To understand the tempest of Russia’s information wars, is the past prologue? An inside story from the conflict in Ukraine
We saw the column of military vehicles approaching along the highway as we were driving back to the small truckers’ motel in which we were staying. There had been other convoys like it on the road during the day, but this one was intriguing. It was getting dark, and it was heading towards the border with Ukraine. As we drove past, I counted 23 armored personnel carriers (APCs), as well as a number of fuel trucks and other support vehicles — all marked with black Russian military plates.
I was with Roland Oliphant of the London Daily Telegraph and we had already filed our stories for the day. But I suggested we turn round and follow, to see where this column was going. It was the start of a journey deep into Russian disinformation.
It was the summer of 2014 and we were in southern Russia, not far from the city of Rostov-on-Don. We had come to follow another convoy, which Moscow said was a “humanitarian” mission of trucks carrying aid to the separatist republics inside Ukraine. But given widespread reports that the Kremlin was also funnelling weapons to the separatists, there was much suspicion about what exactly was in these trucks. My newspaper, The Guardian, had dispatched me from Moscow to find out more about the convoy as it moved towards eastern Ukraine
The trucks had stopped short that day. So we had driven up to the actual border post at Izvarino to look around and then spent a couple of hours in the nearby town of Donetsk — not to be confused with the separatist capital inside Ukraine — before deciding to head back to our motel. And it was just after leaving the town that we encountered the Russian APCs and fuel trucks.
We were soon on the edge of Donetsk again, but then the column came to a halt, at the road leading into the town. We pulled the car into a lay-by just behind the APCs, hoping they would not notice us. Half an hour later, their engines started revving and the column began to move again. They had been waiting for nightfall. At the entrance to Donetsk, the convoy turned off the main road. It was several miles to the official border post at Izvarino, but here, on the outskirts of Donetsk, the frontier was very close indeed.
We were now on a rutted dirt track, with trees closing in on us. It was pitch black, and inside the car, there was a nervous air. The column pulled onto another, parallel, track, but we continued straight on, our driver worried about being spotted. Our car bounced and ducked, flashes of red from the vehicles’ tail lights appearing occasionally through the trees. Eventually, we came out onto a bigger track and curved back towards the column. To our right, we could just make out the small, rickety barbed wire fence that marked Russia’s border with Ukraine. And about 20 yards ahead of us, we saw an astonishing sight.
The last of the column of armored vehicles had crossed into Ukraine, through what appeared to be a gap in the fence. It was impossible to tell if all the 23 APCs and support vehicles I had counted earlier had gone over. But looking through the trees, far beyond the border fence, I could see a long, snaking line of red lights. It was clear that the majority of the vehicles were on the other side. “Wow, they’ve gone into Ukraine,” said the driver, under his breath.
Up ahead, our headlights picked out the silhouette of two foot soldiers standing guard at the point where the column had crossed, assault rifles slung over their shoulders. The driver dipped the lights, but it was surely only a matter of time before we were spotted. He made what seemed like the slowest U-turn in history and we sped back the way we had come. Google Maps — not a perfect guide, but a good indicator — put us right on the border. The fence we could see was the actual demarcation line. And we had no doubt what we had seen. Under cover of darkness, a Russian military column had crossed into Ukraine.
It had long been obvious that the Russians were sending troops and equipment over the border, but nobody had seen it with their own eyes. When we were safely back in Donetsk, Roland and I made our calls to London and filed our stories on what we had seen. I went to bed in our truckers’ motel knowing that we had pulled off an old-fashioned scoop, and thinking it was likely to make some waves. I did not anticipate their size.
Within 24 hours, my article on the Guardian website had been flooded with over 5,000 comments, most of them decrying the piece as anti-Russian propaganda. And our reports were picked up all over the international media — with the Russians furiously denying them. The FSB, Russia’s security service, released a statement saying we had got it horribly wrong: what we had actually seen was a border protection mission which had skirted the frontier but stayed firmly on the Russian side.
The Russian Defence Ministry went further, saying our reports were “based on bizarre fantasies or suppositions of the journalists and should not be taken seriously.” Europe was “seriously sick,” said a statement from the ministry, ignoring the death and suffering of the people of Donbass while fussing over “some online red herring.” A Foreign Ministry source was even more blunt, telling the Russian wire agencies that the story had simply been made up as “informational support” ahead of an upcoming Nato meeting.
In London, the Foreign Office summoned the Russian ambassador for an explanation. The British Foreign Secretary made a statement warning of “serious consequences.” The German stock market fell on the news that Russia had officially invaded Ukraine. My phone rang endlessly, with both Russian and international journalists questioning the story. Many demanded to know why there were no photographs with our stories. I hated the feeling that I had become “part of the story,” and in the blistering August heat, I felt extremely stressed.
I knew that Russian officials could be dishonest and disingenuous: I had spent weeks in Crimea earlier that year watching the so-called “little green men” annex the peninsula, while Moscow implausibly claimed they were not Russian troops. But the strength of Russia’s denials this time sowed some doubts in my mind. Roland, to his credit, was convinced we had got it right. My certainty began to waver. What if we had somehow made a horrific error and the fence we had seen the APCs passing through was not actually the border? I was sick with worry about the implications if we were wrong.
