Russian Military Says Nyet to the Internet
Putin wants soldiers to stop revealing secrets of his shadow wars on their social media pages.
In early 2015, Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists defeated government forces in the city of Debaltseve in a major battle that seemed to prove something about the balance of forces in the conflict: The ragtag insurgents could face the country’s conventional military on their own and win.
But it later became clear that Russian troops deployed in the area helped the separatists defeat the Ukrainian forces—a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin had tried to hide. How was the secret revealed? Russian soldiers involved in the fighting posted details of the battle on social media.
Now, four years later, Russia has passed a law that forbids military personnel from posting photographs, video, and geolocation data on the internet. As Russian forces are increasingly involved in secretive campaigns far from home, the idea is to prevent the details of these shadow wars from seeping out.
But researchers who have tracked Russian troop movements using open-source material and social media argue that the new measure is unlikely to obscure the Kremlin’s maneuvers.
“Russian soldiers are millennials for the most part. They love social media. They aren’t going to give it up entirely,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with Conflict Intelligence Team, which has published reports on Russian troop activities in Ukraine and Syria.
Mikhailov added that he has heard reports lately about Russian troops carrying two phones—one to turn in to their commanders and a second to keep for themselves.
Charting the movement of Russian battalions from social media has been a hobby of journalists and researchers for years. In the 2015 VICE News documentary Selfie Soldiers, the reporter Simon Ostrovsky was able to trace a Russian soldier from the battlefield in eastern Ukraine to his hometown in Siberia. At the time, the Russian government denied that there were any Russian soldiers fighting in the area.
Ostrovsky said he was surprised it had taken this long for the Russian parliament to wake up to the problem. Like Mikhailov, he doubted the measure would have much effect.
“I think it’s very difficult to control the behavior of a group of people who are essentially teenagers,” he said.
Even if Russian commanders are able to enforce the law on soldiers, the theaters to which they deploy are often teeming with smartphones—wielded by civilians or Kremlin-sympathetic media.
Researchers have used a variety of footage, for example, to track how the missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 arrived in Ukraine from Russia. And in Syria, researchers have used video from the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT to document the Russian military’s use of cluster munitions.
Even if soldiers themselves don’t post online about their activities, their families often do, especially when their sons die in an unacknowledged conflict. In 2015, Putin amended a decree that rendered military deaths—in times of war or peace—a state secret.
“Usually the best information you get isn’t from the soldiers—it’s from the people around them,” said Aric Toler, the lead Eurasia researcher for the open-source group Bellingcat.
Just last week, Bellingcat identified a third Russian intelligence officer believed to have been implicated in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy.
Another challenge in shoring up secrecy of Russian military operations is the increasing reliance on private military contractors, said Ostrovsky, which are taking on more and more missions despite being illegal under Russian law.
Russian private contractors have been deployed to several battle zones around the world, including eastern Ukraine. Often involved in high-risk, murky operations, the groups work under the orders of Kremlin-aligned oligarchs, giving Moscow a veneer of plausible deniability.
Reuters reported last month that as many as 400 employees of Wagner, a Russian military contracting firm, were deployed to Venezuela to protect embattled President Nicolás Maduro.
One-third of the Russian military is made up of conscripts. While one year of military service is mandatory for men aged 18 to 27, up to half of the country’s potential recruits find ways around conscription, with many resorting to bribes. The military is notorious for its brutal hazing of new recruits—including beatings, sexual assault, and enslavement—but the incidents appear to have gone down in recent years.
“The biggest difference will probably be that people will use pseudonyms online,” said Toler, the Bellingcat researcher, referring to the new law.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll