to have nontransparent lower-level loyalties to specific generals or warlords such as Wagner mercenary army founder Yevgeny Prigozhin. The infighting of Russian commanders informs much of the Telegram "reporting."

Recently a number of Telegram's so-called voenkory--military correspondents--caused panic among their millions of subscribers when they took some successful local counterattacks by Ukrainian troops near the hotly contested town of Bakhmut for the beginning of Ukraine's long-anticipated counteroffensive. They were misled by--or, just as likely, engaged in--the desperate social network campaign conducted by Prigozhin, who accused regular Russian troops of cravenly exposing Wagner's flanks and hoarsely demanded more ammunition from the commanding generals.

Even those prominent bloggers who, like the nationalist veteran Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), are not affiliated with any of the scorpions in the jar of the Russian "special military operation's" command have distorting agendas, not least political ambitions that can only come to fruition if Vladimir Putin is displaced as a consequence of military defeat.

If the Russian milbloggers cannot be trusted on recent reports of a nuclear disaster in the Ukrainian city of Khmelnitsky, where Russian missiles allegedly struck a warehouse full of British-made depleted uranium ammunition, it's at least foolhardy to put too much trust in their complaints about specific Russian defense weaknesses.

On the Ukrainian side, there's far less public whining than in the first months of the war but still plenty of wishful thinking, and even more intentional disinformation meant to undermine the flagging morale of Russian forces. Nothing remotely credible has leaked on counteroffensive plans that have been months in preparation.

Added to the Telegram fakery parade are the U.S. Discord leaks, which are still surfacing in the media despite the arrest of airman Jack Teixeira, who has been charged as the alleged leaker. A recent U.S. intelligence leak, published by The Washington Post, suggests collusion between Prigozhin and Ukrainian military intelligence: The Wagner boss allegedly offered data on the locations of Russian troops in exchange for a Ukrainian retreat from Bakhmut, where the mercenary group is paying a bloody price for every conquered house. Whether such leaks are genuine or deliberately planted by U.S. or Ukrainian intelligence is unclear. Prigozhin denies the allegations with his usual sarcasm.

With the Russian media throttled, the Ukrainian media censoring themselves on military matters and the international media at best spoon-fed useful information by the Ukrainian and Western governments, the cacophony of blogs, clips and leaks is worse in some ways than full radio silence would have been. Individual "super-spreaders" share clips of combat drone footage, another new phenomenon, to rally their respective sides. But while the abundance of such videos may be useful also for military experts and weapons manufacturers, the footage adds little to the general picture of the action: It is, after all, merely anecdotal.

In December, British General Sir Jim Hockenhull had this to say about working with OSINT from the Ukraine war theater:

"I'm a career intelligence officer and certainly, for long periods of my career, it felt like I was responsible for making a jigsaw from the available information. I didn't have the lid of the jigsaw box or sufficient pieces to make the complete jigsaw. This meant I was responsible for putting the pieces I had in place, and then trying to imagine what the rest of the picture would look like to produce a prediction from those assumptions.

"Whilst open source doesn't provide the lid of the jigsaw box, it gives an almost infinite number of jigsaw pieces. The challenge now is that you can make an almost infinite number of pictures as a consequence of the available pieces."

That's an apt metaphor: There's plenty of information to support pretty much any picture of what's happening on the ground.

When Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz compared the inherent uncertainty of war to fog in his 1832 treatise "On War," he couldn't foresee the modern-day flood of information, misinformation, disinformation and obfuscation. He did, however, make the point that military genius mainly meant an ability to see through the fog.

"It is primarily here that a fine, penetrating mind is required to flesh out the truth through the power of its judgment," Clausewitz wrote. "An ordinary mind may be enough to grasp the truth by chance, and out-of-the-ordinary courage can at times fill the gap, but in most cases, on average, the lack of true understanding will reveal itself."

As they did almost 200 years ago, the general, the spy, the analyst and the journalist still need the kind of genius Clausewitz described to find grains of truth in the flood of speculation, emotion and deception. But rather than lifting the fog of war, technological development has in many ways just added another layer.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team.

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