Russia covertly bought commercial satellite imagery of Ukraine to target critical facilities

Russia has reportedly covertly acquired commercial satellite imagery of Ukraine to target critical facilities with its cruise missile attacks. 

Ukrainian officials told Insight News privately that Russia covertly bought satellite images of Ukraine from certain Western commercial companies. Russia’s commercial satellite imagery might then be used to target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and defence capabilities.

Russians are particularly interested in several regions of Ukraine amid Western weapons supplies and the Ukrainian counteroffensive. At the same time, the latest Russian missile attacks struck critical energy infrastructure and residential buildings.

The sources said that Russia tried to buy satellite imagery of several Ukrainian regions using third-party phoney companies to hide the fact that the Kremlin requested the data for military purposes. It was not shared which provider sold the imagery.

Importance of space technology in warfare in Russia Ukraine war

The war between Russia and Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of space technology in modern warfare. Ukraine does not have its own satellites, but space technology has played a vital part in assisting Kyiv’s operations. 

At the moment, Ukraine’s access to commercial satellites gives it an advantage over Russia in areas such as images, communications, and targeting. Apparently, Russia desperately tries to win back the handicap. 

In May, the United States provided Ukraine with military aid that included funds for commercial satellite imagery services and a host of air defence capabilities. The Pentagon did not identify which company or companies would offer satellite imagery services or how much funds would be allocated for that purpose.

Russian threats to shoot down Western satellites and hacking

Russia has threatened to shoot down Western satellites in addition to hacking into them. On the day of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is thought to have hacked the US satellite communications provider Viasat. Western intelligence agencies have been probing the incident, and while no public accusations have been made, they believe Russia is to blame.

A senior Russian foreign ministry official threatened in October 2022 that commercial satellites “may become a legitimate target for retaliation.” Commercial space technologies, such as SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites and Maxar’s fleet of imaging satellites, play a prominent and compelling role in Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, the Ukrainian government quickly called for assistance in tracking and targeting Russian invading troops. Several commercial satellite providers have since volunteered to provide help to Ukrainians.

Ukraine gained an advantage over Russian troops thanks to commercial satellite imagery

Ukraine’s ability to rely on commercial satellites is said to have provided them with an advantage over Russia’s fleet of purpose-built military satellites. Moscow’s military satellites are designed for combat operations, and their cameras lack the resolution of industrial cameras.

Regarding dealing with cloud cover and darkness, Russian technology is similarly less effective. As a result, Russian forces have a limited view of the battleground.

The utilisation of space assets offers numerous advantages, not the least of which is the ability to view what is going on. High-resolution images of events on the ground, frequently in near real-time, help Ukrainian forces.

When on the defence, this has helped Ukraine to quickly respond to Russian activities, following army movements and giving time to counter any planned assaults.

Satellites have also assisted in exposing Russian logistics difficulties and detecting the installation of new military infrastructure.

Satellites imagery helps identify military command posts and logistical centres

With Ukrainian Armed forces moving in offensives this summer, satellite imagery can again play a critical role in pushing Russian troops out of occupied regions. As satellite imagery has revealed, Russia has constructed a vast network of trenches, fortifications, and minefields reinforced around key positions.

But more importantly, satellites provide a picture of what is going on beyond the lines, allowing strikes on military command posts, headquarters and logistical centres. This was a critical aspect of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensives in autumn 2022, and it can be so in Ukraine’s counteroffensive in summer 2023. 

Having a detailed image of Russia’s defensive array provides Ukrainian military commanders with critical insights into Russia’s strategy as well as vital real-time information on where and when to launch attacks.

Satellite imagery of Ukraine mustn’t be on sale during the war

To prevent Ukraine’s success in the summer offensives, Russia has been trying to hit Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, supply lines, and logistical centres. Sources suggest that Moscow purchased commercial satellite imagery for this precise purpose.

The use of satellites and GPS technology to identify targets and reveal the enemy’s strategy has proved the significance of this technology and its efficiency. As Ukraine suffers from the second year of Russia’s unlawful invasion, all-out war, and Moscow missile strikes on critical energy infrastructures, the Kremlin must not be unable to acquire commercial satellite imagery of Ukraine. To avoid covert purchases, all imagery should be restricted from access during the war.

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