Russia’s involvement in the downing of MH17 has been an issue of contention over the last few years. In short, the Malaysian Air plane, heading across Ukraine after leaving Amsterdam, was shot down under suspicious circumstances, with Ukrainian authorities claiming that Russian rebels had used weapons brought into Ukraine for that specific purpose. For their part, the Russians claimed they had nothing to do with it, that their soldiers were not involved, and that they could not take responsibility for all people unrelated to them fighting it out in Ukraine. With this in mind, there are legitimate questions about how other nations can put pressure on Russia and deal with the country in the wake of these issues. Namely, some wonder whether the use of open source intelligence can be a useful tool in pressuring Russia and getting what those countries want out of the nation. Open source intelligence is in many ways changing the game for nations in the geopolitical fight. Namely, the job of intelligence officers who are involved in it is less about going digging and more about scanning the surface through a saturation of available and potentially helpful evidence. While open source intelligence does provide a powerful tool to help combat government misconduct and geopolitical issues, it has some limitations that must be recognized when dealing with Russia, a country that is a savvy geopolitical operator at this point in time.

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The development of open source intelligence has mirrored the growth of the Internet, which has facilitated the spread of information generally. Open source intelligence comes down to news reports, journal articles, archives, interviews, and a host of other sources that are legitimately open to any person who has the willpower to access the information. This can be contrasted with other forms of traditional intelligence. Traditionally, intelligence has come from those with closely held information. Secret sources and individuals who have had to imbed themselves to learn facts and chase down leads have been important players in the process. Open source intelligence is different. It involves having people try to sift through the mass of information out there to figure out what could be useful. The challenge with open source intelligence is less about developing nuggets of information and more about having the time and foresight to know what is important in an overwhelming body of available evidence. This produces the realistic constraints to using this type of evidence. At times, negative evidence, the sort of which could be used against a country like Russia, can get lost because there is simply too much to wade through in order to build the case against a country.

To understand whether this type of intelligence would be useful against Russia, one has to first understand the realities of Russia’s response. In response to the downing of MH17, and in response to several other events that have happened over the last decade, Russia has taken a similar approach. The country simply goes into denial mode. It pretends that things that happened have not happened. One way of understanding the Russian response is through the lens of gaslighting. This is a term that means trying to convince the public of something by continually repeating lies or denying truths that are out there. After enough of these attempts at distorting reality, it becomes difficult for people to fight against the attempts, and some people may accept them as being true at the same time. With this in mind, Russia has done just that. The country denied that it had anything to do with the downing of the plane. Specifically, it argued that it had not sent weapons for this purpose, that it did not shoot down planes with surface to air missiles, and that it did not direct fighters to do this in the region. One thing to keep in mind with Russia’s response is that the country seems to be disputing some facts which are not right there in the public domain. These are not things that would need to be the subject of intense digging in order to figure it all out. Rather, they are things that are easily found in the public domain for those who are interested in merely looking. Further, Russia tends to try to overwhelm the masses with misinformation, and it has gotten better at using social media tools and the like. This could present some problems for open source intelligence because of Russia’s propensity to create challenges there.

In light of the evidence as to how Russia tends to deal with these sorts of issues, there is reason to conclude that the use of open source intelligence could be a helpful tool for combating the country’s efforts and putting pressure on the country. Rather than just claiming that what it did was correct and justified, Russia has a tendency to deny involvement. On the ground level, its rebels denied that they were ever involved in shooting surface to air missiles, but the public data suggests that at other times they have done just that. These are the sorts of easily disprovable lies that can be used to put Russia in a box and make it more difficult for them to live with their denials. One of the most critical ways in which they can be pressured is by pointing out that they are making things up in order to benefit themselves. This is something that can be done with open source intelligence so long as the manpower and the foresight is there to be able to sift through these documents in order to find the things that are the most relevant to a given situation.

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