Ukraine's 'Deep State' map: Fighters use it, 20-somethings run it

The online, real-time, open-source map tracks the war's every move.
Posted at 6:30 PM, Jun 28, 2023

Asthe counteroffensive heats up, the world is watching this map's every move.

In a small office in Kyiv, two young men in their early 20s work the controls of their command center, aware of the outsized impact of even the tiniest of changes they make to their "Deep State" war map.

In Ukraine, they've become, in effect, this war's scorekeepers as their map is monitored by generals on both sides.

In a chat window, videos and photos flow in showing missile strikes, Russian military equipment, and other mappable, if verifiable, intel.

Every day, as each village and road is fought over, the lines on the 600-mile frontline shift. Sometimes slightly. Sometimes significantly.

Shaded red territory is under Russian occupation.

Green areas have been liberated by Ukrainian troops since the invasion began.

And blue was the most watched color of the counteroffensive: Ukrainian gains on the battlefield.

Both sides in the conflict — and the world — are watching the map's every move.

"In the last 30 minutes, we received more than 32 thousand unique visitors to the site," Ruslan Mykula told Scripps News' Jason Bellini. Weekly, it's millions.

The intel comes from many sources: Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied areas, Ukrainian military units, and volunteers scouring Russian social media.

"In the past day, we received more than 20 unidentified videos and 27 videos identified using geolocation," says Mykula. "We also receive descriptions of what happened in the video. For example, enemy artillery is shelling our positions, or Ukrainian troops have shelled these positions."

BELLINI: Who verifies the location?

MYKULA: Geolocation ... is verified by our team, which consists of about one hundred people.

A hundred volunteers were vetted for their digital forensic ability to match images to locations.

Deep State doesn't pretend to be unbiased.

The map reveals only enemy positions, including Russian trenches, defenses, and command headquarters.

For operational security reasons, Deep State does not pinpoint Ukrainian units — only the territory they've taken.

"We know many people on the ground," Mykula says. "We are directly told that you can show this village as liberated because the guys have just returned from the battle. Any new blue territory on the map raises the spirits of absolutely everyone at the front."

Sometimes, he says, Ukraine's military leadership asks Deep State to hold off on displaying certain map updates.

"So there would be no undue attention," he says. "From the Russian commanders, who monitor this map."


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The map has become, oddly, accidentally influential.

Russian units that lose territory often try to hide the loss from top-level commanders; the ruse is sometimes aided by Deep State delaying a map update at Ukraine’s request to buy time for Ukrainian troops to harden their position.

Roman Pogorilyi, a 23-year-old law school graduate, says he and Mykula started Deep State a few years ago as a telegram channel for discussing, mostly, Russia. When the full-scale invasion started, the Deep State became a firehose of information. They immediately decided to start an interactive map to help keep track of it all.

BELLINI: Have the Russians ever tried to trick you into publishing disinformation on the map?

POGORILYI: The information that comes to us is checked very carefully. We figure out what's true and what's not. The enemy has tried to hurt us in other ways. They've tried to hack us. We've had massive cyber-attacks.

They originally tried blocking Russians from accessing the map, but then they found out enemy soldiers used it in a way the Deep State never anticipated.

"We found out that there are Russian soldiers using our map to go to Ukrainian positions and surrender," said Mykula.

"We didn't expect here that in three years we would be really special. We will be really unusual —and just as unusual, we're invisible in some of our work," Pogorilyi says, referring to a version of the map that Deep State keeps hidden from the general public. It's only available to Ukraine’s military and includes additional layers of detail.

"It shows the front and colors it according to elevation," Mykula says. "In war, a very big role is played by who is higher."

Since the counteroffensive began earlier this month, he says the only time he's not here is when he's sleeping.

But the mapping never rests, with new details on Russian positions or attacks coming in around the clock.

BELLINI: Are there commanders in the field who are using your maps to make decisions? Battlefield decisions?

MYKULA: We have useful functionality that gives the military better situational awareness on the front.

Which means that while the top commanders use their top-secret maps, troops turn to the Deep State for a bigger picture of what they're up against.

"There are many dugouts, many concrete structures. The enemy is very well prepared for any offensive actions," says Mykula about how strong the defenses are in the South. "But it is worth noting that there is nothing that artillery cannot destroy."

The Deep State map makers hope that, as the counteroffensive continues, they'll flip a lot more red on their map to blue.