The Russian government has drafted legislation that would prohibit members of the armed forces from sharing on the Internet any information about themselves, their fellow soldiers, or the military itself. The bill has already been submitted to the State Duma for consideration by federal lawmakers. Russia’s Defense Ministry has long advocated similar measures, in response to information shared on social media that prompts public discussions of military actions that the authorities would prefer to keep a secret. Here are a few examples.
Weeks before Moscow made an official announcement in September 2015, photographs shared on social media made the public aware of Russia’s full-scale preparations for a military intervention in Syria. This is perhaps why the government’s draft legislation directly mentions the Syria campaign, justifying new Internet-use restrictions on the grounds that foreign intelligence agencies and terrorists have showed “special interest” in Russian soldiers’ social-media content.
Photos posted on social media have often been the foundation of research confirming Russia’s military presence in eastern Ukraine. Back in 2016, the open-source intelligence group Bellingcat released a report stating that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a “Buk” missile delivered to Ukraine from Russia. Using photographs uploaded to the Internet by Russian soldiers, Bellingcat was able to trace the missile’s complete path from Russia and identify the troops who delivered the weapon. International investigators later used much of this information in their own reports.
Since 2014, content found on social media has repeatedly bolstered claims that the Russian military has fought alongside the separatists in Ukraine. Russian Defense Ministry officials have always denied these allegations, while simultaneously pressing for greater restrictions on soldiers’ Internet access.
Social media has also been a repository for revelatory information about hazing in the Russian military. Photos and videos depicting the humiliation of new recruits are often uploaded by the soldiers responsible for the mistreatment. In some cases, this content has led to criminal charges.
In late 2017, the Russian Defense Ministry urged soldiers to stop using social networks and disable geolocation on their mobile devices. The guidelines were only recommendations, however, without any punishment for those who disobeyed. That, perhaps, is why they’ve been such a miserable failure. With the start of “Vostok-2018” — Russia’s biggest military exercises ever — hundreds of posts uploaded by soldiers have begun appearing online, where soldiers’ identification badges and various high-tech weapons are visible to anyone with an Internet connection and so much as a fleeting interest.