|The latest episode of the New Lines Institute’s Contours podcast breaks down the transforming battlefield conditions and strategic state of play in Ukraine. Host Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute and the head of the Power Vacuums program, is joined by three leading military and open-source intelligence experts: Rob Lee, a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and PhD candidate at King’s College London’s War Studies Department; Sim Tack, the co-founder and Chief Military Analyst at Force Analysis, and Aram Shabanian, a Human Security Unit analyst at the New Lines Institute.|
Caroline Rose: Hello everyone. Welcome to today’s segment of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast series. Today we will be talking about the complex and unfolding battlespace in Ukraine as Russian forces advanced a full scale offensive that has thrown the country’s future as well as Eastern European security into uncertainty. My name is Caroline Rose and I am joined here today by three expert minds on military and open source intelligence analysis, who have all been at the forefront of monitoring efforts of the battle space in Ukraine.
First, we have Rob Lee, who is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. He’s a Ph.D. student researching Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. He’s a former Marine infantry officer, alpha fellow and visiting fellow at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian think tank focused on defense policy. You can follow Rob’s detailed analysis on Russian military tactics on Twitter @ralee85.
Second, we have Sim Tack, a chief military analyst at Force Analysis, which provides data and analysis on armed conflicts and defense policy. His activities are centered around the intelligence driven approaches to the study of armed conflicts and military capabilities, as well as other resources of power that support foreign policy behavior. Formally he served as the global analyst at the U.S.-based geopolitical intelligence firm, Stratfor. You can follow Sim’s detailed analysis on the evolving battle space in Ukraine and weekly maps on Twitter @simtack.
Third, we have Aram Shabanian, an open source intelligence analyst at the New Lines Institute who specializes in combining traditional means of research with modern technology-assisted tools to cover topics pertaining to America’s war on terror and conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Aram has tracked developments over the past eight years as they trended towards an outbreak of general warfare between Russia and Ukraine. You can follow Aram’s detailed monitoring efforts on the flight path, satellite imagery and other open source intelligence on the conflict in Ukraine @shabanianaram.
I’d like to start off by asking you all about today’s announcement from the Russian defense minister about a notable change in tack and strategy. He stated that Russia’s main goal was now to liberate Donbas as the main tasks of the first phase of war had been completed and Russian forces have significantly reduced the Ukrainian military’s combat power. Also, the Russian deputy defense minister noted that Russian forces will turn its focus away from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and Chernihiv, and I’m curious how you read this as a change in the Russian strategy. OSINT accounts on various platforms have been conducting analysis on visually confirmed equipment losses as well, taken by the Russian armed forces. What’s been observed is amongst these losses that have been very high in equipment ranging from T90 tanks to K52 attack helicopters. So I’m curious, does the Russian Federation have the means to replace lost equipment of this caliber? And if not, could that be a major factor to the shift in objectives from Kyiv back to the Donbas for the continuation of this conflict?
Rob Lee: I thought before this war started that basically Russia was going to focus, it was going to be mostly focused on the Ukraine military. So a turning into the Ukrainian military, degrading Ukrainian military and the used for a couple reasons. One would obviously be to degrade Ukraine’s ability to defend but also it would be about inflicting pain, costs and an element of compelling strategy, which is semi – I think semi right but mostly wrong. What Russia instead did, a lot of it was terrain focused. So they clearly wanted to go to Kyiv, they clearly wanted to circle Kyiv, they clearly hoped to try to get to Zelenskyy himself. I think the initial operation at Hostomel airport was, I think they assumed light resistance. This might be something similar to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, where they moved in fast enough, where Ukraine you could get situational awareness, they could get to Zelenskyy, get them to concede and impose their will that way. That failed, and after that, I think it could have became, they still wanted to control Kyiv, they had one offensive coming from the west side of the Dnieper River from Belarus, another from the east side, from the Chernihiv region. But ultimately they failed to encircle the city and ever since the first day there’s been fighting, the Hordtomel, Bucha, Urpin area and Ukraine has held them back.
