In the course of a day, when Russia carefully choreographed its justification for sending troops into eastern Ukraine, two strange videos popped up on social media.
One video allegedly showed the Monday shelling of a Russian border post in the Rostov region, which runs along Ukraine’s eastern border.
Another video, which surfaced on Telegram later that day, purportedly showed a group of Ukrainian saboteurs infiltrating Russia from Ukraine, in the same region.
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said that two infantry vehicles were discovered “violating the Ukraine-Russian border in the Rostov region.”
Separately, Russia’s southern military district said, according to state news agency RIA-Novosti, that five people from a sabotage team were “eliminated.”
These alleged incidents were soon fodder for a rarely televised session of Russia’s National Security Council, where President Vladimir Putin invited reports from his inner circle.
The Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Alexander Bortnikov, spoke of “instances of shells hitting the territory of the Russian Federation, primarily in the Rostov region” and said that “two Ukrainian military sabotage groups reached the border with the Russian Federation in Luhansk region, coming from Mariupol.”
Bortnikov said these kinds of incidents were causing a “degradation of the situation” in the separatist territories and that “the Ukrainian security forces” were responsible.
But the videos that surfaced as alleged evidence of those incidents were not quite as advertised by Russian media.
The first video, which allegedly showed a border post inside Russian territory that had been shelled by Ukrainian forces, first appeared on pro-Russian Telegram channels and on RIA-Novosti on Monday morning.
Russia’s FSB gave this account of the incident, saying that at 9:50 a.m. a “projectile was fired from the territory of Ukraine” and destroyed a checkpoint which was “150 meters from the Russian-Ukrainian border.”
Other Russian media muddied the water even further – mentioning locations both in the south, in the direction of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol – and in the north, near the Russian village of Mityakinskaya.
However, a CNN analysis of the two videos confirms that they were filmed at a common location, just a few meters from each other. They were not scenes hundreds of kilometers apart.
Moreover, geolocation shows the two videos were shot at the border between the separatist pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Russia, not in an area on – or close to – the border controlled by Ukrainian forces.
And, as the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience first found, the location for the video is within DPR territory.
In the same location is the second video, as first identified by open source intelligence analyst John Marquee.
The second video first surfaced on a pro-Russian Telegram channel which claims to show helmet footage from a Ukrainian soldier crossing the Russian border. CNN analyzed metadata for the video, but key details appear to have been wiped out.
A third video then surfaced purporting to show a Ukrainian armored vehicle that was used for the alleged incursion shown in the second video. The vehicle was shown after it was destroyed.
However, people were quick to spot inconsistencies in the video.
Oryx, a blog that specializes in global security issues, noted the video featured a BTR-70M APC vehicle which it said was not being used by the Ukrainian army.
Analysts at Janes, a defense intelligence provider, told CNN the vehicle in the video “is likely to be a Russian upgrade” although it is difficult to be totally certain that it is not in Ukrainian service.
The Russians have also reported that one Ukrainian soldier was captured during this alleged incursion, but his identity has not been revealed. For their part, the Ukrainians say all their soldiers are accounted for. None are missing; none were killed at the border.
There is no way to connect the release of the videos with any official or state-run media outlet; they all surfaced from apparently private accounts. But the fact that they emerged very soon after these alleged incidents were reported is mysterious.
One Ukrainian official, who was shown the helmet camera video, described it as “Bollywood.” The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, described the videos as straight out of Russia’s “fake factory.”
But for the Kremlin, and its carefully staged grievances laid out Monday, they served their purpose.