This picture shows Russian infantry mobility vehicles GAZ Tigr destroyed as a result of fight in Kharkiv, located some 50 km from Ukrainian-Russian border, on February 28, 2022. (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)
A few days before the first Russian tanks rumbled across the border toward Kyiv, a new Twitter account popped up called Ukraine Weapons Tracker, billing itself as “a project dedicated to identifying and analyzing weapons that appear in Ukraine, on any side of the conflict.”The account, operated by a pair of anonymous researchers with a floral-printed Kalashnikov rifle as the profile pic, has since amassed over 100,000 followers by posting photos and videos of mostly Russian military hardware found abandoned or seized by the resistance. The items run the gamut from small arms to thermobaric rocket launchers to a Russian tank stuck in the mud with the words "Glory to Ukraine" scrawled across the side.
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is playing out in real time for the world to watch, with a steady firehose of (largely unverified) video footage and social media posts flooding the internet with material for open-source analysts, professional arms wonks, and armchair detectives to scrutinize for clues about how the tools and tactics of modern warfare are shaping the conflict.One of the people behind the Ukraine Weapons Tracker is a 20-something British man who told VICE News his expertise on weapons is “90 percent self-taught.” For the last five years, he’s been posting open-source analysis about jihadist insurgencies across the Middle East and Africa under the handle Calibre Obscura, gaining a large following by sharing detailed information about the types of arms being used in the conflicts and their origins.“Weapons become the story,” he said. “It tells the story of the people.”
He’s joined in the Ukraine project by Armory Bazaar, a Russian-speaking partner in Eastern Europe who specializes in weapons used in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. They are part of a broad array of open-source intelligence experts who honed their skills on the wars of the mid-2000s, but Ukraine has offered an unprecedented level of attention and a seemingly bottomless trove of material to sift for nuggets of information. The research isn’t just for gawking purposes—it’s documenting potential war crimes and counteracting disinformation campaigns.
Already open-source researchers have spotted Russian forces using cluster munitions and hitting civilian targets, including a preschool, an area near a hospital, and in strikes on the city of Kharkiv. Calibre Obscura says while the focus has been on Russian aggression, they are monitoring both sides of the fight.
“When we see what we think are violations of the rules of war or human rights violations, we’ll call them out regardless of who is doing them,” he said. “If we can call out when these things are happening, hitting civilians, hopefully it can lead to a ceasefire or settlement or peace, faster. We’re trying to have our impact in our own little way.”Calibre Obscura has turned his weapons tracking hobby into part-time consulting work, but there are also full-time professionals, academics, think tank experts, and journalists processing the same information and distilling it down for public consumption. Individuals who may have specialized in one topic and region have found themselves glued to Ukraine, with a global audience hungry for granular information. One nuclear weapons expert spotted the Russian invasion before it happened by observing traffic along the border on Google Maps.
There’s a long history of open-source intelligence being used to uncover Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The visual investigators at Bellingcat previously identified the Russian military intelligence officials behind the downing of a commercial airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, and experts have been tracking the long-simmering conflict in the Donbas region since it began.But Aric Toler, director of training and research at Bellingcat, told VICE News the Russian invasion has suddenly led to “millions of smartphones with internet connections all pointing at the same thing at once.”“Syria had the most unimaginable things happening, but the Internet connection wasn’t as strong and fewer people could communicate on Western social media,” Toler said. Other conflicts, like the war in Yemen, have received even less international scrutiny because the country lacks reliable internet and there’s less video footage circulating online.The frustrating part of documenting potential war crimes during Russia’s invasion is the dim prospects for justice or accountability. Russia is not a party to the International Criminal Court, which has been plagued by inefficacy even in cases where it does have some jurisdiction. In all likelihood, Putin and others responsible for Russia’s war machine will go unpunished.
“It’s tough,” Toler said. “You simultaneously need to verify content and preserve and archive it for future use, but you also know in the back of your mind is anything really going to happen over this? What are the actual, specific outcomes? 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 has used the videos of Russia’s failures and lost equipment to boost morale. Some viral clips have turned out to be fake or old, like the one of a woman on TikTok explaining how to commandeer armored vehicles left behind by Russian troops.Melissa Hanham, an affiliate of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation with expertise in open-source monitoring for weapons of mass destruction, said it’s likely that the Ukrainian military is likely monitoring what’s coming out online, using the information as a source of intelligence to augment whatever they might be getting from the U.S. and European allies.“Open-source analysts are actually affecting the way the war is fought, because it's happening in real time,” Hanham said. “People who release photos and videos are showing the positions of different participants in the conflict, giving away troop locations and convoy locations and information like that, it affects how warfighting is happening on the ground.”
The free-for-all of the Internet and 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 cautious and take extra steps to verify footage before recirculating it. “There’s been this gut check where people say, ‘I figured something out and it’s big, maybe I should not immediately publish this or share it on Twitter,’” Hannham said.
For people like Calibre Obscura, who works a day job in an unrelated field while moonlighting as an arms expert, there are certain lines he won’t cross, such as showing the faces of dead soldiers on the battlefield. He trusts his instincts and the skills he’s honed in covering other conflicts. The secret, he says, is attention to detail. One recent post on Ukraine Weapons Tracker noted how what at first glance seemed to be an ordinary Russian tank was actually equipped with a powerful type of surface to air missile. “You learn to look carefully for details,” he said. “It gives you an instinct for the correct, for what’s out of place and what’s not, makes it easier to determine if something is not real or real.”