The author is the founder of Bellingcat
For those of us who have spent the past decade closely monitoring the conflict in Syria, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings with it an awful familiarity. Much of what has unfolded over the past three weeks has direct parallels that are hard to overlook. Russia’s attempts to portray its military action as a target of “nationalists” while bombing hospitals and terrorizing civilians with cluster munitions is well known to anyone who has watched its actions after entering the Syrian conflict in 2015. Instead of bombing Isis, the Russian air force targeted opposition-controlled areas, which indiscriminately attack not only military targets but also hospitals and bakeries.
As in Syria, Russian officials have played a role in spreading disinformation about these attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and as in Syria, their attempts have been particularly pathetic. When questioned after the bombing of a Mariupol maternity hospital, the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands told a journalist that the two women featured in the photos of the incident were the same woman, and made offensive comments from Instagram posts as proof. The Russian Embassy in the Netherlands sponsored this interview on the morning one of the two women died from her injuries along with her child.
For those familiar with Russian disinformation through the lens of the 2016 US election, this blatant propaganda and humiliation of officials who forsake any sense of self-respect to promote it may seem shocking. But it’s nothing new. The only difference is that people are paying attention to it now, in contrast to the relentless stream of Russian disinformation that has emerged around the conflict in Syria.
Using internet conspiracy theories as the basis of their response to war crimes allegations may seem bizarre and appalling, but this is now a given in Russia’s playbook of information warfare. After the 2013 sarin attacks in Damascus, officials cited theories about uploading YouTube videos the day before the attack. These originated from conspiracy blogs and online forums and were quickly debunked. With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Russian Defense Ministry has contradicted claims by pro-Russian bloggers and social media users that a video showing a Buk missile launcher was actually shot in government-controlled territory became. In fact, it was filmed on Separatist territory.
Obviously, when Russian officials are now making statements about Ukrainians preparing false flag chemical attacks, it is alarming to the uninitiated. It is worth remembering, however, that since 2018 these officials have made over 60 separate false flag allegations of chemical attacks being prepared in Syria, and none of them have materialized. These new claims appear to be nothing more than an extension of the steady drumbeat of lies.
For those of us who have investigated war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria, the real fear is that despite widespread documentation of alarmingly similar acts in Ukraine, there will be no accountability for the new crimes being committed. According to countless UN reports and investigations, Russia’s complicity in Syria has remained virtually unpunished. These include the systematic attacks on medical facilities and civilians that we are now seeing repeated in Ukraine, once again excused by the same lies.
Unfortunately, the obsession with disinformation can distract from seeing war crimes in terms of the lies that are told, rather than the truths that can be found. The conflict in Syria and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have shown us the value of information gathered from open sources in conflict zones, such as the United States. B. social media, are shared to find out the truth. There has been intense effort from the small but passionate community that has evolved from the work of open source investigators working on these issues.
My organization, Bellingcat, used publicly available information to investigate war crimes in Syria, uncover Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, and later the truth behind the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny uncover. While an element of this work addressed disinformation on these issues, the priority was finding the truth.
In recent years in particular, the understanding of the value of open source information has evolved to such an extent that the wider community has been quick to recognize its value in ensuring that Russian crimes in Ukraine can be documented and Moscow held accountable. As someone who started my career with a simple blog that is now recognized by human rights organizations, policy makers, international accountability bodies and other actors who can help ensure that what is happening in Ukraine is not forgotten, this was particularly encouraging for me.
But it’s important that we don’t get distracted by Russia’s pathetic attempts at disinformation. We need support to take responsibility not only now but also in the years to come. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rehabilitated into the global community, if his crimes have gone unanswered – and with such a wealth of evidence surrounding it – it will only embolden the next autocrat who chooses to ravage other nations for their own benefit.
https://www.ft.com/content/12865cb3-5a7f-480c-bbaa-eaa285f97b43 Bellingcat Founder: Don’t let Putin’s disinformation about his war crimes distract you