How commercial satellites are shaping the Ukraine conflict

This Maxar satellite image taken on Feb.28, 2022 shows a damaged bridge in a road and nearby homes in Chernihiv, Ukraine. (AFP / Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)
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Updated 04 March 2022

How commercial satellites are shaping the Ukraine conflict

  • Beyond helping shape narratives, the images are directly aiding Ukrainian forces in their war efforts

WASHINGTON: From a huge Russian military convoy snaking its way to Kyiv to missile strikes and refugee crossings, commercial satellite imagery of the Ukraine conflict is helping lift the fog of war, illuminating for the public what was previously the domain of spy agencies.
Technologies that can pierce cloud cover and work at night are also coming to the fore, as a growing army of open-source intelligence analysts offer near real time assessments of battleground developments.
“Governments are no longer the only place to go for high precision satellite data,” Craig Nazareth, a former US intelligence officer turned scholar at the University of Arizona, told AFP.
Thanks to the explosive growth of the private satellite industry, the volume of imagery is greater and turnaround time faster compared to prior conflicts, such as Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
While most Western governments have their own sophisticated satellite assets, their classified nature means the images can’t be shared.
And with public trust in the US and British governments shaken after the 2003 Iraq war, third-party imagery has helped plug credibility gaps.
“They’re saying ‘Look, it’s not us, this is actually happening, we’re not making this up,” Nazareth said.
Beyond helping shape narratives, the images are directly aiding Ukrainian forces in their war efforts.
“Capella Space is working directly with the US and Ukrainian governments as well as other commercial entities to provide timely data and assistance around the ongoing conflict,” Payam Banazadeh, the company’s CEO confirmed in a statement to AFP.

It was images taken by the San Francisco startup that led a group of independent researchers to realize the invasion was underway, before Vladimir Putin announced his “special military operations” in the early morning of February 24.
Hours before that speech, Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in California tweeted that Google Maps showed a “traffic jam” on the road from Belgorod, Russia to the Ukrainian border.
It was the precise spot Capella Space previously saw a convoy of military vehicles, and the congestion likely reflected Russian civilians getting stuck at roadblocks while military vehicles passed.
“Someone’s on the move,” he correctly hypothesized.
While most satellite imaging requires daylight and clear skies to capture images, Capella Space works with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) — in which sensors shoot down energy, then record the amount that reflects back to them.
SAR “penetrates clouds and smoke, even in very large storm events or fires, so we can reliably capture clear and precise images of the Earth under almost any conditions,” said Dan Getman, the company’s vice president of product.
Another company whose pictures have been used heavily by news media is BlackSky, which released what it believes was among the first engagements of the war — an attack on the Luhansk Thermal Power Station a little after 4:00 p.m. local time on February 23.
“We have a constellation of small satellites that can see dawn to dusk, not just at certain times of the day” the company’s CEO Brian O’Toole told AFP.
In traditional polar orbits, which fly north-south, a satellite could take only two snaps of a particular spot per day — but BlackSky flies its hardware counter-clockwise to the planet’s rotation, allowing them to revisit areas more often.
Clients receive the images within 90 minutes, and are helped in interpreting them by AI-enabled software.

Perhaps the most grabbing image of the conflict so far has been a picture of the 40 mile (64 km) long Russian convoy, captured by Maxar, “the granddaddy of the industry,” according to Chris Quilty, of Quilty Analytics.
He explained that unlike traditional satellites that only point downwards, Maxar’s satellites have gyroscopes that allow them to swivel and target with more precision.
The US government, through the National Reconnaissance Office, is one of Maxar’s main clients, dictating “shutter time,” which helps explain why the company and others are spending so much time over Ukraine right now.
But the selective release of what the satellites are seeing could eventually lead to ethical concerns.
Maxar and others “are inevitably capturing imagery of Ukrainian troop movements and defensive positions and that information is not being released to the public,” said Quilty.
Looking ahead to future conflicts, “There is absolutely an ability to color the narrative depending upon what imagery is made available,” he said.


