For Russian Soldiers in Ukraine, the Mobile Phone May Be as Mighty as the Sword

The other weapons at work. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

The other weapons at work. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Russian soldiers are fighting Ukrainian “anti-terrorist” troops in eastern Ukraine. Officials in Kyiv say this is in essence a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In Moscow, the Kremlin says its servicemen now around Donetsk and Luhansk are actually “volunteers,” fighting alongside separatists while on leave from official duty. Even Russia’s nightly news now acknowledges the combat deaths of the country’s “selfless” heroes, who supposedly ran off to war, without even telling their wives or mothers.

The Russian government has done its best to control the public’s knowledge about Russian troop activity in Ukraine. No one, however, has challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on military intelligence more than its own soldiers, who like most young people in Russia are avid social media users. Whether it’s covertly shelling targets inside Ukraine or secretly marching into the country itself, Russia’s enlisted men have repeatedly strayed “off message,” either by publishing evidence of illegal interventions or suddenly posting nothing at all, suggesting capture or death in combat.

Despite regulations against it, many Russian soldiers carry Internet-connected mobile devices, which they use to update their accounts on Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular online social network. In late July, following the first scandals on Vkontakte, a Duma deputy even drafted legislation banning “selfies” in the army.

This past weekend, the RuNet discovered a new reason to laugh about soldiers using the Web: a photograph of more than a dozen mobile phones nailed (through the screens) to a wooden board. The image, titled “Once Upon a Time in the Army,” appeared on the Vkontatke account of Aleksandr Kupin, 19-year-old soldier from St. Petersburg. Kupin’s photo has just 19 “likes” where he posted it on Vkontakte, but Ruslan Leviev, a liberal Russian blogger who opposes Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine, brought it more attention on Twitter:

Looks like the Russian Defense Ministry has decided to take certain measures. :)

For his part, Kupin told RuNet Echo that he didn’t actually take the photograph. “It was a joke, of course, as no one [in the army] has the right to break or destroy a cadet’s personal property.” Kupin also says the picture isn’t his—a friend sent it to him, and he simply republished it for kicks. “Just don’t start worrying,” Kupin asked. “Tell them that everyone in the army is happy,” he said finally, gesturing a thumbs-up.

Kupin is likely telling the truth about the photograph. In the image, the phones staked to the board are all considerably outdated, and the picture appeared at least five days earlier on with the caption “Whoever’s served in the army has encountered this!” The author of this earlier quip, incidentally, is a Kyiv-based woman named Tamara Gurzuff, a strongly anti-Russian blogger on Facebook and Twitter.

Kupin’s implication that no one in the Russian military is trying to restrict soldiers’ access to the outside world, however, doesn’t square with many other accounts. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago, a report in Novaya Gazeta detailed how soldiers’ wives and mothers pack mobile phones into their men’s luggage secretly, in desperate attempts to keep them in contact. “They’re taking the phones—it’s an order—because [the Ukrainians] might be able to identify their troop number by the phone,” one paratrooper’s wife claimed to learn from her husband in mid-August.

In other words, the heyday of social media scoops from inside the Russian war machine may be over. Of course, some soldiers will still manage to sneak phones past inspection. What those wily few do with their cameras and keyboards is anybody’s guess.


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