Published On: Wed, Aug 31st, 2022

The Russian army is being crushed thanks to OSINT: What is it, and how does Ukraine manage to destroy secret military bases?

The principle is ingenious: the Russians post photos, and the Armed Forces of Ukraine destroy the objects shown in these images. Here’s how the military intelligence works based on open data.

Cybersecurity - artistic concept.

Cybersecurity – artistic concept. Image credit: École polytechnique – J.Baran via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The famous OSINT community helps to resist and even to destroy the Russian Armed Forces that are currently aiming to push forward their invasion of Ukraine. How does civilian online reconnaissance work in practice?

What is Open Source Intelligence?

The concept of open source intelligence (OSINT) exists at least for several years now. Techniques used in this field have been developed by skilled analysts and investigative journalists, and now these techniques are being used with a high degree of efficiency.

Here, the data is collected mainly from online resources, including all kinds of instant messengers, social networks, video platforms, internet forums, chats, satellite images, and anything in between. All the available information is studied very precisely, paying attention to the smallest details. Some experts even compare this work to a jigsaw puzzle, when different and often seemingly ‘unimportant’ bits of data add up to give a single clear view of a specific military situation.

Geolocation of the Wagner PMC base in Popasnaya.

Geolocation of the Wagner PMC base in Popasnaya.

How such information scraping from open resources can make any difference? It actually can: for example, it was thanks to OSINT that it was possible to prove Russia’s involvement in the downing of MH17 civil Malaysian aircraft.

During the ongoing invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, OSINT plays an enormous role, too. The final effect is often difficult to predict: it sometimes corrects the course of military actions, or sometimes leads to very localized strikes resulting in critically important advances on the battlefield. 

Analysis of satellite images is one of the most important tools. This resource can be used (and is often used) to establish the number of Russian weapons or their military forces located near the Ukrainian borders or at specific locations along the front line. Thanks to satellite images, it was possible to track the movements of Russian troops, to precisely identify the military personnel who looted, killed civilians, and tortured prisoners of war.

"e-Vorog" app on a smartphone. Image via

“e-Vorog” app on a smartphone. Image via

Analysts emphasize the importance and uniqueness of different innovations in this field of civil intelligence. For example, “e-Vorog”, a function of the state service “Diya”, enables Ukrainians to inform the commanding center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine about the movement and operations of the Russian military.

How does OSINT help the Armed Forces of Ukraine?

Information from open source intelligence is indisputably valuable. But when we talk about real-world military attacks, the Ukrainian armed forces do not rely solely on the analysis of open source data. In order to plan a new operation, additional verification is required in all cases.

How is this verification performed? Naturally, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine does not provide a direct description of the inner workings of OSINT. But practical examples are abundant. For instance, different news channels have recently described a story in which a Russian tourist posed against the backdrop of Russian air defense systems and later posted this image online. Later, this image was used as a hint telling at which location Ukrainians should aim for their next hit.

According to Maggie Smith, an assistant professor at the Military Academy at West Point, OSINT can “point you to places where there is some activity, and then you can focus on those places, send intelligence resources there and get more details.” Technically, any information posted on the Internet can be used by the armed forces to plan all sorts of operations.

The expert also reminds the importance of the utmost secrecy by saying that military commanders should not forget that no matter where the soldiers are located, there is always some data about them on the Web, all thanks to modern technology. Satellites are constantly imaging the surface of Earth; there is a vast cloud of signals emitted by cell phones that can be analyzed and tracked to reveal at least the approximate location of the target. And, there are always citizen ‘observers’, who intentionally or inadvertently leave military objects and personnel in the background of their photos

What is the main problem of working with data from open source intelligence?

There is a large amount of work associated with the processing of open source intelligence data. Before it is readied for practical use, all the information must be verified. Furthermore, it must be sufficiently accurate.

There is also another important factor: digital privacy and security. OSINT data has to be shared within the Armed Forces of Ukraine using secure transmission channels, while also preserving the privacy of the original sources of this information. The anonymity must not be violated, because any leak can make citizens targets for the enemy.

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