Satellite images, social media posts and flight-tracking data allow private analysts to track details governments once classified.
Russia faces a very 21st century challenge as it piles up forces near Ukraine’s border: Much of its military operation is being carried out in plain sight.
Taking on a role once reserved for spies, amateur sleuths and analysts with private and nongovernmental organizations are tracking Russia’s buildup day by day, mining commercial satellite images, social-media posts and flight-tracking data to compile a strikingly precise picture of Moscow’s deployments—and of the U.S. military’s efforts to monitor them.
Satellite photos taken by commercial satellite and imaging company Maxar Technologies Inc., for example, have turned up an array of new units in western Russia and Crimea. In December, images revealed more than 350 vehicles parked at an abandoned ammunition storage facility near the Russian town of Klintsy, just north of the Ukraine border.
“It is almost like they are freeze-dried units,” said a Maxar analyst. “Just add troops and the units are ready to move!”
The use of open-source intelligence, or OSINT, isn’t new. What has changed, according to former officials and analysts, is wider and cheaper access to more data, allowing private citizens to track the Russia-Ukraine confrontation and provide the public with details that once would have been classified. That, in turn, has allowed the Biden administration to speak in greater detail publicly about the buildup, they said.
In response, Russia’s military, which is practiced in the use of camouflage and deception, has taken steps to try to disguise its ultimate intentions by removing license plates from military vehicles, painting over insignia and operating in smaller units, the analysts and former officials said.
For all the details about the buildup, analysts both in the U.S. government and outside it don’t know whether Russia will attack, and if so, how and where.
“The Russian military is conducting a buildup that is inherently visible, but it is doing it deliberately and slowly in a way that is intended to retain operational surprise,” said Michael Kofman, an authority on Russia’s armed forces at CNA Corp.
“They move forces back and forth so you can’t know for certain where these troops will end up until very late in the game when there’s precious little time to react,” Mr. Kofman said. “Ukraine would not necessarily know where they plan to attack, which is the feint and which is the real vector.”
Officials with Russia’s Defense Ministry and presidential administration didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Open-source satellite imagery has helped shine a spotlight on Russia’s troop movements,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said. “We have also sought to leverage the unique analytic expertise of the intelligence community” to share information and insights with allies, partners and the broader public.
Open-source intelligence once largely referred to the monitoring of press reports around the world by the U.S. and other governments. The term now encompasses a wider array of material including social media, posts on web forums, satellite imagery and commercially available data culled from smartphones that can divulge reams of personal information, including precise location details.
Russia is gathering a force that the U.S. government says already numbers about 100,000 troops and might grow to as many as 175,000. The private analysts have compiled videos from social media and other sources of Russian military road convoys and trains, and used satellite images to watch as individual units gather in encampments.
The ability to monitor the current buildup is much greater than it was in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, said Jeffrey Edmonds, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who was the senior Ukraine specialist at the National Security Council early that year.
Combining commercial satellite images and Twitter posts allows private experts to be “roughly on the same page” as the U.S. intelligence community, said Mr. Edmonds, also at CNA Corp. “It’s impressive how close someone can be on the outside.”
U.S. officials said in late December that Russia has deployed 53 battalion tactical groups, each with about 800 troops, near its border with Ukraine.
Konrad Muzyka, president of Rochan Consulting, a Gdansk, Poland-based firm that conducts open-source intelligence assessments focused on Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, said he has identified and located about 48 Russian battalion tactical groups. “I’m just five behind. And I’m doing only open source,” Mr. Muzyka said.
Armchair sleuths using flight-tracking data last week followed the flight paths of U.S. RC-135 and E-8 reconnaissance planes over Ukraine.
For the E-8 aircraft, which use powerful radar to monitor enemy ground movements, the Dec. 27 flight was the first time the plane had operated in Ukrainian airspace, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Russ Wolfkiel, a U.S. European Command spokesman, said. A second E-8 flight took place three days later.
“Of course, we are aware of the various technology that allows our activities to be publicly monitored,” Lt Cmdr. Wolfkiel said. “We are transparent about the fact that we conduct these types of flights with European allies and partners routinely.”
U.S. officials have said they are keeping a close eye on Russia’s forces, and that President Biden will respond to an invasion with stiff economic sanctions, additional defense aid to Ukraine and by reinforcing positions on the territory of NATO’s Eastern European nations.
Russian officials have denied plans to invade Ukraine and said that the government has the right to deploy forces on Russian territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also said that he is prepared to carry out “military technical measures,” if the West continues what he called its “aggressive line.”
Open-source intelligence analysts said Russian deployments north of Ukraine appear to be significant, as they are not positioned for a response to attacks the Russian military says Ukrainian forces are preparing to carry out in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces in that area since 2014.
In addition to the “freeze-dried units” near Klintsy, Maxar photos show new deployments near the Russian towns of Kursk, Valuyki and Dorogobuzh, and the central Crimean town of Bakhchysarai. Near the town of Yelnya, north of the Ukraine border, images show a sizable buildup of forces from Russia’s 41st Army, far from its home garrison in Siberia, analysts said.
The Russians were less vigilant in trying to conceal their activities when they moved into Crimea in 2014 and during an earlier buildup of forces near Ukraine in spring 2021, the analysts and former officials said.
“What we’re seeing is maybe the Russians have learned from some of the operational security mistakes they made in the spring,” said Thomas Bullock, an open-source intelligence specialist at defense analyst Janes.
Bullock said the Russian armed forces have started removing from vehicles license plates that can identify their region of origin and painting over tactical insignia on military equipment. That practice was also documented by the Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, a group of Russian bloggers.
Muzyka said that his and some other analysts’ access to a Russian website used to track the movement of train cars has apparently been blocked by Russia and, in the last two weeks, the site has begun reporting bogus data about train movements. “It’s becoming worse and worse,” he said of efforts to gather open-source intelligence.
The large-scale exercise that Russian forces conducted near Ukraine in the spring, analysts said, may have been an effort to inure observers to the presence of Russian troops in the region so they would have trouble telling the difference between training and war preparations.
Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at Rand Corp., said the spring exercise gave Russia an opportunity to practice deployment, gauge the response and leave forces near Ukraine for use later.
Putin in May 2020 issued a decree banning members of Russia’s armed forces from carrying devices such as smartphones and tablets that can transmit locations and photographs while on duty.
While observers detected some social media and smartphone activities from service members in the spring, “We are not seeing as much of that right now,” Massicot said.