The latest tensions between Russia and Ukraine demonstrate how war in the age of big data shall be missing the biggest element of any warfare – surprise!
When Russia announced a couple of weeks ago that it was pulling back troops from the Ukraine borders, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, and the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, almost immediately counter-claimed that Russia was increasing its military presence on the contrary. Blinken and Stoltenberg weren’t relying on any secret military intel, but using open-source intelligence – TikTok video uploads by citizens in the border areas, and social media chatter analysis – to put together a picture of heightened Russian military activity. The latest tensions between Russia and Ukraine have birthed Big Data and Open-Source war journalism that has taken away the biggest element of any warfare – surprise!
In the case of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, it usually starts with a TikTok video. It’s a surprisingly useful platform for finding videos of the Russian army’s train movements. Once you’ve geotagged a train video, there are some websites that allow you to find out where these trains departed from or arrived to. You can then use Sentinel, a free satellite image platform, to see where the equipment is parked – using normal images or, more commonly, with SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) images. This makes it possible to look through the clouds with a radar, because now it is winter, and you can rarely get good classic satellite images. By comparing several of these images, we can deduce an increase or a reduction in the forces’ presence in a camp.
From cable news to TikTok warfare
The First Gulf War in 1990 was marked by the introduction of live news broadcasts from the battlefront – principally by the US network CNN. That war also earned the nickname ‘Video Game War’ after the daily broadcast of images from cameras on board US bombers during Operation Desert Storm. Since then, social media has become the centre piece of conflict coverage around the world, at times breaking live news even before network journalists could reach ground zero.
Journalists take time to reach the conflict zone and often must rely on military information that at times comes with strategic embargoes. Open-source information, on the other hand, is real-time and freely available to both friend and foe. Professional reporters and citizen journalists are tracking every tank, truck, ship, missile, or aircraft deployment using a variety of open-source resources from publicly available satellite imagery to TikTok videos or Twitter messages uploaded by residents in the war zones. Analysis of social media chatter has become an integral part of military intelligence.
Tracking social media chatter
Soldiers writing to their girlfriends and they, in turn, posting on Facebook or Instagram have become important sources of information on troop movement and other vital military data. In fact, any curfew on social media by a government is taken as a sign of imminent action. The continued growth of social media, available satellite imagery, and data sets, in general, have transformed the field and altered the calculus around war and diplomacy.
Bellingcat – the open-source information leader
Open-source intelligence, often abbreviated as OSINT, isn’t something new. Bellingcat, which describes itself as an independent, international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open-source and social media intelligence to probe a variety of subjects, has won accolades for its work tracking covert operations by Russia and others since 2014.
As early as last spring, Digital Forensic Lab, operated by the Atlantic Council – an American think tank on international affairs – had sounded the alarm about Russia’s hostile intentions in Ukraine. Even a few weeks ago it was able to track troop movements and forecast local escalation in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, a potential advance on Kyiv from Belarus, or operations in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
Details of every boot, every ship
Independent think-tanks and research organizations like Center for Information Resilience (CIR) are providing up-to-date strategic reports with incredible details: like the exact number of tanks, ships, submarines, or even soldiers. For example, its February 22 report reads:
“The continued build-up of new military camps at the Russian border with Ukraine and the build-up of several military field hospitals in different areas of Belarus and Crimea, as well as stationing large amounts of Russian helicopters 30 kilometres from the border with Ukraine.”
“Eleven large Russian Navy landing ships were seen moving through the Bosporus on the 8th of February, along with an additional three cruiser strike groups, centred around three Slava class missile cruisers. Additionally, the Conflict Intelligence Team has identified Russian submarines moving along the strait. This naval movement would allow elements of the 810th Separate Naval Infantry Brigade from the Black Sea Fleet and the 336th Separate Guards Naval Infantry Brigade of the Baltic Fleet to attempt an amphibious landing around either Odessa on the Black Sea or Mariupol on the Azov Sea in the case of a Russian invasion….”
Cyberattacks before the tanks roll in
Cyberattacks on a nations’ financial and information technology infrastructure is also seen as a forewarning about possible military action. Cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks and government websites were interpreted as signals of impending attacks. These attacks coincided with troop movement from the forward operating bases on the Ukrainian border.
Rattling their sabres loud
While it is almost impossible now to conceal massive troop movements from the prying eyes of publicly available technologies, military planners could perhaps use this very transparency as a strategic information tool. And in the case of Ukraine, it appears Moscow wanted the world to know about its preparations while simultaneously denying plans to invade. Indeed, the question may be whether Moscow is attempting to use the visibility of its movements to its advantage. Perhaps they are rattling their sabres as loudly as possible to achieve what they really want without even firing a bullet.