No, Instagram Doesn’t Prove Russian Troops Are in Ukraine
Buzzfeed’s Buk missile story doesn’t hold up
It’s one of the world’s biggest open secrets that Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine. But here’s a great example of the wrong way to prove it.
On July 31, Buzzfeed published a story covering the exploits of Sgt. Alexander Sotkin, a communications specialist in the Russian army and — if his Instagram account is anything to go by — an avid user of social media.
In the story, Buzzfeed claims that Sotkin inadvertently blew Russia’s covert operation in eastern Ukraine by uploading two selfies of himself geotagged inside a rebel-held area of Ukraine to the north of Luhansk.
If that weren’t enough, Buzzfeed alleges that one of Sotkin’s photos suggest he was working on an SA-11 Buk surface-to-air-missile system — the same type as the one Russian-backed separatists used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
When taken at face value, the evidence looks compelling. The photos had geotagged data—apparently using Instagram’s photo map service which Buzzfeed say is “highly accurate.”
But take a deeper look, and the specific claims Buzzfeed makes don’t add up.
Russian Buk-M2 launcher outside Moscow on Aug. 27, 2013. AP photo
Meanwhile, in Russia
Another clue we can gleam from Sotkin’s Instagram uploads are his copious use of hashtags. In this case, one hashtag stands out in particular: #??????2014 or #exercise2014.
As we already know, the Russian military has been carrying exercises close to its western borders ever since the crisis in Ukraine flared up. Sotkin’s uploads with the #??????2014 hashtag are near the Russian border with Ukraine—mostly from the small town of Voloshino in the Rostovskaya Oblast of southern Russia.
A military exercise can involve rapid movement on short notice. It’s possible Sotkin’s unit was on the move in the last week of June and first week of July when his two alleged uploads on Ukrainian soil took place—in the village of Krasnyi Derkul in eastern Ukraine.
The distance between Voloshino and the two villages as the crow flies is around five and a half to six miles. Krasnyi Derkul is an ideal place for a Ukrainian cellular provider to site a cell phone tower to cover the area along the border with Russia.
Sotkin uploaded the first photograph ostensibly showing his location in Ukraine on June 30, after he posted two others complaining about boredom and lack of power for his tablet. The last photo was the one positioned in Ukraine. He tagged all three with #??????2014 which shows that he was on exercises when he snapped those selfies.
Most likely, the varying accuracy of cell tower triangulation meant that his device geotagged his photos with wildly different location coordinates based on whatever tower it could communicate with. At the least, the evidence is nowhere close to being reliable enough to say Sotkin was fighting in Ukraine.