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story.lead_photo.caption A Russian soldier talks on his smartphone in early July during the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament in St. Petersburg.

MOSCOW -- Russian lawmakers voted Tuesday to prohibit the country's troops from using smartphones or recording devices, or posting anything online about their military service, after journalists used soldiers' digital traces to reveal actions the Kremlin wanted to keep secret.

In recent years, pictures, videos and social media posts put online by Russian servicemen contradicted the government's claim that its troops were not fighting in eastern Ukraine and undercut the official line that Russia's role in the Syrian civil war was limited.

The bill's explanatory note specifically mentions Syria, saying that the analysis of Russian actions there revealed that "military servicemen are of special interest to special services of several states, to terrorist and extremist organizations."

"Information, shared by soldiers on the Internet or mass media, is used for informational and psychologic pressure and in separate cases to form a biased assessment of Russia's state policy," said the note, signed by Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov.

The backing of the Defense Ministry means that the bill, passed Tuesday by the lower house of Russia's Parliament, is all but certain to win approval from the upper house. Troops who violate the ban would face disciplinary measures and could be fired from service.

In 2014, multiple reports, relying on social media accounts of soldiers returned from Ukraine, revealed that Russia used regular troops to aid pro-Moscow separatists. The troops discussed the casualties among their fellow servicemen, which President Vladimir Putin later decreed were secret.

A more sensitive embarrassment came later, after a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight was shot down over Ukraine, and journalists from investigative group Bellingcat used online photos to track the movement into Ukraine of the Russian anti-aircraft missile system that destroyed the plane.

Russia still denies any involvement in the incident, but a Dutch criminal investigation, using video and photographic evidence, confirmed that the Russian military supplied the missile.

Using social media, Western investigators also revealed that the deployment of Russian troops in Syria in 2015 happened weeks before the official announcement by the Kremlin. Further reports showed that, in contrast to official statements, Russia used troops on the ground there.

Ruslan Leviev, head of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group that has conducted many investigations into the Kremlin's extensive reach beyond its borders, said that one of the reasons for the new bill is fear of new sanctions against Russia.

"The Russian government believes that many of these investigations were one of the reasons behind the imposition and extension of anti-Russian sanctions," said Leviev, who was also part of the team that claimed to have revealed the real identities of two Russian agents who were accused by British authorities of poisoning a Russian former spy in Salisbury, England, last year.

The Kremlin's urge to hide its international reach might be ill-fated, Leviev said.

"It is impossible to control so many people," some of whom have social media accounts under aliases, he said. "Thanks to the development of digital society, we all leave more and more traces online. It is not difficult to find them."

A Section on 02/20/2019

Print Headline: Bill aims to curb Russian soldiers' online posts

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