Basically that frontline has been relatively static for weeks. It appears Ukraine has had some successes recently last week. It has been clear for a while that Russia, when they invaded, they didn’t have a huge force. And that attrition, which appears to be somewhat substantial, that meant that, oh, their objectives had to be cut pared back. And from the beginning, it seems though Russia attempted to do too many things and they didn’t have the forces to achieve them all.
And so taking Kyiv, huge city, it takes a lot of forces and it would lead to a lot of attrition. They obviously were trying to go to Odesa, that failed as well Mykolaiv. And then they had offensives in the Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv regions, and you also had the operation at JFO and in Mariupol, all those things Russia could not do the same time. Because they were facing resistance in these places. And ultimately I think what deputy [inaudible] Amin announced today, I think it was basically acknowledgement, that basically Russia does not have the forces to throw Kyiv from either the west or Eastern sides they failed to do so. And at this point, carrying back the objectives, they can say, okay Mariupol, they’ll probably take the next week or two. They’ve been fighting there pretty heavily for the last few weeks.
And then [inaudible] discussed in the JFO area by targeting Ukrainian forces there and try to encircle them. The issue is that they ultimately don’t have a large enough force to do that. And so right now, something we’re seeing is, they’re pairing back from their offenses of Mikolayiv, that failed so that they’ve pulled back from that from Kyiv that failed as well. So I think they pulled a little bit back from that and they trying to move forces to take part in this kind of JFO operation to try and circle forces there, they’ve come away with this for we’re having some success in degrading Ukraine defense, the military’s capabilities. So I think that’s what they’re trying to do. I think the statements today is kind acknowledgement of the situation and that basically the frontline and the northwest area of Kyiv has been pretty static for weeks now.
And it’s clearly didn’t have the capacity to encircle. And then obviously the Eastern side of Kyiv, we had that big fight in Brovary a few weeks ago, same issue came up. So ultimately I think it’s acknowledgement that Russia is trying to do too many things. They didn’t have the forces to do in the beginning. Attrition made that even worse. So now they have to focus on one or two things and going back to what I thought in the beginning, they had focused on going at the Ukrainian military. Now it appears that they are trying to do that. Now I think that they come away and saying, “Okay, this is what we can achieve with our forces. We can’t take big cities that are going to be held block and block, except for Mariupol.” And then basically they’re going to try and prioritize one thing and try to come away with this conflict with some more minimal goals they can actually achieve.
Sim Tack: I think that’s actually a very fair point. The way that you’re characterizing today’s announcement on the classical reduction of offensive efforts in Kyiv and Chernihiv, I think that’s exactly what that is – the paring back of their actual objectives. It’s something that I think a lot of people had been expecting to come. It’s almost the only thing that Russia could militarily still do short of the escalations to use of chemical or nuclear weapons. But if things aren’t working, you have to limit your scope and actually concentrate your forces where they might be useful. And I think today we’re seeing that. Russia is painting this as a progressive step in negotiations, trying to build trust in the negotiations that are going on in Istanbul. But I think as Rob was saying, we’ve seen over the past weeks that these fronts have completely stalled. They have very little to gain there at this point, probably a lot more to lose if they actually keep going at them. And so, yeah, I think it makes sense that Russia will actually reduce their efforts there.
The big question to me is still what does that look like? Does that mean that they will actually withdraw their forces from these offensives or will they actually maintain a presence there and basically be satisfied with the position they hold without conducting further offensive action, which of course has been very costly to them. That’s something to look out for us as things evolve. Now in terms of how they got to that situation. I’m agreeing with a lot of the things that Rob said here but one of the things that jumped out to me in the beginning of this offensive related to the capacity that Russia has and the objectives that they seem to have put forward, is that it seemed to me like Russia was trying to role play the Western style of warfare. It seemed to me like they were trying to conduct the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, perhaps Gerasimov watched a little too much “Generation Kill” and then he was trying to copy exactly that but we saw relatively small Russian forces trying to penetrate very deeply into Ukraine, such as the operation towards Mikolayiv, that Rob mentioned, that’s exactly what happened there. We saw a very small force push very deeply. Of course, when the U.S. does that, they have a very significant intelligence and close air support overhead, which the Russians don’t have in this case.
