fFirst came the dramatic images of a kilometer-long column of Russian military vehicles en route to Kyiv. Then came the dramatic images of the same military vehicles burning, wrecked, abandoned and scattered.
It was one of many episodes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in which the entire world was able to follow in granular detail a battle that would otherwise have been shrouded in fog of war.
Just a month later, Russia’s war against its neighbor may already be among the most photographed and documented conflicts in recent history. Ukrainian civilians, the military and journalists on the frontline have all contributed to a mass of real-time visual information by sharing images and videos on social media.
Every day dozens of images of burning tanks, abandoned supply trucks and downed helicopters in Ukraine appear on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Telegram. During the first three weeks of the conflict, as Russian forces grappled with logistical and fuel problems, videos of Ukrainian farmers towing away abandoned Russian military vehicles seemed to surface at least once a day — often enough in fact became a meme.
This mass of information has allowed open-source intelligence experts and volunteers to gain insight into this war that in the past may have only been available to government intelligence agencies. They were able to meticulously 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 wholesale destruction of Russian military equipment and the delaying of a military superpower.
Only from open source data – namely images and videos shared online Team of part-time weapons seekers has documented a total of 2,055 Russian military vehicles destroyed, abandoned or captured by Ukrainian forces. Among them are 331 tanks, 235 armored fighting vehicles, 313 infantry fighting vehicles and 40 surface-to-air missile systems, according to the Oryx blog, which is run by military analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans. The two are conducting the tracking operation in their free time, tweeting their discoveries as they go. Any money they make from their Patreon goes to charities helping civilians in Ukraine.
Their list, they add in a preamble, “contains only destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or video evidence is available. Therefore, the number of destroyed devices is significantly higher than recorded here.”
The list tells a story. Long before the Pentagon spreads news about battles and control areas in the briefing room, the outcome of offensives can be deduced from the documented equipment losses. A devastated Russian column outside a town north of Kyiv, where Russian troops were trying to break through, for example, will indicate their efforts are not going too well.
During the first two weeks of the invasion, the volume of Russian equipment losses documented by weapons trackers was one of the first signs that the operation was not going well for the Russian military. In fact, the losses were so great that Oryx’s team was overwhelmed.
“I can’t… keep up,” they tweeted in response to video showing Ukrainian forces seizing 30 Russian vehicles near Kharkiv.
Maintaining the list requires near-constant attention — late-night scrolling through backlogs of images and videos to keep it up to date.
“You have to be crazy enough to start and even crazier to keep going,” said Mr. Mitzer The Independent.
He added that his team follows a strict methodology for reviewing and documenting the videos and images found. First, they compare it to their existing database to see if it’s new. This process “takes a lot of time and will only get more time-consuming as the number of casualties continues to increase,” he said.
Then they analyze the scene – be it a column of destroyed tanks or an abandoned air defense system – to identify the equipment and figure out how it came to an end.
“It’s either destroyed, taken, or abandoned. Sometimes it ran out of fuel, other vehicles got stuck in a ditch or were ambushed by Ukrainian forces,” Mr Mitzer said.
“There’s usually a story to tell, especially when combined with geolocation and after-action reporting,” he added.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former US Marine who also watched these videos, said Russian casualties tell us as much about the future of the war as they do about the present.
“At a certain point, the losses become so significant that they affect their ability to operate,” he said. “When you see a division’s equipment or multiple regiments’ equipment being lost in an area, the overall operation will suffer.”
“It shows you that their ability to do certain things offensively going forward is pretty limited because they probably don’t have the numbers,” he added.
Mr. Lee, an expert on Russian weapon systems, has recorded the open source data from the battlefield and identified the damaged or abandoned equipment where he can. He did similar work during the war in Syria, but that conflict has provided a much larger body of source material to work with.
“A lot of the war in Ukraine is fought in very large population centers where people have phones, social media and everything else. We’ll see more combat videos from these areas than anywhere else. So it’s kind of unique in that way,” he said.
The community of open-source intelligence sleuths tracking device leaks is a mix of professionals and part-time amateurs. Open-source investigations, by definition, can be performed by anyone with an internet connection, so the line between professionals and amateurs is often blurred. Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organization specializing in open source information, began life as a one-person company led by founder Eliot Higgins and has grown into an international giant.
Another group, Ukraine Weapons Tracker, has built a Twitter account with 375,000 followers in the month since the conflict began. It is run by a team of two people, one of whom is a day clerk in the UK, who have been spoken to The Independent on condition of anonymity.
They too said the extent of Russian casualties was the most significant result of their documentation so far. But what is also striking is the level of detail about how the war is being fought that this small team can glean from the images they found.
In the first two weeks of the invasion, large Russian convoys were wiped out by Ukrainian drone strikes, the Ukraine Weapons Tracker volunteer said. Images of these burned-out columns showed that Russian military planners were unprepared for a theater where Russia did not have air dominance. Then images of a different kind of destruction emerged.
“The Russians decided to reduce the size of their convoys and give them escorts. Instead, these smaller convoys are hit by special forces or local defense forces,” the Ukraine Weapons Tracker volunteer said.
“So instead of two massive convoys [being destroyed]They get five or six minor incidents a day,” they added.
Both Mr. Lee and the people behind Ukraine Weapons Tracker have carried out similar projects in other war zones – mainly in Syria and Iraq. But the scale of equipment losses in Ukraine, most of them in Russia, was unlike anything they had seen before.
“In Syria and Iraq, it’s remarkable when someone captures 10 AK-47s from someone else. Here we wouldn’t even bother to touch that because you’re just talking about sheer size. We no longer look at small arms, we only look at armored vehicles,” the volunteer said.
Although the trackers monitored equipment from both sides, Ukrainian casualties were generally more difficult to monitor because Ukrainian civilians were less likely to film them.
Even with that potential information gap, the scale of Russian casualties, particularly in the first few weeks, was “almost unmanageable” for trackers to fully monitor, Mr Lee said. That was revealing in many ways.
“I think contrary to what a lot of people were expecting, we’re talking about a near-peer conflict. Hence the scale [of Russian losses] it’s just huge,” he said.
“We’re not talking about counterinsurgency. We’re not talking about a police operation. We’re not talking about a special operation here, quote, unquote. You speak of two sides that are not equal, but not that far apart.”
It’s hard work, everyone agrees. The trackers’ job is to document the equipment, but none of them forgets that each of these tanks or trucks is operated by a human.
“For every soldier killed that you see, a family has been torn apart, creating a void that can never be filled,” Mr Mitzer said. “Shots of a tank suffering a catastrophic detonation looks impressive, but it also ends with the end of three lives. Soldiers who probably never wanted this war. Soldiers who have families and dreams just like you and me.”