Meet the anonymous internet investigators tracking Russian movements on the Ukrainian border

Russian troops near the town of Soloti, Russia, 30 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, in October 2021.
Russian troops near the town of Soloti, Russia, 30 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, in October 2021. © Maxar, via Google Earth

From behind their computer screens, they're scrutinising each and every move made by the Russian army near the Ukrainian border. They are neither journalists nor intelligence officials – rather, they are everyday citizens who dedicate hours each day to tracking the movements of Russian troops. They even get hold of reliable information before the international media does.

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Since spring 2021, Russia has been deploying troops near the border with Ukraine, in Russia and Belarus as well as in annexed Crimea. To keep track of the situation, some internet users, often anonymous, have been using tools and information freely available on the internet along with open source intelligence (OSINT). Whether by geolocating convoys, tracking military aircraft in real time over the Black Sea or the identifying the models of armoured vehicles, they use these online tools to publish their findings for free. 

ELINT News, the man with more than 100,000 Twitter followers

Nearly 109,000 people follow ELINT News on Twitter. On this account you can find satellite images of Russian camps, breaking news dispatches and a map of Iranian-affiliated armed groups. 

'TikTok is a surprisingly useful platform for finding videos of the Russian army's train movements'

When Russia began amassing troops on the border with Ukraine, ELINT news got to work. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about his process.

In the case of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, it usually starts with a TikTok video. It's a surprisingly useful platform for finding videos of the Russian army's train movements. Once you've geotagged a train video, there are some websites that allow you to find out where these trains departed from or arrived to. You can then use Sentinel [Editor's note: a free satellite image platform] to see where the equipment is parked - using normal images or, more commonly, with SAR [Synthetic Aperture Radar] images. This makes it possible to look through the clouds with a radar, because at the moment, it is winter and you can rarely get good classic satellite images. By comparing several of these images, we can then see an increase or a reduction in the forces' presence in a camp.

Systèmes de défense anti-aériens russes visibles sur un train, 25 janvier 2022. Captures d'écran d'une vidéo TikTok

The person behind ELINT News wants to keep his identity hidden, telling us only that he's a British man in his twenties, studying international relations at university.

It's for privacy. I like to keep what I do online separate from my 'real life', because I'm a university student, and I do it as a hobby on the side. There are often problems with people, who can be annoyed by what we reveal online, especially via satellite images.

Géolocalisation d'un convoi de lance-missiles russes à Koursk en Russie, le 7 février 2022, en recoupant des éléments visuels à partir de Vidéos Twitter et de google Earth.

This is probably one of the first times in history that people are seeing what the Russians are doing so quickly. They are trying their best to hide these movements, doing it at night sometimes, but it's almost impossible to hide it completely when you have over 83 battalions amassed near the Ukrainian border.

Coupsure: Twitter account 'like a second job'

Another internet user is also sharing his findings on the internet under a pseudonym, particularly via Twitter. Followed by more than 34,000 people, the account "Coupsure" was one of the first to detect Russian activity on the Klintsy base, in the Bryansk Oblast, less than 50 kilometres from Ukraine, in December 2021.

Série d'images satellite SAR qui montrent l'apparition de matériel russe (côté droit de l'image, à l'intérieur du quadrilatère) entre le 1er, le 10 et le 22 décembre 2021, Près De Klintsy En Russie. Sur l'image du 10 décembre, la couleur rose est due à l'orientation du satellite. Images Sentinel.

He used complex techniques with online maps and satellite data to come to this conclusion:

I saw some TikTok videos of Russian equipment moving near this town on my Twitter feed. I searched Google Maps to look at Russian bases in the area, but I couldn't find anything. I then used a tool called Overpass Turbo, which extracts data from OpenStreetMap [Editor's note: a collaborative online map]. I did a search for "military zone" near Klintsy with this software and found a place. Finally, I used Sentinel to compare old images of this place with the latest ones available, and I saw that there was movement.

According to Coupsure, internet investigations go hand in hand with the information relayed by the international media, which often come from hidden "security", "diplomatic", or "government" sources.

I think we are complementary and both are necessary at the moment with what is going on. Often we are able to cross-check information from the US government for example, with open source data. And here, with this military deployment, the big media have been working a lot with accounts like mine, ELINT News or Rochan Consulting. The smaller OSINT accounts have been working with the international media. I think there's a certain trust between the two now, and that wasn't always the case before.

Image satellite haute définition du 4 janvier 2022, qui prouve par l'image la découverte des véhicules faites par le compte Coupsure. Image Maxar.

The person behind Coupsure is a Swiss man in his early twenties, whose online work has nothing to do with his day job as a civil engineer. But he wants to make his online investigation work a full-time job. Recently, he helped produce a video for French newspaper Le Monde about the build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine.

My Twitter account is like my second job. I spend a lot of time on it, between four and five hours a day, at the very least. At the beginning I was mainly monitoring, translating the news and things that others were doing. Now, especially with what's happening on the Ukrainian border, I'm trying to concentrate on the OSINT part.