New Russian and separatist-aligned media playing role in information war
On Monday, the Telegram channel Ratnik2nd, operated by DNR Military Press Service employee Mikhail Andronik, shared video footage allegedly taken from a downed Ukrainian drone, showing positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces near Donskoe (south of Donetsk and Volnovakha), Konstantinovka (north of Donetsk), and Bakhmut (also known as Artemivsk, just east of Konstantinovka). Each of these clips was uploaded to YouTube, with the Ratnik2nd Telegram channel watermark.
While these videos were interesting and provided information on the current state of Ukrainian forces along the front-line, another item of interest was the rise of a new generation of media outlets providing pro-Russian or separatist information on emerging platforms, namely Telegram.
The Konstantinovka video shows a vehicle yard in the western part of the city, which lies north of Donetsk and west of the so-called Svitlodarsk Bulge. Before the war, this area served as a graveyard and a morgue. After 2014, the area was transformed into a vehicle yard, as the front-line of the war in eastern Ukraine froze about two dozen kilometers to the southeast.
Below, we can observe the further build-up of military equipment — mostly trucks, but also a fair amount of armored vehicles — in the area.
The position in Donskoe is a vehicle yard near a chemical plant . This location hosted a large number of vehicles even before the war, and there is no evident heavy equipment, such as tanks or artillery, that would violate the Minsk protocols, visible in this drone footage. In sum, this footage provides little information for either a neutral analyst or a Russian/separatist commander searching for Ukrainian vulnerabilities.
Lastly, the footage from Bakhmut (Artemivsk) is the armored vehicle storage base for the Ukrainian Armed Forces military unit 2730, by far the most important location included in the published drone footage. At one point, this base reportedly held nearly 2,000 pieces of military equipment. In 2015, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that it evacuated all of the modern military equipment in the base, in accordance with the Minsk accords, to at least 40 kilometers from the front line.
Clearly, this is no longer the case, as a number of armored vehicles were visible in the recently published drone imagery of this base.
In November 2014, we saw a high presence of military equipment on the base.
In July 2016, the base was practically abandoned, when compared to its previous state.
However, as seen in the newly-uploaded drone footage, it was clear that heavy military equipment was yet again being stored at this base, but not near the same levels seen in 2014 and 2015. It was difficult to discern the exact types of military equipment in the footage, due to the low quality, but a handful of pieces of high-caliber systems appeared to be visible.
New Platforms, Old Tactics
These drone videos were published by Ratnik2nd, a group that is largely based off of Telegram and ran by Mikhail Adrnonik, a member of the DNR’s Military Press Service. Despite the Russian government’s bungled attempts at blocking Telegram, it has become a very popular messaging application for newly-established information portals concerning the Russian-led “republics” in eastern Ukraine.
Recently, for example, Andronik’s Ratnik2nd channel published photographs on its Telegram channel of a homemade military vehicle in Donetsk created out of a Volkswagen van.
A number of official, semi-official (like Ratnik2nd), and unofficial sources within Donetsk use Telegram as a messaging platform similar to ВКонтакте (Vkontakte) or Odnoklassniki — to spread either basic information or more political messaging. Some of these channels include:
- DPR in JCCC (official channel)
- Goves сообщает
- Kotsnews (channel of Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Aleksandr Kots, one of the most plugged-in reports in the Russian-led “republics”).
There are dozens of other groups that concern either specific cities in occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, or the entire Donbas. But perhaps the most interesting development in the last year are start-ups who work on Telegram in a fashion similar to propaganda outlets like News-Front did in 2014 when emerging on YouTube.
Groups like the aforementioned Ratnik2nd and WarGonzo have a tremendous amount of access to military groups and commanders in occupied areas of the Donbas, and will often post exclusive — sometimes fascinating — photographs and videos from the front lines. Almost a year after it was established, WarGonzo operates a number of pages on various social networks (such as a Facebook page with about 500 followers, a YouTube channel with over over 70,000 subscribers, and a VK page with over 7,000 followers), but its Telegram channel, boasting nearly 30,000 subscribers, is the hub of its activity. Its YouTube channel, however, is more focused on detailing weapon systems rather than news or explicitly ideological content.
WarGonzo was started by Semyon Pegov, the former war correspondent of the notorious LifeNews channel. Perhaps the biggest scoop from this fledgling organization came in February of this year, when they published alleged recordings of soldiers in Syria during the battle between American forces and Wagner mercenaries. Four months later, the details around this incident are still murky, including how WarGonzo apparently received these recordings — if they are real. This “scoop” was widely covered in both American and Russian media.
With the outbreak of war in the Donbas, overnight media outlets emerged and fought on the front line of the information war, the most famous of which is likely News-Front. As Coda Story quotes the founder of News-Front, he sees his goal as fighting the information war on the side of Russia, but from the perspective of a defensive, rather than offensive, struggle. Like WarGonzo, News-Front gained popularity from being in the trenches of warfare and showing the conflict from a perspective that traditional journalists were not able to. Their most popular video on YouTube, for example, is a 24-minute clip during the Battle of Debaltseve, mostly filmed from the GoPro of someone standing alongside Russian/separatist forces.
WarGonzo and Ratnik2nd are a natural evolution of the News-Front model, working with a smaller staff and publishing materials that are both highly ideological in favor of the Russian and separatist forces, and also visual, such as drone footage showing a separatist shelling on a Ukrainian position.
As more online users are moving to mobile-based messaging apps, such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and Viber, and spending less time on traditional social networks, such as Facebook and VK, it is no surprise to see a similar shift with propaganda platforms jumping ship as well.
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