2022: When Russia invaded Ukraine, protests erupted in Iran, world emerged from COVID-19

Updated 54 min 27 sec ago

2022: When Russia invaded Ukraine, protests erupted in Iran, world emerged from COVID-19

  • At UN climate talks, countries agreed to create fund to help poor nations threatened by climate disasters
  • US dollar soared, crypto imploded and Elon Musk bought Twitter which has threatened to fall apart

Sometimes, it’s what doesn’t happen that matters most.

By the evening of Feb. 25 this year, a day after Russian tanks had crossed into Ukraine in the largest military attack in Europe since World War Two, Moscow’s troops had reached the outskirts of Kyiv.

With distant artillery fire booming across the capital, Ukraine’s defense ministry urged residents to build petrol bombs to repel the invaders. President Volodymyr Zelensky filmed himself with aides on the streets of the city, vowing to defend his country’s independence.

“Tonight, they will launch an assault,” Zelensky said. “All of us must understand what awaits us. We must withstand this night.”

The assault never came – and 10 months on, Moscow’s “special military operation” is bogged down. In some places, it’s in retreat. Many in Moscow had expected Russia’s military to sweep to victory, oust Zelensky’s government and install a Russia-friendly regime.

To be sure, Russian forces remain in control of vast swathes of Ukraine’s east and south, and at least 40,000 civilians have been killed and 14 million displaced in the grinding conflict. But Ukrainian forces, reinforced by billions of dollars of Western weaponry, have regularly proven themselves savvier and more effective than the morale-sapped Russians.

It was a similar story in the United States, where Republicans and some pundits had predicted a red wave in midterm elections. The Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives, but victory there was slim with a majority of fewer than 10 seats. The party not only failed to take back the Senate, but lost several gubernatorial races. Democrats triumphed in all three secretary of state contests in presidential battleground states where their Republican rivals had denied the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.

Midterms usually deliver a loud rebuke to the party of the sitting president. This time around it was a soft tsk.

In economics, most of the world’s big central banks waited until March to begin ratcheting up interest rates. The European Central Bank did not move until July. Monetary hawks complained that the delay allowed inflation to surge. Will that prove costly in the long term? Can the Fed keep the US economy from recession?

The answers will become clearer in 2023. There are early signs that inflation may have peaked in some economies, but growth is also softening. In a few countries – looking at you, Britain – the outlook remains grim.

At United Nations climate talks in Egypt, countries agreed to create a fund to help poor nations threatened by climate disasters, but failed to agree plans to cut emissions faster. Meantime, record heatwaves in China, floods in Pakistan and Europe, and glacier collapses in India, Italy and Chile were reminders of how fast our planet’s climate is shifting.

This was also the year that protests exploded in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for wearing an “improper” head covering. Eyewitnesses said she was beaten, though Iranian authorities deny that. The protests, led mostly by women, spread through the country and across social classes. The longer they continue, the more of a threat they will pose to the 43-year-old Islamic revolution.

What else happened in 2022? The US dollar soared, crypto imploded, and Elon Musk bought Twitter (which he preceded to shake up so much it has threatened to fall apart). It was the year Latin America lurched to the left, a cease-fire finally came in Ethiopia’s civil war, and North Korea fired off missile after missile. And it was the year Britain lost a queen, gained a king and saw three Prime Ministers in Downing Street.

Finally, much of the world emerged from COVID, at least socially if not in epidemiological terms. The big exception was China, whose zero-COVID policy has sparked protests and unrest in the past few weeks.

In October, the country’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress had seen President Xi Jinping tighten his grip on power and win a third term, a break with recent party tradition which had seen presidents serve just two terms. Could Zero-COVID rock the status quo?


