Crowdsourcing the Investigation of Eastern Ukraine's Russian Ghosts

The online search for traces of Russian invaders and fascist nationalists continues in Eastern Ukraine. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The online search for traces of Russian invaders and fascist nationalists continues in Eastern Ukraine. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

An abandoned wallet is again at the center of a scandal in eastern Ukraine, where the army claims to have seized two Russian armored personnel carriers (APCs) near Luhansk. The Ukrainian government says it found a number of identifying materials inside: a pile of Russian driver’s licenses, a night club entrance card, credit cards, and other documents. Kyiv has argued that the discovery provides the smoking gun proving Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine.

In April, the pro-Kremlin news network LifeNews ran a similar story, claiming that separatists discovered evidence of a right-wing group's involvement in an attack on a rebel outpost. The supposed proof was an artifact recovered from the site of a burned car: an intact business card belonging to Dmytro Yarosh, the Pravyi Sektor's leader.

The Russian media treated the business card as evidence that Ukrainian paramilitary groups were responsible for what was then the beginnings of Eastern Ukraine's bloodshed. The evidence was so flimsy that it immediately spawned a widely popular Internet meme. The APC-document discovery hasn't produced the same explosion of memes as Yarosh's business card, probably because of the overabundance of news coming out of eastern Ukraine today. With lots of detective work, however, many online have tried to debunk (and others have tried to prove) Ukraine's assertion about the APCs. Indeed, crowdsourced efforts to identify military hardware are similar to the work done in Russia and the West to piece together what downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

As with the discovery of a business card at the scene of a gunfight, many on the RuNet find the unearthing of documents inside the captured APCs to be a little too convenient to believe. In the same vein, the Russian Defense Ministry has flatly denied Ukraine's claim. One Russian Twitter user thought the evidence all too tidy:

Paratroopers with their passports, cards for glamorous clubs, and credit cards instead of military IDs. All that’s missing is a Koran.

Russian user @XS_71 (who runs the popular VVV-IG LiveJournal community blog) has helped lead the charge in debunking Ukraine's claims. He says the documents found in the APC would not normally be found in such a location:

The “Military Leave Log” is kept with the battalion’s officer on duty—not in the APC. It could not have gotten there.

In another tweet, he claims that the APC seized by the Ukrainian military does not match the models used by the 76th Pskov Airborne Division:

There is an APC with the number 275 in the 7th Pskov division. It’s just that this is a APC-4 (photo 1), and not the APC-2 (photo 2), which the dumb Ukrainians showed us.

On the other side of the conflict, social media users are also busy performing detective work to prove the authenticity of what the Ukrainian military says it's discovered. In English, as well, the anti-Kremlin website The Interpreter has compiled evidence supporting Ukraine’s claim. Pro-Ukrainian Twitter user @forest_brother worked as hard as @XS_71, but Forest has tried to identify the soldiers whose documents were left behind. Forest says he's managed to link one passport to a Russian soldier named Nikolai Krygin, who posted “100 dbh (days before home)” on his VKontakte page, a day before the APCs were found in Ukraine.

One of the crew-members of the captured APC No.275 is Nikolai Krygin, he's gone. A conscript. #ATO #Ukraine #bmd [APC] #Russia

The largest Euromaidan Twitter account also helped out with the investigation, finding a VKontakte page belonging to Ilya Maksimov, another Russian soldier identified in the discovered documents:

The documents of Ilya Maksimov were found in a seized Russian APC-2. He last logged into VK on August 16.

The story of the mysterious APCs is in some ways like the Internet investigations into the MH17 disaster. Armchair military experts, social-media archive spelunkers, and ideologues all work together in creating conflicting versions of events, making disinterested analysis and verification very difficult. This incident will likely be remembered as one of numerous other Ukrainian discoveries of the traces of Russia's military intrusion. Or maybe someone will later prove definitively that it was a Ukrainian disinformation campaign. Whatever the truth of this incident, the specter of misplaced documents—be it a business card or a badge—continues to haunt the Eastern Ukrainian countryside.


  • Mr.Q

    The photo of the BMD-4 with #275 on it, is a stockphoto, used in many russian articles.