And I assume the issue of Russian air power will come back to us at some point here but in essence, they try to play a game that they were ready to play. And someone in the Kremlin or in Russia’s military staff seems to have made a really big mistake in promising to deliver on certain objectives that they simply weren’t capable of. And that’s coming back to them now. And that’s why a reconfiguration of those objectives is probably what they’ll be trying to achieve now.
Aram Shabanian: Off of what Sim Tack had said in terms of the comparison to the Iraq war, I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing and Rob, you were talking about the attempts to encircle Kyiv and how those have gone poorly. I think what we’re seeing is an attempt to recreate the American thunder runs on Baghdad, we’re seeing the Russians attempts to advance rapidly on key cities that they need and bypass those that they don’t by securing the main supply routes. And that simply hasn’t worked out for them because the Ukrainians, I think, recognized that game very early on and didn’t meet the Russians on the open battlefield, met them in the cities and met them close to the cities where they could bloody them and send them staggering back. And that plays off of something I saw, especially from Rob’s Twitter feed was a lot of the logistical buildup to this invasion, didn’t match what you would expect from an army of this size.
If you look at the U.S. military, a large part of the U.S. military is dedicated to logistics. And then you factor in the contractors who do logistics on top of that. And it’s a major portion of America’s military spending is on logistics alone because it turns out it’s very difficult to move tanks long distances. And while Ukraine isn’t very far from Russia, it borders Russia, Ukraine isn’t Belarus in 2022. It doesn’t have the same infrastructure linkups with Russia that it did say in 1991, a lot of those have been severed, especially after 2014. So what you’re seeing is an attempt to move an army that was never really designed to be a fully fledged expeditionary army into Ukraine being met with very fierce resistance in a very nationalistic fight against very insurmountable odds or so it appeared in the beginning. And I think that the honest answer is that the Russians, like Sim was saying, their military is not set up to do things like this.
It’s not designed to be an expeditionary force. It’s not designed to send conventional forces. They’ve got special forces that are very capable but their conventional forces are just not on par with the American military. It’s because the American military is very good at what it does. We spend a lot of money on it for a reason. And that’s why if the United States military were say, invading Canada, you probably wouldn’t see a train with what appeared to be the Scooby Doo van going by on it, along with a bunch of other civilian vehicles, as we saw in Rob’s Twitter feed on multiple occasions.
There were delivery trucks and dump trucks and things of that nature early on in the war. And that’s not a good sign. That’s not a sign of an army that’s performing well. And so I think if you combine all the factors, you look at what an army is supposed to do and an army is supposed to be in a war like this. And you compare that with the open source data coming out, be it satellite imagery of where the front lines stalled or TikTok and Twitter videos, things of that nature, it’s pretty apparent that the Russians have not accomplished what they set out to accomplish.
ST: So if I can actually respond to something that you said, Aram, on the logistics preparation before the conflict – that reminds me of something that we were looking for at the time, I spent a lot of my time working with satellite imagery. So obviously during the whole buildup, during the war scare ahead of Feb. 24, we were trying to really understand what was happening, what Russia was piecing together. And one of the things that we were looking for based on Soviet doctrine and the Russian doctrine that is essentially an evolution of it, was the big logistical dumps at the front or the division levels.
So we would’ve expected to see these big fuel dumps with pipeline operations connecting them to railroads. And we didn’t see any of that. I’m still not seeing any of that. And that’s one of the big reasons, actually, that prior to the conflict breaking out, I was still convinced that this wasn’t something Russia was actually prepared to do, and they fooled me, they fooled themselves. But that whole lack of logistical preparation seems to be a very, very strong element in the failure that we’ve seen so far.
AS: I would definitely agree with that. Yeah. That the logistical failure, one is part of the reason that we’re seeing their offensive stall out also was a major reason a lot of analysts didn’t see this coming because I remember discussions with several analysts about this very topic about like, well, there’s no logistical tail, there’s not the amount of infrastructure behind this invasion that you would expect to see from a sustainable invasion. And I think that really lends itself to the idea that even those who planned this invasion didn’t know it was going to happen. It appears to me that what’s happening is essentially if we had a tyrannical American president who told the army drop plans to invade Toronto and the army said, “Okay, whatever.” And then that tyrannical president told them to follow through on those orders. That’s a totally different thing than a hypothetical situation to actually follow through on those orders to invade your neighbor and a former part of a union that you are a member of is quite different than a theoretical invasion.
