Russia and Ukraine – an Intelligence goldmine
As the crisis between Russia, Ukraine and the West continues to deepen and speculation over a potential conflict, and its scope, grows, what is clear is President Putin has given the West an unprecedented opportunity for intelligence gathering at so many different levels.
What has been noticeable on the many open-source aircraft monitoring platforms are the airborne intelligence gathering platforms that have been bracketing Ukraine, Russia and Belarus from Poland, the Baltics, inside Ukraine and from the Black Sea, hoovering up information from different sources and turning it into intelligence.
There hasn’t been an opportunity since the Cold War for the deployment of large formations of Russian Ground Troops, configured for a large-scale warfighting operation to be looked at and examined in so many different ways. So, what is likely to be going on and what will we know?
The first caveat is that I have to be more generic that I would like to but within the intelligence game there are only so many ways to gather information whether through the use of humans or through exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum. The actual capability of many if not all of the collection platforms being targeted at the Russian build up remain highly classified and my analysis is therefore speculative but from a position of knowledge having overseen many operations to monitor large formation deployments of Russian style formations.
There is a real alphabet soup of intelligence techniques that will be targeted against Russia, and each will be hoovering up vast amounts of information, processing it into a specific brand of intelligence that will then be fused together to provide all source intelligence thereby building a much better and clearer picture as to what is going on.
I do have to caveat that when a sensor picks something up it means it has happened, i.e. it is history and intelligence is all about looking at what has happened in order to predict what will happen. Predicating the future is never an exact science and if fraught with potential misinterpretations; especially when the opposition know what you are doing and are therefore actively trying to deceive you.
So, what are the aircraft doing and what can they see from so far away from the Russian border? Essentially, they are carrying out 3 types of intelligence gathering, SIGINT, ELINT and MASINT.
Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) will be listening to all of the broadcast communications between military units, formations, headquarters and bases, looking at the frequencies used, the networks that are operational and what is being said in the messages. This will have the ability to conform the order of battle, i.e., what formations with what kit are deployed and, as the units and formations practice their communications, it will give the intelligence specialists a lot of material to decrypt, confirm previous knowledge and prepare wider indicators and warnings for certain activities.
Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) will be monitoring all of the Radar and other emitters operating in support of Russian activity. It will be looking at what they use to find and track targets and what weapon systems could be used supported by the radars. It will also be looking at the control mechanisms for weapon systems. The very act of flying aircraft, and in the case of the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment, sailing a warship along the Ukrainian Coast, will stimulate a lot of electronic activity. The ELINT Sensors will hoover all of that activity up and use it to make sense of what systems are being used, but also use it to understand how to disrupt those systems if needed.
Next comes MASINT – Measurement and Signature Intelligence, and this is where the operational and tactical magic happens when monitoring large ground-based formations. vehicles are effectively lumps of metal and they emit different heat and radar signatures to natural surroundings and even buildings. MASINT can be used to monitor what is where, what has moved and give indication on what could be happening. It takes a long time to prepare Armoured formations for operations and they must prepare for specific formations as they advance, all of this data can be picked up utilising a number of techniques when applied to MASINT sensors. This message the Russians will know well, as they have their own capabilities, nothing is hidden, no matter how many camouflage nets there are over it, the only real secret is how much can be seen and how far away?
As platforms are flying, they will be stimulating activity on the ground in response, stimulating reports being sent up chains of command, sent to military and political masters and these reports relate to activity we know about, because we will have caused it. These reports will be targeted by more strategic collection capabilities to identify how they are processed and sent and therefore identify potential vulnerabilities in the systems used to process them and the mechanisms of their transmission. This information is vital in allowing newer responses through cyber to be brought to bear if necessary.
It is the good old tactic espoused by General Rupert Smith during the first Gulf War, when he said, “If the pond is still, don’t be afraid to thrown in a pebble and watch how the waves promulgate.” This is exactly the same tactic used in June 2020 when HMS Defender sailed along the Crimean Coast and for the whole of the HMQ Queen Elizabeth task force deployment, watching those who were watching it, was invaluable.
Of course, the airborne assets will be complementing what the space-based assets are monitoring and being used to complete the picture from 2 other critical intelligence disciplines. The first being HUMINT, at a strategic level the national agencies of many countries will be trying to find out what is going on inside the Russian Political, military, and operational headquarters and working to get a handle on the wider intent of President Putin and the real capability of the military forces deployed.
It is almost certain Ukraine will have HUMINT assets targeting the Russian formations deployed close to its borders looking at the orders of battle and the levels of preparations. However, one of the most valuable resources is the huge amount of Open-Source material that is circulating on various social media platforms. There are hundreds of pictures and videos of Russian equipment being moved towards the borders, pictures of training and troops putting personal pictures onto social media. This Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is invaluable and colours in or targets much of the information and intelligence gathered from more classified sensors.
So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’ He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public.
The sorts of potential indicators and warnings of a potential move could include:
- Increasing domestic rhetoric suggesting Western Interference
- Increased international rhetoric accusing the west of interference
- Increasing Rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted
- Rhetoric around Ukrainian incursion into Russia
- Increased Belarus activity on Polish border with refugees
- Ukraine Cyber attack
- Global Cyber attack
- Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
- Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
- Elements of the Russian Northern Fleet Deployed
- ‘Manufactured’ terrorist activity both against Ethnic Russians but also inside Russia itself – bombs in Moscow / Airliner Shot Down?
However, if he does, he will have limited objectives the worst-case scenario could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine. He could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russias objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent.
A potential Op Plan schematic for a limited Russian Invasion is:
As the situation develops, further blogs will drill into the detail of what we are seeing but the author can be contacted at any time and details are available on the Contact Us Page. Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence.