Digital sleuths track Russian weapons and Ukraine war crimes

This photo shows destroyed Russian GAZ Tigr infantry mobility vehicles following a fight in Kharkiv, located about 50 km from the Ukrainian-Russian border, on February 28, 2022.

This photo shows destroyed Russian GAZ Tigr infantry mobility vehicles following a fight in Kharkiv, located about 50 km from the Ukrainian-Russian border, on February 28, 2022. (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Pictures)

A few days before the first Russian tanks crossed the border towards Kiev, a new Twitter account appeared called Ukrainian Weapons Trackerpresenting itself as “a project dedicated to the identification and analysis of weapons that appear in Ukraine, on any side of the conflict”.

The account, run by a pair of anonymous researchers with a floral-print Kalashnikov rifle as their profile picture, has since amassed more than 100,000 followers by posting photos and videos of mostly Russian military equipment found abandoned or seized by the resistance. The elements cover the full range of small arms for thermobaric rocket launchers to a Russian tank stuck in the mud with the words “Glory to Ukraine” scrawled on the side.

Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is unfolding in real time for the world to watch, with a constant fire hose of (largely unverified) video footage and social media posts flooding the internet with material for Open source analysts, professional weapons fanatics, and armchair sleuths search for clues about how the tools and tactics of modern warfare shape conflict.

One of the people behind the Ukraine Weapons Tracker is a Briton in his twenties who told VICE News that his weapons expertise is “90% self-taught.” For the past five years, he has published open source analyzes of jihadist insurgencies in the Middle East and Africa under the pseudonym Dark Calibergaining a wide audience by sharing detailed information on the types of weapons used in conflict and their origins.

“The guns become the story,” he said. “He tells people’s stories.”

He is joined in the Ukrainian project by Armory Bazaar, a Russian-speaking partner in Eastern Europe specializing in weapons used in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. They are part of a wide range of open-source intelligence experts who honed their skills on the wars of the mid-2000s, but Ukraine offered an unprecedented level of attention and a seemingly endless wealth of material for sift through nuggets of information. The research is not just for wonder purposes, it documents potential war crimes and counters disinformation campaigns.

Open source researchers have previously spotted Russian forces using cluster munitions and striking civilian targets, including a kindergarten, an area near a hospital, and strikes on the city of Kharkiv. Caliber Obscura says that while the focus has been on Russian aggression, they are watching both sides of the fight.

“When we see what we think are violations of the rules of war or violations of human rights, we will speak out against them, no matter who commits them,” he said. “If we can call when these things are happening, hitting civilians, I hope that can lead to a ceasefire, a settlement or peace, faster. We try to have our impact in our own way.

Caliber Obscura has turned its weapon-tracking hobby into part-time consulting work, but there are also full-time professionals, academics, think tank experts, and journalists who deal with the same information and distill for public consumption. People who may have specialized in one topic and region found themselves glued to Ukraine, with a global audience hungry for granular information. A nuclear weapons expert spotted the Russian invasion before it happened by observing traffic along the border on Google Maps.

There is a long history of using open source intelligence to uncover Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Bellingcat visual investigators previously identified Russian military intelligence officials behind the downing of a commercial airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, and experts have been following the simmering conflict from the start for a long time in the Donbass region.

But Aric Toler, director of training and research at Bellingcat, told VICE News that the Russian invasion suddenly led to “millions of smartphones with internet connections all pointing to the same thing at once.”

“Syria had the most unimaginable events, but the internet connection was not as strong and fewer people could communicate on Western social media,” Toler said. Other conflicts, such as the war in Yemen, have received even less international attention because the country lacks reliable internet and there is less video footage circulating online.

The frustrating part of documenting potential war crimes during Russia’s invasion is the poor prospects for justice or accountability. Russia is not a party to the International Criminal Court, which suffers from inefficiency even in cases where it has some jurisdiction. In all likelihood, Putin and others responsible for the Russian war machine will go unpunished.

“It’s tough,” Toler said. “You have to simultaneously vet the content and keep it and archive it for future use, but you also know in the back of your mind that something is really going to happen to it? What are the actual, specific results? This doesn’t It’s not great. It’s not super optimistic.

Beyond chronicling the conflict, open source trackers are in some ways influencing actions on the battlefield. Ukraine used the videos of Russia’s failures and lost equipment to boost morale. Some viral clips turned out to be fake or old, like one of a woman on TikTok explaining how to commandeer armored vehicles abandoned by Russian troops.

Melissa Hanham, affiliated with Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation who specializes in open-source monitoring of weapons of mass destruction, said it’s likely the Ukrainian military is monitoring what’s going on in online, using the news as an intelligence source. to augment whatever they could get from American and European allies.

“Open source analysts actually affect the way war is fought because it’s happening in real time,” Hanham said. “People who post photos and videos show the positions of the various participants in the conflict, give troop locations and convoy locations and information like that, it affects how the fighting unfolds on the ground.”

The free-for-all internet and the brutality of war can make dealing with open-source intelligence an ethical minefield, and Hanham said there’s been a collective push among professionals to be more careful and take additional steps to verify images before releasing them.

“There’s been this gut check where people say, ‘I figured something out and it’s big, maybe I shouldn’t post it right away or share it on Twitter,'” he said. Hannham.

For people like Caliber Obscura, who one day works in an unrelated field while moonlighting as a weapons expert, there are certain lines he won’t cross, like showing the faces of dead soldiers on the battlefield. He trusts his instincts and the skills he has learned to cover other conflicts. The secret, he says, is the attention to detail. A recent post on Ukraine Weapons Tracker noted how what at first glance appeared to be an ordinary Russian tank was actually equipped with a powerful type of surface-to-air missile.

“You learn to look carefully at the details,” he said. “It gives you an instinct for what’s right, what’s out of place and what’s not, it makes it easier to determine if something isn’t real or real.”