#ZapadWatch: Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Author:Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab

Written by: Lukas Andriukaitis

First look into withdrawing Russian troops from Belarus after the Zapad 2017 exercises

The final official day of Zapad 2017 was September 20th. According to the Belarusian Ministry of Defense, the final Russian troops were scheduled to depart Belarus on September 28th, which was after international observers departed the media interest died down. Military exercises are significant in that they offer an opportunity to not only train but reposition or reallocate resources. One concern prior to Zapad 2017, was it may have served as the perfect chance for Russians to leave troops behind in Belarus and expand their presence in the region.

@DFRLab took a look at what the open source research reveals about Russian Military keeping their promises on heading home after Zapad 2017. While open source research yields inconclusive results thus far, there is no overwhelming evidence, from miltary or civilian open sources, that a large number of Russian troops remain in Belarus in the aftermath Zapad 2017.

Fears of the Russian Trojan Horse

The Zapad 2017 exercises were met with skepticism and anxiety by NATO member states, as well as Ukraine. For the past decade, Russian military exercises have had a tendency to spill over to the neighboring countries (Georgia and Ukraine). On September 29th, the same day the Belarusian Ministry of Defense stated Russian troops participating in Zapad left Belarus on schedule, Ukrainian military chief of staff Viktor Muzhenko responded thatRussian troops were still there. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov denied these allegations from Ukraine on September 30th. Each statement contained a distinct lack of evidence.

@DFRLab investigated social media accounts of the Russian soldiers to trace any signs of Russian troops or equipment left behind. We analyzed social media accounts of Russian troops serving in the units that took part in Zapad on Belarusian training grounds.

Signs of Russians on The Move

@DFRLab published a “Field Guide” with a list of Russian units that took part in the Zapad 2017 exercises. Yury Seleznyov serves in one such unit at Zapad — Russian 1st Tank Army’s 6th Separate Tank Brigade in Mulino (6-я отдельная танковая Ченстоховская Краснознаменная ордена Кутузова бригада). Bellingcat has also previously reported on this Brigade, which took active part in the Ukrainian conflict.

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On August 14th, Yury posted a picture with the caption:

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On September 29th, Yury posted a collection of photos with a caption:

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All of the photos are from the exercises, most likely taken in Belarus. On October 5th, Yury posted an image of himself and his girlfriend in a civilian outfit. This photo suggests that Yury came back home and is enjoying a few days off.

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Konstantin Moskevich is another Russian soldier, who actively uses both VKand Instagram social media platforms. There is no clear verification of which unit he serves, but according to his own social media posts, he is from the Russian 1st Tank Army’s 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya” Tank Division in Naro-Fominsk (4-я гвардейская танковая Кантемировская).

One of the photos on Konstantin’s Instagram showed a monument of tanks; these type of monuments are very common to Russian Tank Brigades. The monument pictured is a match for the one in front of the 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya” Tank Division’s base in Naro-Fominsk.

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On September 22nd, Konstatin posted that he was in Minsk, using #Zapad2017. The geotag of the picture also referred to Minsk, Belarus.

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The post reads:

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The post reads:

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Kex40 is another Russian soldier (real name unknown), who actively uses Instagram and appears not to have a VK account. There is also no clear identification in which unit he serves, but he appeared in the same photos with Konstantin Moskevich. These photos suggested that he serves in the Russian 1st Tank Army’s 4th Guards “Kantemirovskaya” Tank Division.

On September 22nd, kex40 posted two pictures in which he appeared with Konstantin Moskevich. The geotag of the photos suggested that he was in Minsk, Belarus. These photos both had hashtags #zapad2017.

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Another photo, which kex40 posted on September 22nd was geotagged in Osipovichi, region of Minsk, which was one of the training grounds where in Zapad 2017 took place.

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On September 24th, kex40 posted a photo geotagged back in Naro-Fominsk, region of Moscow. This was the same geotag as the one Konstantin included with his September 27th photo.

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Conclusion

A limited amount of open source evidence suggests that Russian troops were on the move from Belarus after Zapad 2017 from September 20th — September 28h. This evidence supports the claim of Russian Ministry of Defense that Russian troops left Belarus by September 29th. Even though the open source intelligence might not show the full picture itself, it provides the opportunity to cross-check official statements of Russian and Belarusian military authorities.

At this moment, there are no clear signs of Russian troops being left behind in Belarus territory. However it is possible that additional evidence will surface after a certain period of time. @DFRLab will continue to monitor Russian military units that were part of Zapad 2017 exercises.