Putin’s Undeclared War: Summer 2014 – Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine

Putin’s Undeclared War: Summer 2014 – Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine

Organisation: Bellingcat (United Kingdom)

Publication Date: 03/28/2017


Size of team/newsroom:small


‘Putin’s Undeclared War: Summer 2014 – Russian Artillery Strikes against Ukraine’ proves large-scale direct involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine in summer 2014 using exclusively open-source evidence. The report was produced by volunteers from the open-source investigative journalism organization Bellingcat. In spring and summer 2014, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, armed confrontations in Eastern Ukraine intensified. This first major escalation of the conflict culminated in the (first) Minsk protocol signed in September 2014 that solidified control of large areas of the Donets’k and Luhansk regions under the so-called ‘DNR’ (‘Donets'k People Republic’) and ‘LNR’ (‘Luhansk People Republic’). Russian officials have consistently stated that their armed forces did not intervene in the war in Eastern Ukraine. However, based on analysis of publicly-available satellite imagery, this investigation proved these assertions to be false. The primary goal of the investigation was to estimate the scale of the cross-border artillery attacks that allegedly occurred in 2014 using innovative and credible analysis methods. We used a novel method based on known military crater analysis techniques, which we adapted to satellite imagery. This involved crater trajectory analysis of artillery target sites inside Ukraine to determine the direction of artillery fire, and then analysis of marks (e.g. 'blast marks' in case of rocket artillery fire) within Russia or on the border area to identify the presence of artillery systems. We concluded that military units stationed inside Russia or inside Ukraine within 2 km of the border fired artillery at Ukrainian forces at least 149 times during summer 2014. Experts within the field of satellite imagery analysis have stated that our findings were credible (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/a419b994ccf14a42977665a9af966ec3/report-russians-regularly-shelled-eastern-ukraine-2014). We aimed to make our work as accessible to as wide an audience as possible, despite the technical nature of the analysis. To achieve this we used interactive visualization tools to highlight the most important findings, provided our data openly to allow for ‘community verification’ of our findings, and presented short summaries of the report on our website and on social media. We feel that our efforts were successful; the interactive map has received over 250,000 hits to date (https://bellingcatukraine.carto.com/builder/79a5c4ec-c29d-11e6-9676-0e05a8b3e3d7), the report was covered by a number of large news organizations (e.g. http://www.bbc.com/russian/features-38380335), and our findings were widely shared on social media. Monetization was not a direct concern of this project. However, the investigation formed part of a broader funding approach by Bellingcat to freely provide quality open-source journalism, and then apply for funding from private organizations or through ‘crowdsourcing’ funding on websites such as Kickstarter.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The investigation was innovative as it was the first to reveal the extent of artillery strikes from within Russian territory against Ukraine in summer 2014 using only open-source evidence. Also, the methods used were innovative in terms of originality and scale. Artillery attack sites inside Ukraine were analyzed based on crater analysis techniques used by the US military. Image overlays were developed in-house based on these techniques, and were then applied to artillery craters in Google Earth to estimate their trajectory (summarized in this video: https://youtu.be/jqHwCANgrsk). The project was of a much larger scale than previous applications of the same technique; over 2,000 locations with thousands of craters and marks were considered from mapping services such as Google Earth, Yandex, and Bing maps. The project was also innovative in how it was publicized to reach a broad audience. Updates on the report's release date and summaries of its content were shared extensively on social media along with a video trailer (https://youtu.be/vMzkGjbVRHg) and the methodology video mentioned above. In order to make the report accessible to a general audience, a one-minute introduction to the report (http://bl.ocks.org/anonymous/raw/c9924762733168a721aae412936cb4a3/) was put online as well as a fully interactive map with freely downloadable data to allow anyone to verify our findings (https://bellingcatukraine.carto.com/builder/79a5c4ec-c29d-11e6-9676-0e05a8b3e3d7). The report had a considerable impact both in the media and politically. The report was widely reported, including by the Associated Press, the Daily Mail, BBC (Russia / Ukraine), Radio France International, and a number of other news organizations. The report had a diplomatic impact in Ukraine as well; it was shared by the official Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 23 official accounts of Ukrainian embassies and several other diplomatic missions or official representatives.

Technologies used for this project:

Crater trajectory analysis was performed in Google Earth using image overlays to estimate individual crater bearings, or the facing directions of individual artillery units. The Google Earth files (kml) were read into Excel / Open Office as an xml file, and the resulting table was imported into the statistical programming language R. Here, spatial analysis was performed. By intersecting buffers generated from the artillery crater trajectories with the facing direction of artillery firing positions and then comparing dates of appearance on satellite imagery, we identified the most likely firing positions for specific artillery attacks (method summarized here: https://youtu.be/jqHwCANgrsk). The results of the spatial analysis were converted into geojson files suitable for presentation as static visualizations for the report, or as online interactive maps. Carto was used to produce online interactive maps of our results. The ‘torque’ timeline feature of Carto was used to progressively display artillery firing positions and attack sites with estimated date of the attack. An introductory ‘story’ created using Carto Odyssey accompanied the animation, and allowed for an interactive overview of the entire report (http://bl.ocks.org/anonymous/raw/c9924762733168a721aae412936cb4a3/). A separate Carto map with a timeline and categorical filters was created as an interactive map (https://bellingcatukraine.carto.com/builder/79a5c4ec-c29d-11e6-9676-0e05a8b3e3d7). Blender was used to prepare the video trailer, and Google Earth to produce the methodology summary video, which were then hosted on YouTube. The videos were publicized online on Twitter and Facebook before and after the report’s release. QGIS and Google Earth to produce the static maps that appeared throughout the report. Finally, Slack was used for communication between the team of volunteer investigators during preparation of the report.


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