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This week in open-source intelligence (OSINT) news, the New York Times uncovers Russian fleets obfuscated in China’s ports — an attempt to undermine American sanctions on Russian oil since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict. Among other discoveries, Bellingcat looks for answers on TikTok on how Russia is shoring up its military with Nepalese manpower. Next, we look at the OSINT angle of the Russian air force’s “significant losses” due to the Wagner Group mutiny. Finally, we examine the international effects of China’s decision to cut off access to public data.

Dark fleets in the Sea of Japan

An engaging visual data article by the New York Times illustrates how Russian oil tankers have gone to extreme measures to conceal their location. The fleet’s signal “spoofing” obfuscates the vessel's location in an attempt to undermine American sanctions on Russian oil. The Times used publicly available information (PAI) in the form of shipping data, satellite imagery and social media footage to conduct an investigation into the tankers’ whereabouts. Upon investigation, they found one vessel over 250 miles from its purported location. 

Once the vessel was located at a port in China, the reason for the spoofing was clearer — likely a violation of U.S. sanctions on Russian oil enacted at the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict. The scheme is also to help maintain insurance, an industry where most brokerage firms are located in the West. The ships located by NYT were covered by U.S.-based, the American Club, whose CEO received a detailed report on the ships and their routes.

“It’s around $1 billion worth of oil that is going under the radar while using Western insurance, and they’re using spoofing in order to preserve their Western insurance.”

— Triebert, Migliozzi, et. al., The New York Times

Russia turns to Nepal for manpower

Bellingcat has uncovered Nepali men in Russian military training camps. Russia’s speculated ongoing manpower issues could be at the root of this unique recruitment tactic. A TikTok account belonging to a Nepali man has shared soldier training videos with the hashtags #armi and #Russia. The footage has been geolocated by Bellingcat to the Avangard military complex, located west of Moscow.

The pool of recruits could be coming from Russian universities, which have seen a sizable increase in Nepali students enrolled. 

"Referencing a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin from September 2022, it confirms that the recruit is entitled to a one-off payment of 195,000 roubles (US$2,300)."

— Sanjib Chaudhary, Bellingcat

The Wagner Group mutiny

According to Janes, the Russian air force suffered “significant losses” during the Wagner Group mutiny on June 24, 2023. The paramilitary group has been a key part of Russia’s military strategy since the Crimean Peninsula annexation in 2014. But in the war in Ukraine, Wagner’s relationship with Russian military has shown signs of infighting. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin publicly accused military brass of incompetence, sabotage and — as a catalyst for the mutiny — bombing Wagner positions in Ukraine.

Open-source images obtained by Janes show airstrikes by Wagner could have resulted in as many as 29 casualties of Russian pilots. Despite the severity of the attack, Prigozhin was able to negotiate an amnesty in exchange for calling off his group’s advance on Moscow.

China further curtails international access to public data

The Chinese government has recently cut off international access to a statistically valuable section of public information, which researchers believe is a result of the People’s Liberation Army’s effort to weaponize American semiconductors. Locking down on data availability can be dangerous, as the article points out. Preventing researchers who rely on public data to understand China’s science, technology and foreign policies may lead to U.S policymakers counteracting China’s strategies on a foundation that lacks evidence and encourages urgency.  

This comes at a time when U.S.-China competition and tensions are at an all-time high. However, overestimating the risks involved can have its own equally dangerous consequences. One-sided perceptions of China’s policies due to limited accessibility may trigger excessive planning towards perceived threats, and miscalculations on the state of financial and ideological threats can harm global relations. In addition, China may be damaging its own reputation as a global leader, leading to the weakening of collaborative efforts between Chinese and international researchers. 

China may be coming to a dead-end in regards to communication, but that doesn’t mean that U.S. policymakers should look anywhere else when it comes to regulating an open international dialogue.

“Locking down data and preventing responsible researchers who rely on publicly available materials (often called “open source”) from understanding China is a strategic mistake for the People’s Republic. Allowing global access only to unsatisfactory data may lead to unsatisfactory outcomes for everyone.”

— Dewey Murdick and Owen J. Daniels, Time

Every other week, we collect OSINT news from around the world. We continue to keep a close watch on Russia's war in Ukraine, especially on Twitter. We’re also gathering information on cyberthreats, federal intelligence strategies and much more. Find us on Twitter and share the OSINT news you’re keeping up with.

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