And so I think what we’re seeing is just the reality on the ground, the game theory and these strategies, these simulations that we play through all the time, don’t always take into effect the human factor. And that’s really what we’re seeing play out here. From a individual level, from the fighters on the fields to Zelenskyy himself, whom I think many of us thought was going to flee. I personally didn’t think he would stay and fight and I’ve been very impressed to see him stay in fight. And I think that it’s that top-down leadership but also of the bottom-up resistance that’s come together to really unify and put the Russians in their place.
CR: Rob, I’m curious as well, if you would like to respond to that and also talk a bit about Ukraine’s operational capacity and any big surprises that you’ve had or any types of lessons learned as well, taking into account Russia’s performance but then also of course, how Ukrainian resistance is held up as well.
RL: One thing to note from the beginning was that this war, it only made sense if there wasn’t much Ukrainian resistance. It only made sense if the Ukrainian military was not very capable and the Ukrainian citizens basically said or indifferent or wouldn’t resist actively having someone else installed in charge in Kyiv and that was a clear strategic intelligence failure on Russia’s part. That was one of the conditions, Ukraine since 2014 changed dramatically. Ukraine’s military changed dramatically. All these things have changed. And even in the Russian speaking cities in Ukraine that Russia might have thought they would have some support, Kharkiv held out in the South and Kherson and Melitopol and all the cities, there’s been an active protest movement. It’s very clear that even if Russia occupied these cities, it wasn’t going to be a Crimea 2014 situation. It’s going to be a long term resistance. And it was always a question of, what was the plan for that?
So that was the number one issue. Ukraine’s military has been very effective and the things we’re seeing is that, and also territorial defense fighters, they’re much better at small unit actions and competency. And the Russian military is too centralized in its decision making. And so that means Ukraine had a better initiative in a lot of cases. It meant that Russia was on a small unit level was still respond to certain things, tactical changes, TDPs, all those things were problems. The Russian military wasn’t set up for success in this war. And I think the big picture is that Ukraine is a large country, it is a large population, there’s a lot of large cities. And if Ukraine decided to resist, which it did, there’s really no good solution for Russia in this war.
And in my view, what made the most sense from Russia, if they’re going to invade, was to focus on destroying the Ukraine military, stay out of cities, focus on returning the Ukrainian military. And then if you’re going to go for one city, go to Kyiv, try encircle it and that’s it. Make certain priorities. I think they did too many things. They didn’t focus on turning the Ukraine military enough in the beginning, which made it impossible later on. They didn’t do enough in terms of taking out Ukrainian air defense at the beginning, the Tochka Us, the other PK abilities, air force. And all of that meant once that stuff survived the first hour or two the war, it became more and more difficult to take those things out afterwards. So all of those things are significant failures but overall there are a ton of lessons learned for this, a lot of vulnerabilities in the Russian military but ultimately the Ukrainians have just, they’re the main story to this. They fought very well. Resistance has been very impressive. None of the major cities, I think Kherson and Melitopol, a couple of cities in the south. Ukraine decided to not defend block by block but every other city they decide to defend and fight for, they’ve held.
Mariupol continues to hold, it’ll probably fall at some point just because the numbers strike against them. Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Mikolayiv, all those cities held. And that was one of the key failures for Russia is that because those cities held, they had to keep forces behind in Chernihiv and Sumy, in Kharkiv to partially encircle them. Well, that meant there a cost, they couldn’t use those units elsewhere and it meant that their advance elsewhere stalled. And so all those things were issues. But long story short, this is mostly a story about Ukraine success rather than Russia’s failures, I think that even if Russia had done things more competently, if they had been better operational level successes and been more smart about prioritizing things, ultimately Ukraine was going to defend.
And as long as Ukraine is ready to defend their cities, there wasn’t too much that Russia could do in terms of a long term political solution because they had to achieve something that Ukraine would be willing to accept. And that was always going to be difficult. So I think it’s mostly about Ukraine success, even though there are a lot of significant failures, the Russian military demonstrated during this war.
