Activists created the resource Inform Napalm in early 2014. The project’s “treasury” includes two reports on a thorough investigation into the downing of a Boeing 777 in the Donetsk region’s sky, colossal databases of the Russian units that are fighting in Ukraine, and even tables with the chevrons of Russian servicemen. The website’s materials come out in a total 22 languages. At the same time, Inform Napalm is a purely volunteer project. According to the founder, journalist Roman Burko, volunteers from Crimea and Georgia were the first to join the team. Then they were followed by residents of the occupied Donbas, the free part of Ukraine, and other countries.
Some Inform Napalm team members deal with OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) inquiries almost round the clock, some translate for five hours in a day, and some repost news in social networking sites. Each volunteer spends as much time and effort as they can. Some of the OSINT inquirers are very well-known experts, such as Irakly Komakhidze from Georgia, Anton Pavlushko from Germany, Al Gri from Israel, and others. All the volunteers met via the Internet, and the Web is in fact the main space of their activities. Burko has told The Day about how many and what kind of Russian servicemen are fighting in Ukraine and why the invaders are so fond of giving themselves away.
“IT IS TIME TO SWITCH FROM INDICATING THE STRENGTH OF THE ENEMY TROOPS TO STUDYING THEIR QUALITY”
The Ukrainian media often mention the presence of Russian troops in the Donbas. But they do this rather abstractly. What is the real scale of the Russian military presence?
“We have been tackling this problem for about a year, looking for ways to cause the Ukrainian media to study more in detail the facts of Russia’s undeclared war in the Donbas. The media are used to rhetoric and abstract comments on the part of politicians and the powers that be. For some reason, they confine themselves to high-sounding claims about ‘tens of thousands of Russian servicemen in the Donbas,’ but very few, if any, can name for sure the concrete Russian army units that operate in Ukraine. We at first hoped that special services could clarify this, but the more we analyzed and established contacts with the uniformed services, the more we saw that these bodies were not taking a systemic approach, either.
“In late August this year we made our own attempt to systemize the Russian military presence in the Donbas. It will take too long a time if I begin to enumerate all the regular Russian army units spotted in the Donbas in the past year, so I advise you to analyze on your own the instances listed in our resource InformNapalm.org. Our database comprises now 116 instances in which 61 Russian military units were involved, with the concrete names or numbers of brigades, battalions, divisions, and centers. We also drew up a table of the places where the personnel, units, and equipment are stationed, and of the period of their stay in Ukraine. The table indicates the branch of service and the assignments, which a certain unit is carrying out. To make things clearer, we used our database and drew the so-called Bezier curves on infographics from the place of the units’ permanent location to the place of their stay on the occupied territory of Ukraine.
“I want to emphasize: it is worthwhile to assess the strength of the enemy personnel and equipment only when you need to know the concrete quantity of ammunition or the area of a burial ground for the killed enemies. We are carrying out no active offensives now, nor can we win somebody over – I mean the world community and Western politicians – by means of baseless, albeit high-sounding, statements. Therefore, it is time to switch from simply indicating the overall strength of the enemy troops to studying their quality, which we tried to do in our own research. This work is unique in that it is based on gathering intelligence from the enemy’s open sources – in other words, we study the materials which Russian propagandists themselves, military and chance observers post in the Internet.”
What concrete Russian military units are present in Ukraine? To what extent has their number been varying throughout the conflict?
“Whenever we say ‘concrete units,’ we should know that they are usually combined into company- and battalion-based tactical groups. These groups may include soldiers from different units. For example, in many cases the groups were mixed with mercenaries, while the Russian career servicemen served as snipers, instructors, reconnaissance men, liaison officers, operators of Russian sophisticated weapon systems, etc. For instance, in June 2015 we spotted snipers of Russia’s 19th Detached Motorized Rifle Brigade, who were attached to the illegal armed formation Somalia. We have also repeatedly spotted career servicemen of the 33rd, 18th, and 8th detached motorized rifle brigades, the 7th military base, airborne units, and special-purpose units of the Russian General Staff’s General Intelligence Directorate in the ranks of the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ illegal entities.
