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The Atlantic: Ukrainian insider suggests Russia’s precision strikes rely on US satellite imagery

A Ukrainian military source claims Russia’s long-range missile strikes are guided using satellite imagery from US companies, with patterns of pre-strike and post-strike satellite tasking coinciding with actual attacks, suggesting a strategic use of commercial satellite imagery in warfare.
Maxar Imagery of the ZNPP. Source ISW. Source: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
The Atlantic: Ukrainian insider suggests Russia’s precision strikes rely on US satellite imagery

The Atlantic reports that a Ukrainian military source, who requested anonymity, believes Russia’s costly long-range cruise missile strikes are guided using satellite imagery from US companies. The source outlined a pattern where a site is photographed by a satellite, followed by a missile strike days or weeks later, and sometimes additional satellite images are taken afterward to assess the damage. The source noted the high number of such coincidences suggests this is not random.

The accumulation of suspicious cases suggests that some long-range strikes in Ukraine may be guided by satellite imagery from US companies. For instance, in the week before 2 April 2022, American firms received at least nine requests for images of a remote airfield outside Myrhorod, which was later targeted by missiles. Similarly, satellite imaging of a military armor factory in Lviv preceded a strike just before 26 March 2022. Additionally, fresh images of Kyiv were commissioned shortly before the city faced a missile barrage in late January of this year. These patterns raise concerns about the potential misuse of commercial satellite imagery in conflict zones.

Numerous instances have raised suspicions in Ukraine about the use of satellite imagery. A Ukrainian official noted that the sale of sensitive area imagery by private companies has made it hard to dismiss these as mere coincidences. Despite limited satellite capabilities in both Russia and Ukraine, the war highlights how even economically challenged countries can potentially leverage the services of private firms in wealthier nations for strategic advantages.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Kateryna Chernohorenko, noted that US satellite companies have supported Ukraine, but her ministry’s experts suspect that Russia “purchases satellite imagery through third-party companies” that do business with Western satellite-imagery companies and that these images “could be used in armed aggression against Ukraine.”

Ordering satellite imagery is easy and affordable, with free outdated images on Google Maps and fresh, high-resolution ones available for a cost. Websites like offer estimates for new images, with quick turnaround times starting in the low thousands of dollars. For instance, a US company quoted $1,200 for an image of an apartment in Odesa. Even archival imagery of militarily significant areas in Ukraine can be obtained for less, with high-resolution images accessible within minutes from commercial satellite companies.

WP: US House Democrats probe SpaceX over Russia’s alleged use of Starlink in Ukraine

The Atlantic reports that US satellite imaging companies Maxar and Planet have produced imagery of Ukrainian sites later hit by Russian missiles. Both companies claim to vet customers and comply with US regulations against transactions with Russia since the war began. Maxar stopped business with Russian entities in March 2022, while Planet aims to provide imagery to responsible actors and has found no evidence of misuse in a review of prestrike taskings. Neither company disclosed if they suspected Russia’s use of their satellites or their measures against Russian front companies. Maxar mentioned conducting thorough security reviews and tightening controls for Ukraine imagery.

The Atlantic says an anonymous executive from a satellite imagery analysis firm observed a pattern linking tasked images with actual Russian missile strikes in Ukraine since 2022. Jack O’Connor, a geospatial intelligence expert, agreed the data supports Ukrainian suspicions but cautioned that a direct causal relationship cannot be conclusively proven.

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