History Wars

Russian soldiers in Ukraine are being hunted using social media

russian soldiers
Ratnik infantry combat system in reconnaissance variant and AFV crew individual protection kit Ratnik-ZK.

Loose lips sink ships. OPSEC. No matter what era you’re from or how you remember to keep troop placements a secret, the goal is to prevent the enemy from knowing where you are or where you’re going. Times have changed and technology changed with it, but somewhere along the way, troops are forgetting the enemy is watching and listening.

In Ukraine, a private company is using the willingness of Russian soldiers to use their phones and post to social media against them, tracking them down on the battlefield and finding concentrations of them in Eastern Ukraine. 

Molfar is a Ukrainian military investigations company that scours social media sources for simple open-source intelligence, freely posted by Russian soldiers. Russians might try to hide their identities while posting to social media, but many forget to turn off common geolocators that reveal the exact location of the photo. 

A photo that is geotagged and posted can let a company like Molfar know where specific units are at any given time. Molfar then analyzes that information, coupled with other open sources and provides the Ukrainian government with as near to real time data as it can get. 

In the United States, there are a few social media sites that dominate the landscape, but outside the U.S. there are many more and they vary by country in popularity. For Russians, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat are secondhand. Most use VKontakte, Odnoklassniki and Viber, along with secure message systems like WhatsApp and Telegram. 

What this means is that there is no shortage of places for interested parties, like Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence and its intelligence agencies, to go looking for open-source information that enemy troops are just handing over to the world. 

ukraine tanks against russian soldiers using social media
Ukrainian tanks during the 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive.

This isn’t the first time Russian soldiers have inadvertently exposed Russia’s schemes or military operations. When Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, it initially claimed it had no military presence in Crimea, but Russian soldiers posting to social media showed that was a blatant lie. These posts helped journalists discover what happened in Crimea after all was said and done.

Now, social media geolocation is being used as an offensive tool, to track down and destroy enemy forces on the battlefield. Molfar began its life as a civilian space agency. After being acquired, it began using its space assets for corporate investigations. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has led its corporate leadership to use its abilities and personnel for a more patriotic purpose: hunting the invaders. 

On top of gathering this kind of intel, the company also teaches the techniques it uses to gather open-source intelligence to Ukrainian military intelligence operatives. The result is the Russia-Ukraine War is the first war where open-source intelligence is having a visible effect on the battlefield. The smallest details gleaned from social media can be combined with information from satellites, journalists and even state-run media to form a more complete picture of where enemy troops are forming and why. It allows them to be targeted by Ukrainian forces. 

In the days following the Crimean Annexation and the revelation of how troops gave away the secret, the Russian military has issued an order that smartphones are no longer allowed for soldiers on duty. Russia has also begun using the same open-source intelligence gathering to target Ukrainian troops. 

None of this has put a dent in the actionable intelligence companies like Molfar are able to provide to the Ukrainian government. The company estimates it puts together at least 15 reports per month on Russian locations.