Russia’s digital footprint in Ukraine is bloody

If Russian forces committed war crimes in a month of invasion in Ukraine, and there is every chance that they did, then those crimes are already so strongly documented that some future court will not have much work in order to prove and convict the suspected war criminals. Gathering evidence will not cost a ruble, let alone a euro, teams of investigators are not needed, and most importantly, years will not have to pass to establish the truth about mass murders, displacement of millions of civilians and destruction of cities in Ukraine. Evidence was collected almost in real time when the crimes were committed. That must cause horror in the Kremlin, if there is anyone left there who thinks rationally.

No one spied on them, no one planted anything on them, and most of the evidence was made by themselves or by their state, which sent them to occupy Ukraine. Everything they recorded on their mobile phones, everything published by Russian war propaganda, everything about the movement of troops or the actions they performed and put it all on the Internet, was collected and analyzed by an “army” of tens of thousands of hobbyists around the world, opponents of Russian aggression.

One of them is 29-year-old Kyle Glenn, who works at a clinic in Wales, but spends his free time analyzing and verifying the authenticity of data on the war in Ukraine. Only those data that are available to the public, that is, published on the Internet and social media. The Washington Post describes one of his recent “actions”.

As footage appeared on the Internet claiming to be a recording of an attack by Russian aviation on civilians moving through refugee corridors, Welshman Kyle did not want to take it for granted. He tried to determine what was true. In the video, he first singled out one specific building, in this case an Orthodox church with four gilded domes. Comparing it with other recordings (for example, the AP agency) and with Google maps, he determined that it was a church in the city of Irpin in the Kyiv area. Scanning and comparing the conversations and posts that people from the refugee corridor in Irpin posted on Discord, Reddit and Twitter, he unequivocally determined for those 12 minutes – the video is authentic, Russian planes bombed a corridor of civilians. Of course, he posted his finding on Twitter, along with the evidence and explanation to whoever needs it. To some war crimes tribunal for sure.

There are tens of thousands of enthusiasts like the Welshman Kyle around the world. They are not a conspiracy group, let alone a spy agency; they are ordinary citizens who make little effort to oppose Russian aggression against Ukraine. And it turns out that they do a lot.

For those who are fighting against Russian aggression with economic sanctions, there is also room for action. Enthusiasts who follow the movements of private planes and yachts of Putin’s oligarchs are networking. Until the beginning of the Russian invasion, one of them was interested in following and posting on Twitter, where the private planes of Tesla owner Elon Musk are flying. He used, of course, publicly available air traffic monitoring applications, such as Flight Radar. Since February 24, he left Elon Musk alone and put his skills in the service of tracking the flights of Putin’s oligarchs, who in those days were manically looking for a place where they could escape, so that their planes would not be seized due to sanctions imposed on them by the West. Another “team” dedicated itself to monitoring the yachts of the rich Russians, in the same attempt to escape to peaceful ports, where they are not threatened with confiscation of property. For many, it was already late.

They like to call themselves part of the OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) community, and are able to follow every moment of the war in Ukraine, including every action of the Russian or Ukrainian army. Within five weeks of the war, the work of these enthusiasts was already influencing military strategies on the ground. Realizing the power of this network, the Ukrainian government allowed citizens to post locations and recordings of the movements of Russian troops on its official application. “We receive tens of thousands of reports every day, and they are very, very useful,” said Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov.

The aggressor army, which has hundreds of thousands of eyes and cameras around it, as well as the system that processes it all, separates lies from truth, editing from authentic footage, cannot be calm, nor dedicated to its task. The paranoia that Russian soldiers are fighting is real. Everything they do, wherever they go in a few minutes, will reach their enemies, but also the farthest point in the world, cleansed of lies, of montages and manipulations.

