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Ukraine's true detective: we took the fight to Russia with digital weapons


When Russia attacked Ukraine, a humble tech startup found itself moving from doing market research and corporate due diligence to waging an information war against the largest nation in the world.

“War came into our house.” That’s how Artem Starosiek describes the outbreak of full hostilities in his native Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24.

But as the tanks and troops poured across the border, Starosiek, the founder of Molfar – an open-source intelligence (OSINT) company that conducts investigative research using online tools to parse data – found himself ideally placed to help his country.

“We could fight using guns as traditional soldiers, or we could take the fight [to the Russians] using digital instruments,” he tells me.

For nine long months, that is what Starosiek and roughly half his research team have been doing: fighting to refute Russian propaganda while the rest of his crew keep working so Molfar can keep the lights on. Even with a full-scale invasion on the doorstep, it seems there is no rest to be had from the day job.

But what a day job. During an interview with the Cybernews YouTube channel, Starosiek shared how he and his colleagues went undercover, exposing Russian soldiers implicated in the Bucha massacre and calling out Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, who he says is a double agent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're part of a global open-source intelligence community, and right now, your focus is investigating alleged war crimes committed by Russians in Ukraine and refuting Russian propaganda. Tell us more about it.

We started in 2019. We’re like a consultant company: we usually do background checks on people, due diligence on companies, and market research. But war came into our house. I thought we could fight using guns as traditional soldiers, or we could take the fight using digital instruments. We decided to do the best that we could. We have certified analysts and put half of them on volunteering activities to help the Ukrainian nation.

Our main work is the destruction of Russian propaganda, analyzing connections of Russia with European Union politicians, and also of war criminals, and fact-checking airstrikes – because Russia is usually shelling Ukrainian soldiers and then accusing Ukraine of it. Our team is based in Dnipro, it's in the middle of Ukraine. We had similar experiences before the war because most of our clients are information technology and space companies from Europe and America, and sometimes governments: they invite us to help them conduct investigations or teach their students.

You obviously saw this Russian threat coming a long time ago and just now mentioned European politicians. Do you feel the EU has been rather slow to respond to Russian aggression?

It was said in lots of European countries that Ukraine would be defeated in three days because they saw that Russia had a powerful military: there is no sense in sending guns and equipment to Ukraine because Ukraine will lose. But Ukraine didn't lose. And I think they saw that we could defend [ourselves] and attack Russia. Also, they saw a lot of cases of how Russia lies. When the Bucha [village massacre] case was revealed, it had a huge influence on Western politicians. When they saw Bucha, they understood what's happening here.

"Our main work is the destruction of Russian propaganda, analyzing connections of Russia with European Union politicians, and also of war criminals, and fact-checking airstrikes."

Artem Starosiek, Ukrainian national and founder of OSINT company Molfar

Obviously, Russia has invested in a very strong disinformation campaign. I covered the InfoRos information operation throughout the Russian Federation, which came from another open-source intelligence outfit based in Paris. Do you think there will ever be opportunities for reconciliation between the two sides? How much of this is a case of Russians doing wrong, and how much of it is them being lied to and effectively brainwashed?

The Russian propaganda machine was really powerful in the first months of the war. I think half of the panic in Ukraine was due to Russian propaganda. They put a lot of information warfare into Ukraine, and other European countries and the US. I saw an investigation by the US State Department about how much money Russia put into European and American politics. It was around 300 million for the year.

But now, they are not as powerful as they thought – because a lot of people opened their eyes and understood what Russia is. They are weak now compared to the start of the war, but still also powerful enough: for example, the case with Amnesty, when they saw that Ukrainian soldiers were hiding near regular people.

You’re talking about the Amnesty report earlier this year that condemned Ukrainian soldiers for conducting operations from civilian areas, putting noncombatants at risk. Do you think Amnesty were misled by the Russians, or do you think they were bad actors in this case?

I think the main problem with the Amnesty report is it didn't say anything about why it happened. Because the Russians in Ukraine are doing much worse things. Probably Ukraine was also doing something bad, but it's really small compared to Russia. And we didn't start this war. This was the main problem with the report. The best approach would have been to show Ukrainian and Russian problems [side by side], but it was just a report about small problems on Ukraine’s side.

Do you think a problem with a lot of these human rights organizations, well-intentioned though they are, is that they're too soft on non-democratic regimes?

