World

The smartphone war: Soldiers, civilians and satellites give the world a window onto Russian invasion

A month and a half into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we've become so used to the steady stream of videos and images coming at us from the front lines that it's easy to forget it's not the norm to have a ringside seat to war unless you're fighting in it.

Open source intelligence helps in understanding how war in Ukraine is unfolding

Ukrainian army soldier Dasha, 22, checks her phone after a military sweep on the outskirts of Kyiv last Friday. Smartphones have been essential for combatants and civilians in the war and have provided a means to share footage directly from the scene of fighting. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

A month and a half into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we've become so used to the steady stream of videos and images coming from the front lines that it's easy to forget it's not the norm to have a ringside seat to war unless you're fighting in it.

Soldiers sharing cellphone video of missile attacks as they happen; residents posting footage of military units occupying their towns in real time and live streaming from bomb shelters; government officials tweeting drone video of destroyed tank columns and downed aircraft.

All amplified over thousands of Telegram channels, Twitter feeds and TikTok accounts around the world.

"People are basically acting as war reporters, but it's by the tens of thousands," said Samuel Bendett, a research analyst and Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va. "This war is playing out on our smartphones in ways that no other conflicts probably have so far." 

It's not that there hasn't been footage from active combat shared on social media before. In Syria and Iraq, for example, ISIS and other rebel groups made ample use of drones and cellphones to trumpet victories on social media. But the difference in this war is that much of the footage is coming from the military.

"Most times, professional militaries don't have their phones out filming in the middle of a gun fight," said Kyle Glen, one of a dedicated group of internet sleuths who have been sorting through the reams of video and images coming out of Ukraine and disseminating it for English-speaking audiences, primarily on Twitter.

Ukrainian servicemen climb on a military vehicle outside Kyiv. Conventional militaries don't generally allow soldiers to disseminate the kind of front-line footage we've seen in the Ukraine war. (Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press)

"I am quite surprised at how much footage there is of the actual fighting."

Glen, 29, started tracking what's known as open source intelligence, or OSINT, when the war in Eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014 on his own Twitter feed and one he started with two other OSINT enthusiasts called Conflict News. He went on to follow the wars in Syria and Iraq.

A hive-mind approach

Glen, who is based in Swansea, Wales, and fellow OSINTers put a lot of effort into sorting wheat from chaff. 

Verifying the provenance and veracity of footage often requires a hive-mind approach, with some contributing specialized expertise and others simply the doggedness to dissect and cross-reference sources. They often share insights on the messaging platform Discord before releasing the content elsewhere.

"There are people who are, you know, just absolute wizards at locating where a video was shot. So I will reach out to those people … if I need help confirming something," Glen said. "A lot of OSINT is just very collaborative." 

A screen grab of a Twitter thread among users geolocating footage of Russian military vehicles under attack in Nova Basan that was originally posted on Telegram by a Ukrainian paramilitary group. (Arlson_Xudosi/Twitter)

Earlier this week, for example, a Russian channel on the messaging platform Telegram, where the bulk of war news within Ukraine has been shared, posted what were purportedly Western-made rocket launchers seized from the Ukrainians by the Russian military.

"Another OSINT account realized that these were … one-shot rocket launchers that had been used and discarded," Glen said. 

Weapons analysis

Some OSINT sites, such as Bellingcat, have been around for years while others, such as Ukrainian Radio Watchers, sprang up to track specific aspects of this war.

Analyzing weapons and military equipment being used by Russians and Ukrainians has become its own sub-specialty of OSINT coverage. Accounts such as Ukraine Weapons Tracker and Oryx have been meticulously tracking destroyed and captured equipment on both sides. 

That kind of publicly available intel allows military analysts to help settle debates about the use of chemical or banned weapons, for example, said Mark Cancian, a retired colonel with the U.S. Marine Corps and a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"Outsiders looking at these pictures can make those judgments and not rely on governments to filter the judgments," he said. "I've been sent a bunch of pictures, you know, asking me, 'Is this a cluster munition' … and that would not have been possible without government participation in the past."

A cat walks on used, disposable rocket launchers in the southern port city of Mariupol. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A lot of the battlefield content from Ukraine originates with soldiers posting to smaller groups on Telegram and WhatsApp video that is then reposted on aggregator channels.

"There are issues with that, obviously. Each aggregator has their own biases," said the American political science student behind the Twitter account OSINTtechnical who has been tracking open source content since 2019 and doesn't use his real name publicly out of concern for his security.

"The best way that I have found to handle that is act like no one is trustworthy. Act like anything could be a fake."

Both he and Glen say that although some fake videos and recycled footage from other conflicts were circulated at the start of the war, much of the video coming out of Ukraine has been reliable, even if it's coming from participants who are obviously partisan.

"Ukrainians have been pretty good with supporting their claims with additional information, which you know, makes it independently verifiable," said OSINTtechnical.

