CIT expert on recent Crimea explosions and crowdfunded satellite, an interview

22 August, 12:24 AM
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SAR-satellite owned by ICEYE company (Photo:ICEYE)

SAR-satellite owned by ICEYE company (Photo:ICEYE)

In an interview with NV Radio, a military expert from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) Kyrylo Mykhailov talks about the recent string of explosions across Russian military bases in Crimea and Belgorod.

NV: Ukrainian intelligence warned that Russia is planning to stage some sort of provocation at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). How would describe the ever more tense situation around the facility?

Mykhailov: Ukrainian intelligence on this subject is largely based on Russian propaganda, which repeatedly claimed that Kyiv is looking to cause a catastrophic accident at the power plant, spreading radioactive pollution across Ukraine and even Europe, hoping to blame Russia. These narratives suggest that Moscow could be planning something exactly like that.

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If we look at the data – from the Syrian campaign, for example – Russia made a lot of noise about rebel forces planning to do something with chemical weapons. It was reasonable to assume that the Syrian government would launch chemical attacks afterwards, blaming the rebels. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I’m only suggesting that all those announcements by the Russian Defense Ministry had nothing to do with events on the ground.

Our current thinking says it’s just chaotic narrative noise. Naturally, we shouldn’t rule anything out, when it comes to Russians. However, Western intelligence services did make public assessments that ZNPP was built to withstand pretty heavy attacks, including a direct hit by an airliner.

The only real threat to the facility would materialize if it’s disconnected from the power grid, and its backup diesel generators fail. The reactor cooling system would then be offline, taking us into Fukushima territory.

I struggle to image what would have to happen to disable every backup generator at the power plant.

NV: Crimea. An UAV was allegedly shot down above Russia’s Black Sea Fleet HQ, following reports of air defense fire near Yevpatoria and Sevastopol. What’s going on in Crimea?

Mykhailov: I didn’t have a proper look into what happened in Sevastopol, but I’ve seen photos of what looks like a loitering munition drone. That would in line with our assessment that Ukrainian special operations forces are active in Crimea.

We’ve seen several very effective strikes. Most notably – the one on Saky airfield, where Russia lost half of its combat naval aviation, according to Western intelligence. Plus the explosions in northern Crimea, which wiped out major ammunition stockpiles and temporarily severed rail connection to mainland Ukraine.

The rest of these reported explosions are likely from Russian air defenses, as they didn’t produce any secondary detonations or fires on the ground. On the other hand, we can’t be certain they actually intercept hostile targets. After Saky and Dzhankoi attacks, they could be shooting everything they see on their radars, potentially including friendly UAVs.

We can’t say every Russian air defense activation prevented an attempted Ukrainian attack.

NV: We’ve seen some on-the-ground footage from Russia’s Belgorod, suggesting that people are leaving the city en masse, following a series of explosions nearby. The city’s pretty close to the Ukrainian border, do you have an idea as to what’s going on there?

Mykhailov: As it stands, we don’t know what’s happening in Belgorod. I assume the explosion at nearby Tymonovo could have caused panic. Both CIT and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists were looking into that incident.

There was a Russian ammunition and equipment depot there. Satellite imagery show it was moved into the nearby forest in early August. Drone footage then showed the forest on fire, with rolling ammo detonations.

Russia is clearly trying to conceal its logistical nodes on Russian territory, without much success – at least in this case.

NV: I can’t resist asking you about Ukrainian activist Serhiy Prytula crowdfunding a satellite, which could reportedly provide high-resolution visual intelligence. Do you think it’s going to be useful for our armed forces?

Mykhailov: I can tell you that if I had (UAH 600 million / $16.3 million), I would not hesitate to make the same purchase.

ICEYE is a Finnish company, which operates a range of radio intelligence satellites, which can take images day and night, in any weather conditions. Specifically, Prytula has bought access to ICEYE’s database of all of its satellites, in addition to exclusive Ukrainian operating rights for one satellite.

The satellite in question flies over Ukraine twice a day. Currently, we’d be interested in the segment from Kherson to Donbas, roughly. But even if the fly-by happens only once per day, the Ukrainian government can give the satellite specific instructions. It could request high-resolution images of a 15x15 kilometers area, and the data will be available within hours. In conjunction with sophisticated machine learning analysis tools, enemy military equipment on the ground would quickly get identified.

This kind of radio satellite imagery helped us to track the deployment of Russian forces along our borders, as our Western allies are often reluctant to share intelligence from Russian territory with us. It’s a good purchase.

NV: Is this something Ukraine didn’t have prior?

Mykhailov: As far as I understand, Ukraine had, at best, an optical imaging satellite, with a resolution of about 1 meter per pixel, with certain limitations. Although, even radio imaging has its drawbacks: the radar signature of a tent, for instance, is not that different from that of terrain. But it’s very good at spotting equipment and anything else made of metal. It could even theoretically detect a working engine of a ship, for example.

Ukraine didn’t have access to anything like that. Combined with satellite imagery Kyiv is getting from commercial sources and its Western partners, this will significantly increase Ukraine’s intelligence gathering.

NV: Does Russia have similar satellites?

Mykhailov: Radio imaging satellites? Not to my knowledge. At least not in these numbers. Russian satellites are obsolete, most of them don’t exceed resolutions of 1 meter per pixel, while Western ones are at 20 or even 10 centimeters per pixel.

At the same time, Moscow will likely be using satellites it launched for Iran. Using various pretexts about calibration and testing it’ll sue them to spy on Ukraine. It only underscores Russia’s lack of satellite intelligence capacity.

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