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Photos of Bearded Armed Men in Ukraine Are No Smoking Gun

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A number of international media outlets have recently circulated what Ukrainian government claimed to have been damning evidence of presence of Russian special forces (spetsnaz) in Eastern Ukraine.

One collection of photos seemed to be particularly convincing. According to Ukraine's interim government, it purports to show one and the same bearded serviceman of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian General Staff in Ukraine's Slovyansk during skirmishes there in 2014 and in Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.

The U.S. government endorsed the evidence as convincing, and leading U.S. media outlets ran stories on it on April 21 with such headlines, as "Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia."

Yet, anyone, who had covered the Russian-Georgian war would recognize the man in the 2008 photo as Khamzat Gairbekov, chief of reconnaissance of GRU's Vostok battalion, which was formed and manned by the Yamadaev brothers after they had switched sides in the second Chechen war.

Needless to say Gairbekov, who has also been known as "Beard," doesn't look like the person pictured in the 2014 photos taken in Ukraine. In fact, given the low resolution of the 2014 photos -- that the Ukrainian government circulated -- one could claim with as great confidence that the person in the 2014 photos is a member of ZZ Top or Duck Dynasty.

As I pointed out in my blog on the same day that New York Times ran Kiev's photo allegations, there are three facts that make it very unlikely that Gairbekov was in Easter Ukraine, posing as a local self-defense activist:

1. The Vostok battalion was disbanded years ago as the Yamadaevs -- who had commanded it -- fell out with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

2. Gairbekov 's beard acquired status of a celebrity of its own thanks to numerous interviews that its owner granted multiple interviews to Russian television channels from locations in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia during the 2008 war.

3. Gairbekov speaks Russian with a heavy Chechen accent.

Given all this, if you were a Russian special forces commander, would you deploy such a well-known guy with such a heavy Chechen accent to Eastern Ukraine to blend in as a pro-Russian activist to native to the region, which is what Moscow insists all the armed men over there are?
Two days after its original "scoop" the New York Times ran what essentially amounted to a correction, entitled "Scrutiny Over Photos Said to Tie Russia Units to Ukraine," but still failed to identify the bearded men in either of the photos.

It was left to TIME's relentless Simon Shuster to find the man pictured in the 2014 photos and interview him. In an interview with Shuster Alexander Mozhayev claimed that he is a Russian citizen who has once served in the army, but got discharged and never visited Georgia.

Kiev's other photographic evidence -- that I have seen -- do not strike me as smoking guns either. Yes, many of the men on those photos are wearing camouflage. But most of their fatigues are different from standard issue 'digital' green camouflage of regular Russian army or olive outfits that GRU's commandos typically to wear on non-winter patrols. Of course, these could be some other Russian agency's special forces. And many Russian military servicemen buy their own combat fatigues for patrols. Some of them even used to wear Adidas or Nike ski hats during winter patrols in Chechnya. So these guys can be wearing just about anything, but my point is their uniforms on this photo do not amount to a smoking gun, especially if you can buy just about any type of army uniforms in online stores, some of which also sell GRU patches for less than $1.

I am not saying there could not be representatives of Russian special forces' in Eastern Ukraine. But if the Ukrainian officials want to prove its case, they'd better come with plausible evidence, not blurry photos featuring different men they want us to believe to be Russian special forces.
The same goes for independent experts who claim to be in possession of 'facts,' as David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey. The two claim in a recent article in Washington Post op-ed that "evidence of Russia's involvement includes the Russian body armor these forces wear and the specialized and expensive Russian weapons they carry, such as AK-74 automatic assault rifles and Dragunov sniper rifles." But reality is that both of these weapons have been exported from Russia to other countries while AK-74's have been also produced in other countries. Ukraine's own military has not shortage of either AK-74s or Dragunovs. The fact that militants in Eastern Ukraine carry world's most popular assault rifle doesn't make them servicemen of Russian special forces. As for the armor -- that some of those militants are photographed as wearing in Eastern Ukraine, some of them are actually wearing armor that appear to be standard-issue for Ukraine's own defunct special police force "Berkut," while others sport knee pads that could be standard issue for Joe the Plumbers, but definitely not for regular army.

In contrast, in Crimea, the armed men -- who ran what U.S. expert Stephen Cimbala would have classified as a classical act of military persuasion -- wore Russian army uniforms, spetsnaz helmets and sported some of Russian special forces' weapons of choice, including Val assault rifles and Vintorez sniper rifles. Also, in Crimea at least one of the Russian servicemen forgot to remove a name tag which was then got photographed while he was patrolling. That allowed the hard-nosed journalists and bloggers to track the man down in his profile Russian social networks, which identified his service and even featured an update on Crimea. That I considered to be pretty close to a smoking gun, but photos I have seen so far from Eastern Ukraine is not.

There have been also videos posted, but again none that I have seen offer conclusive evidence. I do remember an ex-colleague of mine who is now covering events in E. Ukraine pointing out to me that to one possible piece of "video evidence" of Russian special forces storming a Ukrainian police station. But in that video attackers don't even bend when running past windows and how some of them take up positions right in front of the entrance with shots fired -- no professional would do that. Russian special forces usually use special shields and line up one behind another, if it is a storming of a building they have been given time to prepare, or at least they position sideways and not in front of door frame, through which they can be shot.

There have been also audio intercepts circulated by Kiev with claims that it is proof of GRU officers instructing militants in Eastern Ukraine. These might be authentic or they might be noted. Who knows? I certainly don't.

What I do know is that Ukrainian and Russian governments are fighting what Russian experts like to describe as an "information war" and, as someone who covered post-Soviet militaries as a journalist for 15 years, I tend to treat claims and counter-claims made by propagandists with a pound of salt.

Journalists in daily newspapers work under tight deadlines and error is human, as I have learned myself the hard way by erring in my own reporting time and again,. But just because your government endorses some other government's claims as solid evidence, doesn't mean you should rush to rehash those claims and publish them without scrutinizing first, or, if you don't have time to do that, turn to real experts with proven expertise in the field rather than those who claim to be such, especially if you work for the flagship of the international press.