New photo of Russian UN-branded trucks easily explained
This week, what appeared to be an employee with the Russian railways in Novorossiysk posted an image on his Instagram account showing four white Ural trucks with United Nations (UN) branding on them, with a geotag indicating the photograph was taken at the Novorossiysk railway station.
This photograph led to a firestorm of speculation — mostly from Ukrainian bloggers and news sites — that Russia was preparing to send its soldiers as UN peacekeepers (or pose as peacekeepers) into eastern Ukraine or Syria.
This speculation was unfounded and a repeat of a similar situation that took place last year with Russian armored personnel carriers being transported via rail. Much like the previous incident, these Ural trucks were being sent to the United Nations after an agreement was reached with a Russian manufacturer — not a nefarious ploy to increase Russian involvement in the Donbas or Syria.
The first step in dealing with any photograph or video that appears online is verification. The geotag from the user who uploaded the photograph gives us a clue as to where it was taken, but we should not blindly trust it, as geotags can easily be fabricated.
By searching through satellite imagery, street-level photographs, and user-generated videos of the Novorossiysk railway station, we verified that the photograph was indeed taken there.
To be more exact, the photograph was taken along the railway to the east of the main station, with a three-floor building along Zhukovskogo Street visible. A video uploaded to YouTube taken at the Novorossiysk station briefly showed the same building from the photograph.
By finding this building on Google Street View, we verified that a smaller building to the left of the photographer is also visible, along Zhukovskogo Street.
While it is more difficult to verify the time that the photograph was taken, we can at least be certain that the photograph was indeed taken at the Novorossiysk Station. This location is significant because the port of Novorossiysk — which is just a stone’s throw away from where this photograph was taken — is Russia’s largest port and frequently used to transport military equipment abroad via the Black Sea.
However, there are additional photographs of UN trucks in Novorossiysk, boosting the credibility of this new photograph. Local sources reported that on February 20 and March 2, a number of UN-branded trucks were seen driving through the center and eastern parts of Novorossiysk.
Taken together, it was clear that a number of Russian-made Ural trucks were present in Novorossiysk over the last couple of weeks.
A number of Ukrainian researchers and news sites did not waste time in speculating into the reason why these UN-branded trucks had appeared near the Russian port city of Novorossiysk, located near Crimea.
The Ukraine-focused investigative collective InformNapalm wrote on the appearance of the UN trucks, claiming that they “May be cargo for the ‘Syrian Express’ or for the hybrid war in the Donbas.”
Major Ukrainian outlet Segodnya.ua also wrote that the trucks “May be cargo for the ‘Syrian Express’ or for the hybrid war in the Donbas,” repeating the speculation from InformNapalm.
Censor.net.ua also covered the InformNapalm piece, running the headline that “The Russian Federation is preparing a provocation in Syria or the Donbas.”
While there was good reason to expect the worst from the Russian military when it comes to transporting military equipment, there was no reason to think that these UN-branded vehicles come with a sinister purpose.
Radio Svoboda’s Mark Krotov found a February 2018 press release from Russian manufacturer GIRD describing how they were fulfilling a request from the United Nations for ten Ural trucks. The Ural trucks photographed by this defense manufacturer are very similar to the ones photographed weeks later in Novorossiysk. Below, a comparison shows a UN truck photographed by a Novorossiysk resident with the UN-branded truck photographed by the Russian defense manufacturer who said that they were providing the vehicles for the United Nations.
A local Novorossiysk official told journalists at NGNovoros.ru — the same site that shared a number of photographs of the UN-branded trucks from local residents —about the occassion. They said:
This equipment was manufactured at one of the Russian plants in framework of cooperation with the international organization of the United Nations. Now, the equipment has arrived in Novorossiysk and will be sent by sea for a peacekeeping mission in countries where it is needed.
The NGNovoros.ru article also noted that in 2017, the defense manufacturer GIRD — the same one that posted photographs of UN-branded trucks in February 2018 — agreed to provide Ural trucks to the United Nations.
This is far from the first time that speculation ran rampant over UN-branded vehicles being transported via Russian railways. As summarized by the @DFRLab in September 2017, Russia transported white UN-branded BTR-80s (armored personnel carriers) via rail, leading to panic that they were headed to the Donbas.
— Victory Krm (@KrmVictory) September 17, 2017
However, like with these Ural trucks, they were being sent to a UN mission away from the Donbas (or Syria). In this case, the destination was Bangladesh, as described in a 2015 newsletter from a Russian defense manufacturer detailing their agreement with the United Nations.
Due to Russia’s history of transporting military equipment discretely to the Donbas and Syria, it is always prudent to investigate mass movements of Russian military equipment. However, since 2015, many of these shipments to the Donbas have been done under the cover of night or in less visible ways than white, UN-branded vehicles going to the country’s largest port and busy railway station. Staying vigilant in monitoring Russia’s military transport is important, but carrying out verification and reining in speculation may be just as vital.
Aric Toler is the lead digital researcher for Eurasia at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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