Zelensky visits Donbas near ‘difficult’ Ukraine front

Updated 06 December 2022

Zelensky visits Donbas near ‘difficult’ Ukraine front

  • The focus of fighting in Ukraine has shifted to Donbas after Kyiv's forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson
  • Zelensky appeared in a video wearing a heavy winter coat, standing next to a large sign in Ukraine's blue and yellow colours bearing the city name Sloviansk

KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday visited the frontline region of Donetsk in east Ukraine, describing fighting in the area as “difficult” with Russian forces pushing to capture the industrial city of Bakhmut.
The visit came as Russian President Vladimir Putin convened his security council in the wake of the latest spate of drone attacks on military-linked facilities inside Russian territory.
The focus of fighting in Ukraine has shifted to Donbas after Kyiv’s forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson last month following a Russian retreat from the regional capital.
Zelensky appeared in a video wearing a heavy winter coat, standing next to a large sign in Ukraine’s blue and yellow colors bearing the city name Sloviansk and calling for a moment of silence to commemorate killed Ukrainian soldiers.
“The east of Ukraine today is the most difficult front. And I am honored to be here now with our defending troops in Donbas. I believe that next time we will meet in our Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk and in Crimea as well,” Zelensky said.
Russian forces and their proxies have controlled parts of Donetsk and Lugansk since 2014, when fighting with separatists broke out and the Kremlin annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
“From the bottom of my heart, I congratulate you on this great holiday, the Day of the Armed Forces,” said Zelensky, who was later shown meeting soldiers and distributing awards.
In the nearby Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, its Moscow-appointed mayor said that Ukrainian shelling had killed six civilians and injured others.
The Ukrainian leader has visited several frontline regions after more than nine months of fighting, including Kherson in the south recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces, calling its recapture “the beginning of the end of the war.”
Sloviansk, which was among regions in Donetsk briefly held by Russian-backed separatists, lies some 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Bakhmut, which has become the center of fighting since Kherson’s fall.
The Kremlin said Putin met senior officials to discuss issues related to the country’s “domestic security” and that Russia was taking “necessary” measures to fend off more of what it said were Ukrainian attacks.
Officials in Russia’s Kursk region near the border with Ukraine said earlier Tuesday that a drone attack near an airfield had caused a fire at an oil storage unit.
That attack came after the defense ministry said a day earlier that Ukraine had tried to attack another airfield in Ryazan region and also the key Engels airfield in the Saratov region.
Engels is a base for the country’s strategic aircraft that Kyiv says have been used to strike Ukraine, and both sites are hundreds of kilometers away from Ukraine’s border.
The British defense ministry said that if Russia deems Ukraine to have been responsible then Moscow will “probably consider them as some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine.”
The drone attacks come on the back of weeks of systematic Russian attacks that have crippled Ukrainian critical infrastructure like water, electricity and heating ahead of winter.
Russia on Monday fired another barrage of dozens of missiles that knocked out power and water in cities across Ukraine, the latest wave of attacks that Moscow has said Kyiv was responsible for because it refused Russian demands.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday said that Russian forces were using long-range, precision weapons to target military-linked facilities and “crush the military potential of Ukraine.”
The defense ministry also announced Tuesday it had received back from Ukraine captivity 60 Russian servicemen in their most recent exchange.
Russia’s invasion and its decision to conscript hundreds of thousands of men has set off an exodus of Russians from the country, including critical politicians and journalists.
However, neighboring Latvia announced Tuesday it was revoking the license for exiled independent TV channel Dozhd for multiple violations that included showing the Crimea peninsula annexed from Ukraine as part of Russia.
“The laws of Latvia must be respected by everyone,” Ivars Abolins, head of the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council, said on Twitter.


Indonesia’s new criminal code raises concerns for human rights, free speech

Updated 06 December 2022

Indonesia’s new criminal code raises concerns for human rights, free speech

  • New criminal code was approved unanimously by Indonesian lawmakers
  • It replaces a framework that stretches back to the Dutch colonial era

JAKARTA: Indonesian lawmakers passed on Tuesday a long-awaited and controversial revision of the country’s criminal code, a sweeping overhaul that critics say is a huge setback to human rights and freedom of expression in the Southeast Asian nation. 

