How a Russian engineer built an investigative team to uncover the truth about wars in Syria and Ukraine
By Daria Luganskaia
It is no more a secret that Russia and the international coalition, consisting of the US and a number of European countries, began airstrikes in Syria last year. Yet for some time the public was unaware that the Kremlin had sent Russian soldiers to fight in the war-torn country.
The story broke in September 2015. Dozens of media organisations, such as Al Jazeera and Reuters, reported that the Russian army was active in ground operations in Syria. They all quoted the same source: a group of investigative bloggers called Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT).
CIT published plenty of data in their report on Syria. They discovered selfies Russian soldiers took while serving in Syria, which they carelessly published on Vkontakte, the most popular social network in Russia. The bloggers also recorded voices of Russians speaking in Syria, among many other things.
Kremlin denied the allegations. However, just a couple of weeks later, Russia officially launched a ground operation.
“They called me a liar”
The leader of CIT, a 29-year-old engineer Ruslan Leviev, was criticized on state television after the group broke the story. But he believes it was the most effective investigation they have ever made because it prompted Russia to withdraw part of its troops from Syria.
“They [Russian authorities] quickly sent the soldiers that we had found from Syria back to Crimea, he says to RuNet Explorer over a brunch in central Moscow. “Russia 24, a state-owned TV channel, ran a story featuring them saying they had never been to Syria. It called me a liar.”
He stresses that CIT aims at unveiling the truth, not manipulating the public:
“The ultimate goal of Conflict Intelligence Team is to make the government accountable for its actions and to influence its decisions. They should ask people if they would send troops to Syria or fight ISIS. It could be done only if the society agrees to do that.”
By now, his team earned credibility, especially in Western countries, and conducted over 100 investigations on Syria and Ukraine. They have also built relations with 85 media organizations, including the Financial Times and Reuters, which helped them to spread their stories worldwide.
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, explains RuNet Explorer why they trust CIT via email:
“I think they have avoided the main pitfall a lot of organisations fall into, which is making leaps of logic without having enough evidence to support their conclusions, either willingly or without realising they are doing that. They’re also one of the few groups anywhere that are developing longer form investigation, which sadly is still pretty rare. They’ve also been very open in their cooperation with Bellingcat, and we can feel comfortable discussing things.”
Who is Mr. Leviev?
Ruslan Leviev is the only publicly known member of CIT who is not afraid to live in Russia. Another leader, Kirill Mikhailov, is based in Kiev.
They also have eight people covering Syria, with three of them based in the country. The group does not have a permanent team, however. For example, during active military actions in Ukraine in 2014, 10 people temporary covered the conflict for CIT from Ukraine and eight from Russia. All of them remained anonymous.
“We do not even know who they are and where they live and work,” Ruslan Leviev confesses. The activist, however, claims that he has grounds to trust them.
When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke in 2014, Kremlin did not proclaim war in Ukraine, but there were constant rumors about Russian soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine. It was hard to find truth in media reports because propaganda was strong on both sides. Leviev started to search for information on social media, gathering facts about the war. He was not alone: there was a number of people doing similar work independently and sharing the results online.
When Leviev realized that he was unable to continue on his own because there was too much work to be done, he sent private messages to these people on Twitter. He picked only those who had never expressed their emotions in texts. He explains:
“When you have to deal with fights, killings, and deaths, it is easy to get mad and express your emotions. It affects the quality of investigation because people start to exaggerate or create facts. I do not accept such people.”
Now they work for CIT.
But who is Ruslan Leviev himself to be trusted?
“People ask me if I am an agent of security forces,” he says. “Well, I am not.”
With his extravagant look – ears tunneled and head nearly bald – he is not trying to show off telling about his investigations. Instead, he sounds modest talking about his adventures. He did not brag, for instance, telling how he spent several days wandering around cemeteries in order to find a hidden grave of a soldier.
When asked, why he has not escaped Russia yet, he says that he is ready for going to jail. It seems these are not empty words, but a well-thought decision. Activists from Europe offered him an asylum on multiple occasions, but he refused.
He says: “I am not sure people in Russia would trust our team if I will be based abroad. In a foreign country. Like an agent of something.”
