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Yesterday, on August 20, a Belarusian media outlet “Nasha Niva” published a transcript of a leaked recording of a speech by the Belarusian Minister of Defence Major General Viktor Khrenin, who spoke in the Central House of Officers in Minsk on August 19. Today the Belarusian MoD indirectly confirmed that the Minister’s speech did take place. According to the transcript, Khrenin made the following claim:
— “A blatant distortion of reality is happening, opposition media artificially inflate the rally crowd sizes, but turns out it is actually a tiny fraction of voters in cities and towns. In particular, opposition media claim that 200 000 people gathered at the [Minsk Hero City] Obelisk, with a total of about half a million across the country. Let’s see. Analysis of Russia’s Air and Space Forces imagery shows that the peak crowd size was no more than 40 000 people. This is a mere 2% of the population of Minsk. We are seeing the same in all cities.VIKTOR KHRENIN, MINISTER OF DEFENCE OF THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS
As we found out, Khrenin probably picked his claim from the internet — like his Russian colleagues before him. The “Russian Air and Space Forces imagery” and the 40 000 figure first turned up in the evening of August 16 (the day of the rally) in two tweets by an anonymous pro-Kremlin account, which has recently been frequently posting pro-Lukashenka dispatches from Belarus.
Identifying the Russian satellite
The images show an area near the Minsk Hero City Obelisk, also known simply as “the Stele” («cтела»). We have geolocated all four images and noticed that they were all taken at a different angle. To show the camera angle more clearly, we drew lines on each image showing the horizontal plane and vertical building axes. The second image has no buildings, and a close look at tree axes in this image suggest that it was taken with the camera facing directly down. This is why we put a dot in the second image instead of an arrow showing the camera direction.
Aligning the images with commercial satellite imagery of the area clearly shows that they were indeed taken from different spots, with different angles to the horizontal plane and at different directions:
The technical constraints of satellite imaging mean that a satellite cannot take images of the same area at different angles to the Earth during one flyover. To prove this, simply open any free satellite imagery resource (such as Google Maps or Yandex Maps) and draw vertical lines along buildings and other tall objects.
All of the above, as well as the extremely high level of detail in the “Russian Air and Space Imagery” suggest that to take those images, the “Russian Air and Space Force” used a state-of-the-art “spacecraft” — like, say, those of the DJI family. Our team has a similar “spacecraft”: DJI Mavic 2 Zoom. Based on years of experience imaging the Earth with this highly sophisticated “spacecraft”, we believe the Minsk images were taken from an extremely low orbit — around 200-300 meters above the surface.
When were the images taken?
Thanks to the bright sunny weather in Minsk on the 16th, the images show distinct shadows from different vertical objects (such as trees, lampposts or the Stele). Knowing the exact location and day when the images were taken, we can determine an approximate time of day they were taken, the shadows acting as sundials. Using the SunCalc web app, we have determined the approximate time each image was taken:
Thus, the images were taken around 2:45 PM local time on August 16th, when columns of protesters were still on the move towards the Minsk Hero City Obelisk. Footage taken at an approximately similar angle and posted at 2:33 PM and at 3:47 PM respectively shows that during this time the crowds size at the Stele increased considerably. A Belarusian media outlet Tut.by estimates that a total of 220,000 people were present at the protest at the peak.
The “Russian Air and Space Force Imagery” mentioned by the Belarusian Minister of Defence are in fact photographs taken from a drone or helicopter. The shadows in these images indicate that they were taken an hour or two before the peak crowd size was observed at the Minsk Hero City Obelisk.
We don’t know whether unverified information from the Internet got in the Belarusian Minister of Defence’s speech by mistake or is part of an organized disinformation campaign. If the first possibility is true, we advise the Belarusian Ministry of Defence not to follow the example of their Russian allies, and instead thoroughly factcheck any incoming information, lest they fall victim to a fake again.