A Ukrainian Website Is Outing Russian Soldiers, and Moscow Wants Canada to Stop It
Amid frosty relations, Ottawa is tackling a request from the Kremlin to go after a Ukrainian website, hosted in Canada, that is publishing identifying details of Russian soldiers fighting the Islamic State.
The website, which bills itself as a community of volunteers, has posted pictures, Facebook profiles, and even passport information of dozens of Russian soldiers stationed — semi-officially, unofficially, and secretly — in Syria. Many of the posts place the Russian soldiers at specific points in the country, citing geotags and geographic features in the photos.
The website says it is publishing the information in retaliation for Russia breaking a ceasefire in the Donbas region of Ukraine. A lookup of the site's .org domain name shows that it was registered to an address just South of Kyiv, while the servers themselves are located just south of Montreal, Quebec.
The website claims to show the substantial special forces and military hardware now on the ground, defending Assad's government and fighting the Islamic State.
Those tanks arrived in Syria in September, and have since become a large part of the ongoing fighting in the war-torn country, although the government of President Vladimir Putin has avoided officially recognizing the ground mission.
Russia's embassy in Canada confirmed on Thursday that a request was sent from Putin's government to the still fresh-faced Trudeau administration, asking them to remove the sensitive information that had been published on Canadian servers.
"At this point we can confirm that the Canadian side was duly informed on this matter. The Russian side expects appropriate reaction on this security-related issue," said a spokesperson from the Russian embassy.
Much of the website's sleuthing comes via VK, a Russian social media platform similar to Facebook.
A spokesperson for Canada's foreign affairs ministry confirmed that they received the request from Moscow, and that it was passed on to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The federal police service, in turn, declined to comment, as the investigation was ongoing.
The issue was first highlighted by Ilya Rogachev, who told a conference that "We have already requested the relevant authorities in Canada, asking them to remove the information. The Canadian authorities are still considering [the matter]."
Rogachev is, according to the state-run Sputnik news service, "head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for New Challenges and Threats." Sputnik, considered a mouthpiece for the Russian government, first quoted Rogachev's comments earlier in December.
Requests to remove identifying information of soldiers in-theatre are not uncommon. The Canadian Department of National Defense has infrequently asked domestic and foreign media to pull identifying photographs of Canadian pilots involved in the bombing campaign against IS.
Force protection measures have been especially strict when it comes to the fight against IS, given the militant group's call to target active service members. Countries in the Western coalition have aggressively tried to shield the identities of their fighter pilots, which involves calling news outlets and websites to request they take down identifying photographs.
This isn't the first time social media has been used to identify Russian soldiers in the battlefield. Investigations, including by VICE News and open source investigation outletBellingcat, have regularly published pictures of Russian soldiers in Ukraine.
In Syria, however, Russian fighters have already been the direct targets of militants in the region. One supposed Russian national was beheaded by the Islamic State earlier this month, while the rival al-Nusra Front has offered a bounty for the capture of any Russian soldier.