In my book “Two Faces of Globalization – Truth and Deceptions”, in the section dedicated to social media, three years ago I concluded that – “the modern battlefield where world rivals clash has completely moved to cyberspace, the main arena where the influence on the world’s political, security and economic developments is lost or gained”. It was not a forecast made by heart, but a research conclusion based on numerous case-studies dedicated to the power of digital communications in conflicts around the world. They could have drawn the same conclusions in Moscow, but they were probably intoxicated by their own stories about the strength of their own steel and the “Russian man”, so they were not very interested in useless digital things.

If they were not intoxicated with their own power, they would know that OSINT was not established yesterday. Networking of hobbyists in order to clear the truth about important events from fake news starts in 2011, during the Arab Spring. Mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt were under scrutiny then. The network especially developed three years later, during the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the evidence they provided was the key to establishing that a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine was actually shot down by a missile from the Russian side. And today, wherever they live and work, in Australia, Korea, Israel, and even in Russia and Donbas, they follow what is happening at every point in Ukraine.

They are not part of any corporate structure, as it turned out with the former Cambridge Analytica and similar projects that were misused by social networks to manipulate personal data and preferences at the expense of politicians (Trump) or large companies.

These are ordinary people, they have their own jobs and families, they deal with them most of the day, but they have a passion to spend their free time on digital platforms and they have basic skills for using them. Their main passion, however, is for truth and peace. There are many of them who have technical and even military knowledge, so their words are important when it is necessary to determine on a video whether a tank belongs to the Russians or the Ukrainians in order to find out the truth. They are completely different politically, there are both right-wingers and left-wingers, most of them are apolitical, but all of them have in common that they are open-minded and accept when they are wrong, if someone from the network proves it to them.

Their main “tool” is geolocation, but there are other important applications and databases that ordinary citizens can access. For example, flight tracking platforms or NASA’s fire database, which they use to spot thermal anomalies in Ukraine to locate the conflict zone. If someone monitors data from public meteorological stations, and notices that stations near Ukrainian airports emit strange data or do not emit them at all, then it can be concluded with high probability that the airport was attacked and its facilities damaged, since the meteorological station is no longer on line. Friends in the network will compare this information with other data from the field – recordings, communication on social networks, geolocation, and in the blink of an eye, everyone will know what is really happening.

One of the platforms that have “exploded” since the beginning of the war in Ukraine is Project Owl, which began as a network of individuals willing to share storm data in America to help the population hide or evacuate in time. Out of 15 thousand activists at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the Project Owl doubled its network, to about 30 thousand “detectors” and analysts. They all follow the war in real time and send real information, evidence and explanations to the world. Thousands of precise analyses, authentic recordings, and information of all kinds connected in time and space context are available. Without satellites, spies on the ground and other expensive war “toys”, so far irreplaceable in warfare.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, among many other weaknesses in planning, has apparently forgotten that it should be carried out in digital, not analog time. This will be well remembered, for example, by General Mikhail Mizintsev, a man who is already called the “Butcher of Mariupol”, the commander of the attack and destruction of this Ukrainian city, including the bombing of the maternity hospital. He will not have to explain anything, because thousands of authentic information and recordings already speak enough about his “liberation” endeavor. He will only be able to explain to a future war crimes court who issued such orders.

Apart from the Ukrainian mud and the total resistance of the Ukrainian army and people, the Russian aggressor has also sunk into a digital swamp from which it cannot get out. Either they forgot or they didn’t know that the Vietnam War was the first television war, that the First Gulf War, thanks to CNN, was the first live broadcast on TV, and that it is logical that one of the next conflicts will be digital. And then nothing will be able to stay hidden.

We are witnessing the great defeat not only of the outdated military doctrine, implemented by outdated weapons and the outdated way of motivating the army and the people, but also the great defeat of the resistance of a dictatorship to the digital age. If Russia’s weapon against the truth on the Internet and other media is called “Roskomnadzor”, like a Stalin-era factory, and its main job is to shut down and close Internet channels that give a different version of the war than the Kremlin, then it is clear they set out on Ukraine with bare hands. It is too late for a lesson, the winner, at least in the cyber sphere, is already known. And since we have proved that victory in the digital sphere is also the only one that counts today, then we know the entire outcome of this war.