CR: Thank you. I have another question that I’m very curious what you all think about this. There has been a major loss of Russian industrial capacity with supply shortages, forcing some Russian companies specializing in armored vehicle repairs to suspend operations. How do you think this will affect Russian mechanized columns with potentially strengthened Ukrainian anti-armor capabilities? And also do you think that this could translate into greater Russian casualty counts as Russian tactics may be forced to protect vehicle survivability and adopt infantry-forward concepts? And I’m curious other types of tactics that Russian forces are adopting that might change the battlespace, especially as they begin to concentrate more on the Donbas.
RL: Regarding [inaudible] I think that was just coming from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. They were saying they’re having issues with components and so on. So not sure whether or not that’s true or not. Haven’t seen that from the Russian side, although then again the good Russia defense journalists have mostly been imprisoned in Russia. So we don’t hear a lot of those vulnerability issues of the Russian defense industry anymore, unfortunately. So I don’t know about the truth of that. I think we talk about the limiting factor for Russian military, so obviously a lot of tank losses, we encountered all those things. That’s not really the limiting factor for Russia. They have a lot of tanks. Sure, they’ve lost some of their most modern tanks. That’s an issue but the bigger limiting fact is just is personnel.
We knew going into this, Russia has been trying to expand this number of contract soldiers for years; they missed those targets every year, basically. I think they were supposed to hit 475,000 contract soldiers by 2018. The last number they gave was like 405,000. Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t, hard to know. And the fact that we know that it sent conscripts into Ukraine indicates that they have some issues here. So that’s not fully true. A lot of the personnel failures they’ve had, they’ve compensated by, I think, recruiting more officers to make up for what they couldn’t maintain in terms of contract soldiers. So the real manufacturer, there have been a bunch of estimates about Russian losses. I don’t know what the truth is there. Obviously the last thing they acknowledge was like 1,500, I think KIA, I think 3,000 wounded in action.
The figures clearly higher than that. But I kind of, I’m skeptical to dive into it because whatever figure we give is going to be not very accurate, a little confidence but clearly that there have been thousands of deaths. There have been probably tens of thousands of wounded in action. I mean, you look at the Russian invading force, 120 BPGs that comes out to be 80 to 90,000 troops. And that includes artillery includes electronic warfare. We talk about maneuver units, actual motorized rifle units or tank units. The numbers are far smaller and those units took a lot of causalities. And in particular elite Russian units with the VDV have been treated significantly, specialized units have been treated. So all the units that Russia would want to use for advances, for other kinds of things, things that are useful in this kind of war, they’ve had the worse attrition and that attrition the Russian, well they can’t really compensate that easily.
And the fact they invaded one with conscripts, two with Rosgvardia, OMON, riot polices with SOBR, type SWAT, Spetsnaz, and it’s got other units. They basically pulled everything they could for this invasion, the getting, which meant they didn’t have much in the way of reserves. And so talking about moving units from South Ossetia but it’s still, it’s minimal and they can’t really do too much. And it’s only on the margins. Big limiting facts for the Russian military here is personnel count. And they already at treated a significant portion of their most elite units, the best manned units and so they don’t really have units that can make up for that.
In terms of the equipment failures, it’s not as big an issue they’ve lost tanks or IFEs. They can make for that. It’s more indication that in some of these cases, what units are losing them. So the VDV is lost four battalion’s worth of armor vehicles. That tells you something about their personnel losses that can’t be easily made up for. So I think it’s more the personnel size is the issue, more so than the equipment side of the Russian military looking at this war.
ST: So the, yeah, the personnel side losses, that’s definitely one of the big issues for Russia to deal with. And you talked a little bit about the conscripts in the Russian military and I wonder how that is also going to play out in the future. I think it’s next month in April that they’re supposed to have the next conscription draft take place. So I wonder whether the actual occurrence of the conflict will severely limit the number of people that will actually show up for that, that could actually be a really interesting trigger for some domestic protests and things like that as well. I doubt everyone is very keen to go and serve in the Russian military at this point. But beyond the personnel, I also think it’s worth noting that even though Russia has massive stockpiles of rolling equipment of tanks and IFPs and everything, we do have to ask some questions about the condition that those are in.