“As for how their numerical strength varies, it is difficult to give an unambiguous answer. The bulk of the troops is stationed at temporary training camps along the uncontrolled segments of the border and carries out occasional raids deep into the Ukrainian territory.”
“FOREIGN EXPERTS INCLUDE OUR INFORMATION INTO THEIR REPORTS”
What is the effect of the data you gather?
“Our information is used on a wide scale. We do not make public all the materials we have gathered and hand some of them over to trusted officers in various uniformed services. The effectiveness of the use of our information, of course, leaves much to be desired, with due account of the Minsk agreements. For example, in the period of active military operations we focused on identifying the locations of illegal armed formations’ militants, spotting concentrations of the equipment and handing over this information to the military, learning from insiders on the occupied territories cell phone numbers of militants and giving this information to SBU officers. Whenever possible, we try to get a reply about the way the information was handled. We receive one in 60 percent of instances, but interaction is horizontal. It is impossible to do this on the official level because the governmental system, including the uniformed services, is very bureaucratized and sluggish.”
What do you think is the main result of your work over this period?
“For me personally, the main indicator of Inform Napalm’s effectiveness is a continuous expansion of our capacities by way of attracting new people, such as video and graphics development specialists, translators, and investigators. Although we receive no funding or other aid from the state or grant providers, we carry out what even high-office holders consider as high-quality projects. For example, as far as investigation into the Flight MH17 crash is concerned, we gave important information about redeployment of a Buk air defense installation to the Ukrainian border by servicemen of the Russian Military Unit 83466 and the 147th Logistics Automobile Battalion. The redeployment occurred 14 days before the MH17 tragedy. This investigation was conducted by a volunteer who has the callsign Vitalii and is permanently stationed on the occupied territory.
“Another inquiry into the Boeing 777 crash was about the Volvo prime mover that towed the Buk air defense system over the territory controlled by militants. The photo of this tractor features as material evidence in the reports of an international investigating group. Our volunteers found the exact whereabouts of the militants’ technical base, where this road tractor had been spotted in October, a few months after the tragedy. It is the town Snizhne near the coalmine Udarnik, on a territory controlled by militants. The Boeing’s debris fell near Shakhtarsk, 20 kilometers from Snizhne, where the Volvo prime mover was spotted. This investigation was made by a volunteer with the callsign Viktoria who also resides in eastern Ukraine and could see herself the horrors of the ‘Russian World’ when the city she lives in, Kramatorsk, was occupied by Russian hirelings. I am especially pleased that Inform Napalm’s team is showing by their own example that patriots of Ukraine live everywhere: there are a lot of people in the Donbas and Ukraine, who are working self-denyingly for the sake of a joint victory over the enemy.
“Another major achievement of the project is that foreign experts, who follow the course of events in eastern Ukraine, note and include our information into their reports. For example, our team’s volunteers have officially translated into Russian and Ukrainian ‘Hiding in Plain Sight,’ a recent report on the Russian aggression in Ukraine by the US nongovernmental organization Atlantic Council, which is mentioned in the report itself. This report also used Inform Napalm’s materials.”
“…BEING PART OF THE ‘CULT OF POLITE MEN’”
You also gather evidence of the presence of Russian servicemen in Ukraine in social networking sites. How do Russian soldiers give themselves away?
“Social networking sites are a very useful instrument for OSINT inquiries. They can furnish undeniable photo and video evidence. The current generation of the Russian hired soldiers and officers has grown reading Odnoklassniki and VKontakte websites, and they are used to sharing their impressions with friends since they were teenagers. And even on the military service, they haven’t dropped the habit of swaggering for public effect. What promotes this is a propagandistic hysteria that hypes the ‘cult of polite men’ [‘polite men’ is a jocular term for the Russian soldiers who occupied Crimea. – Ed.]. The majority want to be part of this cult. Every time the Russian military post a comment, check their names in Ukrainian volunteers’ databases, place their geotag photos, and appear on Russian propaganda TV channels, they also come into our field of vision. I don’t even hide the methods of our investigations. There’s been no dearth of materials for our investigations in the past year because no FSB bans and no warnings from supervisory bodies can slake the Russian military’s thirst for being part of the ‘cult of polite men.’ It is a new-level mental disease which we use to put across the truth about the war in eastern Ukraine and its participants.”