Yeah, I think this war showed not only the truth about Russia but also the truth about this institution. Also, your Red Cross: they are much worse than Amnesty. I remember in the first months of the war, when the head of the Red Cross went to Rostov and had a meeting with [Russian foreign minister Sergei] Lavrov, saying they would make a camp for Ukrainian refugees in Rostov. And this news was really painful for the Ukrainian people.

When you say they made a camp for Ukrainian refugees, you mean it was on Russian territory, so you felt they were collaborating with the Russians?

Yes, exactly. They pretended to do this center in Rostov. And for me, it's the same as in the Second World War, building such camps in Germany. It's the same [but] for Ukrainians.

Tell us about your most significant findings since the outbreak of war.

One is our analysis of the Bucha massacre because we know the number of Russian military units in 64 Brigade, which was in Bucha. Our intelligence service published a list of all the people from Russia who were there, it's like 1,600 or so. And we found the relatives, places where they live, all the information about them, their social networks. It was hard work. We spent maybe three months, but I think it was good.

During the war, we are spending a lot of effort to educate people – because Russia is huge and [can field] many more digital soldiers. We have additional courses for our subscribers on our social networks, 17,000 people who are subscribing to our Telegram channel. The main point is to share knowledge, to have many more digital soldiers.

"Our analysis of the Bucha massacre [...] our intelligence service published a list of all the people from Russia who were there, it's like 1,600 or so. We found the relatives, places where they live, all the information about them, their social networks."

Starosiek

In regards to what you said about exposing perpetrators, you got some pushback over that because it covered family members. What would you say to people who accuse you of putting the lives of innocents at risk, their only crime being their relation to the actual perpetrators?

I think everyone in Russia is guilty of this war, because I’ve seen a lot of analytics and questionnaires from Russia, and like 80% of people supported this war. And we’ve listened to a lot of calls when the guys from Russia are speaking with their families, there are a lot of cases where family members support them and say: “You are doing a good thing, and you should loot more stuff and send it here.” So I think all of them are guilty. If there wasn't a war, it would not be ethical to do what we did. But we have a war now.

Do you still do things at Molfar that are not related to war crimes? And also, what are your plans for the future? When this war finally ends, will you take the skills you've developed and use those to serve the international community?

As I said before, we sent half of our employees to volunteer, but the second half is still earning money working with commercial clients. We’re still doing this because we need to pay our employees salaries and support surveillance activities. When the war ends, we will not be publishing personal data on Russians all year, but we will make something about propaganda, investigating some cases because we have experience now. I think we will have a new war in two or three years because Russia doesn’t like to lose.

But if there were to be a lull in hostilities, and someone approached you to help them expose war crimes in another part of the world, is that something you would be open to?

Yes, I think we could do this in any country – not for Russia and North Korea, but if a country is not sanctioned, why not?

"I think everyone in Russia is guilty of this war. We've listened to a lot of calls when the guys from Russia are speaking with their families, there are a lot of cases where family members support them and say: 'You are doing a good thing, and you should loot more stuff and send it here.'"

Starosiek

Have you learned anything through your investigations that you think could never be obtained through mainstream media?

We had a case where we spoke with a guy from the 64 Brigade. We pretended to be a pro-Russian girl who liked him and spoke undercover on our YouTube channel, and he told us a lot about what was happening.

Also, when Russia sent in Marina Ovsyannikova: she worked on the One Russia TV channel and was the face of propaganda. Then she went [on air] with this paper saying Stop The War, and left the country and moved to Ukraine. But I know that she's still working for the Russians. Her main idea was to show that the Russians are ‘good people.’ So we also made a fake interview with her, [pretending to be] journalists from the Ukrainian pro-Russian media. And she told us a lot about her position, and it was a huge hit here.

Marina Ovsyannikova
Marina Ovsyannikova. Screenshot from Reuters video

You’re saying that when Ovsyannikova spoke to you, she was far more pro-Russian in her opinions than she had led the mainstream media to believe?

Yes, yes, yes! The problem is fluctuating data – because Russia is really powerful in its psychological operations and sends lots of fake news that the Ukrainian media regularly publishes. Like when it started to push to our media that our president had conflicts with the head of our army: a lot of people think it's true – it's not, but most of Ukraine’s major media publishes this. It's strange.


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