Ukraine: Russian strikes in Kyiv facilitated by US sat-data purchase

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The Ukrainian military maintains that Russia employs images from American satellite companies to guide its cruise missile attacks. It’s an astonishingly cost-effective investment. The cost of these images could only be a few thousand dollars. This may seem like a hefty sum, but in comparison to a missile that costs around $1 million, it’s practically negligible. What’s more, such purchases can be strategically made through third-party corporations, which effectively conceal the Russian source and circumvent sanctions. 

Photo credit: Maxar Technologies

In addition, the satellite imagery market is a treasure trove of comprehensive, high-resolution images, all of which come with timestamps and coordinates. These images are an invaluable tool for monitoring the movements and activities of potential targets. 

According to Ukrainian military sources quoted by The Atlantic, a telling pattern has emerged. A satellite takes a picture of a location marked for attack. Within a few days or weeks, a Russian missile strikes the designated target. A subsequent order for another satellite image of the same location is then submitted, likely to assess the aftermath of the operation. As the source succinctly puts it, “The number of coincidences is too high to be a coincidence,” pointing out the undeniable pattern.

Photo credit: Reddit

Some examples

On April 2, 2022, the region around Mirgorod was shaken by missile strikes on a military airport. Notably, US firms had requested images of this airport on nine separate occasions before this incident. Intriguingly, a week after the attack, another photo of the site was obtained. This pattern of events was not unique to Mirgorod. For example, in Lviv, an arms factory was bombarded on March 26, 2022. Then, in January 2024, Kyiv also made headlines when it faced a similar incident. Before this massive missile attack, recent images of the city had been ordered. 

Several hundred such instances have been reported, according to Ukrainian officials. Experts at the Defense Ministry suspect that Russia might be acquiring satellite imagery through “third-party firms,” who collaborate with industry giants like Maxar and Planet Lab. This theory is supported by Deputy Defense Minister Kateryna Chernorenko. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Chernorenko believes that American companies stand with Ukraine. These companies, echoing her viewpoint, announced the termination of their relationships with Russia in March 2022, while at the same time closely scrutinizing their customer base. However, the results of their work “could be used in the execution of armed attacks against Ukraine,” according to Chernorenko.

Is there control?

Despite assertions that their technological capabilities are limited, the Ukrainian military monitors Russian satellites. In the past, the notion that private firms could distribute satellite images revealing vulnerable military zones was unimaginable. However, a source speaking with The Atlantic revealed that such instances have become increasingly common in the last six months, raising questions about their randomness. 

Video screenshot

A high-ranking executive from a company specializing in satellite imagery analysis confirmed to an American publication that they had identified over 350 incidents in the first year of conflict. There was a correlation between purchased photos and Russian missile strikes on deeply entrenched Ukrainian targets. The executive further emphasized that companies like Maxar and Planet Lab should exert more control, not just over their customer base, but also on the resale of images to prevent these crucial images from falling into Russian hands. 

Here’s an intriguing experiment to ponder. An American journalist took a leap of faith and requested some recent shots of Zaporizhzhia, a city perilously close to the frontline, from a distributor affiliated with Planet Lab. With nothing more than a few clicks and keystrokes needed to share his identity and card details, presto – he was viewing a high-resolution image of the city within a matter of moments.

Satellites at war

Photo credit: Roscosmos

Let’s delve deeper into the significance of satellite images, particularly those of high resolution. A high-resolution satellite image over a region suspected of a missile strike in a military context can yield abundant information. The first thing it might reveal is the geographic layout of the area. This encompasses natural features such as mountains, rivers, forests, and man-made structures like buildings, roads, and bridges. Grasping the terrain is vital for evaluating the impact of a missile strike and strategizing potential countermeasures. 

Secondly, the satellite image can disclose the existence of military installations or equipment. This could involve missile launch pads, military bases, radar systems, or other infrastructures. The presence of such installations could validate suspicions of a missile strike. The size, shape, and arrangement of these installations can also offer insights into the adversary’s capabilities and intentions. 

Thirdly, the satellite image might display signs of recent activity that could suggest a missile launch. This could consist of heat signatures, smoke trails, or disturbed earth. Such signs would not only affirm a missile launch but also provide hints about the missile’s trajectory and potential target. Finally, in the aftermath of a suspected missile strike, a high-resolution satellite image can demonstrate the extent of the damage. This may consist of craters, destroyed buildings, or other signals of destruction. This information is crucial for assessing the effectiveness of the strike and strategizing for recovery and retaliation.

Photo credit: Russian MoD

You should know

BulgarianMilitary.com shares some fascinating details, highlighting the connection between satellites and the Ukraine conflict. Interestingly, nearly 70% of control over international commercial satellite imagery is held by US companies. Over the last five years, Russia has reportedly spent over $200 million on commercial satellite data to support its efforts. 

The city of Kyiv has endured more than 200 airstrikes since the beginning of hostilities. The military budget of Russia increased by 5.4% in 2020, with substantial funds allocated towards surveillance and intelligence purposes. 

Photo credit: NPO Mashinostroyeniya

Interestingly, more than 80% of the airstrikes in Kyiv have been directed with precision at military and strategic sites. In the last three years, American satellite companies have seen a sales boost of 15% from international clients. In 2021, Russia has secured its spot as the third-largest global buyer of commercial satellite imagery.

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