The Russian Ministry of Defense published a legislative proposal, on October 4, that introduces a number of critical changes to the law “On the status of military personnel” (RBC, October 4). The bill is supposed to become law in early 2018.
The most crucial part of the proposal states that contact soldiers (kontraktniki) currently serving in the Russian Armed Forces are prohibited to “publish on the Internet any personal information (including photos, video materials, data pertaining to geolocation and/or any other related information) or data that concerns other soldiers” that may contribute to identification of their current location, status and service (Regulation.gov.ru, accessed October 18). The “explanatory letter” accompanying the draft says that “personal data of Russian soldiers is being increasingly used for geopolitical [sic], terrorist, extremist and criminal purposes” (Newizv.ru, October 5). If this proposal becomes law, the Russian Armed Forces will follow the operational protocol of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Protective Service (FSO).
The draft proposal also claims that personal data of Russian military personnel (pertaining to their current location and the kinds of tasks and activities they performed) could be used by “special forces of certain states as well as various terrorist and extremist organizations for the purpose of carrying out information-psychological effects aimed at destabilizing the internal situation [in Russia]” (TASS, October 4). This is a near-direct quote from the Russian Information/Cyber Doctrine of 2016 (see EDM, December 16, 2016).
Commenting on this legislation, the editor-in-chief of the military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Viktor Murakhovsky, claimed that the proposal responds to the rapid development of new media and increasing use of various social networks among military personnel (Rosbalt, October 4). According to Murakhovsky, the legislation will significantly improve information security in the Russian Armed Forces.
A source within the Russian security services told the media outlet Vedomosti that personal information shared online by Russian soldiers “is being used by pro-Ukraine activists and special services as proof of Russian presence in the Donbas region.” The source also pointed to the fact that “there have been cases when the Bundeswehr [the German Armed Forces] and terrorist organizations have contacted Russian contract soldiers to extract information” (Vedomosti, October 4).
Indeed, with the help of various social networks (VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, in particular) international investigative reporters have collected and published data persuasively proving that Russia is sending military forces to Crimea and Donbas (RBC, October 2, 2014). In one well-known instance, the international investigative group Bellingcat unearthed a post by Donbas separatist commander Igor Strelkov made on Vkontakte, along with related materials, including mapping data and photos uploaded online. And based on this evidence, the organization concluded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (downed in July 2014, in an area of intensive fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and separatists) was a victim of a Russian Buk missile system (number 332) (Bellingcat.com, June 5, 2017).
However, Ukraine is not the only area where social networks have helped to shine a light on Russia’s presence: Syria is yet another telling example. Thanks to photos published on the Internet by a Russian soldier in November 2015, for instance, the Russian investigative group Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) managed to trace his location (100 kilometers from Homs) and direction of movement, as well as identify the weapons he was equipped with (Citeam.org, November 7, 2015). Moreover, a recent “crowd-sourced” examination of Russian soldiers’ social media accounts have shown that, during August–October 2017, at least nine members of Russian private military companies were killed in Syria (In24.org, October 17, 2017).
The government’s proposed changes to the law “On the status of military personnel” have yet another, probably even more crucial aspect. Namely, the October 4 proposal explicitly prohibits the use of social networks not only by Russians, but by “foreign citizens who intend to serve in the Russian army as contract soldiers” as well. Undoubtedly, “foreign citizens” is meant to refer to nationals from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—the alliance of post-Soviet countries led by Moscow. Arguably, this could mean Russia intends to use “foreign” contract soldiers in its military operations abroad (most likely, in Syria) (see EDM July 10). Incidentally, a recently published government document explicitly allows for this (Rosbalt, October 9). Finally, given frequent rumors about an upcoming Russian withdrawal from Syria (see EDM, October 17, 19), it would seem likely that the role of private military companies (see EDM, October 12) and “foreign personnel” will increase.