The Russian military is losing so much equipment that weapons monitors are overwhelmed

Ffirst came the dramatic images of a kilometer-long column of Russian military vehicles on their way to Kiev. Then came the dramatic images of the same military vehicles that burned, were destroyed, abandoned and scattered.

It was one of many episodes from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the whole world could follow in detail a battle that would otherwise have been shrouded in the fog of war.

Just a month later, Russia’s war on its neighbor may already be among the most photographed and documented conflicts in recent history. Ukrainian civilians, the military and frontline journalists have all contributed to a lot of real-time visual information by sharing photos and video on social media.

Every day, dozens of images of burning tanks, abandoned supply wagons and shot down helicopters in Ukraine appear on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Telegram. During the first three weeks of the conflict, when Russia’s forces appeared to be plagued by logistical and fuel problems, videos of Ukrainian farmers towing abandoned Russian military vehicles appeared to appear at least once a day – so much so that it became a meme.

This mass of information has enabled open source intelligence experts and volunteers to gain an insight into this war, which may have previously only been available to government intelligence services. They have painstakingly been able to document thousands of photos and videos of destroyed and abandoned equipment to tell one of the most important stories of this war so far: the destruction of Russian military equipment on a large scale and stopped by a military superpower .

Alone from open source data – namely photos and videos shared online – one teams of part-time weapons trackers has documented a total of 2,055 Russian military vehicles destroyed, abandoned or captured by Ukrainian forces. Among that number are 331 tanks, 235 armored combat vehicles, 313 infantry tanks and 40 ground-to-air missile systems, according to the Oryx Blog, run by military analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans. The couple runs the tracking operation in their spare time and tweets their discoveries as they go. All the money they earn through their Patreon goes to charities that help civilians in Ukraine.

Their list, they add in the preamble, “includes only damaged vehicles and equipment, of which photo or video evidence is available. Therefore, the amount of damaged equipment is significantly higher than recorded here”.

The list tells a story. Long before the Pentagon disseminates news about matches and control areas in the briefing room, it is possible to determine the outcome of offensives based on the documented equipment losses. A destroyed Russian column outside a city north of Kiev, where Russian forces, for example, tried to break through, will indicate that their efforts are not going too well.

In the first two weeks of the invasion, the amount of Russian equipment losses documented by weapons trackers was one of the first signs that the operation was not going well for the Russian military. The losses were even so great that the team at Oryx was overwhelmed.

“I can not … keep up,” they tweeted in response to a video showing Ukrainian forces seizing 30 Russian vehicles near Kharkiv.

Maintaining the list requires almost constant attention – late nights roll through the backlog of photos and videos to keep it up to date.

“You have to be angry enough to start it, and even more mad to continue,” Mr Mitzer said The independent.

He added that his team follows a strict method of verifying and documenting the videos and photos it finds. First, they compare it with their existing database to check if it is new. That process “takes a lot of time and will only become more time consuming as the number of losses increases further,” he said.

They then analyze the scene – be it a column of wrecked tanks or an abandoned air defense system – to identify the equipment and find out how it came to an end.

“Either it is destroyed, trapped or abandoned. Sometimes it ran out of fuel, other vehicles got stuck in a ditch or attacked by Ukrainian forces,” Mr Mitzer said.

“There’s usually a story to tell, especially when combined with geolocation and post-action reports,” he added.

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former U.S. Marine who also tracked these videos, said the Russian losses tell us as much about the future of the war as they do today.

“At some point, the losses become so significant that it affects their ability to operate,” he said. “When you see equipment being lost to a division, or several regiments in one area, the overall operation will suffer.”

“It tells you that their ability to do certain things offensively in the future is pretty limited because they probably don’t have the numbers,” he added.

Sir. Lee, who is an expert in Russian weapons systems, has chronicled open source data from the battlefield and identified the damaged or abandoned equipment where he can. He carried out similar work throughout the war in Syria, but this conflict has provided a much greater amount of source material to work from.

“A lot of war is being fought in Ukraine in very large population centers, where people have phones, social media and everything else. We’re going to see more videos of fighting from these areas than you would anywhere else. So in that regard, it’s something unique, ”he said.

The community of open source intelligence experts tracking equipment losses is a mix of professional and part-time amateurs. By definition, open source surveys can be conducted by anyone with an Internet connection, so the line between professionals and amateurs is often blurred. Bellingcat, an investigative journalistic organization specializing in open source intelligence, began its life as a one-man operation run by founder Eliot Higgins and grew into an international giant.

Another group, Ukraine Weapons Tracker, has built a Twitter account with 375,000 followers a month since the conflict began. It is led by a team of two people, one of whom is an office worker in the UK during the day, and who spoke to The independent on condition of anonymity.

They also said that the extent of Russian losses has been the most important finding in their documentation so far. But what also stands out is the level of detail around the way the war is being waged, which this small team is able to pick up from the images they find.

In the first two weeks of the invasion, large Russian convoys were wiped out by Ukrainian drone attacks, the volunteer for Ukraine Weapons Tracker said. Pictures of the burned-out pillars showed Russian military planners unprepared for a theater where Russia had no air dominance. Then images of another form of destruction began to emerge.

“The Russians decided to reduce the size of their convoys and give them escorts. And instead, the smaller convoys are being hit by special forces or local defense forces,” the volunteer with the Ukraine Weapons Tracker said.

»So instead of two massive convoys [being destroyed]you get five or six minor incidents a day, ”they added.

Both Mr. Lee and the people behind Ukraine Weapons Tracker have run similar projects in other war zones – primarily Syria and Iraq. But the extent of the losses of equipment in Ukraine, most of it Russian, has been unlike anything they have seen before.

“In Syria and Iraq, it’s remarkable if someone catches 10 AK-47s from someone else. Here we would not even bother to touch it, for just the scale you are talking about. We do not look at small arms anymore, we see just on armored vehicles, ”said the volunteer.

A satellite image shows southern end of convoy armour towed artillery trucks, east of Antonov airport, Ukraine

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A satellite image shows the southern end of convoy armored artillery trucks, east of Antonov airport, Ukraine

(Reuters)

Although the tracks have monitored equipment on both sides, Ukrainian casualties have generally been more difficult to monitor because Ukrainian civilians are less likely to film them.

Even with the potential loophole in information, the extent of Russian losses, especially in the first few weeks, was “almost unmanageable” for trackers to fully monitor, Lee said. It has been revealing in many ways.

“I think, contrary to what many people expected, we are talking about near-peer conflict. Because of the scale [of Russian losses] is just huge, “he said.

“We are not talking about counter-insurgency. We are not talking about a police operation. We are not talking about a special operation, quote, unquote. You are talking about two sides that are not equal, but not so far away.”

It’s ugly work, everyone agrees. The job of the trackers is to document equipment, but none of them forget that each of these tanks or trucks is operated by a human.

“For every soldier killed you see, a family has been torn apart, a hole created that will never be filled,” Mr Mitzer said. “Footage of a tank being hit by a catastrophic detonation looks impressive, but it also results in the end of three lives. Soldiers who probably never wanted this war. Soldiers who have a family and dream like you and me.”

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