Throughout history, wars have been won by forces that have used new technologies to their advantage. King Henry V of England’s 1415 victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt came thanks to his archers and their newly developed longbows, raining down arrows at a range the French could not match.
The war in Ukraine could experience another historic first, with technology cutting through the fog of war, exposing the aggressors’ lies and hastening efforts to bring about their defeat.
Satellite images of murdered civilians that match videos, recorded weeks later, of roadside bodies provide compelling evidence of Russian war crimes, convincing Western leaders to step up sanctions against Russia and speed up arms deliveries to Ukraine.
How this will affect the end result of the war is unclear. But what is evident at a time when Ukraine is urgently seeking additional leverage as Russian forces regroup for a new offensive is that Russia’s actions in Bucha are strengthening Ukraine’s hand.
While satellite imagery of battlefields has been available to governments for decades and was instrumental in locating war crimes during the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s – including locating a mass grave of many of the 7,000 Bosnian Muslims massacred in the town of Srebrenica in 1995 – it has never been more readily available in the public domain than now.
Putin and his battlefield commanders seem unconcerned or misunderstood that orders and actions now leave an indelible record beyond their control that could come back to haunt them.
They know that in many past conflicts – even as recent as the Syrian Civil War – leaders like Bashar al Assad have escaped condemnation and even been rehabilitated, despite vast troves of incriminating documents from government offices and post offices. from police.
But that’s not the only lesson Putin should heed. Following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and the civil war in Bosnia, the war crimes tribunal in The Hague used the political and military leaders’ own words to help convict them.
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) tried Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, it had video of him looking down on Sarajevo, condemning civilians below to artillery and mortar fire.
His military partner in war crimes there, General Ratko Mladic, also saw his words come back to help convict him, as video shows him on the outskirts of Srebrenica leading the screening of civilians, many of whom would soon be slaughtered by his soldiers, following his commands.
This type of connection is perhaps harder to pin on Putin, but his 20-page dissertation published last summer on why Ukraine is not a country, and his televised commentaries on why Russia should invade, will, if previous war crimes tribunals are precedent, count against him as author and director of war.
If Putin were to be put on trial, his downfall may turn out to have begun with his failure to understand the weaknesses of his army and the strengths of Ukraine. Failure to achieve his first major objective, the capture of kyiv, forced his troops to retreat, leaving their wave of terror exposed.
They did what they have done so many times before, in Syria, in Chechnya, in Georgia: committed appalling abuses. And Putin and his officials did what they have done so many times before: lie to cover up their crimes.
Russian defense officials claimed photos and videos released on April 2 showing murdered civilians – shot in the head, some with their hands and legs tied – were fake, claiming their troops had left before the killings. “The troops left the city on March 30,” the defense ministry said in a statement. “Where were the images for four days? Their absence only confirms the fake.”
They were very clear about the date. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, one of Putin’s most seasoned spin masters, doubled down on the clumsy cover-up, insisting that “Russian forces left the town of Bucha as early as March 30.”
But publicly available satellite images from space technology company Maxar, taken on March 18 while Russian troops were in command, showed the civilians lying dead by the roadside in exactly the same places Ukrainian forces discovered them. when they returned to the city in early April. And drone video shot before March 10 showed a cyclist shot down by Russian troops. Ukrainian forces found his body weeks later, exactly where he had fallen.
In the months leading up to the Russian invasion and the days following the appearance of Maxar’s footage, tracking Russian forces and their destruction, the public’s understanding of the battlefield was revolutionized. Coupled with the near-ubiquitous use of smartphone cameras, geo-tracking technology and sophisticated drones, Putin faces the possible calculus he has escaped in previous conflicts.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants more cameras, and wider access, so the public can see for themselves: “That’s what we’re interested in, maximum access for journalists, maximum cooperation with international institutions , the listing of the International Criminal Court, full truth and full accountability,” he said in a video address on Monday.
The enigmatic Ukrainian leader realized that it wasn’t just advanced anti-tank weapons like Javelins and NLAWs, or surface-to-air missiles like Stingers and Starstreaks, that could turn the tide of war. It’s the truth, and the tools – satellites, drones and smartphones – to deliver it.
Unprecedented in any modern warfare, technology could give the underdog this surprising advantage, undermining the lies of an oversized aggressor. Zelensky was struggling to convey this to the United Nations when he spoke to them on Tuesday: “It’s 2022 now. We have conclusive evidence. There is satellite imagery. And we can carry out full and transparent investigations.”
Like Henry V in 1415, Zelensky knows an edge when he sees it. While satellite imagery isn’t a game-changer like a six-foot yew branch and a length of hemp twine, if he can use it smartly, he can force Putin to speak much sooner than the Russian president. wouldn’t like it.