He does not try to hide while in Russia. He agreed to meet with a reporter via Twitter, not security messenger Telegram. There is no coding like “LDL” (let’s discuss live) on Twitter.
We meet at a French-style cafe in central Moscow with tables extremely close to each other like in many Parisian restaurants. He orders his omelet without looking at the menu because he is a regular customer here. Leviev usually schedules meetings with journalists and other people at the same place in Moscow, which in a walking distance to the headquarters of Federal Security Service, formerly known as KGB.
From code to protest
The 29-year-old activist studied law for an undergraduate degree in his home city of Surgut in Siberia. Back then, Leviev did not imagine himself as an activist searching for information about undercover militants. But at the second year of his studies, he got a work placement at Russia’s Investigative Committee. Now this governmental body is often criticized in media for its draconian actions.
Years later after completing his degree, Leviev organized a single picket in front of the Investigative Committee office to protest against unfair trials.
After two and a half years as an employee at the Investigative Committee, he joined a private law practice. He left it quite soon too, however. “I quit law when I understood that the system in Russia differs from the pictures portrayed in American TV series,” Levied recalls.
He dropped out of the law school in his last year and fully focused on his second core interest – programming. Leviev has been coding since he was 14.
These skills are now a large part of his work. CIT uses a lot of internet tools and data mining to conduct investigations. The activist continues:
“We live in the world where all the information is sourced online. Witnesses publish pictures of trains with weaponry crossing borders. You can even track such trains with open source programs. You can find out during which part of the day a video was taken by analyzing the solar shadow.”
The tools CIT uses regularly to conduct investigations
· To find copies of Youtube videos and their original sources as well as the date when it was uploaded for the first time: Citizen Evidence by Amnesty;
· To find people’s profiles on Vkontakte by the image of their faces: Findface;
· To calculate the time by the location of solar shadow: Suncalc;
· To track ships: Shipfinder.
Online research is just a part of the CIT job. The group is trying to build trust with the relatives of soldiers. It is hard because people often do not see any benefits in sharing information with activists. But after some soldiers had been sent back home from Syria, people started to talk to CIT. The bloggers found allies in Syria gathering information on the ground.
Some people in the army found their contacts themselves. “They say that they do not understand why Russia went to war with Syria. We had a terrorist attack on the plane as a result. These people used to be neutral to the Kremlin, but at some point, they got angry at all the lie around them,” the founder of CIT explains. Finally, the bloggers go on the ground themselves. Leviev once spent days wandering around cemeteries in the Moscow region trying to find a soldier’s grave.
In the early 2000s, the young engineer moved to Moscow. His online business collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008, and he had to go to the heart of the country where the concentration of jobs and finances was much higher than in a far-flung Siberian city. Leviev found a job in the internet technology sector and immersed himself into the life of the capital.
Multiple roles in opposition
As many young professionals, he started to read independent media and blogs, including a very popular blog of Alexey Navalny, a lawyer who started to unveil facts about corruption in the Russian government. A couple of years later, Leviev was among thousands of people who went on the protest against unfair parliamentary elections.
In December 2011, thousands of people joined an unsanctioned demonstration against the election result in Moscow. They saw frauds during elections themselves volunteering as observers or read news about schemes used to make scores great for the ruling party, United Russia.
It was a trigger for many people who had never taken part in protests. On that day the 2011–13 Russian protests or the Snow Revolution as it is referred to by some media began.
Ruslan Leviev was among those angry citizens who came to a protest for the first time in their life. He was also among those arrested. Leviev grew angry with the police:
“They wrote that I was walking on the roads and shouted ‘Burn them all’ which has never happened.”
After two days behind the bars, his life as an activist began.When the opposition blogger Alexey Navalny asked on Twitter for someone to build a website for his project, Levied volunteered. Later, he took multiple roles with the Navalny’s project and participated in a lot of protest rallies.
When Navalny ran for mayoral elections in Moscow in 2013, Leviev gathered information about particular districts of the capital before Navalny’s meetings with locals. “If a local asks him about any problem, the candidate must be aware of it”, Leviev says. Alexey Navanly – later sentenced in a theft case which he says was politically motivated – received 30 percent of the vote in that election.
