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Vanity Military Selfies Are Spoiling Russia's Attack in Ukraine

Images mixed by author.

Images mixed by author.

“We shelled Ukraine all night long.” These are the words a young Russian soldier wrote on his social network page last week, where he published a photograph of military equipment in an open field. When the post went viral, the soldier removed the word “Ukraine” from the caption. Then his account disappeared altogether. Now he claims he was hacked and denies ever publishing the photos.

Vadim Grigoryev's original Vkontakte page, where the post initially appeared, is no longer accessible, as it was deleted shortly after his account started gaining the public's attention. The incriminating post can still be viewed in its original glory, however, thanks to another VK user, Vladislav Laptev, who reposted it onto his wall:

Screenshot of Vadim's original post reposted by Vladislav Laptev, with Vadim's original caption of the photo reading "We've been shooting at Ukraine all night long." Vladimir comments above the repost: "Don't forget to switch off geotagging when you post photos, soldiers:) This isn't the first time you fail:) UPD: The photos are being taken down, but they're preserved here:)"

Screenshot of Vadim's original post reposted by Vladislav Laptev, with Vadim's original caption of the photo reading “We've been shooting at Ukraine all night long.” Vladislav comments above the repost: “Don't forget to switch off geotagging when you post photos, soldiers:) This isn't the first time you fail:) UPD: The photos are being taken down, but they're preserved here:)”

Grigoryev moved quickly, but it wasn't fast enough. Using the service Peeep.us, Twitter users made a complete copy of his VK account as soon as Grigoryev started revising his posts.

A saved copy of Vadik's page, the word “Ukraine” already removed.

The saved copy includes more images of Grigoryev and his fellow servicemen taken in late July. The photographs’ captions occasionally indicate that they were taken on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Screenshot of an earlier post on Vadim Grigoryev's VK wall (from saved copy of page), caption above photo reads: "We've been in the fields for two weeks now, unwashed, on the border with Ukraine."

Screenshot of an earlier post on Vadim Grigoryev's VK wall (from saved copy of page), caption above photo reads: “We've been in the fields for two weeks now, unwashed, on the border with Ukraine.”

The Russian website TJournal.ru has produced an excellent roundup of the mounting photographic evidence of Russia's military presence at the border with Ukraine—all culled from Vkontakte accounts belonging to Grigoryev and his comrades. TJournal reporters found other posts mentioning Ukraine, and discovered that one of Grigoryev's VK friends even published a map of their route, which began in the town of Ordzhonikidzevskaya in Ingushetia (a region of the Russian North Caucasus) and ended in the village of Pokrovske, in the Rostov region, on the border with Ukraine.

Ivan Zherebtsov posted this image of a route from Ingushetia to the Russian border with Ukraine - his account has now also been removed, but this screenshot remains. (Image courtesy of tjournal.ru.)

Ivan Zherebtsov posted this image of a route from Ingushetia to the Russian border with Ukraine – his account has now also been removed, but this screenshot remains. (Image courtesy of tjournal.ru.)

Most of this evidence is, of course, circumstantial, and nothing points directly to Russian forces engaging Ukrainians across the border—except for Grigoryev's deleted post.

The day after he rose to fame online and then disappeared from VK, Grigoryev popped up on the evening news, on state-run television, claiming that he did not post the photos in question. He said he hadn't updated his page in over a month, and that he had no idea someone was posting photos to his page.

Vadim Grigoryev appears on the evening news of Rossia-24 channel on July 24, 2014. Screencap courtesy of tjournal.ru.

Vadim Grigoryev appears on the evening news of Rossia-24 channel on July 24, 2014. Screencap courtesy of tjournal.ru.

Слышу вообще первый раз. Не могу знать… В “Контакте” я был, может, уже месяц назад. Заходил очень давно. Сейчас, на данный момент, ничего не знаю.

This is the first time I'm hearing of this. I couldn't know… I went on Vkontakte maybe a month ago. It's been a long time. Now, right now, I don't know anything.

When Grigoryev heard about the photo going viral, he said his first suspicion was that his account had been hacked, so he asked his relatives to suspend the account.

Возможно, взломали. Я слышал, что бывает, что взламывают “Контакты”. Часто говорят. Возможно, взломали… Позвонил родителям, сестре — сказал, чтобы заблокировали страницу. Ну и всё удалили.

Maybe they hacked it. I heard they sometimes hack Vkontakte. It happens often, they say. Maybe they hacked mine… I called my parents and my sister, and told them to block the page. And they deleted it all.

Grigoryev said the photos allegedly taken last week were in fact several months old, at least. (The pictures from the Ukrainian border were probably taken on an iPhone, which Grigoryev says he didn't have with him in late July.) 

While Grigoryev's page may be gone from the VK servers, similar posts continue to surface here and there online, where they're immediately captured as screenshots by speedy social media users. Just this week, Twitter users captured screenshots of yet another Russian soldier posting online about bringing Grad missiles to Ukraine.

BBC Ukraine journalist Myroslava Petsa posted this screenshot from the VK page of Mikhail Chugunov (the original post, now deleted, is from July 11):

(Text in screenshot: “With Grads to Ukraine…”)

Fyodor Morkvo captured the comments under an earlier post from Chugunov:

i can't even react to this shit anymore
(Text in screenshot:
“- Leaving…
- Where to?
- Where to?
- Vladimir, Ukraine!
- Mikhail, what the fuck for?
- Vladimir, I guess it's difficult there without our Grads:)
- Mikhail, uphold our honor, shoot precisely!”)

Hromadske TV editor Olga Tokariuk also posted several screenshots from various VK users with similar evidence:

(Text in screenshot: “Ukraine is waiting for us, artillery lads!”)

It's probable that more of these young Russian soldiers, eager to catalogue their adventures on the Ukrainian border, will be discovered, go viral, and find it necessary to delete their accounts. Some of them might well be fake, but if even one is genuine, the RuNet will have unearthed hard evidence of a Russian attack on Ukrainian territory. Will every new soldier foolish enough to have posted about “shelling the enemy” turn to a “my-account-was-hacked” defense? Will others be able to stay their hand from taking that treacherous geolocated selfie?

UPDATE: Russian officials, it seems, are already taking steps to eradicate vanity military selfies. On July 29, the Russian media reported that Vadim Solovyov, a Communist Party Duma deputy, is working on amendments to the Federal law on military service that would essentially ban army servicemen from posting to social networks any photos depicting military equipment or arms. Highly sensitive information conveyed in such images, the deputy believes, undermines state security and “could be used by the Western media for provocations.” Solovyov does say that soldiers will still be allowed to use the Internet for personal correspondence. And anyway, argue the Russian experts, it's not like the U.S. doesn't already have similar rules for its own military.

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