The new rules were approved unanimously by Indonesia’s House of Representatives, three years after a similar draft law was shelved by President Joko Widodo following large-scale protests involving tens of thousands of young people, who had argued that the law threatened their civil liberties. 

The new penal code, which also applies to foreigners in the country, restores a ban on insulting the president, state institutions or Indonesia’s national ideology known as Pancasila. 

“We have tried our best to accommodate the important issues and different opinions which were debated,” Yasonna Laoly, the minister of law and human rights, told parliament. “However, it is time for us to make a historical decision on the penal code amendment and to leave the colonial criminal code we inherited behind.” 

A revision to the criminal code, which stretches back to the Dutch colonial area, had languished for decades as lawmakers in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation struggled to adapt its native culture and norms to the penal code. 

The new criminal code must be signed by the president after ratification and will not apply immediately to allow for the drafting of implementing regulations, with a transition period set for a maximum of three years. It can also be challenged in the Constitutional Court. 

Most criticism of the new laws has largely focused on penalties around consensual sex outside of marriage, as it makes extramarital sex punishable by a year in jail and cohabitation by six months, though charges must be based on police reports lodged by their spouse, parents or children. Currently, Indonesia bans adultery but not premarital sex. 

Others have also highlighted articles critics say will curb free speech, including mandatory police permit for public protests, without which protesters can be punished for up to six months in jail. 

“This criminal code is still thick with colonial aroma, and there are many articles threatening civil liberties and limiting democratic spaces,” Tunggal Pawestri, gender rights activist and executive director of Hivos Foundation, told Arab News. 

Pawestri acknowledged that there has been some progress since the nationwide protests in 2019 when opponents of the bill said the law-making process had lacked transparency and contained articles that discriminated against minorities. 

“Even though they said were open and tried to include input from the larger civil society, we think this was not their best attempt,” Pawestri added. “We have been shouting and giving our input, but it’s almost as if they didn’t listen to us.” 

Editorials in national newspapers decried the new laws, including daily newspaper Koran Tempo, saying the code has “authoritarian” tones and could be a “disaster” in the future. 

Under the new code, disseminating the teachings of Marxism, Leninism and communism in Indonesia is punishable by up to four years in prison. There are also expanded punishments for blasphemy, as promoting atheism or any beliefs beyond Indonesia’s recognized religions is punishable by up to two years in prison. 

The blasphemy chapter is “a huge setback in protecting freedom of religion and belief in Indonesia,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. 

Robertson said the new legal provisions were “oppressive,” as they open doors to “invasions of privacy and selective enforcement that will enable police to extort bribes and officials to harass and jail political opponents. 

“In one fell swoop, Indonesia’s human rights situation has taken a drastic turn for the worse,” Robertson told Arab News. 

“Make no mistake, passage of this criminal code is the beginning of an unmitigated disaster for human rights in Indonesia. Lawmakers and the government should immediately reconsider this move, repeal this law and send it back to the drawing board.”


