The conflict in Ukraine consolidates the era of wars accessible to the general public with satellite images | International

Satellites photographed last Monday, February 28, a place called Khilchika. It is situated in the southeast of Belarus. If you draw a straight line to the nearest point of the border with Ukraine, the distance is only 12 kilometers. Until a few months ago, what was in Khilchika was nothing, beyond a small reservoir of water next to tens of square kilometers of trees. On Monday, workers from the US private company Maxar Technologies, from their offices in Westminster, in the State of Colorado, chose the photos that their satellites captured from this site and showed them to the world. Khilchika has become, as they had verified, a Russian military camp, the closest to the edge of the war waged by the Kremlin against the Ukrainian neighbor. In the photo you can even identify how several trucks undertake the route. A new line in the visual chronicle, built thanks to hundreds of satellites and unparalleled in the history of conflicts.

Khilchika is not, in any case, the largest of the Russian military sites established in recent months as an encirclement of Ukraine. But if the Maxar employees noticed those coordinates, it was for a reason: from this barracks to the south, first by the Belarusian P37 and then, already on Ukrainian soil, by the P02, they drive directly to Kiev, the fundamental objective of the Russian president. , Vladimir Putin. And it is along these routes that this company specializing in the marketing of satellite images undertook on February 27 the monitoring of a very long convoy of Russian forces enlisted towards the Ukrainian capital.

Khilchikha military emplacement, in Belarus, on February 28.AP

The journey of this row of tens of kilometers of military vehicles has coverage of the invasion on edge. For the first time in the history of war, tools hitherto reserved for intelligence and espionage services are available to almost everyone, first to the reporters and then to the audience. According to security experts hired by Maxar to analyze photos from its satellites, the Kiev-bound convoy is made up of fuel trucks, logistics trucks, tanks, infantry vehicles and mobile missile launchers. It is about hundreds of units of a combat operation that from start to finish measures about 60 kilometers, and that has been photographed on the route from Ivankiv to Antonov airport, two points bombed in the first week of the offensive.

The study of the images, as Maxar has told this newspaper, suggests that the convoy, at least part of it, undoubtedly comes from the north, from Belarus. The Kremlin moved 30,000 soldiers to that country early last month, along with military vehicles and heavy weapons, to participate in joint exercises.

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The monitoring of this convoy via satellite and accessible to all audiences is the clearest example of a new scenario that is evolving under the name Open Source Intelligence (Intelligence with open sources) and that could only be intuited through the geolocation tools of the giant Google. Until now, the large satellite imagery companies, which work on demand and on a pay-per-use basis, were focused on serving private subscribing companies or States on security issues and, recently, also on issues related to the environment.

On December 3, the US Department of Defense released a series of satellite photographs through the press showing the Russian deployment in various locations since the summer. The images were signed by the Digital Globe company, owned by Maxar. Since then, this company, with dozens of satellites orbiting the earth, has illustrated the warnings launched by the West about the danger of the imminent invasion by Russia of Ukraine. His analyzes have detailed what was happening on the ground beyond the back and forth of the foreign ministries. According to the selection of information made from the Colorado offices, three fundamental coverage fronts are distinguished to understand the deployment: Belarus, western Russia and Crimea. And a concrete evolution can be seen in the movement of these detachments: in the first weeks with the arrival of the battalions from various points in Russia; then, with the assembly of barracks that indicated that the soldiers were arriving; and, finally, with the move to points closer to the border with Ukraine. The offensive was ready and the satellites had counted it, despite the fact that Moscow reported the withdrawal in some points of the Russian western fringe and even the Crimean peninsula.

Now Maxar’s visibility has grown exponentially following the Russian attack on Ukraine. However, the company, as it acknowledges on its website, has an intense relationship with the US government, to which it provides 90% of the “geospatial intelligence” used in national security issues. It also provides information to US troops on any terrain.

Lagging behind Maxar have been the Californian Capella Space or Planet Labs, both companies based in San Francisco. The latter has also opened a special channel for the press with the information from the front that its satellites are collecting. In one of its latest updates, on Tuesday, March 1, Planet Labs released the satellite image of the Luninets air base, 60 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Where at the beginning of February there was a blanket of snow, now, next to the runway, more than 30 aircraft are waiting, most of them Sukhoi SU-25 fighter planes, a symbol of the Soviet Union’s aerial potential. Needless to say, the mapping tool offered by Yandex, a private search engine of Russian origin, but under the Kremlin’s scrutiny, does not show any of the military sites raised by Moscow in recent months.

Luninet air base, in Belarus, on March 1.  / Planet Labs PBC
Luninet air base, in Belarus, on March 1. / Planet Labs PBC

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