Russia’s War in Ukraine: The Medals and Treacherous Numbers

Russia’s War in Ukraine: The Medals and Treacherous Numbers

Organisation: Bellingcat (United Kingdom)

Publication Date: 03/28/2017

Applicant(s)

Size of team/newsroom:small

Description

It is clear by now that Russia has used its soldiers and military equipment to intervene in the war in eastern Ukraine, but the degree of participation has long been under question. In our data-focused investigation, we analyzed open source information provided by Russian soldiers on their own social media accounts to estimate the number of active servicemen who received medals for their participation in the war in Ukraine. We were able to take this analysis to the next step by establishing the serial numbers of each awarded given to Russian soldiers, and establishing that they were presented chronologically. That is to say, an award "For Distinction in Combat" numbered 2464 was awarded to a Russian serviceman on November 7, 2014, and the same award with the number 3346 was presented on December 16, 2014. Thus, we know that at least 882 medals were presented been the two dates--for an award that is exclusively given to soldiers who took part in "combat missions" during a time that Russia was not officially engaged in any military conflicts. Through our statistical analysis, we concluded that thousands of Russian servicemen participated in the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, including 4300 soldiers who received the medal "For Distinction in Combat" between November 7, 2014 and February 18, 2016. This research was intended not just for those who are interested in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including Russians and Ukrainians with a Russian translation provided for the research, but also for policymakers and academics looking to better understand the reality of the only ongoing war in Europe.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

In this investigation, we exclusively used open source information to reach our conclusions, most notably through the social media posts (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and the Russian-language networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki). In doing this, our conclusions can be assessed and verified by our readers on the same level as our analysts, with all of our evidence being equally accessible to anyone with an internet connection. We conducted secondary analysis of findings shared by other analysts (namely independent Ukrainian researcher Askai707). Furthermore, we cross-referenced the data from the medals with the real-world events happening, such as the surges in violence and other evidence tying certain Russian military units with participation in the war. The project gained massive coverage in both Western and Russian-speaking press. For example, Newsweek covered our findings (http://www.newsweek.com/russian-awards-combat-surge-ukraine-conflict-report-494937), alongside nearly every major Russian and Ukrainian news outlet (including over 150,000 views in one article on RBC: https://goo.gl/t4YTtf). Our report even elicited a response from the Russian Ministry of Defense itself, though predictably, they were not complimentary of our research (http://www.rbc.ru/politics/08/09/2016/57d17d829a7947348a8c2c28). We feel that our report had resonance with our readers because we presented the data in a very accessible manner, with all of the data out in the open from social networks. Most all of our readers have experience using the same social networks that we collected our data from, making our research process more transparent and relate-able. Furthermore, showing the involvement of a geopolitical superpower in a European war through data pulled from the social media accounts of normal Russian soldiers allows the reader to feel a connection to the issue and understand it through more accessible means than verbal joustings between diplomats and foreign ministries.

Technologies used for this project:

Firstly, we conducted screenings and searches through social media accounts to gather the primary sources of the data. At Bellingcat, we have been researching the involvement of Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian Conflict since 2014, so we were experienced in finding and verifying this data. The data sharing and collection was handled on a simple spreadsheet on Google Docs, where we added and verified the individual medals found on social media. We communicated on a dedicated Slack channel within our larger group to collaborate on the data collection and verification. For the data analysis and graphics, we used R.
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