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Search for clues about Putin's Ukraine plans turns to unlikely source: TikTok

Professional analysts and amateur sleuths have turned to a mix of social media videos and satellite imagery in an attempt to gain insight into the Kremlin’s plans.
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As the world searches for clues into what Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning after massing troops on Ukraine’s border, some have turned to an unlikely source: TikTok.

With Western leaders warning that a Russian invasion could be imminent, professional analysts and amateur sleuths have turned to a mix of social media videos and satellite imagery in an attempt to gain insight into the Kremlin’s plans.

The app, often associated with dancing trends, is now being used to watch a very different sort of choreography: the movement of military forces that could be about to engage in a grave new outbreak of conflict on European soil.

Users across Russia and Belarus have posted a number of videos, which have been verified by NBC News, showing trains loaded with dozens of dark green camouflaged tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment trundling through wintry stations. 

“They are up to something,” one user speculated in a video, which was recorded from a car as it passed a train station in Bryansk, a city southwest of Moscow. In Rechitsa, Belarus — 35 miles from the Ukrainian border — another user posted a video showing tanks covered in snow, mounted on the back of a train as it sits at a platform while passengers watch.

Russia has massed around 125,000 troops at its neighbor’s border, according to U.S. officials, and in recent weeks has deployed forces to Belarus — a close Moscow ally that also borders Ukraine — for what it says are military drills to take place next month.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it plans to invade, but the vast buildup has sparked fears of an imminent attack that could come from multiple fronts.

Vehicles and tanks stationed at a training area near the city of Voronezh, southwestern Russia, on Wednesday.Planet Labs PBC / AP

While TikTok’s rise is relatively recent, the instinct to turn to social media in the face of a crisis — and the use of similar techniques by armchair detectives and internet sleuths — has been a vital tool for navigating events from the Arab Spring to the Jan. 6 riot. 

Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan Consulting group — which specializes in defense analysis of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian armed forces — said that TikTok, along with Instagram, have become the platforms for sharing military-related video. That’s after the government cracked down on what was being shared on Russia’s social networking website VKontakte in 2014 when the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

He said that he had even seen videos on the app from Russian soldiers themselves. “Plenty of times, I’ve been shocked [about what soldiers share online]. I don’t know whether they care or not, or whether they know what they’re doing,” he said.

Using videos, Muzyka matches tactical markings on military vehicles to identify what brigade or regiment it belongs to, and data from train stations to track their locations.

He said that he was particularly shocked at the “scale of the movement of kit” from Russia’s east that meant the military hardware had traveled thousands of miles west. “It’s a complex thing and unprecedented,” Muzyka said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“It seems to me that they have brought, and they continue to bring capabilities to actually conduct a strategic operation against Ukraine,” he added.

Michael Sheldon, a research associate of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, has also been using TikTok to track military equipment that has traveled from Russia’s far east

While Russia and Belarus say the forces are merely gathering for military exercises, the Biden administration has suggested this could be used as a cover. Some analysts believe the scale and the locations of the buildup may support that idea.

“Right now, we’re seeing military equipment — armored fighting vehicles, multiple rocket launchers and tanks — just in open fields. Nowhere near a training area, so that’s kind of suspicious,” Sheldon said.

But he acknowledged that there are limitations to how much information can be pulled from social media and satellite images.

“We’re currently in a moment of a little bit of uncertainty of the actual specifics,” he said. “Although we have a very good general overview of the towns that all this stuff is near, we don’t know exactly where it’s parked all the time.”

While its Western allies sound the alarm, Kyiv has downplayed the immediate Russian threat. On Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the number of troops gathered at the border “at the moment” was “insufficient for a full-scale offensive.”

'Not Russia's style'

But whatever Putin’s intentions, social media is being used not just by outside observers, but also by members of the public in Russia itself to discuss the standoff.

In one video posted Jan. 11 a young railway worker, standing at a level-crossing in Smidovich in Russia’s far east, watched as dozens of military vehicles were brought westward through the town on freight trains.

She did what many young people would do, and uploaded the video to her TikTok account. Almost half a million views later, her video’s comments section has become a lively discussion space where women express concern for their enlisted sons and husbands, and ordinary Russians debate the uncertain future relationship between their country and Ukraine.

Some commenters revealed what military units their friends or family members were part of and speculated about the nature of the forces being sent from the country’s east.

Image: Russian service members hold drills in the Rostov region
Russia has been conducting military drills across its territory, including exercises in the southern Rostov region not far from the Ukrainian border.Sergey Pivovarov / Reuters

“In a modernized urban society, there are not so many families who want to send their boys to a real hot war,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

He also stressed the difference in the Kremlin’s ability to harness public backing between now and eight years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea.

“The authorities can convince the population of the need for war, but they cannot mobilize fierce support and cannot provoke a surge of patriotism similar to 2014.”

Despite this, analysts say, Russia continues to move its equipment and troops toward its neighbor’s border as the standoff with the West goes on.

“I don’t sit in the Kremlin and I don’t know what’s in Putin’s head. Maybe he will wake up one day and say ‘maybe we just pushed it too much,’ and withdraw,” Muzyka said. “But that’s not Russia’s style.”

Like many others, he’ll be watching TikTok for answers.