Ukrainian self-propelled Howitzer near Sydorove, eastern Ukraine. May 17, 2022.
One thing that’s happened very publicly over the almost three months since Russia rolled across the border into Ukraine is that NASA FIRMS data has become a widespread way of tracking activity on the ground. Sometimes it’s used to confirm chatter already flowing through social media, or statements from official releases. Sometimes it a big blob of bright red spots in FIRMS gives everyone a heads up that activity is underway in an area, or at a level, that’s totally surprising. Sometimes FIRMS data has everyone talking about a massive firefight … when what they’re really seeing is a medium-sized forest fire.
The ‘F’ in FIRMS is for Fire, of course. The full title is the Fire Information for Resource Management System. It uses two orbital instruments—MODIS and VIIRS—that are found on several satellites (MODIS is on Terra and Aqua satellites, VIIRS on NOAA-20). Neither of these instruments was expressly designed to track combat or monitor the impact of artillery. That they have turned out to be pretty darn good at it is certainly a boon to those trying to suss out the truth in a complex battlefield where both sides have many understandable reasons for being less than 100% transparent.
So, when someone tells you a story based on FIRMS data, be cautious about how easy it is to put multiple interpretations on what’s being displayed. After all, neither the MODIS spectroscope nor the VIIRS infrared imager is capable of telling whether that artillery flash came from Russian or Ukrainian fire. When those impacts trigger an actual fire on the ground, it can make even a minor skirmish seem like a major battle. There are huge caveats.
And now, here’s a story based largely on FIRMS data.
Area north of Staryi Saltiv over the last four days.
One of the nicer features of the FIRMS web site is that it will create a map that doesn’t just show you where hot spots have been over a designated period, it will color-code those spots to show which are more recent. Yellow dots are over a day in the past. Orange dots slightly newer. The dark red dots happened within six hours of the map being created, which in this case was at 10AM ET on Tuesday.
On Monday, the first stories that Ukrainian forces had crossed the Siverskyi Donets River began to circulate. Though there was no official confirmation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, there was enough social media chatter—including a lot of pissed off statements from Russians on Telegram—that this story was reported on Daily Kos, as well as a number of other sites. However, many news sites have not run with this story, even though the evidence seems at least as good as previous events, such as the unlikely recapture of Staryi Saltiv itself, or the Ukrainian advance to the Russian border along the west side of the river.
According to the social media posts, many of which at least claim to be reports of soldiers on the ground, Ukraine managed to cross the river at two locations: At Staryi Saltiv, where they apparently repaired the existing bridge well enough to bring vehicles across, and east of Rubizhne, where Ukraine did what has given Russia so much trouble by constructing a pontoon bridge to replace the destroyed bridge.
What story does the FIRMS data tell? On Sunday, there seem to be a cluster of artillery strikes in two locations — one of those is on the eastern bank of the river around the village of Zarichne, about 2 kilometers north of the bridge crossing. The other appears to be … in the middle of the river. Just looking at the FIRMS data, this makes no sense at all. How could there be fire in the river? And why?
That answer requires looking at a map that gives more detail, like this one made with Google Earth.
Detail of Rubizhne area, with FIRMS data added.
What the FIRMS map shows as an area of water, is actually a series of marshes and islands south of the bridge and at the north end of the reservoir formed by the dam down at Staryi Saltiv. What the FIRMS data is telling us here may be that Ukraine crossed the river in this area, constructing the pontoon bridge south of the bridge that Russia destroyed, and using the low-lying land east of Rubizhne as part of their route. If that’s true, then the hot spots from 3-4 days ago in this area are likely Russia attempting to disrupt the Ukrainian effort.
What comes next on the FIRMS data — those orange blocks — may be an indicator of how well the relative crossing operations went. On the south, the action moves from Zarichne another 2km north to an area between the town of Metalivka and the village of Bereznyky. This seems like a very good indicator that Ukrainian forces have crossed at Staryi Saltiv, advanced into Zarichne, and are continuing to the north.
However, there’s no matching collection of strikes to show that Ukrainian forces are also proceeding from the crossing at Rubizhne. Instead, there is a tightly packed collection of hot spots on the west side of the river, between Rubizhne and Verkhnii Saltiv, both of which are thought to be under Ukrainian control. This fire was almost certainly directed across the river by Russian forces, and could mean that the northern crossing was less successful than the one at Staryi Saltiv. It’s extremely unlikely that Russian forces administered anything like the defeat that Russia faced in its three disastrous attempts to cross the same river further south, but Ukraine might have only been able to get limited forces across. It might have lost any bridgehead at Rubizhne.
Or not. This is, after all, a level of guesswork not far removed from skillful examination of a calf’s entrails.
What’s clear is that the bombardment of the west bank is no longer underway, while the artillery strikes on the east bank near Metalivka continue. Which might also be an indicator, since If Ukraine was able to get people across the river at both locations, the sites now under fire from the Staryi Saltiv crossing should be getting hit from both sides. Or again, maybe not. Because it’s impossible to say what the orders to those forces might be, or what goals they might now have. This is, after all, the same “Kraken” forces who have not just driven back Russian troops from the area around Kharkiv, but constantly turned up where they were not expected.
The distance from Kharkiv to Staryi Saltiv, is almost exactly the same as the distance from Staryi Saltiv to the Russian road and rail hub at Vovchansk. But to interrupt the flow of supplies, Ukraine doesn’t have to get to Vovchansk at all. They could push east at any point, cutting across the line miles south of the junction.
Kharkiv in the SW corner, Vovchanck in the NE, and Staryi Saltiv right in the middle.
The idea that Ukraine successfully brought forces across the river and is advancing on Russian supply lines is attractive not just because it holds out an opportunity to significantly derail Russian progress farther south, but because it shows Ukraine being successful at just the operation which has given Russia so much difficulty. It’s pleasing in it’s symmetry. It’s romantic, in the more adventurous version of that term.
And it’s exactly because that interpretation is so pleasing … that it should be taken with a whole shaker full of salt. Still, here’s looking at you, Vovchansk, with a lean and hungry look.