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Bellingcat's path to tracking Russia's invasion of Ukraine

How Bellingcat is unmasking Putin and Russia
How Bellingcat is using social media to track alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine 13:34

The investigation of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine is the biggest project in online data detective team Bellingcat's short career. Eliot Higgins started Bellingcat in 2014. 

"I was not someone with a professional background. I was doing this merely as a hobby," Higgins told Scott Pelley for a report this week on 60 Minutes. "I was working for a company that housed refugees in the U.K. I then worked for a company that manufactured pipes. And then a company that manufactured lingerie. So, I had a wide range of experience but nothing that was directly related to conflict."

On his off-hours, the conflict in Syria fascinated Higgins—especially how social media was exposing atrocities there. But his search for the truth began with a fairy tale. 

"Bellingcat comes from the name of a fable, Belling the Cat. And it's about a group of mice who are very scared of a very large cat," Higgins said. "So, they have a meeting, and they decide to put a bell on the cat's neck. But then they realize that no one knows how to do it, and no one is willing to volunteer to do it. So, what we're teaching people to do is bell the cat."

Higgins belled his first predator in 2014, when Russia went to war in eastern Ukraine. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was high over Ukraine on its way to Asia when a missile brought it down. 298 were killed. Everyone denied responsibility, but Higgins noticed, in the hours before the shootdown, there were many social media posts from bystanders who saw a missile launcher on a flatbed trailer traveling in eastern Ukraine – the area mostly controlled by Russian-backed rebels.

"We started discovering social media posts of people who had seen the missile launcher being transported," Higgins said. "And we also had social media posts from people who said there's a rocket that's just been shot up from this direction. And we could actually use their social media profiles to figure out where they lived."

Earlier posts, capturing images of the missile battery before it had been transported from Russia to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine the day MH17 was shot down, were written by Russian soldiers homesick for family. Higgins found clues in each image—billboards, buildings, road signs—that let him fix the location and time of each post. When he arranged all of the social media into a timeline, he could run the convoy backward to its starting point. 

"Using all those videos we were able to trace it all the way back to the military brigade it came from, the 53rd Air Defense Brigade," Higgins said. "In Russia. And we used their social media profiles, the soldiers, their family members and everyone around them to reconstruct basically their network online which meant we could get their names, their ranks, their photographs, see who was in that convoy and who traveled to the border. So that allowed us to prove that Russia provided the missile launcher that shot down MH-17."

The long pursuit of justice for victims of MH17 | 60 Minutes Archive 13:37

The Dutch government would later indict four men, three Russians and a Ukrainian, for 298 counts of murder, basing some of its investigation on Bellingcat's work. That trial is underway in the Netherlands, although the defendants refused to appear.

After Bellingcat published its findings, Russia imposed a new law. 

"The Russian government passed a specific law banning soldiers from carrying-- mobile devices during hostilities, which is dubbed in Russia 'the Bellingcat law.'" Christo Grozev said.

Grozev is executive director of Bellingcat, leading its staff of 30. His personal focus has been on Russian political assassinations, Bellingcat's next big project. 

Bellingcat's investigation started in 2018 after a Russian defector and his daughter, living in Britain, were poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent. The British had passport photos and false names of two suspects, who they thought had flown from Russia, but nothing else. Grozev knew that Russia's government and commercial records are for sale on an online black market. So, with the fake names, he bought the suspect's passport records.  

The numbers on the two passports were identical, except for the last digit. Grozev said that meant the passports were clearly made one after the other.

Suspicious, Grozev started data mining. Based on official records, it seemed as though both men were born at the age of 32. They didn't have records such as licenses, vehicle ownership, apartment rentals, dating before that time. And there was an unusual stamp on the passport documents.

"There was a big black stamp in the corner of their file which said, 'Do not provide information on this person. In case of a query, call this number,'" Grozev said. "And sure enough, we called that number, and it was the [Russian] Ministry of Defense."

When the Ministry of Defense answered, Grozev knew the would-be assassins were military intelligence agents. To match their faces to their true identities, he spent weeks combing yearbooks and photographs from Russian military academies.

"The end result was that we were able not only to identify the real identities and the affiliation to the military intelligence," Grozev said. "We were able to find a third and a fourth member of the same kill team that the British did not even know about."

Over months, Grozev uncovered a network of Russian hitmen, working throughout Europe, armed with nerve agent from a government lab. Later, he uncovered another network, after buying airline manifests and finding some of the assassins' travel overlapped the campaign stops of Alexei Navalny, the top political opponent of Vladimir Putin. 

"And we found a total of 66 overlaps, way beyond any statistical possibility for a coincidence," Grozev said. "They'd been shadowing him for four years. They started shadowing him the moment he announced his presidential aspirations in 2017. Apparently being on standby for a possible assassination whenever they would get the signal."

A signal came in 2020. On a campaign trip, Navalny was poisoned with that same nerve agent. He recovered in a German hospital, returned to oppose Putin, and is now in prison. Bellingcat's investigation found assassins also tailed other Putin opponents. 

"And we found, for example, that the team that had poisoned Navalny had tailed at a minimum 12 other opposition figures, three of whom had been killed, in fact, poisoned," Grozev said.

"What we have found out is that none of these crimes could have been perpetrated without Vladimir Putin being-- in the know, and not only aware but approving of all of these crimes," Grozev said. "So, in a nutshell, what we found out was that Putin is operating an industrial-scale assassination program on his own people."

Investigations like that are published on Bellingcat's website, which Russia blocked shortly after it invaded Ukraine. Bellingcat is a nonprofit foundation which has trained more than 4,000 journalists and war crime investigators in its techniques of geolocation, verification, and data mining.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2022.

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