How do the Russian media “help” you to work?
“Almost each of their propagandistic news reports has some interesting information. Sometimes footage shows a type of weapons that has never been seen in Ukraine, sometimes you can identify the location of an illegal armed formation or its tactical symbols and forecast the militants’ actions on the basis of their accidental phrases. It is almost impossible to fully hide information – there will always be a fact which a journalist may miss but which is a godsend for our watcher.”
“WE ARE CONSTANTLY REBUFFING RUSSIAN HACKERS’ VIOLENT ATTACKS”
Who are your audience? Do the foreign media show interest in your resource?
“Our volunteers have held repeated consultations with representatives of various organizations and diplomats from a number of countries. We shared information about the course of the military conflict and the facts of Russian aggression in Ukraine. We’ve also often noticed interest in our publications and investigations on the part of foreign governmental bodies. By analyzing IP addresses of the website visitors, we know that it is read in the US State Department and in the governmental bodies of Sweden, Germany, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, and in NATO.
“From time to time, we also find references to our project in the Western media, such as The Guardian, the BBC, and others. The project’s reputation is always on the rise, but it is not a very speedy process, for the West is taking a cautious approach to new initiatives. As our project was created as recently as 2014, has no official representations, and belongs to no official organizations, I must say it is a major achievement that our information is not only being monitored, but also features in certain statements. For example, Konstantin Borovoy, a Russian oppositional politician and leader of the party Western Choice, recently blew sky high a program under which the US Embassy has given a grant to Baltic journalists for countering Russian propaganda. At the same time, he drew attention to the Inform Napalm project, calling it the example of a resource of analysts and criminologists who spot and study the facts of Russian aggression.”
What is the reaction of Russia’s representatives to Inform Napalm’s materials?
“On an official level, they are trying not to draw attention to our project, for they have already burned their fingers on it more than once. Last year there was a program on, if I am not mistaken, the Russia 24 channel, in which they tried to dismiss the investigation of our expert Irakly Komakhidze about the 138th Detached Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade as disinformation. But Russia 24 failed to resist facts and reduced everything to unfounded rhetoric. In the course of time, new inquiries by our team confirmed the involvement of this brigade’s servicemen in the Kremlin’s shady enterprise.
“This was followed by a long silence which the Russian media broke by the attempts to discredit our resource – they claimed it was linked to the Ukrainian special services. But this only promoted greater interest in the project and brought us new volunteers who are joking that they are now ‘State Department and NATO intelligence agents.’ We are also constantly rebuffing Russian hackers’ violent attacks and receiving threats of physical elimination.”
“WE HAVE NO LIMITATIONS. WE TAKE A PINPOINT APPROACH AND SHOW INITIATIVE”
In how many languages does your resource work?
“The project has long been accessible not only in Russian, but also in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Polish, German, English, Spanish, and French. Materials are translated into these languages quite often, but some versions are updated less frequently. These versions are in the Czech, Slovak, Turkish, Portuguese, Dutch, Georgian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese languages. Some of the new volunteers have begun to translate into the Azerbaijani and Swedish languages. So, we have now versions in 22 languages with different periodicity of publication. As everything rests on a volunteer basis and we have no permanent editorial office, the activity of a language version depends on translators themselves.
“Every translation is done by a living native speaker, not by means of computerized multilingual localization of websites. It is important for us to establish interaction between initiative-driven people all over the world, who not only watch the events in Ukraine, but can also send right messages to their milieu and help ordinary people know what is really going on at the Ukrainian front and at other fronts in the world, where Russian special services, Moscow’s fifth column, and Russian occupational troops are involved.”
What is the Inform Napalm team doing in addition to gathering information about the Russian troops in Ukraine?
“We have no limitations. We take a pinpoint approach and show initiative. Whenever we receive information from insiders about a likely attack by the enemy troops or provocations that involve firing and terrorist acts, we try to warn about this and assess the effect of spreading this information through open and target-oriented channels. If necessary, we work not only as volunteer journalists, but also as researchers. It is important for us to help Ukraine rebuff the enemy aggression and, at the same time, remain unbiased observers with our own sober vision of the situation.”