To be sure of our story, Roland and I both agreed we had to go back and find the spot again the next morning. As we turned off the road onto the dirt track, we saw a faded sign we hadn’t been able to see in the dark the night before. It stated clearly that this was a restricted border area and nobody could enter without special permission. We proceeded further, joining the track we had seen the APCs use to cross over. And then we found the gap in the fence. There was no doubt that the column had crossed the border here. On the ground we could see track marks.
There were other signs of frequent activity at this unofficial border crossing. We spotted a Kamaz military truck with no plates, badly hidden in the bushes nearby, two men dozing in the cabin. And we passed a car filled with men wearing combat fatigues, almost certainly separatist fighters heading back to east Ukraine. The nearby town of Donetsk had been packed with men of similar appearance, in scruffy camouflage dress. We had seen them eating in the cafes and buying Fanta in the supermarkets.
Less than a mile away across some fields was the Ukrainian village of Sievernyi. We did not know where our column had been heading. Maybe it had dropped off supplies there, and then returned to Russia, or perhaps it had pushed deeper into Ukraine.
When I was back in Moscow with a decent internet connection, I searched for satellite images of the crossing point and the adjacent field. Different map sources drew the border line in slightly different places, but all of them — including Russia’s Yandex Maps — put the field that we had seen beyond the fence squarely inside Ukraine. A photo captured in May 2014 showed a single track, perhaps left by tractors. But the image for August of the same year showed clear evidence that this had become a regular crossing point, with a wide stretch of disturbed earth, matching what we had seen on the ground. It appeared that we had found a key entry point for Russia’s clandestine invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s Humanitarian Convoy
The evening after Roland and I witnessed the incursion, one of Russia’s main state television outlets treated its viewers to a very different report on events in the border region — focusing on the aid convoy sent by Moscow. Given the dire situation of people in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, there was an urgent need for humanitarian assistance. But Russia-24 ignored the weapons and troops the Kremlin was sending across the border, which were keeping the fighting going. Viewers were shown only the scores of white-painted trucks loaded with flour and blankets for the beleaguered population of Donbass.
We had a chance to inspect the convoy the afternoon before, when it had stopped for the day near a mining town called Kamensk-Shakhtinsky. It wasn’t obvious from a distance, but when we got close to the neatly-parked rows of vehicles, it was clear that they were really military trucks that had been hastily repainted. We spotted specks of army green poking through where the painters had not been thorough enough.
What’s more, the drivers were all dressed in identical khaki outfits. They did not look like the well-drilled troops who had taken over Crimea, but nor did they look like humanitarian volunteers. They were friendly but reticent, claiming to be from a non-governmental organization. But they couldn’t give its name.
The organizers insisted they had nothing to hide, and the next morning they opened up the trucks for the cameras, letting us pick vehicles at random. Some were filled with sleeping bags, sacks of grain and drinking water. Other trucks were suspiciously empty, but there was no sign of any lethal supplies. I had not expected any surprises. With the media around, why would the Kremlin risk using these trucks to ferry illicit cargo over the border if it could already do so by other clandestine means? However, the convoy did serve another purpose, as another platform for the Kremlin’s information war.
As I and the few other foreign journalists present clambered in and out of the trucks, a Russia-24 TV crew was following us, more interested in filming us than the aid supplies. I spotted them focusing on me several times, and they filmed a BBC reporter recording his piece to camera — even as he said that despite the accusations from Kiev, the Russian convoy appeared to be carrying genuine aid. When a colleague from the Wall Street Journal said he could not answer their questions, the crew filmed him turning away.
The reporter and camera-operator re-appeared later on in Donetsk, as I sat in a cafe writing my story for the day, wanting to ask “about our work” with the convoy. Having had past experience of the way Russian state television channels operate, I quite literally ran away.
For Russians who saw the resulting piece on the evening news, we must have looked like a bunch of dishonest shills. “The foreign journalists were desperate to find a scary secret in the convoys, as ordered by their editorial offices, but they found only food, medicines and water,” the Russia-24 correspondent said, his voice laced with Schadenfreude, before adding: “All of our attempts to ask the journalists what they were looking for led to them running away.”
To underline his point, the correspondent concluded by saying: “the inconvenient truth for the foreign journalists is that there is absolutely nothing in the trucks that is even close to being for military use, let alone weapons, or as some of them had written, soldiers!”
The fact that, just out of shot, Russian military vehicles were rumbling past on the nearby road, heading towards the border — and that we had witnessed one such convoy crossing into Ukraine the previous night — did not make it into his report. Even by the standards of Russian media coverage of the war in Ukraine, it was a spectacular piece of cynicism.
