Tag Archives: Bellingcat

Navalny’s Underpants

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I poke fun at the latest allegations concerning the poisoning of Alexei Navalny which appeared in this weekend’s copy of The Sunday Times.

I think that I should make it clear, if it isn’t from reading my article, that I am not making fun of Navalny, nor mocking the idea that he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Rather, I’m mocking some particularly bad journalism, and my point is that articles like that in The Sunday Times actually help the Russian government and its supporters deny that anything untoward happened in the Navalny case. Moreover, this is part of a more general phenomenon in which exaggerated and sometime quite bizarre reporting about Russia by the Western press has the effect of persuading people that everything they read is made-up nonsense, and so makes them prone to conspiracy theories.

The problems with the Sunday Times article go far beyond the few things I pointed out in my piece for RT. I consider it a very poor piece of work. And that’s a shame, as there are serious questions which the Russian government needs to answer about the Navalny case. Today, for instance, Bellingcat has published an investigation purporting to show that various agents of the Russian security service, the FSB, have been following Navalny for years, and that some of these agents have medical and chemical warfare training and have been in contact with a scientist with an interest in organophosphate chemicals.

I’m not in a position to verify Bellingcat’s claims, nor the various assumptions which lie behind them. But I don’t think that you can dismiss them out of hand. They are certainly a much more serious attempt to point the finger of blame at the Kremlin than what The Sunday Times produced. The thing is, though, that you can just imagine Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mariia Zakharova, confronted by a question about the Bellingcat report, cracking a joke about Navalny’s underpants and the ever growing number of supposed attempts on his life, saying that the West’s story keeps changing, and using that to undermine any attempts to claim that there is indeed something worth investigating.

In short, bad journalism has consequences. It needs to be called out. At the same time, though, I would urge readers not to imagine that because some of the claims in the press are ridiculous, everything is. Something smells super fishy in the Navalny case, and it’s not just his underpants.

Peddling certainty

Some of you may remember the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ produced by the British government prior to the invasion of Iraq. This laid out the government’s evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I gave it a read at the time. It was most unconvincing, consisting of numerous statements along the lines that ‘Iraq could have this’, ‘It might have that’, and so on. The Executive Summary, by contrast, was very different. All the caveats had disappeared, to be replaced by an almost 100% certainty that Iraq was knee deep in deadly weapons. The next day when the media reported the dossier, they just reported the Executive Summary. The ‘coulds’, ‘mights’ and ‘possiblys’ in the main text were nowhere to be seen. I knew then that something fishy was going on.

My career in military intelligence was relatively short, but one thing I learnt from it is that intelligence analysts tend towards caution in their assessments. They don’t want to be proven wrong, and so lace their reports with words like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’. This is especially true when providing analysis rather than reporting pure data. Whenever you read something which claims 100% certainty, you should be immediately suspicious.

As regular readers will know, I am of the opinion that there are good reasons to suspect Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yuliia Skripal in Salisbury. The behaviour of the alleged poisoners, Petrov and Boshirov, was, to say the least, odd, and their interview on RT utterly unconvincing. Which is where we come on to the organization Bellingcat, which claims to have identified Boshirov’s real identity.

The first thing to say about Bellingcat’s research is that it is ingenious. Unfortunately, their claims about Petrov’s and Boshirov’s passport applications are unverifiable, as we don’t have access to the originals, and so can’t check want Bellingcat is saying. Still, it’s undoubtedly interesting. Likewise, the organization’s latest investigation, which claims to identify Boshirov as a colonel in the GRU, named Chepiga, deserves to be added to the file as something worth further investigation. I absolutely don’t dismiss this stuff out of hand.

But there’s something which annoys me about Bellingcat nonetheless. It’s the certainty with which it makes its claims, and then the certainty with which those claims are reported by the press. The intitial Bellingcat report on Petrov’s and Boshirov’s alleged passport application stated that the organization’s investigation,

Has confirmed through uncovered passport data that the two Russian nationals identified by UK authorities as prime suspects in the Novichok poisonings on British soil are linked to Russian security services.

Note the word ‘confirmed’. This is incorrect. What the investigation does is provide information to suggest a link between the suspects and Russian intelligence. It doesn’t prove it. If you find the evidence convincing, I’d allow you to say ‘probable’, or to put in some sentence like ‘we assess with a high degree of confidence that,’ or whatever. If you did that, then you’d be writing like a proper intelligence analyst, pointing out to the reader that this is an assessment not a fact, and that there is some uncertainty. But Bellingcat doesn’t do that. It’s ‘confirmed.’

The second Bellingcat report on the subject makes the same error, beginning with the headline ‘Skripal Suspects Confirmed as GRU Operatives’. Note again the word ‘confirmed’ – no doubt there at all. The same happens again with Bellingcat’s latest. This starts with the headline ‘Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga.’ In this case, the word ‘identified’ is categorical. Bellingcat is claiming that this is definitely true, not raising the possibility that it might be so. As the article which follows says,

Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal. … Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga.

But have they established this ‘conclusively’? What they’ve actually done is tracked down a Russian military officer, Colonel Chepiga, and provided some evidence to suggest that he might be in the GRU. They’ve then provided some photos to show that Boshirov looks a bit like Chepiga. But that is absolutely not ‘conclusive’ proof that Boshirov is Chepiga. Again, Bellingcat  is making categorical claims that its evidence doesn’t support. Boshirov may indeed be Chepiga – I don’t rule that out – but it is wrong to say, as Bellingcat does, that on the basis of its evidence one can ‘conclude with certainty’ that the two are the same.

This is especially true as Bellingcat  made no forensic effort to compare the photos of Boshirov and Chepiga. I’m no fan of Craig Murray, who it seems to me has popped far too many red pills but, as you can read here, he at least bothered to run some facial recognition software, and got results which suggest that the two aren’t the same guys at all. I’m not at all qualified to comment on forensic matters. Perhaps further investigation will reveal that the two faces are in fact identical. Or maybe they won’t. I merely raise the issue to say that if you want to make the sort of identification Bellingcat makes you have to do a bit more work before coming out with statements about concluding ‘with certainty’. It’s dishonest reporting.

And it matters. The reason it matters is that the press doesn’t tend to go for nuance. If you make claims of certainty, the press will run with them and repeat them as if they are true. And this is what we saw in the British press following the Bellingcat story:


Observe how all these headlines treat Bellingcat’s claim as proven fact. Now, perhaps further investigation will prove Bellingcat to have been right. I consider it perfectly possible. But as a former intelligence officer, the claims to absolute certainty bug me. Proper reporting requires analysts to make the reader aware of all the underlying assumptions and uncertainties, as well as the additional information which is required to confirm the hypothesis being advanced. Bellingcat doesn’t do any of that. It peddles certainties. And that sort of thing has gotten us into all sorts of trouble in the past. Reader beware.


Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.