  • Here’s how I’ve covered this story:

    Russian Press and Social Media Mine VKontakte for Information on Russian Paratroopers Reported Captured

    Mining soldiers’ VKs is a big online sport, and in my experience, it seldom pans out.

    Even so, there are a number of features of these particular accounts that merit a further look, and not snarky dismissal:

    o they are indeed in the paratroopers
    o they have condolences on the pages
    o in a group of 15 found by one blogger, all but two have not updated their pages (and the two were only accessed, without new content).

    Given that they were updating their pages before that, perhaps it means they were killed or captured. Of course, they could merely be training in the RF and not in Ukraine, but two other factors have to be looked at.

    It’s funny to be called “anti-Kremlin” for finding disturbing sources of information on… and

    The decree awarding the 76h Guards the Suvorov Order for bravery and heroism *while performing combat assignments” seems oddly timed, to say the least. The Crimea annexation was back in March. Journalists got awards in May. Why five months later, suddenly awards for this division? Awfully belated, if they were so valorous only in Crimea.

    Then even more disturbing is Defense Minister Shoigu’s sudden unannounced visit to perform the awards ceremony personally in Pskov Region. He gave a speech talking about combat in other places, not Ukraine, but mentioned the “defense of Russian interests” and laid flowers at the paratroopers’ monument. Odd. Why the high-powered personal presence for a routine Flag Day ceremony? did a lot of regular journalism, as distinct from social-media mining, and didn’t come up with any confirmations, although there was a “could neither confirm nor deny” regarding the Pskov 76th Guards from a military source.

    Lev Shlosberg, the Yabloko deputy, claims to have a reliable source that says a family is mourning a soldier killed in Lugansk. He didn’t come up with a name, and might never, given how much secrecy can be effectively imposed on such matters and how much harassment critics like him suffer for speaking out – the regional governor has personally denounced him as a “fifth columnist” for criticizing the forcible annexation of Ukraine.

    The pro-Russian armchair general can fume and snark all they like about this or that vehicle not being in the unit, or this or that log book never being in an BMD. But the real BMDs themselves have been sighted and documented in Sukhodolsk, Ukraine. When you put all these reports together, it is alarming but I realize the Russian invasion of Ukraine will never be proven to some people’s satisfaction even if Zhirinovsky stands on a tank in Kiev.

    • Slava Dushin

      I see on the photos no military id’s, no dog tags etc.

      • The guards, paratroopers, spetsnaz etc. don’t wear their badges in combat deliberately.

        That was the hallmark of the Russians’ “little green men” in Crimea which later Putin admitted were RF troops.

        I don’t think Russians wear dog tags with names as we understand it but someone may know better.

        It’s common in these Soviet/post-Soviet wars for the warring sides to have negotiations to exchange the dead, and to keep the dead or captured as collateral for trades. So it may be awhile before we see dead bodies. Or there may even be dead bodies sent back to Russia already, but the last place you’ll get any information about this is from the Russian authorities.

        • Slava Dushin

          Ok, they don’t take their dog tags, but they take their wallets with credit cards, driver license and passport?
          I still don’t see POVs or their bodies.

          • Well, if they’re volunteers, which we’re supposed to believe they are, and not regular army, they might well have their credit cards, you know?

            And what we are seeing in this story is what the Ukrainian army decided to release to the press. Maybe they have more. Maybe they are holding it back to make a deal, we don’t know.

            When you say “failed assault” you mean “Donetsk Airport”. Well, yes and no. There were a lot of bodies and pictures and videos. But tying them definitively to identities actually wasn’t so easy, even though journalists worked on this:


            The actually only got a few names from the separatists who controlled the bodies and never got the whole list.

            Here’s a story about the saga of one widow who tried to get her husband’s body back and an independent journalist who covered it:


            Sure, in order to prove deaths you need to show ID’d bodies or captives.

            By the same token, to show people alive and well and not in Ukraine, you need to show the same thing.

            And we have little of that, either.

    • Some further updates — some accounts accessed, some accounts removed, some tell-tale pictures removed, a notice from one saying “I’m alive”.

      What’s Happening to Social Media Accounts of Russian Paratroopers Reported Captured in Ukraine?

  • […] the vehicles were from Russia, based in Pskov. Journalists and bloggers spent the next few days tracking down the social media accounts of the soldiers identified in the recovered paperwork, discovering […]

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