Information is the early weapon of choice in Ukraine

Images, intelligence and predicted battle plans are playing an important strategic role in tensions between Nato and Russia

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The expectation that conflicts are unveiled in fragments is as old as war itself. But as events play out in Eastern Europe, the remarkable thing this time round is that almost the entire sequence is being played out in crystal-clear images.

Rows of tanks and attack helicopters captured from satellites have been displayed. The line-up of jets has been fodder for analysts. The level of troops has been counted higher and higher – for example, from just under 100,000 on January 30 to 190,000 on Friday. Heatmaps have purported to show intense activity at key bases. For its part, Russia showed military equipment on the move for key exercises and then transported shipments back eastward to support its claims that a drawback had been initiated.

The body of information constitutes a digital flood. As a result, questions abound. Fears ebb and flow on a daily basis. The mix of open information and intelligence leaks has so far shaped the crisis as much as it’s been a product of it.

That is not to say that the clear moment of truth has been reached.

At around this time of the year in 2014, before the Ukraine conflict first erupted, I shuttled between the cities of Kiev and Donetsk, as well as Sevastopol in Crimea. On the rain-swept streets, the infiltration and seepage of personnel in the eastern region were perceptible in daily chunks. One day there were the Cossacks, a group of East Slavic Orthodox Christians, with their bandoliers at the demonstrations in Donetsk. Then there was a phalanx of figures in bomber jackets and woolen skull caps. Following a similar pattern, in restaurants in Sevastopol, there was a sudden appearance of many bikers at one point.

It was the genesis of what became known in think tanks as the "little green men". These were the foot soldiers of a distinct new strategy of hybrid warfare designed to destabilise and muddy the information picture in contested spaces. In Donetsk, the presence of plenty of video specialists helped fuel the clamour around the demonstrations. When the Kremlin's move came, the ground had been prepped and seeded for the eventual takeover – and in Crimea's case, annexation.

On the battlefield, putting together pieces is ordinarily an art not a science.

In 2012, I visited war-torn Libya's north-western city of Zintan, which was a rebel stronghold, to meet a contact from the capital Tripoli who had made it to the other side. He took me to a school where there was an operations room with a mix of locals and Europeans working round the clock. The next day, the offensive was on and the road from the mountains through the western suburbs of Tripoli was opening up. In that instance, the rebels battled through to Tripoli and the regime lost control of the capital.

In 2008, in Georgia, the left turn I took from the main road running east-west happened to be a turning into a kilometres-long column of troop carriers from the nearby Russian-allied enclave. I had been delivered behind the lines.

Developments such as these all added up to knowing just when the action was under way. But getting to that point involved far fewer tangible factors.

The Biden administration's handling of the Ukraine crisis has been likened to the way former US president John F Kennedy orchestrated the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s. It has been aggressive in its use of intelligence to put Moscow under pressure to justify its actions and claims.

There have been direct revelations that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told his high command to execute an offensive. Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reeled off a list of pretexts for attack including terrorist bombing, mass graves, drone strikes or chemical attacks. Briefings from the Americans and Europeans have also sought to go inside Mr Putin's mind and paint scenarios of multi-pronged invasions along key road arteries in Ukraine. They have been followed by post-invasion plans to round-up or assassinate leading figures in the Ukrainian power structures.

Scenarios around the escalations of the conflict by separatist leaders in the east or cyberattacks on Ukraine have also been painted as plausible points that would trigger sanctions against Moscow.

The Kennedy team held its nerve as it leaked information against the erstwhile Soviet Union, and eventually the pressure was telling. The intensity of the response from the Biden team to the developments on Russia's western frontier, in Belarus as well as in Ukraine, has been far beyond anything seen in the Georgia situation in 2008 or in Ukraine itself in 2014.

Russia's use of video and orchestrated comments have equally provided nodes at which the crisis has moved on. The footage of a burning car in the Donetsk government complex on Friday was out just as soon as the news of an explosion in the city.

The tempo of the imagery and predictions as the crisis has built up has been a key driver to this point. There is no reason not to expect that pace to keep going. And if the projections turn into realities, the events will indeed be as horrendous as both sides have announced.

Published: February 21, 2022, 4:00 AM