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How to Locate a “Secret” Pro-Russian Training Camp

August 15, 2014

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Sometimes when geolocating events we can’t rely solely on imagery from sites like Google Earth and Yandex Maps, but instead, we have to utilize several tools and combine multiple sources to come up with an accurate location and complete assessment.

In late May, BBC published a YouTube Video titled “Secret training base for Ukraine’s militias”.  The video highlighted a secret militia camp used to train over 100 new recruits seeking to join the fight in eastern Ukraine.  The video was obviously created in such a way as to not give away its location and lucky for us, giving open source investigators a decent challenge

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The first step to geolocating a location from a video is always to gather as much information about the location to help narrow our search.   As we go through this particular video, we can conclude three major points about the location that will get us started in right direction.

1) The camp is most likely near the city of Luhans’k. In this screenshot, we can see recent graduates from the camp standing in a formation in front of the Luhans’k SBU building.

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2) Its close enough to the water to allow the rebels to go for a refreshing dip between intense training sessions.

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3) Based off the colouring and condition of the shacks in the video, the camp may be located at an old camping ground or children’s camp.

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In order to begin our search for a Luhans’k waterfront camping ground we turn to a Wikimapia.org, an open-content collaborative mapping tool which allows users to mark locations on a map similar to the way they would add information into a Wikipedia page.  Wikimapia gives us the option to search for certain categories such as military bases, schools, hospitals, and yes… even campsites.

Here is a screen shot of the map with the ‘campsite’ category selected.  You can see that we there is a handful of marked locations that are near water.

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Now we can go through each location to see if we can either find a match.  Here is a campsite right along the water, but it doesn’t have a dock which should be visible in satellite imagery.

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The same is true with this one…

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And then there’s this one, “Campsite Yaseny”, located approximately 800 meters from the Russian border. Not only does the location make sense, but you can even see a dock in the water the same shape and size as the one in the video. But due to the lack of recent satellite imagery and tree cover, we cannot verify the location using only imagery.

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Wikimapia provides users with the ability to add details about the location they created.  At this particular location, a user added a note implying the campsite may be the venue for a music festival.

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Here is the text Google translated into English.

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The user also added a website into the details: venichkina.narod.ru.  Let’s investigate further.  This is a screen shot from the home page of the website provided… The title of the page Google translates into”Venichkina Rainbow 2010 held!” From this information we can gather than a music festival may have been held at this campsite in 2010.  Lucky for us, we can assume there are pictures somewhere on the World Wide Web that may allow us to confirm our location.

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We can also assume that someone may post the pictures on the Russian social media site, VKontakte.  So we turn to our trusty friend Google and search for “Веничкина радуга vk.com”.  Most of the time you will get better results by searching in the target language than you would if you search in English. Anyway, here are the results.

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It doesn’t take long to see that the first result is exactly what we were looking for.  This VK page seems to be the music festival’s community page where attendees discuss future/pass festivals and of course, post photos.

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Now we can view the page’s photo albums and see there are several mentioning the festival in 2010.  Let’s take a look and see if any help us verify our location.

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And there it is.  Same paint scheme on the outside.

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Same paint scheme on the inside.

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Same three buildings from a different angle.

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And then there’s the dock that lead us to this location.  I’d say we’ve confirmed the location!

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Even though we don’t always have clear satellite imagery, Streetview, Panoramio photos, or may be looking for a campsite deep in the forest along the Russian border, it is in fact possible to find by combining multiple tools and techniques learned here at Bellingcat.

Extra:

Here is another video posted in June showing heavy weapons training at the same training camp… Just 800 meters from the Russian border.

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