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In the 560 days since Russia launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine, daily reports produced by the Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) have become some of the most widely cited authorities on the state of the conflict. ISW’s maps, which are updated daily to reflect needlepoint changes on the front line, have been used by prominent media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Washington Post, and CNN in recent months. This article explores the role of open source intelligence in providing a deeper understanding of the war in Ukraine.
The Rise of Open Source Intelligence
Detailed battlefield updates were once the sole preserve of militaries, intelligence agencies, and embedded journalists. However, ISW’s Ukraine updates underscore how open-source intelligence has drastically changed public understanding of war. Through open-source intelligence, the team at ISW mines the Internet on a daily basis to build a near real-time picture of the war’s progress. This information has been used by the media, governments, and humanitarian agencies to better understand the conflict.
Retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, who served as the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence agency, commends ISW’s work, stating that it allows people without access to classified information to gain a much deeper understanding of what’s happening in Ukraine at various levels – tactical, operational, and strategic.
Mapping the Front Line
ISW’s map of the front line in southeastern Ukraine is meticulously created by George Barros, the 26-year-old leader of ISW’s Geospatial Intelligence Team. The map consists of thousands of coordinates of Russian and Ukrainian positions, each one painstakingly identified, verified, and continually updated by the ISW team. This map has become a valuable resource not only for media outlets but also for organisations such as the demining organisation the Halo Trust, U.N aid agencies, and NASA Harvest projects, which aim to assess the war’s impact on global food supplies.
The Role of Open Source Geolocation
Open-source geolocation, a technique popularised by groups like Bellingcat, plays a significant role in ISW’s work. By analysing context clues from images and footage of the conflict, such as landmarks or distinctive markings on military equipment, ISW’s team can pinpoint the location and time of specific events. This technique, combined with other powerful tools like NASA’s real-time map of global fires and commercially available radar and satellite imagery, allows ISW to build a comprehensive picture of the ever-shifting battle in Ukraine.
While this approach is not without errors, George Barros emphasises that the goal is not to produce a perfect map every time. Instead, it is about producing the best map possible based on the available evidence and information at the time. The early days of the conflict were particularly chaotic, but as the fighting has concentrated in eastern Ukraine, it has become easier to trace shifts in the front line with greater precision.
Analytical Challenges and Critiques
While ISW’s work has become a go-to source for maps and updates on the conflict, some seasoned military analysts have raised concerns about the institute’s assessments. These analysts, who declined to be named, find ISW to be overly bullish about the performance of the Ukrainian military. They also criticise the media’s reliance on ISW’s battlefield updates, noting that analytical misfires by the young team have been replicated numerous times in the press.
One such misfire occurred in May when ISW speculated, in their daily report, that a drone attack on the Kremlin could have been perpetrated by the Russian authorities as a false flag operation. Analysts like Nathan Ruser from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute criticised these theories as baseless and irresponsible.
However, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert Sharp believes there is still value in providing detailed updates for those without access to classified government reports. He acknowledges that the critiques from experts with deep experience in the subject matter are likely valid but emphasises ISW’s role as an aggregator and provider of widely available information.
The Meticulous Production Process
ISW’s Russia team lead, Mason Clark, acknowledges that the reports are often based on incomplete data. He describes much of their work as a medium confidence assessment, using language borrowed from the intelligence community. Despite this, ISW’s assessments are often picked up by the media without their carefully worded analytical caveats.
The production process at ISW begins around 8 a.m. with the collection of information from over 100 online sources, including social media platforms like Twitter and Telegram. By lunchtime, the team compiles a document containing colour-coded notes on every major dimension of the conflict. The team’s day is characterised by a sense of mission as they work in near silence, diligently sifting through information and analysing the latest developments.
The Role of Telegram in Understanding the Conflict
Aside from their maps, ISW’s monitoring and translation of key accounts on Telegram, a popular messaging app in Russia and Ukraine, have been widely cited. Kateryna Stepanenko, a member of ISW’s team originally from Ukraine, recognised the importance of Telegram in providing real-time updates on the war and ensuring the safety of her family. She began systematically building a database of Telegram accounts related to the conflict, categorising them based on their ideological affiliations.
Telegram, despite being a platform with limited content moderation and prone to disinformation, plays a powerful role in shaping public perceptions of the war. It offers valuable insights into power struggles within the Russian system and allows hawkish military bloggers to provide vocal criticism of the war’s progress.
The Institute for the Study of War’s use of open-source intelligence has revolutionised the public’s understanding of the conflict in Ukraine. Through meticulous mapping, analysis of open-source geolocation, and monitoring of platforms like Telegram, ISW has provided invaluable insights into the war’s progress. While their work is not without its critics, ISW continues to be a valuable resource for those seeking a deeper understanding of the conflict. Open-source intelligence has proven to be a powerful tool in shedding light on complex geopolitical situations, allowing people around the world to gain a more comprehensive perspective on ongoing conflicts.