#ZapadWatch: Russia Mobilizes

Open source evidence reveals Russian military forces en route for Zapad 2017

On September 14, Russia and Belarus will begin one of Russia’s largest planned military exercises, Zapad 2017, on the border of NATO member states. Ahead of the exercise, Russian soldiers have begun posting about it on social media, which identifies military units likely to participate.

On August 15, military units of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army carried out a combat readiness drill in the Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Smolensk, and Ivanovo oblasts. Drills involved tank, motorized arms, artillery, missile, and anti-aircraft missile units, as well as a division of radiation, chemical, and biological protection. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), the aim of the readiness drill was “to determine the ability of troops to perform combat missions for their intended purpose.”

The Russian MoD did not connect the drill with Zapad 2017. However, prior to the drills, on March 20, Belarusian Minister of Defense Andrey Ravkov told Russian news agency TASS that the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army will participate in Zapad 2017.

Russian social media posts confirm that the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army is participating in Zapad 2017. On August 11, a user on the Russian social network VK posted an image of two armed Russian soldiers. @DFRLab has chosen to keep the identity of these and other posters in this report anonymous.

Anonymized screen shot of the VK post, showing the conversation of August 11, 2017.

The text accompanying the image reads:

We are ready for Belarus. One day until departure.

In the comment section, a second user asked:

What is in Belarus?

The first user answered:

A military exercise, Zapad 2017.

The image was geotagged in the village of Mulino, where the 6th Separate Tank Brigade is based (56.3203975,42.935824).

Geotag of the image from VK.

The 6th Separate Tank Brigade has been a part of the 1st Guards Tank Army since November 2014. A digital forensic analysis published by LiveJournal blogger sled_vzayt on September 17, 2015, demonstrates that the 6th Separate Tank Brigade has also participated in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Mobilizing reserve forces

Other evidence from Russian social media sources suggests the Russian MoD already started mobilizing reserve forces.

On August 22, another VK user posted an image of a mobilization order.

Anonymized version of the VK post, showing the mobilization order, address and comment tagging Zapad 2017. The screenshot was taken on August 23; the post was made in the evening of August 22.

The post reads:

The sorting has started here. If I don’t pass by post and military specialty they will send me home. #zapad2017 #vsrf [ed. Armed Forces of Russian Federation] #call-up #exercise

The address on the mobilization order reads: “St. Petergof, ul. Suvorovskaya 1. This is in Old Peterhof, just outside St. Petersburg, at 59.883918, 29.867366.

The next day, on August 23, the same user posted an image of Russian military units lining up on a parade ground.

Anonymized version of the VK post. The screenshot was taken on August 23, less than an hour after the post was made.

The post reads:

Line up))

The image provides a few geographic references. It was taken from a multi-story building, given the way it looks down on the troops through a window. Opposite is a multi-story building with a red roof, a parade ground, a green lawn with trees, and a tank in the corner of the lawn.

Compared with a satellite image of the address provided in the mobilization order, the geographic references match.

The parade-ground image, showing the building and tank in the background. Note also the white markings on the tree and lamp post in front of the tank.
Satellite image of the same address. Note the building, tank, and parade ground, highlighted. (Source: Yandex.Maps)

According to an image posted on Google Maps in July 2017, the area belongs to the Military Institute of Railway Troops and Military Communications.

Note the same building and tank, and the lamp post and white-painted tree just in front of the tank. (Source: Google user Andrey Hohlachev)

The institute shares its address with the St. Petersburg Cadet Corps.

According to the home page of the St. Petersburg Cadet Corps, the St. Petersburg Cadet Missile and Artillery Corps and Military Space Cadet Corps are also located at the facility.

Conclusion

The 6th Separate Tank Brigade under the 1st Guards Tank Army based in Mulino, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, is likely to participate in the Zapad 2017 military exercises. Evidence suggests this brigade fought in the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The Russian Armed Forces has also started mobilizing reserve forces in St. Petersburg, allegedly in preparation for Zapad 2017. Note that reserve forces were mobilized for Zapad 2013.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor the situation as preparations for Zapad 2017 intensify. If you or any other #DigitalSherlocks see anything on the ground or online related to the exercises, join the conversation using the hashtag #ZapadWatch.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.