“Yesterday they were here, today we are.”
On October 15, Russian war reporter Oleg Blokhin posted several videos on social media in which he appears visiting the former US Army base in Manbij, north of Syria, after the departure of US soldiers. Russian social media and Telegram began to appear photos taken by Russian soldiers in similar facilities. Russian television networks and military-themed pages on Vkontakte, a popular Russian social network, soon spread the images of the soldiers, making fun of the US military who left Syria in such a hurry.
These scenes contrast with the recent attempts by the Russian Army to limit the online activity of its soldiers. In early 2019, President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that prohibits Russian soldiers from using smartphones and spreading photos taken while on duty. Now, soldiers are prohibited from possessing devices that take photos and have access to the internet. When the law was passed, the independent Meduza news website reported that “numerous” soldiers had been arrested and punished for violating the new rules. Some even faced retroactive charges: Yegor Krulov spent 15 days behind bars for sending photos of himself to his girlfriend through social networks months before the law entered into force.
The author of the regulation argues that it was approved because the “military have a special interest in the security services of different states and organizations of terrorists to extremists.” However, many believe that the real impulse of the law was the revelations of journalists and researchers, such as Bellingcat or Conflict Intelligence Team, which feed on open source data, especially social media. These investigators were able to prove Russia's military involvement in Syria thanks to the messages of its soldiers in social networks and its GPS location before the Kremlim officially recognized its military intervention in the country. Similarly, Simon Ostrovky of VICE News and researchers from Forensic Architecture they were able to gather evidence of the involvement of the Russian Army in the conflict in Ukraine, something that Moscow insistently denies. Ostrovsky and his colleagues also turned to YouTube selfies and videos posted by active military.
Despite the denials, it is clear that these revelations irritated the Russian military high command. Certainly, photos of what appears to be a series of educational posters that recall the cold war have appeared on the internet. The posters, allegedly displayed in military installations, are intended to teach soldiers how to behave online. One urges the military not to disseminate information on social networking websites. Another warns soldiers of the use of devices with geolocation, which could provide that information to NATO troops.
Although the authenticity of these posters has not been verified, they seem to be in line with a broader movement of the Russian Army to restrict the activity of its soldiers in social media.
As an example, the recent statements of a former analyst from the Scientific Research Informatics Center of the Russian Presidential Affairs Department (GRCC), an agency that produces tools for high-precision online research for the State and for private clients. “We have said that there are no Russian soldiers in Syria or Dombás, but they are there. So we are in a race against Bellingcat to geolocate all the publications in which some idiotic Russian soldier is made selfies in a trench, posing with his rifle, ”the former GRCC employee anonymously told Meduza.
This tension was mitigated when US troops left Syria. The empty American bases represented a unique opportunity to show a huge symbolic victory. Moreover, the last “deliberate withdrawal” of US troops occurred in 2011 in Iraq; The last time Russian soldiers entered an American base was probably shortly after World War II. Soldiers were filmed by recording diaries and personal belongings of the US military in their dormitories, checking abandoned soda cans and responding to messages they had written on the blackboards.
It seems that these reports occurred in several phases: the day after the departure of the Americans, Russian soldiers published photos of the bases, and many VKontakte accounts released videos of Russian vehicles entering Manbij, received by neighbors waving Syrian flags . At the same time, some journalists who follow Russian mercenaries, such as Oleg Blokhin or the Abkhaz news agency Anna-News – which claims “fighting the Western brainwashing machine” – made their own visits to US bases in a more elaborate way, in order to channel your information in the desired way. Large Russian television channels such as RT also filmed their visits to abandoned facilities.
Social media allowed the Russian Government to instantly and convincingly communicate its presence and its “success” in Syria. The wear of Americans in the Middle East was staged live, which makes it clear that despite the new information security measures, the Russian Army has no problem in brandishing its soldiers' publications on social media as a weapon when it's convenient.
In the short term, it seems that the rapid dissemination of these publications benefits Russia. VKontakte's videos found the way to a Western audience on Twitter, which polarized the debate and fueled the heated criticism to Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria and give Turkey and Russia a green light to extend their territory. In addition, it is likely that these publications have damaged the morale of Western troops, since the live dissemination of the “take” of the bases was a way that the Russian government effortlessly portrayed itself as the only superpower left in the region.
However, in the long term, the widespread use of this type of social media publications, whether they are active soldiers or mercenaries, will be detrimental to Russian interests, will it undermine the spirit of the legislation passed to prohibit the use of Social networks on the battlefield. It seems that Russian soldiers have had a hard time resisting the temptation to brag in front of tanks or pose with full military equipment, despite the passage of the law. Now it could be very difficult to close that Pandora box in the coming months.
The strategy of mocking Western countries based on publishing videos of sensitive information has recently turned against Russia. In September 2018, the RT television channel, sponsored by the Kremlin, interviewed two members of the Main Intelligence Directory (GRU), the Russian intelligence agency abroad, accused of poisoning Sergey Skripal in Salisbury (Great Britain) , at the beginning of that year. Given the accusations of having committed the attempted murder ordered by Moscow, the two men claimed that they were sports nutritionists on holiday in the United Kingdom. The video proved to be a valuable element for Bellingcat, who was trying to establish the real identity of the men: as a result, photos of both were discovered at the wedding of a daughter of General Andrei Averyanov, commander of the GRU.
We want to thank @m_simonyan and @RT_com from the bottom of our hearts – we never could have found out so much information about Chepiga / Boshirov without their decision to record a 20+ minute, high-definition interview with him, letting us match every mole and wrinkle he has. pic.twitter.com/6EHNlkyK3w
– Aric Toler (@AricToler) October 14, 2019
Not only did he attend, but his entire immediate family went to this wedding of the daughter of a GRU commander, Major General Andrey Averyanov. Even one of his children participated in the ceremony, which shows the closeness between Chepiga and the head of GRU.
We want to express our deepest thanks to Margarita Simonyan and Russia Today. We would never have been able to find so much information about Chepiga / Boshirov if they had not decided to do an interview of more than 20 minutes, in high definition, which allowed us to check every mole and wrinkle it has.
This shows that, for any military, using sensitive information to get points in their public relations can be a dangerous game. Although US troops may have been humiliated by the publications of Russian soldiers at their former base in Manbij, it is likely that, in the long term, open source research teams will have much more data to analyze.