World Insight

How the US Conquered Information Warfare in Ukraine with Open-Source Intelligence

Japan Chair Fellow (Nonresident)
Ukrainian servicemen operate a Valkyrie reconnaissance drone in the direction of Lyman, Ukraine, on March 3, 2024. (Wolfgang Schwan via Getty Images)
Ukrainian servicemen operate a Valkyrie reconnaissance drone in the direction of Lyman, Ukraine, on March 3, 2024. (Wolfgang Schwan via Getty Images)

In the war in Ukraine, the U.S. thoroughly disclosed its classified intelligence and urged the international community to unite, while countering Russian disinformation, and gained an advantage in the information warfare. Such declassification was possible with information-gathering methods unlike those in previous wars, such as commercial satellite imagery and social media—open-source intelligence in particular. These methods for collecting intelligence are also serving as the “dash cam” in warfare.

Washington Thoroughly Declassifies Intelligence

At a press conference on February 18, 2022, the weekend preceding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden stated he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “made the decision” to invade Ukraine. When asked why, Biden simply replied, “We have a significant intelligence capability.” On February 23, the day before the Russian invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken clearly stated that he expected Russia to invade Ukraine the next day.

The series of announcements by Washington has two major implications. First, they demonstrated the high performance of U.S. intelligence. Generally, gaining information on capabilities is easy, but not so for intentions. The amount and location of weapons are relatively easy to determine through images captured by satellites and spy planes. Yet, it is hard to figure out the leader’s intentions. The most significant feature of Washington’s declassification at that time was that it gathered accurate information on what Putin had in mind.

Second was the fact that Washington disclosed such highly classified information. Declassification would expose the source to danger. Especially with human intelligence (HUMINT), it would jeopardize the life of the informant. In 1962, when Moscow tried to deploy nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Cuba, it was Soviet military intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky who first provided the confidential information to Washington. When the U.S. John Kennedy administration confronted the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, it made a significant achievement by releasing aerial photographs as evidence of a missile base in Cuba. Six months later, Penkovsky was executed by the Kremlin.

In 2017, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) allegedly extracted an agent working amidst the Russian federal government. According to reports, this top-level informant could photograph documents on Putin’s desk and send the images to CIA headquarters. However, fearing the Russians would detect the agent, the CIA is said to have launched a special exfiltration operation, which was only carried out in emergencies.

After the agent escaped, no other CIA agents are said to be operating inside the Kremlin. But, if the information released by the Biden administration was gained by HUMINT, Moscow would conduct a thorough search for the mole, and the source would be subject to great danger. Even if Washington’s intelligence activities were not HUMINT, with Moscow taking measures, intelligence cannot be gathered the same way. For example, the release of military spy satellite images would reveal the capabilities of the satellite, and let other countries take measures.

The source of the information disclosed by Washington this time is said to be signals intelligence (SIGINT) which uses interception of communications and electronic signals. It has been pointed out that because of the malfunction of the Russian military’s state-of-the-art encrypted communication equipment, they relied on unencrypted communication equipment and commercial mobile phones, which allowed interception by U.S. intelligence agencies.

What Washington Aims with Declassification

There are three likely aims for the Biden administration to declassify despite these risks. The first is to deter war. Besides the press conference mentioned earlier, Washington has disclosed numerous confidential information. For example, in January 2022, before the Russian invasion, Washington revealed it had detected an operation plan by Russian saboteurs. With a staged incident, Russian operatives tried to create a pretext for the Russian military to invade Ukraine. If such a scheme was revealed to the international community, Moscow would be forced to change plans, which could have delayed or even canceled the invasion. However, the Biden administration’s declassification ultimately failed to achieve its aim and could not deter the war in Ukraine.

The second is the solidarity of the international community. The Biden administration began releasing information about a Russian invasion of Ukraine in December 2021, the year-end before the war began. Yet, at first, NATO leaders and many experts did not believe this. In the meantime, Washington continued to release information about Russia’s operational plans and Putin’s decision to wage war. This gradually generated momentum for the international community to unite in support of Ukraine. Some say the prior declassification by Washington contributed to the strong international solidarity immediately after the war began, such as firm economic sanctions against Russia, accepting refugees, and providing material support for Ukraine.

The third is to counter the Kremlin’s false claims. On invading Ukraine, Moscow claimed it was conducting a special military operation to rescue the oppressed Russian population in Ukraine. It made the same claim when annexing Crimea in 2014, to create a false perception that Ukraine is also at fault. In fact, in the face of the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the international community showed limited support for Ukraine. However, in this latest invasion, the international community is hardly buying Russia’s claims. The continuous declassification by Washington is said to have played a large role in this.

A New Development by Combining Open-Source Intelligence and AI

Thus, in response to the war in Ukraine, Washington has disclosed various confidential intelligence. Behind this, there were presumably aims to deter war, unite the international community, and counter false information. Such scale and speed of the disclosure were unprecedented in history. Besides the release of confidential information, open-source intelligence that anyone can access, from commercial satellites and social media and others, is playing a vital role.

