For an untrained observer, the incident captured in the video below depicts the obvious horrors of modern war. Someone driving down a street, passing billboards and arriving at a stoplight — when, suddenly, explosions begin to pepper the ground around them. A U-turn and a close escape.
We take for granted our access to near-real-time documentation of international events, including the war in Ukraine. Since even before the full Russian invasion began, social media users in Ukraine and Russia were filming and sharing the buildup of forces near Ukraine’s border. The government had satellite imagery showing the scale of what was looming, but on-the-ground observers gave a sense of ubiquity and detail. The general public knew that Russia’s vehicles were painted with “Z” markings before they began showing up on streets near Kharkiv.
But just as we’ve all learned the potential utility of ubiquitous mobile phones in capturing illicit and criminal activity in the United States, it’s useful to remember that the same effects are at play in international conflicts. Capturing and sharing an interesting or alarming video might also be sharing the deployment of an illegal munition.
There is a prohibition against the use of cluster munitions, for example, a type of ordnance that spreads smaller explosives over a wide area. Such weapons pose an obvious risk of civilian casualties, given that they are inherently imprecise. And that is what the dash-cam footage above appears to show, according to researchers from the open-source investigations group Bellingcat.
“Kharkiv also appears to have been the target of multiple cluster munition attacks,” Bellingcat’s team wrote last month. In the video, “we can see the effect of such a strike, with multiple submunitions detonating across a wide area. This stretch of highway (50.048093, 36.189638) runs through a residential area and is immediately next to a children’s hospital.”
The hospital, too, was struck. It’s not visible in the video but sits across the intersection the car approached, on the left. We know that in part because the video was geolocated; the place at which it occurred was identified by latitude and longitude. Here is what that same intersection looked like in peaceful times, as captured by Google.
In a phone call with The Washington Post, Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder, explained the importance of geolocating such videos as part of the process of documenting possible infringements of international law. Over the past several years, Bellingcat and its partners — including Mnemonic and the Center for Information Resilience (CIR) — have built a system for collecting, verifying and storing evidence from conflict zones that might eventually be used to enforce the rules of war.
“The main thing we try to find out at the moment is the location of each of these videos because the intent is to make them searchable for future accountability processes,” Higgins explained. Once geolocated, the information is put in a spreadsheet that’s maintained by Bellingcat and CIR. The evidence itself is archived by both Bellingcat and Mnemonic, and the data used to populate a map created by CIR.
That geolocation can be tricky. It involves identifying distinctive features seen in photos and videos and matching those with known imagery from satellite photos or from tools like Google Maps. Here’s Bellingcat’s Aric Toler identifying some distinctive features in a video as he asks for assistance in figuring out where an explosion occurred.
And, sure enough, someone located it — less than 20 minutes later. The existence of a large community of people who are engaged in trying to geolocate documentation of the conflict makes Bellingcat’s work easier, Higgins said, saving researchers potentially hours of work as they can simply confirm a location instead of identifying it in the first place.
What’s remarkable about the conflict in Ukraine is that Russia made it far more likely that any potential criminal activity would be documented by open-source investigators because of its history in the region. Bellingcat was founded in 2014, days before a Russian antiaircraft battery accidentally shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine. The Flight 17 investigation became one of Bellingcat’s most notable, pitting the group against Russian disinformation regularly. But that and the ongoing conflict between Russian proxies and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine helped build a community of people trained in observing and identifying actions in Ukraine.
“We had an ad hoc, amateur online community who are sharing, engaging, geolocating and working to counter Russian disinformation from Day One of the conflict,” Higgins said — something that took years to develop as they sought to build a similar accountability system in Syria. “Even before the conflict in Ukraine started, we had people tracking the movements of Russian vehicles. … What we’re seeing happening in Ukraine in the moment is quite unique. I think it really shifted the balance of power within the information system that has emerged around Ukraine.”
Lots of eyes and cellphones on the ground. Lots of outside observers ready to figure out where documentation occurred. A system for tracking and storing those videos and that evidence. The only question, then, is whether criminal courts will use that evidence in potential investigations and indictments. And that, given the novelty of the system, is still not entirely settled. While Bellingcat’s evidence (and testimony from staffers) was used in Malaysia Flight 17 legal proceedings, war crimes probes are something else entirely.
“This could be the first time that this evidence is used directly in accountability processes, so we’re trying to engage very early on with those different accountability processes to talk them through exactly what we’re doing, get feedback from them,” Higgins said. He has served for several years on the technology advisory board for the International Criminal Court, where he has advocated for using open-source evidence. “We’ve been collaborating with various organizations to build the best process possible to meet what their expectations would be for this kind of evidence.”
It’s important to recognize that other fields, including the media, have embraced the techniques of open-source investigation. The New York Times hired a Bellingcat researcher to aid its visual investigations team, for example. The evolution of documentary evidence in the social media age — starting, Higgins pointed out, with the Arab Spring more than a decade ago — has meant revisiting assumptions about how to conduct investigations of such conflicts.
“A big part of the open-source community,” he added, “is the idea that it’s better to work together and share information than it is to get exclusives and scoops.” The media having overcome that instinct to embrace open-source investigations offers some cause for optimism that investigators might do that too. Bellingcat researchers have participated in mock trials aimed at evaluating the strength of their evidence, with success.
One would be forgiven for being skeptical about bad actors being held to account on the international stage. But if there is an effort to prove that Russian officials violated international law in their use of munitions in Ukraine, conviction may end up hinging in part on a video uploaded to social media, located by volunteers and indexed and validated by groups like Bellingcat and Mnemonic.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion has been stymied by the strength of the Ukrainian public. His team might be held to account by the global public more broadly.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.