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The Ukraine-Russia War Confirms the Value of OSINT

Written by: Richard Baffa

There is no doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored the growing importance of open source intelligence (OSINT). Real-time updates from anyone with a cellphone or an internet connection are being posted by amateur analysts, journalists, and ordinary citizens throughout the region on social media channels and blogs, reaching thousands of people and impacting the course of the war. Footage and photos from phones, combined with commercial satellite images and Google traffic alerts, have revealed Russian troop movements and military convoys, with results shared to and from Twitter and TikTok. 

OSINT is having an impact at the operational level of war. For example, Babel Street identified what I believe to be the first use of “crowdsourcing” intelligence in war. According to social media, the Ukrainian army directed citizens to provide information on Russian military activity via social media for action. And on February 27, 2022, for several hours Ukrainians passed the locations of a column as it transited toward Kyiv; the column reportedly was attacked and destroyed near Bucha by early afternoon. This almost certainly has happened numerous times since the conflict began.    

OSINT Fuels Advance Warnings

The applicability of OSINT during an international conflict is wide-ranging, from Indications and Warnings (I&W) to humanitarian developments. OSINT can, indeed, serve as a leading indicator of events. As far back as January 2021, for example, Babel Street detected a noticeable rise in Russian anti-Ukrainian chatter across the big data landscape at least two months before Russian force movements toward the Ukrainian border began. 

Babel Street picked up a significant rise in chatter around the Russian Donbass narrative but also identified large networks pushing disinformation aimed at establishing a case for intervention. The large rise in chatter, combined with the network to execute the disinformation campaign, provided early warning of Russia’s intervention; the deployment of Russian forces began months later. 

In January 2022, we again identified a sharp rise in daily pro-Russian social media posts; over 500 separatist influencers were posting unique content. These posts spread accusations of Ukrainian aggression and human rights violations while Russian media were painting NATO as the aggressor, all in an apparent attempt to create a pretext for an invasion. Moscow and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continued this disinformation campaign into February prior to the invasion. Some of the disinformation included: shelling and sabotage in the separatist republics; Russian troop withdrawals; sabotage of a chemical plant; and the killing of Russians in the Donbass. 

 Spotting More than “Official” Military Moves

In January, we also detected elements of the Russian Wagner Group re-deploying from Africa to Ukraine, another indicator that Moscow could be engaged in serious preparations for war. Wagner Group is a paramilitary organization established in 2014 with close ties to the Kremlin, which has been engaged in a number of conflicts including the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass. The group has also been active in Syria, Libya and most recently Africa, engaging in a wide range of violent activities and providing Putin with thinly veiled plausible deniability. 

Traditional media subsequently reported between 2,000-4,000 Wagner Group operatives were deploying to engage in operations including the planned assassination of President Zelensky and other top government officials. Numerous social media posts substantiated these reports.     

OSINT Sharpens the Picture

The Russian-Ukraine war has revealed the value of OSINT across a wide array of topic areas from the operational to strategic. As I noted in my earlier blog post, OSINT will not replace  classified intelligence, which continues to provide knowledge and insight that only the intelligence agencies’ collection platforms can deliver. That said, the ability to tap into this enormous Big Data ecosystem during a conflict and derive understanding and insight, in near real-time, is groundbreaking. 

I would argue OSINT has emerged as an essential element of intelligence analysis, a discreet discipline that significantly enhances classified intelligence and will only grow in importance in years to come as publicly available information increases and new capabilities in artificial intelligence and machine learning emerge. This raises an important question: what is the best way to employ OSINT, to integrate it into the broader intelligence analysis enterprise for decision advantage given the rapidly accelerating volume and velocity of Big Data? In an upcoming post, I’ll propose a model for doing just that.

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