Way back in my youthful days as a military intelligence officer, I was trained in imagery intelligence, so it kind of makes me feel young again to see grainy pictures of Russian tanks in Belarus (though in my day, it was the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the tanks were Soviet.) And so my interest was immediately aroused by an article on the BBC website today containing satellite pictures purporting to show the Russian military build-up in Belarus in preparation for an alleged invasion of Ukraine.
Now the thing about intelligence is that it’s more than raw data. It’s a process. Collecting the data is just part of it. What you do with it is equally as important – how you interpret it and how you disseminate it. The frame, or in other words the context in which you discuss it matters too. Russian tanks in Belarus are harmless if your frame is long-scheduled, standard military exercises. But Russian tanks in Belarus are ominous if your frame is an impending invasion.
You therefore need to be very careful about throwing out raw information without thinking it through and doing a proper analysis, and without putting it in the proper frame. Unfortunately, our dear friends in the press are often not very good at this. Twenty or so years ago, when the British government produced its infamous dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, I bothered reading it and realized immediately that the headlines saying that Iraq was knee deep in WMD was false – the evidence just wasn’t there. But the press took the government’s analysis and framing uncritically. The same happened with the Steele dossier that sparked off the Russiagate scandal – obvious garbage, but that didn’t stop people running with it.
In short, there’s a lack of what you might call critical thinking, a rush to publish stuff without stopping to think what it actually means, and a tendency to put it into the most scary sounding frame, even if that is not appropriate.
And so it is with the BBC and its report about Russian troops in Belarus. This says:
“The latest satellite images provided by the US space technology company Maxar show that wide-scale Russian military activity persists close to Ukraine’s borders, despite recent Russian claims of de-escalation and withdrawal. Taken in mid-February, they illustrate that Ukraine remains surrounded on three sides – on its borders with both Russia and Belarus – by Russian military hardware and troop concentrations.”
Note the prejudicial use of the word ‘surrounded’ which immediately suggests a lack of objectivity. But that’s by the by. The important thing are the satellite images. What do they show us?
First off is a picture of a Russian military field hospital at the Osipovichi training area in Belarus. The BBC reports that, “While this could be a legitimate part of any large scale field exercise it could also be an indication of expected battle casualties from an imminent conflict.”
So where is Osipovichi? Well, as the BBC notes, it is in “north-western Belarus.”
In fact, it’s north west of the Belarusian capital Minsk, and about half way between Minsk and the Lithuanian border. In other words, IT’S NOWHERE NEAR UKRAINE. I ask you this – if you were going to invade Ukraine, would you erect a field hospital next to Lithuania?? You wouldn’t.
The BBC should have stopped to think about that before publishing.
Next up in the article is a photo of a pontoon bridge over the Pripyat river in Belarus, about 6km from the border with Ukraine. Sounds creepy, huh? Well, not really. It’s hard to tell from the BBC map exactly where this is, but it appears to be in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no obvious route taking invasion forces from north of the river to a place where they need a pontoon to go south. It’s not at all clear what invasion purpose this bridge would serve.
The BBC notes that “Analysts at London-based McKenzie Intelligence Services have highlighted the large staging area on the right bank of the river as an indicator of possible intent to move large numbers of vehicles.” What “large staging area”?? There’s just a big empty space. I guess it could be a “staging area” but there’s nothing to indicate that. Adding that label is just a way of making emptiness sound scary.
But here’s the zinger. The BBC then tells us, “Some reports have suggested that the pontoon may have been removed.”
And then we have another image – of Russian artillery at the Bretsky training area. Note that, as with the field hospital, these troops aren’t in some invasion “staging area” but on a recognized training ground. Nothing unusual about that. Also we’re not told anything about other military forces in the region. Artillery by itself would be useless. Who would it be supporting?
More important is Bretsky’s location. It’s in the far, far south-western corner of Belarus, connecting to the far, far north-western corner of Ukraine. Now think about this for a moment. Is that a likely location for a Russian attack on Ukraine? There is no strategic, operational, or tactical logic I can see for charging into the far west of Ukraine in such a way. It makes no sense.
And finally, we have a picture of some helicopters in Zyabrovka in south-eastern Belarus, which do at least the advantage of being more or less decently located for an invasion, but which by themselves mean nothing. And besides, the BBC then tells us:
“It is important to remember that Russia’s current military presence of around 30,000 troops in Belarus, while alarming to both Ukraine and NATO, are part of joint, scheduled exercises that are due to conclude on February 20.”
So now you tell us! Isn’t that a more logical frame for all this than ‘invasion of Ukraine’. The BBC is having none of it. The pictures don’t prove an invasion, it says, “But NATO defence chiefs believe Russia now has sufficient forces in place around Ukraine to execute an invasion should President Putin give the order.” That’s the frame you should be thinking of.
In reality, these pictures show nothing – a field hospital close to Lithuania; an imaginary staging area; a bridge from nowhere, which well have been removed already; and a few artillery pieces working out on a training area far, far removed from any logical military objective. As evidence of an invasion, it’s not very convincing.