As Russian troops advanced toward Kyiv, Ukraine, late last week, the city’s government issued a peculiar warning to its residents. On its official website and Twitter account, the citycalled on residents of high-rise buildings to “urgently check the roofs” for suspicious signs or markings—the kind of visual cues that could be seen as targets.
It was an ominous alarm, and one that has only highlighted the chaos and confusion of warfare playing out on the streets of a densely populated urban capital. While it’s still unclear what exactly prompted the city’s warning, it points to a tactic not unfamiliar in the realm of urban warfare, according to experts. Whether these are true aerial targets, mere rumors, or a more sinister form of intimidation, they could be a worrying sign of the evolution of this conflict.
Residents in Ukraine quickly took heed of the Kyiv government’s alarm. Images began appearing on social media—red crosses painted on a residential rooftop, Xs spray-painted on asphalt streets, bizarre marks tagged on street poles that glow in the dark. Some suggested painting over these markings, or covering them up with dirt. The country’s armed forces soon issued its own warning on Facebook of the “detection of enemy agents who put luminescent labels in different regions of the country.”
They’re marking residential buildings for airstrikes pic.twitter.com/r0RFmFV1Wa
— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) February 25, 2022
Evidence began appearing online that some of these markings were indeed being made in recent days in Ukraine, though the people behind them remain anonymous. Some of the markings appeared to originate from the micro-tasking app Premise, which is similar to TaskRabbit, where people can post or complete odd jobs for small amounts of money. According to screenshots taken of the app, tasks posted to the site called for the tagging and mapping of sites throughout Ukraine, with payments ranging from 25 cents to $3.50. Reporting from India Today corroborated this. Premise disputes that its app was being used for these purposes, but a spokesman for the app said it temporarily paused its activities in Ukraine.
Whether these markings are rooftop targets for Russian air forces is unknown, but there is historical precedent for creating targets on the ground that can be visible from the skies. “The idea of marking targets generally is a very old one that goes back to the earliest days of military aviation,” said Michael Hankins, curator for U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Writing via email, Hankins said this kind of target-marking became increasingly important in the jet age, when fast-moving aircraft had difficulty finding ground targets. One low-tech solution was smoke. “The U.S. Air Force used to have people called ‘Forward Air Controllers’ that would mark locations on the ground with smoke rockets or smoke grenades of various colors,” he said. These smoke signals were used to indicate both targets to strike and friendly troop locations to avoid.
Newer technologies have improved the way militaries identify their targets. “They can use other means, such as laser guidance, GPS coordinates, or other visual means to designate a target for a higher, faster jet attack-aircraft to strike,” Hankins said. A few painted lines on a rooftop probably aren’t what a modern military would rely on, he argued. “Seeing a visual marking on a roof from a high-altitude, high-speed attack plane would be difficult to say the least.”
The urban nature of this war, though, could mean that these alleged markings have a different purpose. Anthony King is a professor of war studies at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and author of the new book Urban Warfare in the Twenty-First Century. He says the markings showing up on buildings and streets in Ukraine could be less about coordinating attacks from above and more about instilling fear on the ground. “One of the things we get confused about in the 21st century is we think we’re all really smart and we do hybrid warfare and precision warfare and all that stuff. [Then] it all gets a bit ugly inside the city, and everything becomes very medieval, very quickly,” King says.
The urban form of cities, their infrastructure, even their population density can make urban conflicts more chaotic, King says, and lead to different kinds of tactics other than what a military might use in a more sparse battlefield. “Every urban battle is unique, but there’s a family resemblance between urban fights,” King says. Marking buildings for attack is not an approach he’s seen in other urban conflicts, but there are recent historical examples of urban infiltrations where markings and signs were deployed by aggressors. One example is ISIS’s invasion of Mosul, Iraq, in 2014.
“Graffiti was very important in the battle of Mosul,” King says. “ISIS were brilliant at this in all of their campaigns. They would have sleeper cells in the cities and towns they were going to take, and they’d put up signs and graffiti warning of the fate of people who opposed them. It’s a standard urban warfare tactic to intimidate the civilian population.”
The markings seen on buildings and city streets in Ukraine may not be directing jet attacks, but they could be signs of malevolent actors on the ground, according to King. “I would be utterly amazed if the Russians don’t have cells in Kyiv,” he says.
For now, the mysterious markings being reported in Ukraine aren’t fully explained. But, they may not need to be to have an effect, argues King.
“Rumor is rife in all forms of warfare, but in urban warfare, rumor takes a whole new dimension because you’ve got thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundred of thousands of civilians,” King says. “It could be that it’s just an urban rumor reflecting the fears of the Ukrainian people. Even if it is that, it’s deeply interesting.”