While Russia battles the spread of the coronavirus, its top leadership has also moved against a perceived threat to security in the military.
A decree signed by President Vladimir Putin has extended the restrictions on the devices that personnel may carry while on active service. The new legislation, published in Russian on a government website, makes special mention of devices which are capable of storing or distributing audio, photo, and video material or geolocation data: in other words, smartphones.
Selfies as a security risk
Like countless millions of us the world over, Russian military personnel have gotten used to carrying smartphones. The trouble is, a selfie with some of your fellow soldiers, posted on social media, can share the kind of information that could once have only been gleaned by the most sophisticated of spying operations.
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The new presidential decree amounts to a tightening of existing legislation, introduced in 2019.
That followed international investigations’ use of material shared by soldiers, and other open sources, to question Russia’s version of events, especially in the war zones of Ukraine and Syria. The website Bellingcat in particular has irritated the Kremlin with its investigations into the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.
Bellingcat has made extensive use of open source material—content which is freely available in the internet—and the Russian Ministry of Defence clearly doesn’t want its personnel either to contribute to that, or unwittingly to give away material which might be useful to another army’s intelligence service, or an enemy.
The Changing Image Of Russia’s Armed Forces
After a time in the 1990s and early 2000s when the Russian military was plagued with poor morale and equipment failures, the armed forces’ image has changed. The Kremlin is keen to promote its military power abroad—just look at Syria—in a way unseen since the Soviet era.
For all that, the Russian army still relies extensively on conscription—Putin signed a decree March 30 calling up 135,000 new recruits—and many of the young men who come to serve will be just as reluctant as young people the world over to part with their smartphones.
It is a risk many armies now have to contend with. Of course, Russia has—despite its consistent denials—been frequently accused by western governments of attempts to hack computer systems, including during the 2016 presidential election. So some may see a certain irony in its taking such care with cyber security.
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