A satellite image shows burning fuel storage tanks in Chernihiv northeast of Kyiv on March 21. (Maxar)
An analysis of a satellite image by the United Nations Satellite Centre shows the extent of damage from Russian attacks in Chernihiv. UNOSAT is one of the organizations that has been using satellite data from the commercial satellite company Maxar to track the war. (Maxar/UNOSAT/UNITAR)

Backlash at showing Ukrainian losses

Still, when video surfaced earlier this week from Mariupol of captured Ukrainian soldiers, he spent several hours analyzing it, looking for telltale signs it had been doctored and searching for supporting claims from other sources.

"I verified, you know, these soldiers were wearing Ukrainian camouflage pattern. They were wearing a Ukrainian-produced body armour …  some of them had domestic-made Ukrainian helmets the Russians do not have access to. And everything was very consistent." 

Such effort is not always rewarded, however: OSINTtechnical was bombarded with replies alleging it was fake.

"[It was] almost to a level that I've seen Russian trolls doing," he said. "It's a bit eye-opening that we're starting to see this also happen on the Ukrainian side."

Glen got a similar reaction when he posted images from a video of Ukrainian soldiers executing captured Russian soldiers on a road near the village of Dmytrivka. 

That might be in part because of the general disparity in the volume and type of information coming from the two sides, said OSINTtechnical.

"There's a lot less of that, you know, front-line footage from the Russians that comes out on a daily basis. Whereas whenever Ukrainians destroy a tank, there's going to be 20 different photos of it," he said. 

OSINT experts are often cross-referencing that front-line footage with other public sources to get the full picture, such as mapping software, commercial satellite images and even NASA's fire-monitoring data, which has proven handy in corroborating missile strikes.

This week, the New York Times used satellite images from Maxar, a space technology company that has been disseminating images from Ukraine throughout the war, to counter Russian claims about the timing of civilian deaths in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.

"It's really an unprecedented amount of information, and it's making the … operation of Russia's propagandists a lot harder," said John Scott-Railton, senior researcher with the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

"Once upon a time, you know, they could just swoop in after an event and lie about it for a while, and there was no quick counter-narrative." 

Police officers work on the identification process Wednesday of some of the civilians killed in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv while it was occupied by Russian forces. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

Drones a tool in ground and information war

Much of the footage from the war has come from commercial drones, which are being used not just to disseminate information about the war but for military reconnaissance. 

Taras Troiak is one of the people helping get drones into the hands of the Ukrainian military. Before the war, he was the Ukrainian distributor for DJI, one of the biggest suppliers of consumer drones in the world, but donated his stock to the military and is now helping train soldiers in how to use it. He is also co-ordinating donations of drones from abroad, including some from Canada. 

"I even didn't imagine that this tool can be so powerful in case of [a] big war," he said by phone from Kyiv. "So when I see the video, when the drones help to save lives of Ukrainians and to destroy Russian troops, for sure, I'm happy with this."

While observers and DJI itself have raised concerns about the use of commercial drones in combat, Troiak said Ukraine needs more of them.

But for all the visibility that drones, satellites and cellphones give us into the war, there are still dark spots, such as the full picture of the devastation in Mariupol or the scale of Ukraine's military losses.

"The Ukrainians are trying to shape perceptions in the West and the way they do that is by highlighting Russian casualties and saying nothing about their own," said Cancian. "The result is that, you know, our understanding and our views are very skewed, and we have to keep that in mind." 

WATCH | Drone video shows aftermath of fighting in Borodyanka:

Residents return to destroyed homes in Borodyanka

3 months ago
Duration 0:34
After the area was retaken from Russian forces, the people of Borodyanka, Ukraine, returned to find their homes and neighbourhoods in ruins.

Internet cuts through fog of war

One aspect of the war that has astounded many analysts is that aside from a cyberattack at the start of the invasion that briefly knocked out service to thousands of Ukrainians, the internet has remained up and running.

"What is surprising to me is the fact that Russian military didn't try to limit the communications in the areas where it was fighting and in the areas that it was supposedly controlling," said Bendett. "Then, of course, it became clear that the Russians themselves were using civilian communications networks."

Members of a displaced family from Kyiv check their phones inside a bomb shelter during an air raid in Lviv in western Ukraine on March 19. Phones have been a lifeline for those forced to shelter in basements and bunkers for long periods of time during shelling. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Speaking on satellite phones, smartphones and unsecured radio transmissions might run counter to the usual operational security militaries enforce, but it has given Ukrainian defence officials and ordinary citizens, a peek behind the curtain of Russia's military campaign. 

Having a sustained internet connection in war time has paid huge dividends overall for Ukraine, said Scott-Railton, blunting the fog of war and disrupting the usual information asymmetry between those who are there and those who aren't.

"I hope that countries around the world are watching and concluding that even in times of crisis, it's good to keep the internet turned on."

WATCH | Russia-backed soldiers fire at Ukrainian forces in Mariupol:

Fighting in Mariupol rages on between Russia-backed and Ukrainian forces

3 months ago
Duration 1:02
Fighting between Ukrainian and Russia-backed soldiers continues in Mariupol, though there have been sightings of civilians still amid the ongoing urban warfare.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.

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