Scoring internet points: Open source espionage in Russia and Ukraine


The internet has been scoring points against the Russian military lately. “Hacktivists” disrupted the Belorussian Railways (Wired). Viral TikTok has been tracking Russian vehicle movements (ABC News). The drama of political negotiations over the standoff between Russia and Ukraine is happening in the public eye, but what is happening in the background is really interesting, since a lot of what would normally be hidden is out in the open.

The way I see it, there are several participants in the information game, from most to least formal and decentralized:

  • The government
  • Media
  • Think tanks
  • Political risk consultants
  • Open-source intelligence
  • Social media

What’s fascinating is the role of the last two groups and the ways in which they are feeding the groups above them. The sources at the bottom are aggregating information that even governments didn’t have access to only a few years ago.

Still, it’s a bit too early to say that social media is “upending the spread of information” any more than it already has in recent conflicts and uprisings, like Crimea or Eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, but it does feel like this is the first large-scale military escalation that has been subject to this level of social media scrutiny.

I’m going to write a bit about the various players and their

Government and media

Government and media are the most institutional of those providing information. They rely on official press releases and proclamations and seem to have a symbiotic relationship where the media reports breathlessly on whatever the latest negotiation or policy shift has been.

There are bright spots here and there in the media landscape, but media coverage is often in more narrative rather than analysis of intentions. Lately though, the question “will Russia invade Ukraine?” has been prompting some really interesting coverage in mainstream outlets:

The Final Pieces: Three New Signs of Russian Invasion Plans (Sky News)

No, Russia Will Not Invade Ukraine (Opinion) (Al Jazeera)

Whatever the federal agencies like the intelligence services have behind the scenes, that doesn’t generally enter into the equation because unless there’s another Edward Snowden-type event, we’re just not on that “mailing list” and never will be.

This isn’t the first time that government has been “scooped” by social media nor even the first time it has happened to Russia and Ukraine. As the ABC News article above goes into, Russia’s parliament passed a law forbidding soldiers to post on social media in 2019, a rule previously ordered by the Defense Department.

Think tanks

The next group on our list, think tanks, are non-profit policy and research organizations that employ academics and politicians. In some cases, they can serve as a kind of “bureaucracy in waiting” for the party that doesn’t hold office, as many of them have a unstated political agenda and are headquartered in Washington, DC or some other capital. They offer big-picture analysis and bullet point guidance that elected officials may or may not read.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has their own analyses of Russia’s geopolitical motives, published over the last several years:

The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe (2016)

The Kremlin Playbook 2: The Enablers (2019)

The Kremlin Playbook 3 (2021)

This last one describes the doctrine of “Strategic Conservatism” as a lens through which to understand Russia’s geopolitical moves. It’s the most interesting in my opinion as it explains a bit of why Russia was so popular with the Trump crowd and how that fits into a political strategy.

Here’s some additional assorted coverage by think tanks, though honestly when there’s a conflict brewing, most international relations-focused think tanks will weigh in in some way or another:

Crisis Group: Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer

Foreign Policy Research Institute Ukraine coverage

Political risk consultants

Political risk consultants are somewhere between a think tank and a private intelligence agency. They may openly offer policy analysis while cultivating a specialized approach behind the scenes that is tailored to political and primarily commercial clients. They answer questions like, “what will happen to my investments in X given the instability in Y”. It’s hard to tell the extent of their operations, but they hire ex-intelligence officers, so there’s that.

Eurasia Group Top Risks of 2022: Russia (#5)

Stratfor Ukraine conflict coverage

How Russia Could Respond to Western Sanctions With Cyberattacks (Stratfor)

“The Internet”: Open-source intelligence and social media

Lastly, we have social media and internet nerds more generally. What’s been really fascinating to me is the way in which social media is bringing things out into the open. Russian tanks and military equipment are going “viral” on TikTok. The Ukraine conflict is essentially what happens when you take the Russian dash cam video and give it a worldwide audience.

I suppose the assumption here is that things like troop movements and weapons deployments should be done in secret because, well, it’s the military. However, the Cold War games of compellence and deterrence could still be at play here. That is, now that everyone expects these things to show up on the internet, what’s to stop a country from using social media to its advantage.

For one, good journalistic practice suggests you cross-reference your sources. Open-source intelligence group Bellingcat did just that, using a pair of cute puppies to verify that soldiers in Ukraine came from Russia’s Far East. Lately, Bellingcat has been using license plate tracking, a nerdy hobby in Russia, and social media posts to figure out who and what is arriving to the border with Ukraine. Conflict Intelligence Team (Twitter) has been doing the same, with their dispatches picked up widely by the mainstream media.

It’s hard to know the impact of what might amount to some creative internet sleuthing. It does seem to have removed some of the element of surprise. Whether it can alter the calculus of military buildup or stop military conflict remains to be seen. It’s a high stakes game with a lot of bluster on both sides.

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