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Self(ie)-incriminating: Russians posing in Ukraine

June 18, 2015

Summary: pictures of serving Russian soldiers posing in Ukraine on supposedly secret missions are common.  But why is it happening?  Poor security or indifference?

There has been a lot of evidence pointing to a Russian military invasion of Ukraine since last year’s, er, Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Funerals of Russian soldiers, satellite imagery, social media all play their part in developing the picture.

But I genuinely do not understand why there is such a flow of incriminating “selfies” emerging regularly from eastern Ukraine. They seem to represent in large part the ego-trips of young Russian serving members of the Russian army on supposedly secret missions inside Ukraine. Some open source analytical bodies – Bellingcat, The Interpreter, the Atlantic Council – are having a fine time tracking and exposing multiple cases of foolish soldiers giving away the more cynical aspects of Russian foreign policy.  Social media is ushering in the birth of a new era of open source intelligence gathering.

This came in from Vice News. Journalist Simon Ostrovsky (who probably ought to watch his back out there now) literally traces the footsteps of a known serving Russian soldier, including to the exact spot in Ukraine where the Russian army absolutely most definitely do not have any officially presence.

I am reasonably confident that it is happening. But why? Of course security breaches can be a regular feature of military operations. But I cannot picture the British Special Air Service, or even British regular forces, falling into such regular malpractice on operations. I could see a security breach taking place once or twice but then draconian punishments and new procedures being issued immediately, including a total ban on smart phones (and laptops, and mobiles, etc, etc) and no contact with Russia other than through official military channels. Why do these faux pas continue to occur with such regularity? Why has the combined disciplinary might of the Russian military disciplinary and intelligence communities failed to stamp it out?

I have brainstormed it down to a few explanations:

  1. Quality of Russian soldier’s (many of whom are still young conscripts) training and morale is still very poor – they still don’t get the need for security in covert operations
  2. People do not yet fully understand the potential, implications and, crucially, the technology of the smart tools they now possess – photos have often been taken and then automatically (and unintentionally) geo-tagged and posted online
  3. The soldiers do not care – better to show off to your mates and family when you are doing something exciting
  4. Russian military authorities are poor at this sort of thing – inadequate security procedures are a factor of Russian military life
  5. Russian military authorities do not care so much – just one of those things. The embarrassment factor has worn off
  6. Russian militaries/politicos do not mind this happening so much – the world knows they are there but is too scared to do much about it. It is not really a covert operations anymore. And anyway, NATO satellite imagery is already identifying Russian military build-ups and activity.
  7. The unofficial low-level revelations of Russian servicemen in Ukraine serves to demonstrate Russian military resolve to the international community and to the would-be separatists in eastern Ukraine

Is it as simple as that – a recognition that the fig leaf has long since withered and died?

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