What Role Does OSINT Play in Ukraine Crisis?

One of the defining characteristics of the Russia-Ukraine War has been the emergence of OSINT, or open-source intelligence. The term itself is not new. Several years ago, the British Foreign Office created an ‘open-source intelligence unit’ tasked with gathering information from online sources. This information would then be used by British diplomats to obtain foreign policy goals. For instance, using images shared online, and video testimonies of doctors, the open-source unit provided diplomats with evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons during the Syrian Civil War.

In the present War in Ukraine, OSINT plays a different role as intelligence experts, or self-proclaimed experts, offer analysis of War-related events in near-real time. This was most evident last week when OSINT experts quickly analyzed images of Russian rockets that landed in Poland killing two people. Within a matter of hours, OSINT experts shared images of the Russian rockets, analyzed their origin, their trajectory and their potential impact. Soon, OSINT experts concluded that the Russian missiles were intercepted by Ukrainian air defense and that this interception altered the missiles’ trajectory leading to the explosion in Poland.

As always, the problem with social media is the inability to distinguish between actual OSINT experts and self-proclaimed experts. The former can play an important role in how crises play out. For instance, had OSINT experts concluded that Russia did target Poland, this accusation would have trended online exerting pressure on NATO states to respond to the Russian attack on a member state. Conversely, by concluding that the missile attack on Poland was not deliberate, OSINT experts provided diplomats with the perfect justification for not to escalate tensions with Russia.

Self-proclaimed experts can play an even more important role by spreading false information, validating conspiracy theories, creating and disseminating disinformation and providing online users with supposed “proof” of state action. Given the current state of Twitter, distinguishing between real experts and self-proclaimed ones is harder than ever. With the removal of the blue “verified” checkmark, Twitter users following the OSINT community must check every account, Google every name and try to establish who is and is not an expert.

But most users, present company included, are too lazy to do so. Thus, Twitter feeds become a blend of expertise and lies.

However, the popularity of OSINT accounts may prove beneficial in the long-term. Since the beginning of the War in Ukraine, journalists, media institutions and diplomats have come to rely on OSINT accounts for insight and real-time information. Thanks to OSINT accounts, the present War in Ukraine is not just mediated through social media, it is mediated in near-real time. The videos, images and maps shared by OSINT accounts have proven important in countering Russian propaganda and refuting Russian lies. Gone are the days when the Kremlin could simply declare it had conquered another province in Ukraine or that its troops had made major gains in battles. OSINT accounts could disprove such claims within a few hours.

Another important benefit is that OSINT accounts limit authoritarian states’ ability to conceal losses or strategic blunders. This benefit came to light in recent days following reports that Ukrainian drones were used to attack Russian air bases far removed from Ukraine’s borders and had even destroyed or damaged Russian long-range bombers. Initially these reports were discounted by Russian officials. But soon images of destroyed Russian planes and satellite images of damaged runways were shared across social media by OSINT accounts. As more and more OSINT accounts verified Ukraine’s drone attack, the pressure on Russia mounted. Finally, the Russian ministry of defense admitted that an attack had occurred but resulted in little damage.

This example demonstrates the long-term impact of OSINT accounts on social media. One of the strengths of authoritarian states is their ability to control the flow of information in and out of the country. Authoritarian states can thus conceal strategic blunders or losses creating the sense that they are all powerful and infallible.

Famously, no murders were ever reported in the USSR as “there are no murders in paradise”.  Similarly, Russia, Iran and China never lose battles, or fail to develop new weapons or suffer blunders. Until now. Using diverse sources, ranging from Google earth to social media posts and TikTok videos, OSINT accounts have deprived authoritarian states of an important asset. There are now visible cracks in Russia’s shield that cannot long remain hidden. As the UK Ministry of Defense tweeted yesterday, the Ukrainian drone attack deep within Russian territory, was the “most strategically significant failure of force protection” since the War began.

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