By Natasha Christensen, Susan Wolfinbarger, and Jason Lapadula 

In the days leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 24, the Kremlin’s rhetoric unveiled a looming threat and an aggressor bent on violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighboring state. The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO)—whose mission is to anticipate, prevent, and respond to conflict that undermines U.S. national interests—recognized early that Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine would foreshadow the unfortunate need for atrocity documentation. CSO conflict watchers gathered, Feb. 11, to discuss what could be done. CSO anticipated Russia would likely block civil society access and atrocity documentation efforts in a conflict environment. Nevertheless, Russia’s blockade of reliable sources of information could be circumvented by CSO’s ability to harness data analytics to document abuses remotely. No amount of expertise in anticipating conflict could stop Russia’s war machine, but CSO’s early identification of the likely complexities involved in documenting atrocities led to the funding of a cooperative agreement to create the Conflict Observatory program. The program is making an important contribution to Ukrainian and international efforts to hold accountable those who are responsible for atrocities in Ukraine.

“The unlawful transfer and forced deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilians and constitutes a war crime.  Accountability is imperative in the face of such crimes, and the United States and our partners will not be silent,” said CSO Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew D. Steinhelfer.

An image of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, left, from Feb. 14 shows no visible damage. In contrast, the image from Feb. 27, right, shows significant damage to the building. Images © 2022 Maxar

The Department of State announced the creation of the Conflict Observatory, May 17. This is an independent project carried out through CSO cooperative agreement grantee Esri—in partnership with Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, PlanetScape Ai, and others—to identify, track, and document possible atrocities in Ukraine committed by Russia’s and Russia-aligned forces using public information and data. Though funded by the U.S. government, the Conflict Observatory carries out its own independent research, arriving at its own separate analytic conclusions. The Conflict Observatory has been careful to point out gaps in information and knowledge, and to maintain stringent academic rigor in verification of data. Using information uncovered by the Conflict Observatory program, the United States and partners will be able to facilitate accountability for Russia’s atrocities, expand international opposition to Russia’s invasion, and raise public awareness of Russia’s atrocities.  

The Conflict Observatory, in line with international standards, uses innovative technology, such as satellite imagery and social media data, to analyze and document evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities committed in Ukraine. Its analysis has already been supplied to international mechanisms to begin the process of accountability.

There are several groups undertaking such remote documentation activities. However, when international standards for digital evidence collection are not followed, the information gathered is inadmissible in legal proceedings. Large-scale and complex analysis of geolocated data from satellites and other sensor sources meets minimum international standards required for effective documentation and use in legal proceedings. The Conflict Observatory is distinct in its capacity to provide supporting evidence of persistent, systematic atrocities committed by Russia’s forces and their proxies that complements documentation in areas where observers have more access. It also provides a unique capability in non-permissive areas, such as Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

“We’re working with all our allies and partners to support a range of accountability mechanisms, including investigations and prosecutions by Ukraine’s national authorities, and international accountability mechanisms such as the [International Criminal Court], as well as the very important work of the human rights documenters inside and outside Ukraine,” said Office of Global Criminal Justice (GCJ) Senior Expert Dr. Emma Gilligan.

A June 21, 2021 image of Mariupol City Hospital No. 2 shows no visible damage. A later image, from March 14, 2022, in contrast, shows debris scattered on the southern side of the hospital, damage to nearby buildings north and east of the hospital, and buses appearing to block roads to the hospital’s south and northwest entrances. Damage to the hospital’s southern façade appears consistent with direct impact. Images © 2022 Maxar

The Conflict Observatory represents the Department’s single largest investment in public geographic information systems or geospatial components, data feeds, and cloud processing power. The system includes advanced capabilities including artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. These allow for the collection and analysis of extensive amounts of commercial satellite imagery and can track and cross-reference real-time data feeds to form a holistic record of events in an area. Hardened security systems, included through the platform, allow the data and research to remain secure—a huge benefit when dealing with disinformation campaigns and frequent malicious cyber activities meant to hide Russia’s activities from the rest of the world.

Initial reports produced by the Conflict Observatory through August, documented damage to cultural heritage sites, healthcare facilities, and educational sites across Ukraine. A report from Conflict Observatory partner, the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab, also documented Russia’s system of filtration to process, register, interrogate, and detain Ukrainians. The report identified at least 21 distinct locations in and around Donetsk oblast containing one or more filtration sites using a combination of satellite imagery and open-source information. This represented one of the most comprehensive documentation efforts of Russia’s filtration system to date. This information has been released to the public and will be provided to international accountability mechanisms for further review and action. This is a first step in holding the Kremlin accountable for the grievous harm they have done, but it will not be the last.  

CSO is working together with GCJ and others across the U.S. government’s many agencies to employ the Conflict Observatory’s findings and analysis to maximum effect and to support accountability at all levels. 

In the six months since Russia’s unprovoked mass invasion, the Kremlin has failed to subjugate Ukraine. However, President Vladimir Putin’s war continues to result in climbing costs—thousands of civilians killed or wounded, 13 million people forced to flee their homes, and cities pounded to rubble. There are also reports of Russian forces and their proxies inflicting other atrocities across the country. Pursuing accountability is a long-term process. The Conflict Observatory continues to provide support to international efforts to apply pressure on Russia—by shining a light on Russian atrocities and preserving evidence for future prosecutions, enabling the government of Ukraine and international bodies to pursue justice for perpetrators through appropriate mechanisms.

This program exemplifies American commitment to Ukraine and to justice. Through the work of the Conflict Observatory, the Department continues to leverage established partnerships with leading commercial imaging companies, academia, and others in the face of dire war crimes and atrocities.  

Natasha Christensen is the acting Europe and Eurasia team lead for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations’ (CSO) office of western hemisphere and european affairs. Susan Wolfinbarger is a team lead in CSO’s Office of Advanced Analytics (CSO/AA) and is the grants officer representative for this program. Jason Lapadula is a foreign affairs officer in CSO/AA.

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