At the time of this publication, Russia has amassed 190,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, according to US intelligence, in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Despite varying accounts from the front lines and constant posturing in the media from Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Biden, the prospect of war remains an imminent possibility and thankfully not yet a full reality.
In fact, much of the “action” takes place on the internet, as Russian-aligned and Ukrainian nationalist groups use various chat and social media platforms to recruit and fund their operations. This includes the separatist militias “Army of the Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR Army) and “Army of the Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR Army) — pro-Russian rebel factions that control parts of these small Self-declared states, home to over 3.5 million people.
Flashpoint has observed a steady increase in Internet-related activity among many parties involved, which could impact recruitment, as well as hardware and financial support.
Cross-platform recruitment and expansion
Flashpoint has identified numerous accounts belonging to self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist militias, which use social media and chat platforms to recruit volunteers to fight in Donbass. In many of their posts on VK, Telegram and other platforms, recruiters provided contact information. Flashpoint analysts compared the data in its collections to these datasets shared on VK, showing that the same pro-Russian separatist groups that recruit on VK are also recruiting on Telegram.
Flashpoint analysts have observed an increase in recruitment efforts by pro-Russian separatist militias across multiple platforms since mid-October 2021. Analysts have attempted to identify pro-Russian militia recruitment in Flashpoint datasets by using phone numbers associated with pro-Russian separatist groups shared on other platforms, in particular VK. Although the Flashpoint collections predate the first conflict between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, analysts have identified that these contact numbers were shared on Telegram in January 2022.
In addition, analysts have identified an increase in recruitment activity in the “DPR army. Advice to Volunteers” from the VK group around mid-October 2021, showing a potential surge of interest from pro-Russian separatists as journalists first reported the buildup of Russian troops near the border Ukrainian.
On January 20, 2022, the administrator of the Russian and English Telegram channel “Defenders of Donbass / Защитники Донбасса” shared the following message in English (below) and Russian:
Here you will find information about service in the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Tip for volunteers: The shortest contract duration is one year.
Telephones to communicate [Phone numbers redacted]
Previously, on November 10, 2021, the administrator of the VK group “Армия ДНР. Советы добровольцам” (“DPR Army. Tips for Volunteers”) posted a message that used the same contact details, including phone numbers, as the Telegram message shown above.
The militias recruited front-line soldiers, anti-aircraft gunners and barracks guards as well as non-combat positions, such as drivers, medical personnel and mechanics.
The road to Donetsk
Flashpoint identified chat rooms on VK allegedly affiliated with pro-Russian separatist militias with information for recruits on how to travel from various locations in Russia and the surrounding region to Donbass. These VK discussion forums were created several years ago but they remain active. Comment threads are regularly updated with new information – sometimes daily, as is the case on a DPR board – leading Flashpoint analysts to rate with moderate confidence that these discussion forums remain relevant.
An assessment of two discussion forums – one for the DPR, as mentioned above, and another for the LPR – shows recent activity. The initial post on the DPR discussion board came in February 2015, and there are 51 pages of discussions since that initial post, the most recent of which came on February 11, 2022. On January 11, the board administrator provided an updated travel guide.
The LPR discussion forum is not as active, with the most recent post being posted in November 2021.
Group administrators advise potential recruits that methods of travel directly from Russia have been severely restricted due to COVID-19 precautionary measures. Entry to Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) or Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) from Russia is still possible for Russian citizens who hold passports for Belarus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as for DPR and LPR. This also applies to citizens of Ukraine who permanently reside in the territories occupied by the DPR or the LPR.
For citizens of countries and localities not mentioned above, entry into the DPR or LPR is not possible without the express permission of the controlling factions of the DPR or LPR. Recruits can obtain clearance and travel there by applying through a military unit.
Analysts have observed pro-Russian separatist militia VK groups sharing information on reliable transportation methods, information on travel to recruiting posts and contacts within militia groups when recruits reach Donetsk.
Flashpoint analysts have identified individuals allegedly recruiting for the “Azov Battalion” – a neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist Ukrainian paramilitary group that was absorbed into the Ukrainian military in November 2014 – on various platforms, such as Telegram. The majority of recruiter contact information found in Flashpoint’s datasets matches those shared on other online sources, showing that the same groups recruiting for the Azov Battalion on Telegram are also recruiting through other social media platforms. , potentially as part of a centralized effort.
On January 31, a Ukrainian-speaking Telegram channel administrator shared a recruitment ad for the Azov Battalion that included links to popular social media and video-sharing platforms. This ad also included information on three Telegram channels, all of which are believed to be affiliated with the Azov Battalion. Two of these Telegram channels are solely dedicated to recruitment.
Pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian militias are recruiting military and non-military personnel. Analysts have observed that the two groups share recruitment ads that list the skills and talents needed for each position.
On February 1, 2022, the administrator of a Ukrainian-language Telegram channel shared information for a recruitment campaign in Mariupol, Ukraine, seeking to fill the following positions:
- Veterans with combat experience
- Azov Battalion Veterans
- Medical personnel with combat experience
- Doctors and nurses with at least three years of experience
- Truck’s driver
- Tractor drivers
The group’s administrators used Telegram IDs that Flashpoint analysts had previously observed the Azov Battalion used for recruitment.
Moreover, on February 14, a VK user posted in the pro-Russian separatist group “Army of the DPR. Advice for volunteers ”they are recruiting for “military unit 08826”, located in Donetsk. This same VK user claimed that he was recruiting for various ranks, such as officers, and provided the phone number that interested parties could contact.
Use of cryptocurrencies
On January 27, 2022, a user operating under the pseudonym “Defenders of Donbass / Защитники Донбасса” posted on the pro-Russian separatist Telegram channel “Anti-Bandera Task Force” asking for cryptocurrency and providing wallet numbers to support DPR army.
This was the first time Flashpoint analysts observed pro-Russian separatists using cryptocurrency wallets to collect donations from Flashpoint collections or the open web. According to blockchain research, none of the crypto wallets have been used as of the date of this publication. However, the creation of crypto wallets by pro-Russian activists would allow them to quickly receive anonymous funds in the event of a dispute.
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