The Ukrainian Government estimates that more than 27,000 Russian troops have been killed since the beginning of the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Despite these staggering losses, Moscow has consistently rejected these numbers and stated that the actual Russian death toll is closer to 1,500 – a figure dramatically at odds with Ukrainian and Western fatality estimates.
The reasons for Moscow’s denials are many, including attempting to keep the domestic Russian population in favor of the war, not wishing to acknowledge that Ukraine had outperformed what Russian strategists had thought possible, and to stave off jitters among Russian soldiers who might soon find themselves part of the invading force.
Volunteers around the world have launched a number of creative efforts to show support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. Some such projects have sought ways to inform the Russian population about why the invasion has been horrific for Ukraine.
Take the hacker collective “Anonymous”. On May 9 when Russia celebrated Victory Day over Nazi Germany in 1945, the collective shared how it had hacked Russian television channels with the message: “The blood of thousands of Ukrainians and hundreds of children is on your hands. TV and the authorities are lying. No to war.”
However, few have looked at ways to persuade Russians that invading Ukraine is not just bad for Ukrainians but is also stunningly bad for Russians.
In the lead up to the Russian invasion, an American who prefers to be referred to as “Spook” (a play on his Twitter handle of @spook_info) began a public information campaign to document evidence that Russia’s narrative of the war is demonstrably false.
Spook’s strategy is to collect, catalog, and make public, thousands of images of destroyed Russian military, killed soldiers, and depictions of crimes against humanity – hoping that it will shock Russians, and in particular potential Russian soldiers, to see that the war has been a strategic failure and that the death toll has been far worse than what Moscow’s reports indicate. The hope is that this would lead to Russia’s military experiencing an existential crisis around whether or not the purported cause is really worth dying for.
Spook hoped to offer evidence to support the true estimates of Russian casualties, and at the same time make it clear to Russian soldiers that attempting to fight in Ukraine would not lead to the easy nor glorious victory being promised by Russian authorities.
Though some have labelled his work as controversial – an assessment that Spook acknowledges as reasonable – his strategy in disproving Moscow’s lies and discouraging potential soldiers has been successful in gaining widespread attention over a relatively short period.
Over a matter of weeks, Spook’s following has grown to include major television channels, famous journalists, diplomats as well as intelligence agencies from around the world. Some of his high-profile followers include White House officials, ministerial-level European officials, and others who seemingly know that although Putin can say that the situation is fine, the photographs and videos speak for themselves.
Spook observes that though it may seem gory or disrespectful to post images of the bodies of dead enemy combatants, it’s impossible to look at the vast sums of evidence that he has documented and to not agree that the war is going far worse for Russia than what Putin has publicly stated.
Moreover, Spook notes that had this type of instantaneous ability to display photos of atrocities been available during the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, it would have been much more likely that the populations of the West would have clamored for a more rapid intervention against those committing genocide and war crimes.
The effectiveness of Spook’s work is hard to gauge, however he cites: “I started my Telegram channel a month ago. It now has 1,382,369 unique views. Some 2% of those are Russians, equating to [more than 27,000] Russians. There are probably more using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and other services. So, I’m hoping that we are stopping some Russian youths from becoming corpses.”
Spook stated that as a longtime member of the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community, he understands that he is working in a niche that has not yet been filled – a unique space where he can change the conversation within Russia about this war. In that respect, his work is about much more than just posting pictures of dead and decaying soldiers on the internet.
In his own words, he states: “If we ignore the atrocities that have occurred then they will happen again and again. I have taken the gloves off and my hands are bloody, but it is my way of trying to keep the world clean.”
Spook’s use of humor in a number of posts has been criticized as tasteless, which Spook fully rejects: “Remember, hours before these photos were taken, these men were intent on murdering Ukrainians. How many of them had raped and robbed the people of Ukraine? My motive is not to mock them – rather it is to lighten the mental trauma of dealing with such dark topics by framing these horrors with humor”.
In fact, Spook’s work has not been easy on his mental health. In an interview, he said: “I have absolutely no morbid fascination. I will often lose sleep because of what I have seen and what I have posted, but I know that if I’m losing sleep, a potential soldier and his family will certainly lose even more. And if that prevents more Russians from going to war, and if it saves the lives of more potential victims in Ukraine, then it is ultimately a public service that I hope will hasten the end to this conflict.”
Spook’s public bravado hides the fact that he is a rather humble man. While his online persona may appear to be sarcastic and brash, like that of a dark stand-up comedian, Spook truly believes that what he is doing is for the public good.
By getting no inherent pleasure from viewing the bodies of soldiers, he is arguably opening a new branch of public intelligence work that has proven especially valuable in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As the influence of OSINT continues to grow, it is likely that more accounts like Spook’s will arise, each finding a niche in which they can help Ukraine to defeat Russia.
At the end of the day, and regardless of the niche, every small bit helps.
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