According to Vladimir Putin, there are no Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The Russian government draws a distinction between what it calls volunteers from Russia — fighters with military experience who are not currently enlisted in the Russian armed forces but are fighting in Ukraine by choice — and active servicemen who could only be in Ukraine if the Russian military ordered them to go.
It's an important distinction for the Russian government for a couple of reasons. First of all, Russia's Federation Council, an otherwise powerless chamber of parliament, would have to approve a military intervention in Ukraine. It hasn't.
Secondly, by refusing to admit that it has a direct role in the conflict, the Kremlin can and does regularly claim that Western economic sanctions against Russia are unprovoked and aggressive — and most Russians believe this. It would be much harder for Putin to blame his country's economic problems on the West if it were clear that his government is engaged in an unprovoked aggressive war against its neighbor.
Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last year was popular. Putin's approval ratings got a big boost. The small victories and territorial gains for the pro-Russia forces in the towns and villages of eastern Ukraine have meanwhile sustained a feedback loop of pride and patriotism in Russia that continues to strengthen him at home.
But the truth is that the evidence for Russia's active role in the war in Ukraine is everywhere — on the ground in Ukraine's east, which has been littered with the bodies of Russian citizens and Russian weapons, and on the internet, where thousands of photographs of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine have been posted, often by Russian soldiers themselves.
These soldiers are no different than young adults in the rest of the world, documenting their lives with copious amounts of selfies or vanity shots in Rambo poses that they circulate widely on social media.
Anyone following the Ukrainian conflict on Facebook or Twitter is inundated with a daily dose of screen grabs of such posts, which appear to show both Ukrainian and pro-Russia fighters in eastern Ukraine. These screen grabs get posted with tongue-in-cheek captions like "Russian soldier lost his way and ended up in Ukraine," or, "Ukrainian fascists at it again."
The problem is that a lot of the time the captions aren't accurate and the photos are of something completely different. The picture of the Russian soldier allegedly lost in Ukraine? It's actually a photo taken in Georgia in 2008. The Ukrainian fascist? A neo-Nazi from a suburb of Moscow.
The trickery is such that many people end up not believing anything that comes up in their newsfeed. And with so many fakes floating around, why should they?
Luckily there are people out there who go out of their way to verify these photos, like citizen journalists Eliot Higgins and Aric Toler. They were both enlisted by the Atlantic Council — a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC, that promotes relations between the US and Europe — to help produce a report using open source information to investigate web posts and track Russian military activity in Ukraine. The 33-page report, Hiding in Plain Sight, shows the extent of Russia's involvement by verifying the location of photos of Russian soldiers and equipment by extrapolating from data that is openly available to anyone.
The Kremlin-run media, no surprise, were unimpressed. One fully state-funded outlet, Sputnik News, questioned the objectivity of the Atlantic Council's report, saying, "it's hard to imagine that the think tank doesn't have some form of an agenda, especially when it comes to Russia."
So VICE News decided to try verifying some of the report's findings on its own.
We tracked one soldier who we knew to be currently enlisted in the Russian army, an ethnic Buryat named Bato Dambaev from an area of Russia's Siberian region that borders Mongolia. Dambaev had posted a number of photos of himself in his Russian army uniform on the VK social network, which is basically a Russian Facebook clone.
The difference between our investigation and the Atlantic Council's methodology was that we actually went to the places where the photos had been taken to verify that they were real instead of relying solely on the metadata embedded in the photo files or on visual elements in the photos themselves. We then took our own snapshots in the exact same places to make it easy for anyone to see that we had been to the same places as Dambaev.
We traced his journey 4000 miles from Siberia to the border of Ukraine, where thousands of Russian troops are massed for what the Russian government has for the past year characterized as "military exercises."
Then we traveled into the conflict zone itself to try to locate the site of the key bit of evidence that placed Dambaev in Ukraine: a snapshot taken at a checkpoint of him wearing a non-standard uniform with a white armband but no Russian insignia — attire typical of a volunteer in the pro-Russia rebel forces.
Taken on its own, the photograph of a soldier of Asian appearance standing on some sandbags posing with a rifle in his hand doesn't appear to indicate much.
But if you know, as we discovered, that the picture was taken last February in a town just a few miles down the road from Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia forces achieved a major victory, you start to understand how direct Russian involvement in the conflict has been essential to the armed pro-Russia movement's survival over the past year — and just how readily apparent Russia's part in the fighting really is.
Follow Simon Ostrovsky on Twitter: @SimonOstrovsky