How to find locations to check for Russian military build-up?

Methods for Investigating where Russian troops accumulated along Ukraine border

OpenStreetMap Overpass, a must in the #OSINT toolbox

COUPSURE, a Twitter account working on the verification of the Russian troops` movement on the Ukrainian and Belarusian border, kindly chatted to me about open source tools. Supporting his approach in using Open Street Maps (OSM) data, I share a few thoughts on where I see the value for open source journalism.

Instead of discussing all the myriad methodologies and tools to investigate the Russia's intent, we will just concentrate on one source of data: Open Street Maps.

Open Street Maps is composed of user generated tags (and hence should always be used with a grain of salt). These tags can be bridges, train stations and a myriad other physical structures. Of course, also “military bases” along the Russian-Ukrainian border. They proved to be a powerful starting point for researchers, including me, to find new places where Russian troops mounted (and where many of the trains with equipment headed, sometimes hundreds of kilometers from afar).

The platform Overpass Turbo, leveraging the OSM API, showed COUPSURE, (myself and others) where to start looking. By selecting the tags for military bases (including nodes, relations and ways) along the Ukrainian border and defining an area (in his case Bryansk Oblast), we can quickly display all the Russian military bases in the vicinity of a self-declared area (note: there is a limit on how many data points the web tool allows you to access at one time. For more, there are other ways to use the API).

Run script, to visualize locations of all tagged military bases in the vicinity of your defined area
OSM features for military use
Other military tags for OSM API

Next: download the file as an KML file, which can then be easily imported into the Desktop version of Google Earth Pro.

Military bases from Open Street Map

Now you have a good dozen of locations and coordinates to get started with. With this list, head to your open source satellite data tool of choice. For Sentinel 2 and SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar, for into, check guide here) Sentinel 1 images, I head over to EO Browser.

Alternatively, check this SAR tool.

Enter your coordinates via right-clicking on the object and then click “get info”, or click view in Google Maps in the top right and right click there to copy the Lat/Long coordinates.

In EO Browser, select Sentinel 1 images for December and view the SAR images.

To see the “changes on Troop buildup” for this location (here the base of Lesnovka) either use the “compare images between dates” feature.

Alternatively, create a “time laps animation”, as seen below.

Over the past years abandoned, the base in Lesnovka suddenly appears active again. Why using pixelated SAR images over Sentinel 2 images or even Planet Lab images? SAR images can pierce through clouds. During the deepest winter in West Russia, chances of a clear view can be slim. The approach for vehicles and huts work well, as we see below.

time laps animation of Russian base near Ukrainien border (concept: @COUPSURE)

From here on, it's just a matter of going through one-by-one all the other Russian military bases (and airbases) near the border and deep into Belarus, and verifying further alterations of ground troops.

COUPSURE built a Google data map with the SAR and otherwise verified locations — I don't vouch for the fact that all these locations are 100% verified.

Collection of locations by @COUPSURE

Though, while these examples were widely shared, the approach with OSM and Overpass holds more potential for #OSINT and journalism work.

COUPSURE: “…that with images of trains (with military equipment) in Klintsy, I knew they were going somewhere. I opened overpass turbo, accessed all the to Open Street Maps known military installations around the Klintsy area and one by one, crosschecked the coordinates with SAR and Sentinel 2 images in EO browser. There the changes became pretty easily visible”.

Overpass for geolocation

By no means is one limited to military bases. Overpass is brilliant to geolocate, too. The list of feature attributes is long. From “A”, as of “Aerialway” to W, like Waterway, you can locate anything that your curious investigator heart desires.

You see a railway station in a video and know the general area, you can easily display all the tagged polygons and check out one by one.

Check out some of the OSM Overpass examples here and get started

Expand “area” to country: If you are keen to find all the military bases in Switzerland, just use “Switzerland” in the area attribute.

Military tags for the area Switzerland

Let's take this video, below.

General area is South East of Ufa. We define the area as “Bashkortostan” and we are looking for “station” for the feature “public_transport” (railway stations in the vicinity).

Starting point to geolocate video: a “train station” in “Bashkortostan”, the selection is “fairly manageable
Checking across Nagayevo, Russia

OSM is useful for geolocating and #GEOSIN analysis — whenever you have a general idea where you are looking and what you are looking for.

Added: Of course, OSM is not the only crowdsource platform where you can search by tag or term. An alternative is of course Wikimapia, where you can also search by keyword. If you have additional tools, dont be shy and let me know on Twitter (@Techjournalisto)

Thanks to @COUPSUR for the exchange.




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice

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Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice

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