The writer is the founder of Bellingcat
For those of us who have been closely following the conflict in Syria over the past decade, 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 miss. Russia’s attempts to view its military action as targeting “nationalists” while bombing hospitals and terrorizing civilians with cluster munitions is well known to anyone who has watched their actions after entering the Syrian conflict in 2015. Instead of bombing Isis, the Russian air force focused on opposition-controlled areas, which indiscriminately attacked 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 efforts have been particularly pathetic. When questioned about the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, the Russian ambassador to the Netherlands told a journalist that the two women in the photos of the incident were the same woman, citing insulting comments from Instagram posts as evidence. The Russian embassy in the Netherlands promoted this interview on the morning that one of the two women died of her injuries along with her child.
To those who have become familiar with Russian disinformation through the lens of the 2016 US election, this crude propaganda and the humiliation of officials who give up any sense of self-esteem to promote it may seem shocking. But it’s nothing new. The only difference is that people are paying attention to it now, as opposed to the relentless flow of Russian disinformation surrounding the conflict in Syria.
Using internet conspiracy theories as the basis for their response to war crimes allegations may seem bizarre and horrific, but this is now the norm in the Russian information war playbook. After the Sarin attacks in Damascus in 2013, officials cited theories about YouTube videos uploaded the day before the attack. These came 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 echoed claims by pro-Russian bloggers and social media users that a video featuring a Buk missile launcher was actually filmed in government-controlled territory. . It was in fact filmed in separatist territory.
When Russian officials now make statements about Ukrainians preparing false flag chemical attacks, it is clearly alarming to the uninitiated. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that since 2018, these officials have made more than 60 separate claims about false flag chemical attacks being prepared in Syria, and none of them have materialized. These new claims seem to be nothing more than an extension of the steady drumming rhythm of lies.
For those of us who have investigated war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria, the real fear is that despite the widespread documentation of alarmingly similar acts in Ukraine, there will be no accountability for the new crimes being committed. In fact, after numerous UN reports and investigations, Russia’s complicity in Syria has gone unpunished. This includes the systematic attacks on medical facilities and civilians that we now see repeated in Ukraine, excused again by the same lies.
The obsession with misinformation can unfortunately be a distraction from this, as war crimes are seen in terms of the lies told rather than the truths that can be found. The conflict in Syria and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 taught us the value of information shared from open sources in conflict areas, such as social media, in getting to the truth. Intense efforts have been made by the small but passionate community that has emerged from the work of open source researchers working on these topics.
My organization, Bellingcat, used publicly available information to investigate war crimes in Syria, determine Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, and later uncover the truth behind the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei navalny. While part of this work dealt with disinformation on those topics, the priority was to find the truth.
Particularly in recent years, the understanding of the value of open source information has evolved to such an extent that the wider community quickly realized its value in ensuring that Russian crimes in Ukraine can be documented and Moscow held accountable. It was especially heartwarming for me, as someone who started my career with a simple blog that is now recognized by human rights groups, policy makers, international accountability bodies and other actors who can ensure that what is happening in Ukraine is not forgotten.
But it’s vital that we don’t get distracted by Russia’s pathetic attempts at disinformation. We need support to pursue accountability, not just now, but in the years to come. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rehabilitated in the global community while its crimes go unanswered – and with such a wealth of evidence surrounding them – it will only encourage the next autocrat who decides to destroy other nations for his own gain.
This post Bellingcat founder: Don’t let Putin’s disinformation distract from his war crimes was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/12865cb3-5a7f-480c-bbaa-eaa285f97b43”