In the age of social media, many people seem to have the urge to share everything about their lives: Heading to concerts, birthdays, or maybe even what’s on the reading list.
But in the case of some Russian soldiers, their urge to share has serious geopolitical consequences, as a few have been revealing their presence in or near eastern Ukraine whether they realise it or not.
It’s an open secret that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are linked to Russian intelligence. There’s further evidence they are receiving intelligence, training, and sophisticated weaponry. But Russia has repeatedly denied having any of its actual military forces deployed there.
“It’s all nonsense, there are no special units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” Putin said in April, according to AP.
But his soldiers are proving him wrong.
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon found Instagram photos from 24-year-old Russian soldier Alexander Sotkin, a communications specialist who appears to be based in southern Russia. His Instagram photos are typical — filled with “selfies” — but it’s the locations that are telling.
In two of them, he is placed in eastern Ukraine. Both were geotagged using his phone or tablet’s GPS to put him in rebel-controlled villages of Krasna Talycha and Krasny Derkul, respectively.
A serious breach of operational security (OPSEC) on social media by a Russian soldier seems hard to believe, but if you consider these types of issues are so common in the U.S. military that troops are required to go through formal training to learn of the dangers, then it makes a lot of sense.
While tactics and general strategies of professional armies around the world can vary, the behaviour of soldiers can be quite similar. Especially when you have friends and family back home that don’t really know what you’re doing, there’s an urge to show them a photo of where you are, despite the danger if it’s seen by someone outside the group.
Now consider this post, from Mikhail Chugunov, boasting of his military convoy bringing Grad rocket systems into Ukraine. BBC Ukraine journalist Myroslava Petsa captured the post, which the soldier posted to his now-deleted VKontakte page (Russia’s version of Facebook).
Here’s another, with the soldier captioning the photo “Ukraine is waiting for us, artillery lads!” according to the translation from Tetyana Lokot at Global Voices.
“We shelled Ukraine all night long,” was the caption on another photo, posted on July 23, of artillery pieces on the Russia-Ukraine border. The U.S. has satellite photos proving Russia indeed fired artillery into Ukraine.
When asked whether Moscow had troops inside eastern Ukraine, a man who answered the phone at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. said, “No I don’t know about it” and told Business Insider to call back tomorrow while referring us to its Ministry of Defence website.
In addition to social media postings, The Interpreter, a website which has continually tracked the Ukraine crisis, has reported that Russian vehicles have often been seen crossing the border. On Thursday, it reported a large armoured column of roughly 50 vehicles crossing over — citing a respected journalist in the country — although it stressed this latest report was not yet confirmed.
It seems at least some Russian soldiers are blowing up Putin’s narrative, and the Kremlin has already taken notice. On Wednesday, a Russian lawmaker proposed a bill that would ban soldiers from posting images of military equipment or routes, even if they are not secret.
While the law may stop new photos from popping up, it won’t be able to erase the others that have already gotten out.
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