The use of artificial intelligence has become essential in processing this open-source intelligence. Commercial satellites are becoming more powerful; some can identify road signs and detect the height of terrain and structures. Constellations of satellites can capture images of the same location multiple times a day, allowing them to detect changes over short periods. The improved performance has led to an explosive increase in the amount of imagery data, which makes artificial intelligence essential to extract useful information.

Open-source intelligence, available to anyone, such as those published in newspapers and magazines, has played an important role even before the development of commercial satellites and social media. In 1992, the Deputy Director of the CIA stated that over 80 percent of the agency’s analysis was based on open-source intelligence. With the advent of the internet, this percentage has probably become even higher.

In the war in Ukraine, open-source intelligence is playing a new role unseen in previous wars. When Ukraine forces regained the city of Bucha in late March 2022, numerous bodies of civilians and mass graves were confirmed, sending shockwaves across the international community. Russia claimed this was a fabrication by Ukraine. In response, Western media used commercial satellite images to prove the bodies in the streets and mass graves were already there during the Russian military occupation.

In mid-February, shortly before invading Ukraine, Russia falsely announced it had begun withdrawing its troops from the Ukrainian border. In response, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg showed commercial satellite imagery and revealed this announcement was false.

The Ukraine government has also created a scheme for its citizens to provide information through the official app. Many Ukrainians are said to have used the app to inform the government of Russian military movements and evidence of illegal activities. The U.S. military and intelligence agency also continue to provide Ukraine with information on Russian military actions, operational plans, and evidence of Russian military misconduct. The Ukraine government published this information on its website and presented evidence of Russian military atrocities to the international community.

Western countries have lauded the accuracy of the information posted by Ukraine. If the released information contains lies or exaggerations, the credibility of the correct information will be questioned. Therefore, Ukraine made efforts to release accurate information even during the chaos following the Russian invasion.

Thus, transparency of information is an important weapon for democracies to counter the aggression of autocratic states. Open-source intelligence is functioning like a “dash cam,” recording the evidence of illegal acts in war and refuting false claims.

Hard to Evaluate Declassification

As described above, the disclosure of confidential intelligence by Washington in the war in Ukraine can be considered as having achieved some results. However, declassification should not be overestimated. The disclosure of intelligence by the government has issues such as the difficulty of external verification, the uncertainty of information, the security of information sources, and uncertain deterrence effects.

First, the accuracy and appropriateness of the disclosed information cannot be verified externally. The fact that prior to the Iraq War in 2003, the George Bush administration repeatedly claimed that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destruction suggests the danger of arbitrary use of disclosure. For example, the arbitrary release of partial confidential intelligence could lead public opinion in a certain direction. If only some of the conflicting views are disclosed, the appropriateness of the information cannot be verified from the outside.

Second, the confidential intelligence released by the government may not always be accurate. The intelligence disclosed by Washington was accurate as a result. However, Putin could have issued false orders to the Russian forces to mislead Western intelligence agencies.

Another problem is information overload which weighs on analysis. Especially in recent years, with scientific and technological development, including cyber means and satellites, there has been an explosive increase in the methods for gathering information and the amount of data gained from each source. Moreover, information gained from multiple sources may contradict. It is tough to draw accurate conclusions from such a vast amount of information.

Third is ensuring the safety of the informants. Disclosure of information can put the source at risk, and countermeasures conducted by opponents can nullify the source. Commercial satellites played a critical role in the war in Ukraine. Yet, because of their demonstrated importance, they may be subject to cyber or physical attacks in the future. Also, related to the first problem, if the government is too keen on the safety of the informants and obscures the basis of the disclosed information, external verification of its accuracy and adequacy will be even more difficult.

Fourth, despite the risks described above, it is unknown how effective intelligence disclosure is to deter war. In fact, the disclosure of information by the U.S. failed to change President Putin’s intentions and failed to deter the war in Ukraine.

Technological Development Expands the Domain of Warfare

Throughout history, the form of warfare has constantly changed. Particularly since the Industrial Revolution, the significant development of science and technology has brought about rapid changes in the warfare landscape. In the early twentieth century, the domain of war became three-dimensional with the emergence of aircraft. Later, with advancements in space technology, the advent of the internet, and the active use of electromagnetic waves in warfare, the battlefield expanded to space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains.

This change is also true in information warfare. As represented by Sun Tzu, whose supreme art of war was to win without fighting, the idea of achieving strategic effects by exerting psychological influence on the opponent has existed from thousands of years ago. However, the specific methods have evolved rapidly since the 1920s, when radio enabled the transmission of a multitude of information. Subsequently, the rapid development of the internet in the 1990s and the widespread use of social media from around the 2010s have transformed the situation.

The introduction of radio, the internet, and social media changed the way information is sent out. With these new technologies, information could be spread to an overwhelming number of people and delivered to specific targets according to their characteristics. As previously mentioned, new technologies, such as commercial imaging satellites and artificial intelligence, which have rapidly advanced in recent years, are used in the war in Ukraine, and Washington has taken active steps to disclose information. In the past, only the means for spreading information had progressed, while in the war in Ukraine, the means of information collection and its processing evolved significantly, leading to the active disclosure of information. It is vital to constantly analyze the latest shifts in the information warfare that accompany these technological developments.

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