Russia’s largest movement of tanks and other heavy armor since the end of the Cold War has sparked fears of a potential invasion of Ukraine.
While the country’s leadership has shared some of the action in videos that they themselves have released, much more of it is being captured without official permission — primarily on TikTok.
Professional military analysts like Konrad Muzyka use videos posted to TikTok by Russian and Belarusian civilians as clues.
“Each conflict has its own social media platform that propels the story to the world. Now, it’s TikTok,” Muzyka said. “We also rely to a large extent on satellite images, and this is in combination of TikTok videos. Everything combined, I think, gives us a slightly better picture of what is actually going on.”
While politicians parse Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s words for signs of whether or not he’s planning to invade Ukraine, experts are studying his actions through video forensics.
“We’re trying to figure out which units are coming,” Lukas Andriukaitis with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab said. “Where are they? Where they’re being based, what kind of equipment they’re bringing.”
That may indicate whether Putin is preparing for a full-scale invasion, a limited invasion or none at all.
The research involves not just professional experts but also open-source amateurs.
“It is absolutely a collaborative effort because, you know, a lot of time, I don’t know what I’m looking at — especially in terms of a lot more of a niche weapons systems,” said Conflicts Co-Founder Kyle Glen.
Glen’s day job in the U.K. is in medical sales. But, for weeks, he and others have been tracking tanks, armored personnel carriers and missile systems making their way west from Siberia to Belarus.
Now, they’re on the lookout for that equipment being moved closer to Ukraine’s border as a further sign, he says, that an invasion is being planned.
Glen says he speaks to those who uploaded the videos in the hopes of learning more about where it was taken.
“I ask the video uploader, and nine times out of ten, they’re more than happy to give the answer,” Glen said. “You can then use your kind of standard open-source techniques to kind of try to verify it. There were videos yesterday of trains being unloaded at a train station, you know, 15-20 kilometers away from the Ukrainian border. The assumption is that there’s another base very close to the Ukrainian border that no one’s found yet.
Analysts are always suspicious of Russian disinformation.
“It’s always very, very important to take a look at actually who made this video,” Muzyka said. “So, go onto the profile and see how many followers this person has, how many people this person follows.”
Muzyka says accounts with just a few video posts are a red flag.
“I would always suspect that these videos does not necessarily have to portray the truth,” Muzyka said.
Because the threat of videos revealing sensitive information is so great, experts say Russian soldiers have been banned from using social media. But for now, civilian TikTok is a valued source.
This story was originally published by Jason Bellini for Newsy.
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