The head of a team of Russian cybersleuths who have uncovered what they argue is a much more robust Russian military role in Syria than officially claimed, says the Kremlin seems to be following the "hybrid warfare" playbook perfected in eastern Ukraine.
Activists from the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) said in a report released on November 8 that Russia's military is taking an active role in ground operations of the Syrian army's fight against the opposition, contradicting Kremlin claims that its intervention is limited to air strikes and providing military advisers and equipment.
Ruslan Leviev, who heads CIT, said the scenario is similar to the one the Kremlin used in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has been accused of directly backing separatists fighting Ukrainian forces with arms, weapons, and regular troops, while admitting only that Russian volunteers were taking part.
"There is the 'official part' which no one denies: In Syria it is the bombing campaign; in Ukraine it was the 'volunteers'," Leviev explained in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Then there is the 'unofficial part', which the authorities vehemently deny, but which is obvious: the participation (of Russian forces) in ground operations, the deployment of various heavy weapons. It's this type of "hybrid warfare," where there is the official, open part, and the hidden, unofficial part," Leviev said.
Russia's deployment to Syria -- its largest outside the former Soviet Union in two decades -- has included advanced fighter jets, antiaircraft missile systems, tanks, and armored-personnel carriers.
But much of the Russian weaponry has been positioned -- officially anyway -- at the Latakia air base in western Syria.
Russia first launched air strikes to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's four-year civil war on September 30, but has repeatedly stated it has no intention of launching a ground offensive.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refused to comment on the CIT finding, the latest to leave the Kremlin squirming.
In the past, CIT has used its social-media investigative skills to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine. In late October, CIT was first to report the first confirmed death of a Russian soldier in Syria.
In its latest report, CIT said three serving or former Russian soldiers had been geolocated by photographs on social media in Syria, including locations near Hama, Aleppo, and Homs.
Russia's military jets are based at the base in Latakia, far from where the three men were geolocated.
CIT published screenshots from a social-media account belonging to Ayas Saryg-Ool, a soldier it said served in Russia's 74th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, and from an account belonging to Vladimir Boldyrev, who it suggested was a Russian marine from the 810th Separate Marine Brigade.
It showed both of them had recently posted pictures with geolocation tags in Hama Province. Saryg-Ool's page, which had previously shown him posing with a heavy machine gun and in the cab of what CIT said was an artillery tow truck, was not available as of November 8, the same day CIT issued its report.
CIT also published screenshots from the Instagram page of Ilya Gorelykh, who it said had served in Russia's GRU special forces in the past.
In late October it showed he had uploaded pictures from Aleppo, one of which showed him holding an assault rifle while wearing civilian clothes. Another image of him posing in camouflage with three other armed men was apparently taken in Homs.
The pictures were not available on his account on November 8.
The CIT report follows statements by U.S. security officials and independent experts on November 4 to the Reuters news agency that Russia's military force in Syria has doubled to 4,000 troops.
Leviev told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the growing number of Russian military personnel was being deployed beyond the air base in Latakia, in small groups numbering between 20 and 30.
"It's obvious, the contingent is being increased at other places as well -- for example, the air base in Hama, where, as we've seen, there's been an increase in Russian military jets. All of this is still officially dismissed and denied," Leviev explained.
"We are seeing that our columns of military hardware and soldiers are appearing more and more in those provinces in Syria where [Russia], in principle, should not be very close to sites where heavy fighting is taking place. We've sighted our soldiers and our military hardware in the cities of Hama, Homs, Aleppo, those parts of Latakia Province, where heavy fighting is taking place," Leviev told RFE/RL.
The CIT report seems to reinforce statements by a top U.S. State Department official that Russia had deployed heavy artillery and other ground forces near Homs and Hama.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, also said Moscow's air campaign in Syria was costing between $2 million and $4 million a day. She described the effort, which has reportedly hit civilian areas, as immoral.
While Moscow insists it is hitting Islamic State group targets, U.S. officials said on November 4 that up to 90 percent of Russia's targets have, in fact, been moderate Syrian rebel groups -- including some that have been trained and supplied weaponry by the United States.
Written by RFE/RL's Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service's Mark Krutov.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.