What we actually know about unmarked soldiers in Belarus
An image of four men in military uniforms on a tram in Belarus started to trend among Facebook users and Ukrainian media on July 27. Some posts suggested that Russian “little green men” started to appear in Belarus in the same way unmarked Russian troops appeared in Crimea before annexation in March 2014.
The emergence of “little green men” also coincides with preparations for Zapad 2017, the large-scale joint exercise that Russia and Belarus will conduct between September 14–20. The possibility of Russia leaving troops in Belarus after the exercise remains a concern for some of the countries western neighbors.
Though the identity of the men is unclear, open source evidence suggests they were from the Belarusian 103rd Guard Airborne Division. However, the way the story of “little green men” spread throughout Belarus and neighboring countries shows underlying mistrust of Russian military and motives, as well as a strong confirmation bias in conversations initiated on social media.
On July 26, Facebook user Yuras Stranger posted an image of four armed men in green military uniforms with no identification signs using public transport. The image was shared in a public Facebook group about the city of Vitebsk. The post alleges that the photo was taken on the city’s tram.
The post reads:
Green men unmarked. Just in a Vitebsk tram. Weapons are carried with no covers. No epaulets and insignia — has it begun?
The post received over 180 impressions and more then 40 comments. At the time of this reporting, 92 impressions were “angry.”
The statement that these were Russian “little green men” was soon called into question by a Facebook user Ihar Belarus. He identified the military men to be from the Belarusian 103rd Guard Airborne Division, located in the Vitebsk city center.
Ihar Belarus: These are our MTR 103 Airborne, look at the equipment, shoes, weapons without a body kit … The boys often ride in trams.
Yuras Stranger: Well, the arms were on, and I saw an example of custom, maybe our guys, but why are the weapons not in a case and without shoulder straps, chevron?
Ihar Belarus: This is not а body kit that the Russians are wearing! The boys are carrying out a command by shortening the way in tram))), without the chevrons, because in camouflage, this is reconnaissance.
Yuras Stranger: Ihar Belarus unmarked armed men are criminals according to the law.
Ihar Belarus: You should have called the police. Did someone do it?
Yuras Stranger: Ihar Belarus next time will do so
The thread above suggests the men in the photo were Belarusian soldiers. Unfortunately there are no distinguishable visual features to identify the unit to which the pictured men belong. However, the camouflage pattern is very similar to the uniforms Russian Guard troops will receive in 2018.
The 103rd Guard Airborne Division’s base is located right by the tram depot on Frunze Prospect.
A day later, on July 27, Facebook user Друг Сябар (Drug Syabar) re-posted the image with added text under the photo that reads “Strike for Belarus.”
His Facebook profile says he is a Belarusian volunteer with the 8th Separate Battalion of the Ukrainian Voluntary Army “Aratta.”
His post reads:
In the photo, my hometown Vitebsk. Russian military are already beginning to arrive at the so-called military exercises. Military men begin to spread out across all cities.
But there were already people with automatic weapons in military uniform without identification marks. WITH KALASHES TO RIDE IN TRANSPORT AND NO ONE DOES ANYTHING !!!!
Anyhow, I’ll have to defend our land too….
Last December I gave an interview in which I was asked about the situation in Belarus. At that moment I understood that the military exercises that Russia would hold in our country in the autumn of 2017 would be the last moment of freedom…..
I said that they increased military equipment and manpower 4 times more than stated before.
They will not leave after the exercises! There will be the same story as in the Crimea.
They will make a referendum and excommunicate the country
But the most interesting thing is that most of the Belarusians will vote instantly for Russia based on pseudo-promises about a better life…
This (expletive) with a mustache for the last 10 years has collected debts that we will not pay in a lifetime and to all this managed to sell almost 80% of factories and enterprises to Russia !!!!
Therefore, Russia feels like it is the country’s owner, only the papers need to be signed ..
To (expletive) up the country on such a scale ……. this is (expletive) !!!
And now look at the map for how much the front line will increase and in what a “posh boiler” we will be only 200 kilometers away from Kiev !!!
Https://youtu.be/3JnlnwPs5rE -Video with interview
The post suggests that there are Russian “little green men” in Belarus repeating an operation like the occupation of Crimea, in which unidentified Russian soldiers arrived in the territory before annexation.
This time the post went viral. The post was shared on Facebook over 2.4 thousand times, received over 1.4 thousand impressions, and commented on over 100 times.
Nevertheless, later, in the comment section, Drug Syabar claimed that he never said these were Russian soldiers in particular. He also identified the tram in the photo going from the Zhurzhevo area, south of the military base on Frunze Prospect.
The comment reads:
Drug Syabar: I did not mention in the post that these are Russian troops or Somalian. I don’t really care. I was touched by the very fact of finding people with combat weapons on public transportation and not having identification marks
At the same time in the text, the phrase about the appearance of people with weapons was written in a new paragraph and does not affect the previous one whatsoever !! and I do not care if they are soldiers or not! They shouldn’t travel on public transportation with weapons !!! If they are ours then they are totally mad.riding with weapons from the zhurzhevo on the Frunze tram ! (Expletive) heroes.
Soldiers are riding in a tram with arms and the bosses put in the reports the fuel used given for their transportation
So in any of the options the situation is not cool.
The Zhurzhevo area also falls under the 103rd Guard Airborne Division, according to the official site of the Belarusian Airborne Forces. Here again, we know the tram line connects Zhurzhevo with the base on Frunze Prospect.
A few Facebook users were skeptical that the “little green men” in question were Russian. Svetlana Kornilina was the first to claim that these were Belarusian conscripts.