The PR battle
Kiev reacted almost as swiftly as Moscow to our reports of the Russian column’s night-time crossing. The day our stories were published, Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, spoke with then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, highlighting “the entry of Russian armored fighting vehicles to the territory of Ukraine that has been clearly witnessed by international journalists, particularly of the Guardian newspaper,” according to a read out of the call from Poroshenko’s office. “The President informed that the given information was trustworthy and confirmed that the majority of the Russian military armored vehicles had been destroyed by the Ukrainian artillery at night.”
The Ukrainian authorities never provided any evidence that they had destroyed the column, or even attacked it. I suspect they had simply seen our reports and seized the opportunity to capitalize on them, both for their domestic and international audiences. But Poroshenko’s claims sent Russian TV channels and newspapers into an indignant frenzy, accusing the Western media and Kiev of working together in a nefarious conspiracy against Moscow.
Russia’s veteran foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, led Moscow’s pushback — just as he has been doing most recently in response to the U.S. indicting 13 Russian citizens in connection with allegations that the Kremlin interfered in the American presidential elections.
He launched a scathing denunciation of our reporting in a special supplement on Russia that the Kremlin paid to have inserted into some British newspapers. “Unfortunately, the mass media continue to spread rumors, distorted information and even outright lies,” he said, in response to a question about our reports of seeing the column crossing into Ukraine. “We view all such stories as part of an information war.” Ironically, one of the papers that published the supplement with Lavrov’s accusations, taking the Kremlin’s money in the process, was none other than Roland’s employer, the Daily Telegraph.
I once asked Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, whether behind closed doors, Lavrov ever gave some acknowledgement of Russia’s involvement. “No way,” said Klimkin, describing encounters where he showed the Russian Foreign Minister satellite imagery of Russian armor operating inside Ukraine. Klimkin said Lavrov would look at the pictures and say: “All these tanks? Anti-aircraft missiles? Wow, how interesting.” The Russian did not even crack a smirk, said Klimkin. But with time, Moscow’s denials became increasingly ridiculous.
A few weeks after the border incident we witnessed, Kiev finally got hard proof that Russia was sending its forces over the border, when it captured a group of paratroopers miles inside Ukrainian territory. This time, the Kremlin had no choice but to admit the men were its soldiers. But it said they had “got lost,” while on a border patrol.
Moscow used other pretexts, many of them very flimsy, to hide the extent of its presence in east Ukraine. Loosely coordinated groups of mercenaries were preferred to official army formations. But there were also reports of whole Russian units being told to tear up their contracts before crossing the border, so they could call themselves “volunteers.” The cover-up had to be extended wider and wider, though. Mysterious graves began to spring up near the Ukrainian border for soldiers who had died in “training incidents.” Their families were too scared to speak out. Journalists who did try to investigate were assaulted.
No proof good enough
When we looked into all the comments on my story, it appeared that a large number were written by paid Russian trolls. But there were many — not just from pro-Kremlin Russians, but Westerners too — who were apparently willing to believe that two British journalists would invent something like this out of thin air. For weeks and months afterwards, I received emails questioning my reporting, many of them angry and abusive.
Yet even critics who were more polite were perplexed as to why neither Roland nor myself had any documentary evidence of such a significant event. Surely everyone carries a smartphone these days, they asked. If we had really seen Russian troops crossing secretly into Ukraine, why did we have no photos? It was a fair question. The answer is that in the moment, I had been focused on using my phone to register our GPS location, to make sure the Russian column was really where we thought it was.
But it was also dark. So even if I had decided to risk opening the car windows and point my phone at the convoy to take some photos, the best I would have achieved would have been a grainy, black image and a few red dots from the vehicle tail-lights. Anyone who believed that we had invented our story was hardly going to be swayed by such a photograph. I got proof of that just a few weeks later.
This time, I was on the Ukrainian side of the border, near the city of Luhansk — then, as now, under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Among a cluster of military vehicles, I spotted an APC marked in two places with a distinctive blue and yellow insignia and the Cyrillic letters MC. They stand for the Russian words “mirotvorcheskie sily” or “peacekeeping forces.” And the insignia is commonly used by Russian forces deployed on peacekeeping duties in places like Abkhazia (a part of Georgian territory under de facto Russian occupation), or Transnistria.
It is not a marking used on Ukrainian military hardware, and I had seen dozens of armored vehicles with the MC symbol moving on the Russian side of the border when we were reporting on the humanitarian convoy. So it was clear that this vehicle had crossed over from Russia.
The photographer I was with managed to sneak a photo. Half an hour later, as we walked back past the vehicle, we saw one of the soldiers painting over the MC signs in black. Either they had been spooked by my interest and realized the significance of the MC marking, or the vehicle was fresh across the border and had yet to be disguised.
By this point, there were dozens of stories of Russian troops inside Ukraine, and dozens of pictures of Russian armor, but the response was always the same: these are not Russian troops; that is not Russian armor. Finally, though, I had found, and documented, a Russian military vehicle inside Ukraine. They could not claim it had been seized from the Ukrainians. It could only have come from Russia.
The response from the Russian Foreign Ministry and other officials, and everyone who had demanded photographic evidence of the previous convoy? Absolute silence.
Illustrations by Sofiya Voznaya.