WASHINGTON—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.
A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon
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.
Read More (...)