One of the things that we know about the Russian military prior to this decade, I guess, is that the conditions of storage of these vehicles have been very poor. I mean, I’ve heard stories of these vehicles being stored and not even being run once over the course of years, that obviously means that certain parts of the engine will degrade, rubber hoses, things like that. And once you do turn them on again, they won’t run for very long. So it’s impossible to guess or estimate how big that problem would be. But I think we need to look a little realistically at all of those massive numbers that are being thrown around in terms of equipment reserves. And of course, in addition to that, the bigger problem as well is that Russia still doesn’t seem to have really fixed the logistical support issue of an offensive of this scale.
So even if they were able to keep pushing personnel to the units that serve on the front lines, if they can keep equipping them, they are still going to have to find a way to actually supply them, to allow them to fight in somewhat of a meaningful manner. And that’s something that I don’t really see them changing yet. And it makes me wonder, even if we are seeing this readjustment of Russian objectives to focus entirely on Donbas and the regions in the south that they’ve conquered but it looks like they might be going for some kind of an expanded a Donbas region that they might claim as a victory. It’s already interesting that they claim phase one has been a success in this war so far, that doesn’t really set much of an expectation for phase two but it looks like phase two could consist of that Donbas liberation, the new shape of Donbas that they will declare as some kind of a victory.
But they will still have to be able to hold onto that as they shift forces away from Kyiv and Chernihiv, if they have a remaining capacity there that they can actually even shift toward Donbas, that’s another question to ask, but when they do that, they will also free up Ukrainian forces that have been fighting on those fronts and that will be able to be committed in the east and the south. And I think Russia’s going to have to fight very hard to actually hold on to what they’ve taken there so far.
AS: And I think that – to cover a ground that I think hasn’t quite been addressed here yet – we’ve talked a lot about the battlefield developments and how they’ve impacted Russia’s performance. I think what’s really surprised me. One of the biggest shocks to me in this war has been Russia’s staggering losses in the information space, not just general consensus on the internet among anybody who isn’t willfully deluding themselves but all the way to the United Nations General Assembly, which met in emergency session for only the ninth or 10th time in its history, to almost universally condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shows that this is not 2014, where people were confused about what was going on, where people weren’t really sure who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, who the aggressor was, this is totally different. This is a combination of the American intelligence agencies getting out ahead of this in November and announcing to everybody, “Hey, this is going to happen.”
But beyond that, it’s the open source community in social media that is corroborated with the intelligence agencies were saying that one-two punch of independent analyst and the government working together and saying the same thing. And then the follow-up of seeing it literally play out, play by play like analysts predicted, has really done a lot to erode Russia’s position in terms of the information space. They don’t have a leg to stand on. Not a lot of people are buying what they have to sell. And I think that as long as that continues, were going to see more and more condemnation from the rest of the world but we’re also going to see things in terms of military support for Ukraine, with weapons and supplies being sent in.
And one of the biggest takeaways from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was that as long as the Israelis had a seemingly endless supply of armored fighting vehicles coming in from the Americans and a ready and willing group of young people to crew those vehicles, it’s very difficult to knock them out of the war. And I think we’re going to see the same thing with Ukraine. As long as Ukraine has support from the rest of the world and a seemingly endless supply of weapons and a bunch of young people willing to use those weapons, Russia can’t win this war. They maybe won’t lose it but they can’t win it the way they wanted to. And that’s one of my biggest takeaways, at least.
CR: Aram, I think that was a really great point that segues into my last question for you all. And it’s about this information space that is incredibly convoluted and complicated. So the Vietnam war was one of the first conflicts where the general public had a chance to witness a conflict as it happened through news broadcasts. And of course this capacity was increased through the use of personal camcorders during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we’re in the age of the smartphone where the average soldier and civilian can film and upload what’s happening around them.
And then of course, the public has the ability to watch this conflict in near totality. Now combine this, of course, with the ensuing information war where data and intelligence can be manipulated and requires further verification. Now, you all have been on the forefront of this very complicated landscape and leading an open source information effort in monitoring this crisis. I would love to hear from all of you and in your experience, I’m curious how you see this evolving and what lessons can be learned from OSINT collection in the war in Ukraine, what lessons can also the United States learn as it seeks to position itself as a proactive force multiplier for de-escalation and lasting regional stability.
