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Satellites make it harder for countries to launch surprise attacks. That’s in Ukraine’s favor.

But seeing what’s happening on the ground doesn’t help explain Russia’s motives

- January 14, 2022

Tensions over Ukraine’s security continue to rise this week. High-level talks — triggered by a Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border — have yet to resolve the crisis. While there has been much debate over what Russia might do next, there has been little doubt about the buildup itself.

Instead of being able to covertly concentrate armor, vehicles and military personnel, as was possible in the past, Russian leaders have been forced by prying “eyes in the sky” to acknowledge their military mobilization. Indeed, rather than denying the buildup itself, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought only to claim that the mobilization is not preparation for an invasion. As our recent research shows, this inability to surprise one’s neighbors has triggered important changes in international affairs.

Technology and the imposition of strategic transparency

For much of history, nations could surprise one another, massing their forces to be effective militarily without necessarily losing the element of surprise. This “strategic surprise” could be a war-winner.

Not today. Ukrainians, and just about everyone else, know what Russia is up to — even if the rationale for Moscow’s actions remains unclear. This lack of strategic surprise poses a critical liability for any invading army, one for which there is no easy alternative.

In recent times, surprising an adversary with a large-scale invasion has become more difficult. Russia cannot catch Ukraine unawares via a conventional invasion. Putin appears to be contemplating a second-best strategy of overwhelming Ukraine militarily, committing to a massive invasion that will be expensive and risky — and will almost certainly damage Russia’s international reputation. The very size of an invasion needed for victory in the absence of surprise could give Putin pause.

Putin’s fight with Ukraine reflects his deep distrust of the West. There’s a long history behind that.

In the past, Russia avoided such large-scale efforts, especially close to NATO’s frontier. In its previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, Russia deployed “little green men” and other “gray zone” tactics to avoid having to make a costly, overt attack. At least initially, this subtle aggression worked because it allowed Russia to surprise Ukraine — and provided other nations with a pretext to look the other way.

But Russia’s gray zone conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been foundering. At the same time, invading a greater portion of Ukraine to impose a more decisive military outcome cannot be done covertly.

Satellites have revolutionized international relations

Space surveillance satellites — “eyes in the sky” — routinely monitor events here on earth, making it difficult for one nation to surprise another. Examining the militarized conflict of countries from 1950 to 2010, our study found that governments operating reconnaissance satellites are significantly less likely to suffer a large-scale attack from another nation. This is the case even when taking into account other possible factors, such as alliances, power and proximity.

The time period we analyzed only partially (and briefly) overlaps widespread access to commercial satellite imagery, from roughly 2000 onward. Still, our limited test of whether commercial satellite imagery reduces the risk of international aggression offers evidence that it does.

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Commercial-grade satellite imagery should help countries that lack their own reconnaissance capabilities avoid large-scale surprise attacks. In addition, governments that lack satellites can benefit from information provided by other nations.

Ukraine’s access to satellite imagery

The United States, which maintains some of the world’s most advanced reconnaissance satellites, was the first country to sound the alarm about Russia’s military buildup. U.S. officials have used satellite imagery to mobilize public opinion and call for NATO solidarity regarding Russia’s apparent preparations for war.

SpaceX, a private aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, launched a Ukrainian reconnaissance satellite into orbit this week. Until now, Ukrainian leaders have had to rely on information supplied from foreign governments, and on commercially available satellite imagery. With its own satellite, Ukraine can ensure that space assets are monitoring the strategic areas of greatest importance to its national security and that it receives the imagery in a timelier fashion. Such imagery can provide valuable insights into the overarching scope of Russia’s activities vis-a-vis Ukraine. For example, observation of Russia’s major bases and staging areas could indicate the timing and location of a potential attack.

The widespread availability of commercial satellite imagery also means that nongovernmental groups and even individuals can now monitor Russia’s military behavior, not just intelligence agencies. In April 2014, for example, AAAS’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project used open-source, high-resolution commercial imagery to analyze activity in and around Russia’s regional military bases and link this activity to the ongoing military campaign in Crimea — and the photographic record contradicted the Kremlin’s denials of involvement. Similar initiatives can again be used to monitor Russia’s current military activity.

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Satellites will make Russia’s military aggression more difficult

Of course, the Kremlin may still brandish the threat of a large-scale attack to secure concessions from Ukraine and the West, such as demanding that NATO refrain from admitting Ukraine or other former Soviet republics to the security alliance. The space-based spotlight on Russian military activities, however, has allowed Western nations to mobilize public opinion and respond more rapidly, countering the threat of war with the promise of major sanctions, should Russia choose to invade Ukraine.

Satellite imagery has thus placed Ukraine in a better position to resist potential Russian aggression than other nations in the past. Even when compared with 2014 — when Russia used clandestine, irregular tactics to seize control of Crimea — Moscow is unable to conceal the much larger concentration of military power necessary to conduct a larger, more decisive invasion of its neighbor.

Surveillance satellites are helpful in determining the “what” of international affairs — but satellite and other technologies cannot effectively answer the important “why” questions. Analysts in the West are still uncertain as to Putin’s motives in posturing for war. Nevertheless, NATO members have been vocal in condemning Russia’s mobilization and in warning of “severe economic consequences” should Russia invade. While exposure is not always enough to inhibit aggression, lifting the veil on surprise has caused an increasing portion of aggressors to scale down their ambitions — or even to think twice.

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Erik Gartzke is a professor of political science and director of the center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies the impact of information on war, peace and international institutions.

Bryan Early (@b_r_early) is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and the associate dean for research at the University at Albany, State University of New York’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.