One of the projects for Navalny could have resulted in imprisonment for Ruslan Leviev as well. He wrote a script to provide access to the blog of Alexey Navanly which was blocked in Russia by the authorities for extremism. When users clicked on so-called “Red Button of Navalny”, they were re-directed to a chain of mirror websites and ended up on Navalny’s blog.
This trick made Leviev a public figure and draw the attention of state officials. “I was questioned at the Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes General Directorate, but it led nowhere,” Levied recalls. He found out that officials from the president’s administration and the regulatory body for the internet and media, Roskomnadzor, wanted to charge him for fraud as if he wrote a computer malware to make people donate money.
“They took a screenshot of a blocked computer and send their complaints to the Investigative Committee”, the activist says. Leviev believes they could not make up a case without any facts but wanted to find something by accessing his virtual wallet and other data when he was called to be questioned. In the end, he did not face any charges.
When does the money come from?
CIT has hard times trying to engage a wide audience in Russia. Their blog is less popular in Russia than abroad. Leviev believes the problem is that people care less about Syria as they used to be concerned about Ukraine.”The popular belief about Syria is that everyone there is a terrorist. Anyone shouting Allah Akbar should be killed which is not always the case,” Leviev says.
Interestingly, the founder of Belling Cat has a different pattern:
“I think in Russia, where the mainstream media is so much under the thumb of the government, trustworthy and alternative sources of news are very popular. Even with Belling cat if we post a Russian and English version of the same article the Russian version will get more views. In fact, our number one city in the world for readers is Moscow. It also gives the public the opportunity to challenge government and media narratives, and share their conclusions and the evidence they drew those conclusions from with other members of the public openly,and that’s very powerful”.
CIT tried crowdfunding, but this attempt failed. People hardly sent any donations. The only way to sustain was to take funding from abroad. In spring, CIT received a year-long grant from a foreign fund. Leviev does not want to name it: he is very worried to be labeled as a foreign agent.
He assures he has always supported his political activities with his own business. Leviev runs a live streaming company Newscaster and makes money working for a wide range of clients starting from independent television channel “Dozhd” to commercial enterprises.
Limits in Russia
“Dozhd” is one of a handful media organisations that CIT works with in Russia. And Leviev is unhappy with results. “They do not have money and resources to conduct their own investigations. They also tend to be emotional in their reports while Western publications are focused on facts only,” the activist explains.
The problem is there are not many independent and quality media organisations left in Russia. CIT used to be a partner with RBC, a significant media holding with over 11 million monthly readers only on its website. However, in May 2016, three top editors of RBC were sacked after RBC covered the Panama Papers and President Vladimir Putin’s ties to Sergei Roldugin, a musician with $2bn on offshore accounts, and conducted investigations about fortunes accumulated by Putin’s family and friends.
The journalists of RBC used hooks provided by CIT to conduct their own in-depth investigations. Leviev can not name any other resourceful media organization capable of doing that.
Turning to international terrorism
Conflict Intelligence Team is planning to expand beyond Russia and focus mostly on international terrorism. “Many of us started to learn Arabic and build an expertise in this area. We perfectly understand that we are unlikely to reach the scale of Billing Cat, but we still want to reach an international level,” the activist says.
Belling Cat is heading in a similar direction. “Currently, we’re planning to work on a Syria-focused project which we hope will lay the groundwork for similar projects in other countries in the Middle East, as well as examining corruption in the UK.” Eliot Higgins says.
Ruslan Leviev has other plans aside politics for his future life. This year he started a part-time course on aviation at a Moscow university. He has always dreamt of becoming a pilot.
The co-author of the book on the internet regulation in Russia Red Web Andrei Soldatov believes CIT will have a real impact in Russia as well. “I am largely optimistic about the future of the Internet in Russia. Thanks to social networks, users generate tons of content. And any crisis provokes users to generate even more content. It helps to expose government lies about sensitive issues, like the war in Ukraine.
And we have several outstanding activists who know how to dig through the data. For instance, Ruslan Leviev designed The Red Button, a service that provides access to the blog of Russia’s leading opposition activist, Alexey Navalny, which has been blocked by the authorities. Now Leviev has a team looking for any data about the Russian soldiers in Ukraine and Syria on social networks, and it helps uncover the truth.” he told The Global Voices.