KHARKIV, Ukraine — A soldier whose Instagram photos appeared to show that Russian troops were operating covertly in eastern Ukraine says he is facing dishonorable discharge from the army after his Instagram account went viral.
Alexander Sotkin, a communications specialist who posted two Instagram photos that were geotagged inside Ukraine in July, said on Wednesday that he was facing discharge after he became an internet celebrity following a BuzzFeed story about his account.
"It hasn't really finished yet, command says that I'm a faggot who disgraced the unit, they're going to discharge me, plus all this score-settling after all the hype, baaasically there's not much good about it," Sotkin wrote in a private message via VKontakte, the Russian social network similar to Facebook.
The Russian army could not be reached for comment.
Sotkin responded to an initial inquiry when BuzzFeed contacted him about his Instagram account on July 30, but maintained silence — both on private messages and his public social media accounts — for two weeks after the story was published later that day.
On Tuesday, Sotkin broke his silence to ask his Instagram followers to transfer money, saying he was no longer able to provide for his infirm, elderly parents because of his impending discharge.
In comments to the Instagram post, Sotkin denied that his previous posts proved he was inside Ukraine. He wrote that the armored personnel carrier inside which he took the bulk of his selfies had not moved for two months and that the geolocation had placed him 9 miles west of his base — firmly inside Ukrainian territory — by mistake. Instagram's geolocation tool is considered very accurate. A method called "GPS ghosting" would be needed to trick it into thinking he was elsewhere.
During his silence, Sotkin's photos were viewed hundreds of thousands of times online and inspired numerous articles in Russian, Ukrainian, and Western media. Pro-Kremlin outlet LifeNews ran an entire article attempting to debunk BuzzFeed's story by saying that Sotkin had used an obscure slang word for "laptop," rather than claiming to be working on a Buk missile. A Buk missile is what shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month. LifeNews also implied that Instagram had deliberately placed the soldier falsely inside Ukraine.
Sotkin did not answer questions about the machinery he was operating. He subsequently deleted all his comments from his Instagram post.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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