Students protest campus lockdown as China eases Covid curbs

Updated 06 December 2022

Students protest campus lockdown as China eases Covid curbs

BEJING: Students protested against a lockdown at a university in eastern China, highlighting continued anger as huge numbers of people across the country still face restrictions despite the government easing its zero-Covid policy.
Some Chinese cities have begun tentatively rolling back mass testing and curbs on movement following nationwide anti-lockdown demonstrations last week.
But analysts at Japanese firm Nomura on Monday calculated that 53 cities — home to nearly a third of China’s population — still had some restrictions in place.
China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother the rallies, deploying a heavy police presence while boosting online censorship and surveillance.
Videos published on social media Tuesday and geolocated by AFP show a crowd of students at Nanjing Tech University on Monday night shouting demands to leave the campus.
“Your power is given to you by students, not by yourselves,” one person can be heard shouting in the footage. “Serve the students!“
A third-year student who asked to remain anonymous confirmed the protest took place, a day after the school announced it would seal off the campus for five days because of just one Covid case.
Chinese universities have restricted movement for months, with many requiring students to apply for permission to leave the campus and banning visitors.
The Nanjing Tech student told AFP her peers were unhappy about poor communication from the university and worried they would be blocked from traveling home for the winter holidays.
In the footage, the crowd can be seen arguing with university representatives and shouting for school leaders to step down.
“If you touch us you will become the second Foxconn!” one protester yells in reference to violent demonstrations last month in central China at a factory run by the Taiwanese tech giant that supplies Apple.
Other clips showed a police car arriving on the scene and university officials promising students they would compile their complaints in a file.
The Nanjing protest comes days after people took to the streets in multiple Chinese cities urging an end to the zero-Covid policy, with some even calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down.
Hundreds gathered at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua and Peking universities at the end of last month as well as on campuses in the cities of Xi’an, Guangzhou and Wuhan.


Authorities have cracked down on subsequent efforts to protest while appearing to answer some demands by easing a number of restrictions.
On Tuesday Beijing said offices and commercial buildings including supermarkets would no longer require visitors to show proof of a negative test.
Major businesses and organizers of large-scale events will be allowed to devise their own testing requirements, authorities said.
Xie Shangguang, a 22-year-old student in Beijing, welcomed the changes as “good news” and told AFP he felt the capital was “coming back to life.”
“I have the impression that it will gradually ease up,” he said. “You can’t let everything go at once, or block everything at once, you have to proceed step by step.”
Another Beijing resident, 28-year-old Wu Siqi, also said the loosening should be incremental.
“You can’t just suddenly tell people they don’t need to do anything,” she said.
A host of other cities including Shanghai have dialled down mass testing mandates in recent days.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, officials began telling people to stay home if they have symptoms — a sharp about-turn from the previous approach of dragging all positive cases to central quarantine facilities.


Rwanda says international community not helping Congo crisis

Updated 06 December 2022

Rwanda says international community not helping Congo crisis

  • Congolese Tutsi group resumed fighting in late 2021 after lying dormant for years, setting off a crisis in eastern DRC

KIGALI: Rwanda’s foreign minister has accused the international community of exacerbating the crisis the Democratic Republic of Congo’s east, after Washington pressed Kigali to end its alleged support for rebels in the restive region.
In a call to Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said foreign support for armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) must end, “including Rwanda’s assistance to M23.”
Rwanda has denied repeated US-backed accounts of support for the M23 rebel group, an allegation also made by independent experts for the UN who found that Kigali was aiding and abetting the group.
The mostly Congolese Tutsi group resumed fighting in late 2021 after lying dormant for years, setting off a crisis in eastern DRC.
Rwanda’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, said Kagame and Blinken “had good discussions... but differences in understanding of the issue remain.”
“The wrong and misguided approach of the international community continues to exacerbate the problem,” Biruta said in a statement late Monday.
“External interference and dictates” were undermining regional diplomatic efforts to solve the problem, he added.
Rwanda has repeatedly put the blame for DRC’s crisis with its government in Kinshasa, and accuses the international community of turning a blind eye to its support for FDLR, a Congo-based rebel group pitted against Kigali.
Biruta said “the security concerns of Rwanda need to be addressed, and where others may not feel obliged to, Rwanda is and will continue to do so.”
“M23 should not be equated to Rwanda. It is not Rwanda’s problem to solve,” he added.
Talks between DRC and Rwanda in the Angolan capital Luanda unlocked a truce agreement on November 23 but Kinshasa has subsequently accused M23 of massacring civilians despite the cease-fire.
The agreement should have also have been followed by a pullout by the M23 from territory it had seized, but this has not happened.
A separate peace initiative in Nairobi between East African officials and various rebel factions active in eastern Congo — but not the M23 — has been under way for over a week.