Watching a war in real time

Information is the lifeblood of the battlefield. If an army marches on its stomach – and travels on fuel – its direction is decided by information. A military fighting a war in modern times is able to access a vast quantity of information, unlike the generals of antiquity. But so, too, do its opponents.

In the months leading up to Russia’s renewed offensive against Ukraine, an information war was waged across the internet. The intelligence services of the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) released near-daily[↗] briefings about the Russian military’s build-up along Ukraine’s borders, which the Russians denied. This continuous stream of information, it was hoped, would deter a full-blown invasion, but at the least frustrated the success of the Kremlin’s plans for a lightning-fast surprise attack.

Observation from above

Of particular interest was the availability[↗] of commercial satellite imagery that proved the assessment of UK and US intelligence officials were correct. This level of detail was previously accessible only to actors with relatively advanced space capabilities, but the advent of smaller and cheaper satellites means that commercial entities and the media now have the ability to confirm government intelligence independently. 

Ukrainian officials have requested[↗] that companies share imagery directly with them to support their efforts to defend against the invasion, and several have agreed – notably Canadian company MDA Corp[↗].

This diversification of intelligence capability has several geostrategic implications, not least the risk[↗] of a commercial entity’s satellites being attacked for providing intel, potentially drawing that entity’s home state into a conflict. But in relation to Russia’s war against Ukraine, what does it mean when states no longer have a monopoly on the ability to observe – or the capacity to deceive?

Firstly, it goes some way to reducing the impact of the so-called ‘fog of war’ that precludes operational ability to make decisions based on accurate information. Unless one’s opponent is willing to strike commercial satellites not owned or operated by one’s military, one will likely have access to regular imagery on an enemy’s troop movements during combat. 

Secondly, it makes the lightning advances that so characterised Nazi Germany’s initial success during the Second World War untenable[↗]. Not only will an opponent’s military be prepared, but so too will their civilian population as satellite imagery of one’s preparations will be disseminated through the media.

A ‘social media war’

This, almost naturally, ties into and leads on to the next major feature of contemporary warfare: the prevalence of social media.

When fighting in Ukraine intensified, there was a plethora of widely available videos and imagery shared across social media. The Kremlin’s war against Ukraine has even been referred[↗] to as the first social media war. Once the invasion commenced, Ukrainians and international journalists took to[↗] Twitter to share videos of advancing Russian formations, Ukrainian drone strikes, and cities being shelled. 

Even Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, has used[↗] Twitter to speak directly to his people and to counter Russian disinformation efforts. His top officials are constantly tweeting about their calls with world leaders, sharing heart-wrenching stories of Russian brutality against civilians and making impassioned pleas for additional assistance.

Ukrainian journalists, who unlike many foreign journalists, have not left as fighting intensified, continue to share everyday stories and post photos. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has become a source of information for major publications and even governments as users geolocate[↗] videos of Russian troops and armour and track[↗] Russian losses.

All of this reveals how the information landscape has changed, similarly to how television altered how the American public viewed the war in Vietnam, and the 24-hour news cycle breathlessly documented the 1991 Gulf War. Ukrainian officials seem to have taken this in their stride, using modern communication methods to both bolster morale and counter Russian disinformation efforts, whilst the Kremlin apparently confiscated phones[↗] from its troops prior to the invasion.

Conclusion

The saturation of the media with first-hand footage and accounts of the war have contributed to the huge outpouring of international support for the Ukrainian people. The Kremlin’s much-lauded cyber warfare and information dominance capabilities seem to have been effectively neutered by these strategies.

The UK’s recently announced Defence Space Strategy[↗] and National Space Strategy[↗] call for greater cooperation with the commercial space sector – an approach vindicated by the successes of OSINT in this war. Bolstering Britain’s ability to gather imagery from satellites, as well as ensuring that at least some of this is publicly available, has far-reaching implications for how conflicts will be fought in the future. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also demonstrated the importance of controlling the information space, pushing back against disinformation and hostile ‘discursive statecraft’. With its daily Ministry of Defence intelligence briefings shared on Twitter, Her Majesty’s (HM) Government has shown that it is taking these lessons on board.

Richard Payne is the Communications Coordinator for the Council on Geostrategy. He holds an MSc in Global Cooperation and Security from the University of Birmingham.

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