The writer is the founder of Bellingcat
For those of us who have spent the past decade closely watching the conflict in Syria, the Russian invasion of Ukraine brings with it a dreadful familiarity. Much of what has unfolded over the last three weeks has direct parallels that are hard to miss. Russia’s attempts to frame its military action as targeting “nationalists” while it bombs hospitals and terrorises civilians with cluster munitions is familiar to anyone who watched their actions after they entered the Syrian conflict in 2015. Rather than bombing Isis, the Russian air force targeted opposition-controlled areas, indiscriminately attacking not only military targets, but hospitals and bakeries.
As with Syria, Russian officials have played a role in spreading disinformation about these attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and as with Syria, their attempts have been particularly pathetic. When questioned about the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Russia’s ambassador in the Netherlands told a journalist that the two women featured in photos from the incident were the same woman, citing abusive comments from Instagram posts as evidence. The Russian Embassy to the Netherlands promoted this interview on the morning one of the two women died from her injuries, along with her child.
For those who became familiar with Russian disinformation through the lens of the 2016 US elections, this crass propaganda and the debasement of officials who abandon any sense of self-respect to promote it might seem shocking. But it is nothing new. The only difference is that people are now paying attention to it, unlike the relentless stream of Russian disinformation that came out around the conflict in Syria.
Using internet conspiracy theories as the basis of their response to war crimes allegations may seem bizarre and appalling, but this is now par for the course in the Russian information war playbook. Following the 2013 Sarin attacks in Damascus, officials cited theories about YouTube videos being uploaded the day before the attack. These originated from conspiracy blogs and online forums, and were rapidly debunked. With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence mirrored claims made by pro-Russian bloggers and social media users that a video showing 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, this is obviously alarming to the uninitiated. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that since 2018 these officials have made over 60 separate claims about false flag chemical attacks being prepared in Syria, and none of them have come to pass. These new claims appear to be nothing more than an extension of the steady drum beat of lies.
For those of us who 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. After countless UN reports and investigations, Russia’s complicity in Syria has in effect gone unpunished. This includes the systematic attacks on medical facilities and civilians that we now see repeated in Ukraine, excused once more by the same lies.
The obsession around disinformation can unfortunately act as a distraction from this, seeing war crimes in terms of the lies that are 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 zones, such as social media, in establishing the truth. There have been intense efforts by the small but passionate community that developed from the work of open-source investigators working on those topics.
My organisation, Bellingcat, used publicly-available information to investigate war crimes in Syria, establish Russian involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the 2014 conflict in Ukraine, and later the truth behind the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny. While an element of this work addressed disinformation around those topics, the priority was finding the truth.
Over the past few years in particular, the understanding of the value of open-source information has developed to the point where the wider community has quickly realised its value in ensuring Russian crimes in Ukraine can be documented and Moscow held to account. It’s been particularly heartening to me, as someone who started my career with a simple blog that is now recognised by human rights organisations, policymakers, international accountability bodies, and other actors who can ensure what happens in Ukraine isn’t forgotten.
But it is essential that we are not distracted by Russia’s pathetic attempts at disinformation. We need support to pursue accountability not only in this moment, but in the years to come. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rehabilitated into the global community when its crimes have gone unanswered — and with such a wealth of evidence around them — this will only embolden the next autocrat who decides to devastate other nations for their own gain.