Pictures of an invasion force? Not so much.

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.”

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.”

How unfortunate!

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.

25 thoughts on “Pictures of an invasion force? Not so much.”

  1. For me a lot more worrying than all the breathless pictures of moving military equipment is the recent civil defence evacuation order issued in Lugansk and Donetsk. That – and incidents of ceasefire violations along the contact line which OCSE reports demonstrate are committed by both sides- should be making us all go more pale than lots of pictures of military equipment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So, what’s the purpose of all this crap?

    I understand that both Biden and Johnson can use a “wag the dog”-style distraction. Oh yeah, and Trudeau too. But is that all?

    There’s a significant capital flight, divestment from Ukraine, obviously. Could this be an objective? To devalue assets and then quietly buy them off.

    Some (Dzhangirov) think this is the West applying pressure on Ukrainian ‘aborigines’, pushing them towards a settlement in Donbas. Not too convincing, I must say.

    Any other theories?

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    1. It is nothing to do with Ukraine, all to do with Russian threats elsewhere.
      Assume for the sake of argument that the real threat is to take out Deveselu missile base in Romania with an impressive hypersonic show.
      Could the US/Nato talk about it? Could they just threaten sanctions if it happens? Would they withdraw their staff there? Would they warn Romanian locals? Could they discuss hypersonics openly?
      And most of all – would they claim their own defence missiles would protect it?
      Then it happens….
      Far far better to pretend Ukraine is the target, and then claim that Deveselu was a lucky strike that no one was expecting.
      Of course it might be something else, a warship in the Med or Black Sea, the US presence in Syria (which is over due), or just more “accidents around the world” that some think have been caused by Russia spoofing GPS signals.
      And the US may not know the threat. But far better have the world discuss this threat than anything else. And the Ukraine specialists, having got away with so many lies in public over the past decade, they have probably convinced Biden think they can get away with more.

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      1. I don’t understand what you’re saying; what “Russian threats elsewhere”?

        Oh, and I heard another unconvincing one: this hysteria has led to the official announcement of destroying documents in the US embassy in Kiev. Supposedly an opportunity to destroy kompromat on the Biden Family… Surely there must be simpler ways to do that…

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  3. … And despite a great deal of looking by the BBC intelligence friends, nothing stronger than this has been found. It is like so many stories, Ujghurs, MH17, Syrian hospitals, Jan 6 violence, HK demonstrations. The shocking thing is not that a little evidence can be created, but that a ton of genuine undoubted evidence hasn’t turned up for something claimed to be so massive.
    Russia denied the satellite evidence it entered Syria back in 2015, but within days the evidence was overwhelming. That is because it was True!!

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    1. I don’t think that in 25 years I’ve ever seen any credible evidence ever presented by Washington for any event it has ever claimed as a casus belli.

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      1. The ’cause’ of the US invasion of Vietnam in 1964 was also a ‘contrivance’. Ditto the US invasion of Panama.

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    2. The Russians have had a base in Syria since the 60’s. They were already in Syria before the satellite found them ‘entering’ . That was the truth.

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    3. Until the Russians had their defences in place, particularly a layered air defence, they hardly admit to anything. The opportunity for mischief making might be impossible for US or Turkey to ignore and any head-choppers in the area wouldn’t have been able toresist the temptation.

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  4. The below referenced interview segment, reveals an underhandedly inaccurate way of soft-pedalling the BS concerning the often quoted unnamed administration source/sources.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. >But here’s the zinger. The BBC then
    > tells us, “Some reports have suggested
    > that the pontoon may have been
    > removed.”

    > How unfortunate!

    LMAO thanks Paul : ) They do deserve to be mocked

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What the BBC didn’t tell you that the marshes along the Pripyat River are notoriously difficult for large armies to operate in. In Barbarossa, German units past the marshes to the north and south but had to allocate forces to deal with the partisans and Jews operating/hiding there.
      There is a Ministry of War map which shows two arrows pointing almost due south from Belarus to Kiev, which indicate that bunch of geniuses (MoW) have forgotten their history.

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  6. Paul, these are little snippets of int and of course no firm conclusions can be drawn from these selected photos on their own, either that an invasion is about to happen or the opposite. However, the tone of your article is that you believe the Kremlin line that everything has been hyped up by the West and there will be no invasion.

    If you recall, I agreed with you at the time about the Iraqi dossier – it stank of a desperation to justify something based on evidence that just wasn’t there.

    But this time I have to say the situation with Russia stinks of an actual invasion that is at the very least being seriously planned. My personal opinion is that it will happen in the relative short term. I have to say I agree with Dewitt above. When I read that civilians are being evacuated from Donetsk to Rostov because of Ukrainian attacks, a chill ran through me – it smells like Gleiwitz.

    So where do you stand? Do you think Russia is going to send its army over the border or not?

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    1. Nick, My view is that Russia will strike Ukraine very hard if it launches a major military offensive against the rebel republics in Donbass, and is positioning itself to do that should it be necessary, but otherwise it will keep its powder dry, I cannot, of course, be 100% sure of this, but it’s the hypothesis that best fits the facts in my opinion.

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      1. The continuing conflict in the Donbas has been unwisely overlooked as the most likely trigger for a major outbreak of violence. It is much more interesting to talk about NATO, European security architecture, the world conflict between autocracy and democracy, etc., but that conflict is serious, and there is so far no promising diplomatic process in place. Moscow may have instigated the rebels, but Kyiv’s insistence that the conflict is simply a matter of “Russian aggression” isn’t helpful.

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    2. Why would the Russians want to evacuate the crowds that would be on the street cheering their liberation? It because they’re targets in the ‘tooth breaking offensive’ that will re start the 6 year-old ‘cotillion’.

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  7. “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.”

    Oh, I’m sure the BBC did stop and think about that, and found it a very opportune photo to publish, irrespective of its location.

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  8. “Could this be an objective? To devalue assets and then quietly buy them off.”

    Well, that would be insidiously machiavellian, not just the usual machiavellian fare.

    Like

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