RL: I’ve seen some people say this is the first social media war, which isn’t completely true because we know that Syria has been going on for the decade, it’s been heavily covered on social media. Nagorno-Karabakh was heavily covered as well. I think in some cases because this is going on Ukraine because it’s going on in Europe, there’s more interest and I think that’s an element. And another element too, is that a lot of the fighting is going on in cities where you have a higher population density, you have more people with the phones and more likely that stuff will get onto the internet. And so that’s another element to this. I guess one of the obvious things is, it’s hard to do a lot of things secretly nowadays. Now it’s true in the buildup there’s debate during the buildup; How much of this is this about coercion? Is it a bluff? Are they deliberately trying to show these systems near the border? And so on.
And I think the ultimate conclusion was that one was that a lot of soldiers didn’t know they were going to war. So they didn’t necessarily try to obscure things but seriously at some level it’s impossible to obscure a lot of things. If you’re moving around a lot of equipment, you can’t do too much of… You can’t really hide that much of it. You can hide certain things, you can hide timing maybe but a lot of the big things, it takes some move, it’s slow. You really can’t hide it that well. So a lot of that’s important. I think it’s important also just that a lot of this has been documented.
So the type of weapons that have been used, the TPs, a lot of the things, even if you’re not in the conflict zone, you can interpret things to a greater extent that you ever could before. So you can actually make relatively useful interpretation of what’s going on. And some lessons just from being thousands of miles away, that you can’t be in the war. So I think, all that stuff is relevant. Another one is just, guys shouldn’t bring cell phones into the combat. We’ve seen that before, those can be tracked. And I think one of thing is we’ll wait to learn from is that the extent of SIGINT and targeting and how much of a role that played. We know that the Russian forces had issues with encrypted communications and that they were relying on cell phones and that could be tracked, probably a significant role played on both sides of that role.
So there’s a lot of lessons to be learned about that. One of the other indications is that a lot of the competency of people who are good at open source intelligence, a lot of it came from the war in 2014 because Putin didn’t acknowledge his Russian forces. It became a really significant thing for people to try and track things, to figure out things, what was going on, what weapons were being used, so on. So a lot of that was expertise that was developed in 2014. It was developed in Syria, it was developed in Karabakh and now it’s being applied to here. And so you had greater competency of non-government source intelligence analyst who can interpret things readily, faster in this conflict than they could in previous ones because they had experience doing this.
So that’s another element is just that there’s greater non-government expertise in this realm. And also the satellite photos, commercial satellite photos are much readily available, that tells a story very quickly. We could see the airfield in Kherson, where all those helicopters were lost, we had satellite photos very quickly showing that, then satellite photos showing pontoon bridges being used, all that comes out often within a day or two of an event happening with very high def quality; that stuff 10 years ago, was only available to the intelligence agencies. So a lot of that stuff is just, it’s out there. It could be more readily seen by people, and in a number of ways it’s quite useful because U.S. intelligence community has an issue with over classifying a lot of things. And so a lot of lessons that are drawn, it gets put a TS level.
And so people can only read this stuff in Skia or somewhere else. And they can’t read this stuff on their own time and on weekends, so on a lot of information about wars is in public domain, they’re open sources. You can find it, it’s on TikTok, some elsewhere. And so these lessons can be published and talked about in unclass setting. And I don’t have a clearance, so I can talk about whatever I want to but a lot of that I find out and one of the big things during this war and buildup was that we would see indications from open sources before we’d see the confirmation from U.S. government sources. So we would see certain tanks deployed or certain weapons deployed in certain areas.
We’d see certain indications and then a day or two later in the briefing at the Pentagon, you’d see U.S. officials say something and it’s like, okay, this confirms what we already saw, we already thought it was going on, as an example, the forces moved from South Ossetia, I think it came out like two or three days prior. So a lot of those things it’s been interesting because you can see it from open sources before you get that confirmation from government sources. And it’s clear as to what extent this intelligence collection has been democratized outside of just government organizations.
