OSINT and the Russia-Ukraine War, One Week Post-Invasion
Open-source intelligence (OSINT), which derives insights from publicly-available sources, is becoming an important resource in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Just one week after Russia launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine, OSINT is being widely used to understand on-the-ground activities and fact-check narratives from news and social media.
Open-source social media content and satellite imagery are prominent OSINT sources in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and have been used to:
- Track military infrastructure. For example, license plate information taken from social media content has been used to link vehicles to government bodies. Some media outlets claim that Google Maps Live Traffic data helped predict the Russian invasion on February 24th by detecting traffic jams. Satellite imagery can also determine the progress of Russian vehicles, indicating setbacks and advances.
- Assess on-the-ground events and casualty numbers. As users post photos and videos from the ground, analysts can monitor attacks and assess damage in real-time. This week, OSINT has been used to determine the use of cluster munitions—which have been banned by over 100 countries—in civilian areas. Public social media content and satellite imagery also help analysts precisely geolocate activities, such as those pinned on this crowdsourced map.
- Debunk misinformation. Analysts can evaluate visual media to validate the time and place of capture. For example, this public spreadsheet created by Bellingcat demonstrates the use of open-source data to fact-check incident narratives coming from Russian news and social media.
What’s the impact?
According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, OSINT now drives 80% of intelligence reporting. Open-source data is now a higher priority for intelligence teams than it was in past conflicts, like Crimea’s annexation in 2014. This is due to its ability to provide:
- Additional context to classified intelligence sources
- Information in areas not accessible to classified intelligence-gathering tools like drones
- Real-time information
- Accurate, on-the-ground information that can be fact-checked and isn’t subject to the influence of government narratives
This has several positive impacts on pro-Ukraine forces. It can help governments make more informed, timely decisions in response to the conflict, and helps Ukraine identify and counter Russian information operations, which play a huge role in the conflict.
However, negligent OSINT practices can negatively impact Ukraine’s resistance. Russian forces may exploit open-source data revealing military and refugee movements in Ukraine. This has already been recognized by Google, which disabled live traffic data in Ukraine to protect citizens.
Counter-misinformation strategies could also motivate Russia to further crack down on internet usage and leverage its information tactics.
How Can Analysts Gather OSINT Effectively?
Open-source data will play a key role in the Russia-Ukraine war as governments develop policies and make national security decisions. Analysts must use reliable OSINT tools to gather timely, relevant information.
A variety of free tools are valuable for analysts in this conflict—such as reverse image search engines and various mapping tools. Paid tools offer broader functionality, like geofencing, AI, and advanced analytics. For intelligence teams, these features are often necessary to gather, process, and analyze public data efficiently in a rapidly evolving conflict.
To avoid information gaps, analysts should also ensure that their OSINT toolkit provides adequate regional data coverage. Mainstream sources like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have proven valuable so far—but regional networks provide a different perspective and can generate more well-rounded intelligence. This includes sources like OK.ru and Dvach, Russia’s largest imageboard.
Updates for food and ammunition statuses in various cities—discovered via the Echosec Systems Platform
To learn more about OSINT and the use of OSINT tools to monitor geopolitical situations, contact us today.