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A California professor says he spotted Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Google Maps hours before Putin announced the attack

Natalie Musumeci   

A California professor says he spotted Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Google Maps hours before Putin announced the attack
  • A California professor noticed Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Google Maps hours before the attack.
  • Jeffrey Lewis called it "incredible" to come to the conclusion with radar imaging and Google Maps.

A California professor and arms control expert says he noticed Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Google Maps in real time hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the attack in a televised address.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, had been monitoring Google Maps with a small team of research assistants and graduate students when they spotted a "traffic jam" on a road from Belgorod, Russia, to the Ukrainian border at around 3:15 a.m. local time in the Russian city on Thursday.

Lewis told Insider on Friday that the "unusual" early morning backup started exactly where a radar image taken a day earlier showed a newly arrived "large Russian military unit with a lot of armor," such as tanks and armored personnel carriers.

"What was important about that image is that they were not set up in a camp — they were lined up in columns along roads, which is what you do when you're about to pounce," Lewis said.

As Lewis and his team saw the gridlock just outside of Belgorod on Google Maps they quickly realized what was unfolding before their eyes as they stood more than 6,000 miles away in California — a Russian armored unit was on the move toward the border with Ukraine.

"It was immediately clear," Lewis said. "The traffic jam began where that extremely large unit was found. So it was very easy at that point to conclude that they had gotten on the road."

"We watched the traffic jam move south along the highway," he continued. "So they were on the road, and they were driving toward Ukraine."

Putin announced to the nation that Russia launched its assault on Ukraine just before 6 a.m. local time on Thursday.

Later that day, US President Joe Biden said that the Russian military began "a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity."

Technological capabilities that didn't exist a decade ago

Lewis said he and his team "think we were the first people to identify that the invasion was underway."

"Over the past few weeks, we, like I think a lot of other groups, had been looking at deployments of Russian forces on the border near Ukraine," he said.

Google collects real-time traffic data from smartphones using the Google Maps app, but Lewis said that it's highly unlikely that the traffic pattern his team saw was from Russian forces carrying their cellphones.

"Russian troops would absolutely have been told to keep their phones off," Lewis said, adding, "In general, what I think was happening was people, civilians, were either trying to get down the road or on the road … and they were probably hitting roadblocks."

Lewis called it "incredible" to come to the conclusion he and his team did thanks to radar imaging and Google Maps.

"These are capabilities that either only the intelligence community had a decade ago or didn't exist at all," Lewis said.

Lewis added, "When you have a radar image, and you can see through clouds, and when you can then tie that to a traffic disruption, it makes you feel ever so, for just a moment, a little bit like a superhero."

In the aftermath of Russia invading Ukraine, traffic data on Google Maps showed how Ukrainians were trying to flee the capital city of Kyiv, which was under siege by Russian forces on Friday.

On Friday, Google Maps showed how roads headed west outside of Kyiv were either blocked or clogged with traffic as Russian forces advanced on the city.

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