ST: Very great points. I concur, one of the big evolutions that we’ve seen that make this so much more impactful right now was the growth of the community, which as you said, it all started around Syria and the 2014 Ukraine conflict. And I remember back then we were tracing patrols of separatist fighters off of YouTube videos and things like that. Now, before I can even open a YouTube video, there’s 15 people that have done it on Twitter before me. The community has just become so vast and so rapid and they’ve developed tools. They’ve developed procedures. They know what kinds of information are available out there. They know how to process them. They know what is useful under which conditions. And they’re constantly improving those as well. The unencrypted signals interception that you talked about, that stuff that’s happened in the past. During the Libya conflict, I think somewhere around 2014, 2015, people were playing around with intercepting radio communications on a very small scale.
Now we’re literally seeing people tracking the communications between Russian military units, trying to identify those units and their locations and trying to get ahead of their actual planning to support the Ukrainian war effort. And it creates a very new environment for warfare. I think there’s also some more negative sides to all of this because this also creates a situation where things start to travel a lot faster.
And some of the analyses that have been made by people within this OSINs sphere have not necessarily been as reliable but have suddenly burst out into wider communities and stuck there. And they are generating some noise on all of the efforts that are going on to actually understand what is happening, how things happened. There’s a lot of positive elements to it but definitely some things to be careful about here, too. There’s reasons that governments tend to be a little slower in what they are doing because they have a lot of different checks and balances in place before making their final calls and communicating those. So it’ll be interesting to see how that evolves in the future because this definitely won’t be the last conflict where we see this OSINT community play a part.
AS: To go off of that. I just wanted to say, I’m 30 years old now and so my first war that I really remember was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And I remember there was TV footage. There was live TV footage even and there were embedded reporters but it wasn’t like what we saw say during the Arab spring, where there were a bunch of people with cell phones, recording things and uploading them and sending them to Al Jazeera who had live streams on the ground. And that looks different than Euromaidan in 2014, when there were a number of cameras on the ground in Ukraine live streaming the events of the protests and the early days of the war. But from a journalistic perspective, it was a [inaudible] camera. So it was from the Russian perspective. So they would find the most antagonistic parts of the crowd or whatever.
Now what we’ve seen with this war, at least in the beginning, there were so many sources of live streaming data, video, audio streams, things like that, it was actually overwhelming at first. And so as somebody who has four screens on their computer to dedicate to this kind of thing, I was overwhelmed. Four screens was not enough to cover the number of video feeds coming out of Ukraine in the beginning because Ukraine’s a very connected country – and that’s another change that we’ve seen in this war, is that in the past when Russia invaded Donbas, they very quickly gained the support of the local authorities. That is the internet service providers and things of that nature. This war has been different. The internet service providers have a vested interest in keeping these internet services online for people to upload videos, to get to the wider world.
And so while we’ve seen livestream videos cut from all across Ukraine as the security situation has devolved, some cameras have been cut for security reasons. Some have been literally hit with a giant stick. I saw several videos of Russian soldiers with giant sticks, hitting cameras. And so for one reason or another, most of these cameras are down now but the internet service remains up because there’s an interest in the local community and in the local officials to keep the internet and the information flowing.
And as long as you have that and then a porous border with several NATO states, it’s not Kazakhstan in central Asia, that you can surround and cut the information off from. You will never stifle the information coming out of Ukraine, no matter how hard you try, unless you’re willing to seal the border with land forces with NATO. And even then that can’t stop internet. So what we’re seeing is Russia is learning that you can’t win an information war with the same playbook around the world today, what worked in Kazakhstan isn’t necessarily going to work in Ukraine, and what worked in Syria isn’t going to work in Ukraine. And that’s part of what we’re seeing is that information spaces are very different depending on where you are in the world.
CR: Well, thank you so much Aram, Sim and Rob very much for your insights today. On behalf of the New Lines Institute, I just want to thank you all very much for the insightful and very in depth analysis about the evolving security landscape and this prescient inflection point, in U.S.-Russian relations. And then of course the precarious power vacuum that is in merging in Ukraine. Your work in monitoring this unfolding conflict has been very invaluable and it has been an honor to talk to you all three today. And to our listeners, thank you so much for joining us on this latest episode of the New Lines Contours podcast series. All the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.