The thread reads:
Svetlana Kornilina: People, come to your senses, these are our soldiers !!!!!!!!!!!!!! look at the caps and hats. My nephew is serving, so he immediately said that these are ours … Are you going to shoot our own ??
Drug Syabar: Svetlana, for your information.
First, the soldiers cannot move with weapons around the city.
Second, the uniform the soldiers are wearing is not in the country’s arsenal. And there are no differentiating signs on the uniform.
Svetlana Kornilina’s profile image is the old white-red-white Belarusian flag, often used by the Belarusian political opposition. This suggests that the user’s doubts are independent from her political stance, which, based on the general stance of the Belarusian opposition, would tend to be nationalistic and cautious about the possibility of a Russian invasion of Belarus.
In another exchange in the comment section of the post, Facebook user Vladimir Chudentsov, who describes himself as the “owner and editor-in-chief of Belarusian media BY24.org,” expressed his own doubts, but in a less aggressive manner than Kornilina. Yuras Stranger, the author of the photo, then responded and provided some on-the-spot insights about the situation on the tram. This was followed by Facebook user Igor Parmon’s providing his own explanation.
Vladimir Chudentsov: They have different protection on the lower leg and knees.
And different caps — some have black, others have brown.
So, it’s hardly a regular military unit — then everyone would have the same gear.
Maybe, some kind of airsoft players …
Aw, hell knows. Scary.
Yuras Stranger: Guys, I’ve made the photo. There is one more. The combat weapon is not airsoft, these are rogues. Perhaps ours, but there was no overhead or chevrons. There was a Soviet-style badge on their headdresses. I asked the question “From which country’s army are you?” The men immediately stopped and turned back to the windows. I asked again, he said, “That I cannot tell you,” I asked again, “ Are you Belarusians?” , Answer “Yes”.
I had seen rogues with a weapon in transport, but they have always been with epaulets, chevrons and weapons have always been in their cases.
Igor Parmon: Yuras Stranger I think, it could have been the initiative of some middle-ranking military leader — to perform, for example, in some kind of showy occupation or in front of young pioneers in the pioneer camp. So, they are silent as partisans in fear of their superiors for such an ill-considered initiative.
On the account of the illegality of wearing military munitions I / O, I would still not make hasty conclusions.
But from the point of view of the prevention of offenses (preventing attacks with a view to seizing weapons), I would still put in a pistol.
Though a majority of participants in the comment section believed the image shows Russian “little green men,” the comment threads featured above show that both Yuras Stranger and Drug Syabar don’t have any information on who the armed men in green military uniforms were. The digital context suggests the photographed troops were going from the Zhurzhevo area to the base on Frunze Prospect, and thus provides a high likelihood that they were of the Belarusian 103rd Guard Airborne Division.
The hype about the photo didn’t stay within Facebook. On July 27, news about Russian “little green men” on Belarus public transportation spread in Belarusian media and then massively across Ukrainian media.
The first media outlet to report the photo was Belarusian radio station Racyja. Then Ukrainian media outlet Hartyja 97 picked the story up. Other Ukrainian media outlets cited one or both of the Facebook posts, and the Ukrainian media outlet that amplified the story most of all was Obazrevatel. Curiously, just four Belarusian and two Russian media outlets reported on the photo.
Here’s how the story spread:
The titles in Ukrainian media were quite sensationalist:
→ Photo-fact: “Little Green Men” in Vitebsk (Hartyja 97)
→ “It will be like in the Crimea!” the social network was worried by the “military” photo from Belarus (Obozrevatel)
→ “Little Green Men” with automatic weapons and without identification signs arrived in Belarus (15 minut)
→“Little green men” with machineguns are massively riding in Belarusian trams (Antikor)
Belarusian media was more critical. On July 28, the Belarusian media outlet Belsat TV published an article titled “Expert: Zapad-2017 exercises caused psychosis.”
The article cites the analyst Leonid Spatkay at Belarus Security Blog:
Military commissars send summons to many people liable for military service to appear at recruiting posts. And not only to ordinary soldiers, but also to majors, lieutenant-colonels, who hung up the uniform in the cupboards several years ago. But no one cries about total mobilization. So in this situation: who are these people and for what purpose they appeared in Vitebsk — nobody knows. Maybe they are military reconstructionists who are taking part in the preparations for the celebration of the Day of the Paratrooper? In Zaslavl, for example, you can see the reenactors in the form of the Red Army, and in the form of the Wehrmacht, who, with models of weapons, return from events held on the “Stalin Line” — they also put photos in social networks and then yell that the Germans occupied Zaslavl”
On social media, Russian media were significantly less critical or doubtful and perhaps even bullish about the interventionist claims. Readovka.ru, a Russian media outlet that also covers Belarusian affairs, posted an article titled “Belarusian media scared by Russian military.” The article even mentioned that, according to some media, the unknown soldiers could have arrived to participate in Zapad 2017.
The four military men spotted in a tram in the city of Vitebsk were not verified as Russian “little green men.” The quality of the image and the lack of visual identification signs don’t allow for definitive comparison. The contect provided by Facebook users and verified facts suggest these were men from the 103rd Guard Airborne Division based in the city of Vitebsk.
Confirmation bias trends on social media and the mistrust felt toward Russia has sparked lively discussions on social media. The post by Drug Syabar became viral, and the image started to circulate across Ukrainian media while being ignored on Belarusian and Russian media.
As it stands, this case represents the organic spread of digital “evidence” that doesn’t provide enough information to substantiate the argument it is used to make.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.
Editor’s Note: Quotations from social media posts are translated verbatim. Whereas a culture of lackadaisical grammar is pervasive on social media, a similar culture is not pervasive @DFRLab.