On February 24, 2022, the Russian Armed Forces initiated a massive combined arms invasion against the former-Soviet Bloc nation of Ukraine. More than 200,000 troops crossed at several dozen points along the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian borders. At the same time, hundreds of tactical and long-range aviation assets conducted strikes against the Ukrainian military infrastructure. This massive campaign was impossible to conceal fully. Hence, the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry, and the Office of the Russian President employed an advanced Information Operation to screen the military buildup and provide a narrative that justified the invasion. This narrative, coupled with the commercial and Western Intelligence collections on Russian troop movements, significantly reduced the surprise of February 24 on the international community. The three primary indications and warnings were: strategic messaging from the Russian government, open-source observations on Russian troop movements, and leaked intelligence from the United States and United Kingdom Intelligence Communities.
In September of 2021, open-source analysts began publishing commercially available imagery and written reports that massive amounts of Russian war materiel had remained at forward training grounds and within Belarus following the large-scale ZAPAD-21. These reports began to significantly increase by November of 2021, with weekly products showing imagery of hundreds, if not thousands, of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, and ammunition storage sites, especially near Belgorod, Russia. These undeniable commercial imagery products supplemented thousands of social media posts showing large numbers of Russian troops and supplies moving toward assembly areas near the Ukrainian border. In October, the Washington Post was the first major media corporation to publish these reports into a comprehensive narrative that broke the bubble of silence that the Russian Federation enjoyed in 2014 when their “little green men” successfully infiltrated Crimea. This reveal by major media corporations in the United States began an intense Information Operation between Western Intelligence agencies and the Kremlin, with the former leaking strategic assessments on Russian capabilities and intentions, and the latter announcing that they had no intent to invade Ukraine.
When confronted with Western media claiming Russian troop buildup, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Presidential Spokesperson Peskov published daily interviews and statements claiming that there was no buildup. However, by January, with Western media mounting hundreds of reports to the contrary, the Information Operation changed character from denial to justification. The Foreign Ministry began to call for Ukraine’s disarmament, declaration of NATO neutrality, and an enhanced mediation role for the Russian Federation between Ukraine and the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. When that campaign failed, the Russians once again changed tactics to justify direct intervention due to genocidal actions by the Ukrainian government in Eastern Ukraine against Russian speakers. This final stage of the Information Operation concluded on the evening of February 22, 2022, when President Putin declared that Russian troops would enter the Donbass to defend the separatist governments and ethnic Russians. Two days later, the invasion of Ukraine began.
Open source analysts and the leak of intelligence products to the media played a critical role in providing indications and warnings to the U.S. government, the public and reducing strategic surprise. Commercial imagery played the most significant role in that it painted a visual picture to the public and policymakers, a capability that was not widely available in 2014 when the Russian Federation could deny its mobilization into Crimea and the Donbass. Those indicators that Russia was massing forces to fully invade Ukraine spurred the Information Operation by the Russian Foreign Ministry to first deny, then justify, its plans to enact regime change in Kyiv. This Information Operation was an indicator that the whole Russian government was committed to the invasion, which caused the Biden Administration to leak intelligence to the public and the Ukrainians purposely.