Фdramatic images of a multi-kilometer column of Russian military equipment on the way to Kyiv appeared for the first time. Then came the dramatic images of the same military vehicles that burned, destroyed, abandoned and scattered.
It was one of the many episodes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which the whole world was able to follow in detail the battle, which would otherwise be shrouded in the fog of war.
Only a month later, Russia’s war against its neighbor may be among the most photographed and documented conflicts in recent history. Ukrainian civilians, military and front-line journalists contributed to the mass of real-time visual information by sharing images and videos on social networks.
Dozens of images of burning tanks, abandoned trucks and downed helicopters in Ukraine appear daily on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Telegram. During the first three weeks of the conflict, when Russian forces seemed to be plagued by logistics and fuel problems, videos of Ukrainian farmers towing abandoned Russian military vehicles seemed to appear at least once a day – so much so that became a meme.
This mass of information has allowed open source intelligence experts and volunteers to gain an idea of this war, which in the past could only be made available to government intelligence. They were able to carefully document thousands of images and videos of destroyed and abandoned equipment to tell one of the most important stories of this war to date: the destruction of Russian military equipment on a large scale and the cessation of military superpowers.
Only open source data – namely images and videos distributed on the Internet – one weapon tracking team documented a total of 2,055 Russian military vehicles destroyed, abandoned or seized by Ukrainian forces. Among those are 331 tanks, 235 armored combat vehicles, 313 infantry fighting vehicles and 40 anti-aircraft missile systems, according to the Oryx blog, run by military analysts Steen Mitzer and Yost Olimans. The couple is conducting a tracking operation in their spare time and tweets about their discoveries. All the money they earn through their Patreon goes to charities that help civilians in Ukraine.
Their list, they add in the preamble, “includes only destroyed vehicles and equipment whose photographic or videographic evidence is there. Therefore, the amount of destroyed equipment is much larger than recorded here.
The list tells a story. Long before the Pentagon spreads news of the fighting and control areas in the briefing hall, it is possible to determine the outcome of the offensive on the documented loss of equipment. The destroyed Russian column outside the city north of Kiev, where Russian troops tried to break through, for example, will indicate that their efforts are not going very well.
In the first two weeks of the invasion, the amount of Russian equipment losses documented by arms trackers was one of the first signs that the operation was not going well for the Russian military. The losses were even so great that the team at Oryx was overwhelmed.
“I can’t … keep up,” they tweeted in response to a video showing Ukrainian forces seizing 30 Russian cars near Kharkiv.
Maintaining a list requires almost constant attention – late at night you watch the set aside of images and videos to keep it up to date.
“You have to be angry enough to start this, and even more furious to keep going,” Mr Mitzer said. The Independent.
He added that his team follows a strict methodology of checking and documenting the videos and images it finds. They first compare it to their existing database to check if it is new. “This process is time-consuming and will only be more time-consuming as the number of losses increases,” he said.
They then analyze the scene – whether it is a column of destroyed tanks or an abandoned air defense system – to identify the equipment and find out how it came to an end.
“Either it is destroyed, captured or abandoned. Sometimes he ran out of fuel, other cars got stuck in a ditch or were ambushed by Ukrainian forces, ”Mr. Mitzer said.
“There is usually a story to tell, especially in conjunction with geolocation and post-action reports,” he added.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and a former U.S. Marine who also watched the videos, said Russian losses tell us about the future of the war as much as they do today.
“At some point, the losses become so significant that it affects their ability to work,” he said. “If you see that a division’s equipment or several regiments have been lost in one area, the whole operation will suffer.”
“This tells you that their ability to do some offensive action in the future is quite limited because they probably don’t have the numbers,” he added.
Mr. Lee, an expert on Russian weapons systems, keeps a chronicle of open source data from the battlefield and identifies damaged or abandoned equipment wherever he can. He did similar work throughout the war in Syria, but this conflict provided much more source material for the work.
“A lot of the war in Ukraine is being fought in very large settlements, where people have phones, social networks and everything else. We will see more videos of fighting from these areas than elsewhere. So in this respect it is unique in something, ”he said.
The open source scouting community, which tracks equipment losses, is a mix of professionals and part-time enthusiasts. By definition, an open source investigation can be conducted by anyone with an Internet connection, so the line between pros and amateurs is often blurred. Bellingcat, an organization of investigative journalism that specializes in open source intelligence, began its life as a one-man operation run by founder Elliott Higgins, and grew into an international hippopotamus.
Another group, Ukraine Weapons Tracker, has created a Twitter account with 375,000 subscribers in the month since the conflict began. It is run by a team of two people, one of whom works in the afternoon as an office worker in the UK and spoke with The Independent on condition of anonymity.
They also said that the scale of Russia’s losses was the most significant finding in their documentation. But what also stands out is the level of detail of how the war is being waged, which this small team can get from the images they find.
In the first two weeks of the invasion, large Russian convoys were destroyed by Ukrainian drone attacks, said Ukraine Weapons Tracker volunteer. Images of these burned columns showed that Russian military planners were not prepared for a theater in which Russia had no dominance in the air. Then images of another kind of destruction began to appear.
“The Russians decided to reduce the size of their convoys and provide them with escorts. Instead, these smaller convoys come under attack by special forces teams or local defense forces, ”said a volunteer from Ukraine Weapons Tracker.
“So instead of two mass convoys [being destroyed]you get five or six minor incidents a day, ”they added.
Both Mr. Lee and the people behind the Ukraine Weapons Tracker have conducted similar projects in other areas of hostilities, most notably in Syria and Iraq. But the scale of losses of equipment in Ukraine, mostly Russian, is not like anything before.
“In Syria and Iraq, it is typical that someone seizes 10 AK-47s from someone. Here we wouldn’t even touch on that, because you’re only talking about that scale. We no longer look at small arms, we only look at armored vehicles, ”the volunteer said.
Although trackers monitored equipment on both sides, Ukrainian losses tended to be harder to control because Ukrainian civilians were less likely to shoot them.
Despite this potential information gap, the scale of Russia’s losses, especially in the first couple of weeks, was “almost unmanageable” to trackers fully tracked, Mr Lee said. This is manifested in many ways.
“I think that, contrary to what many expected, we are talking about a conflict close to peers. Because of this scale [of Russian losses] just huge, ”he said.
“We are not talking about fighting the insurgents. We are not talking about a police operation. It’s not about a special operation, quoting, not quoting. You are talking about two sides that are unequal, but not so far away. “
It’s a grim job, everyone agrees. The job of trackers is to document equipment, but none of them forget that each of these tanks or trucks is man-operated.
“For every soldier killed that you see, the family has been torn apart, a gap has been created that will never be filled,” Mitzer said. “The footage from the tank, which underwent a catastrophic detonation, looks impressive, but it also leads to the end of three lives. Soldiers who probably never wanted this war. Soldiers who have a family and dream just like us. ”