Russia Battles the Media on Troop Desertions

The Russian government fabricated a set of false narratives concerning their justification for invading Ukraine. Their military and intelligence entities utilized maligned social media operations, of overt and covert online proxy media outlets, to inject disinformation into television and radio programming. These tools of the Russian disinformation and propaganda ecosystem remain primarily focused on the broad narratives of Russia’s necessity to invade Ukraine.   

As with any war, there are deserters, defectors, and volunteers. Deserters pose a potentially significant threat to the Russian government justification narratives internationally and, more worrisome for the Russian government, domestically. According to open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources, approximately 20,000 Russian soldiers have defected to Ukraine, 25,000 have refused to sign further contracts beyond their 90-day contracts, and another 13,000 have gone AWOL (absent without leave).  



The Ukrainian government has employed an effective social media campaign broadcasting on various platforms: YouTube, Telegram, and Tik Tok, showing captured Russian soldiers’ stories for the purpose of countering Russian governments perilous justifications for the invasions. This makes up approximately a quarter of the original Russian invasion force. These personnel create digital wakes that erode broader Russian narratives. 

Historically, the Russian response has been denial and suppression of deserters and their stories rather than countering their claims. Therefore, the theory is that the Russian government preferred to avoid going against individual soldiers opting to undermine the source of the reporting alluding to western conspiracies.  It is not the fear of targeting Russian deserters, but rather that their existence in the digital space erodes the broader Russian narratives.  That said, it is interesting to look at the Russian response in two notable instances: 

The Freedom of the Russian Legion

This organization claimed to be a unit of former Russian soldiers.  The group has maintained an active presence on social media and has been promoted by the Ukrainian government.  According to some reports, the Legion receives nearly 300 applications a day, but this has not been verified.  The Russian state-controlled media and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels devoted a significant amount of time proclaiming the organization does not exist and is actually a Ukrainian intelligence fabrication.  These channels buttress their assertions on a lack of information or content, when compared to the content provided by the more western units of the Ukrainian international brigade. This group attracted the ire and attention of the Russian dis- and misinformation campaigns amid a wash of numerous YouTube, Telegram, and TikTok videos that showed that many Russian soldiers who found themselves in Ukraine did not know they were being sent there. These videos provided strong counternarratives to Russia’s efforts to justify their invasion.   

Russian counter efforts often compared and contrasted the Legion’s digital footprint with the larger International Legion, which has more documented evidence of participation in hostilities to include locations such as Irpin, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk. The Moscow Times also cited the report in Harper’s Magazine, which “described how Ukraine did not have the capacity to process and deploy foreign fighters who flocked to the country in the weeks after the invasion, and suggested foreign units were more PR than reality.” 

According to Holod, an independent Russian media group founded by journalists of Meduza, supporters of this claim use the following arguments.  First, they cite the lack of legionnaires participation in actual hostilities, often contrasting it with the more extensive profile of the International legion.  Second, they associate the difficulty of verifying photos and videos, or the “small-scaleness” of video materials is criticized.  The Russians will often cite linguistic features that Russian is not the native language so it is actually a Ukrainian effort and there are not Russian volunteers or deserters. Domestically Russian authorities often detain anti-war activists on allegations of “wanting to join the legion.” 

In August 2022, Sergeant Pavel Filatyev, a deserter from the 56th Guards air assault regiment, fled Russia after publishing on his VKontakte social media page a 141-page account detailing his experiences on the frontline entitled “ZOV.” 

Pavel Filatyev

Filatyev’s memoir, a day-by-day description of how his paratrooper unit was sent to mainland Ukraine from Crimea, entered Kherson and captured the seaport.  He spent 45 days writing his memoirs from the conflict, which provided substantial information to be validated in the OSINT spaces.  This memoir’s extracts provide more substance than the TikTok videos that undermine the Russian dis- and misinformation efforts and critiques of the Russian Legion.

His memoir, ZOV, is named for the tactical markings painted on Russian army vehicles adopted as a pro-war symbol in Russia. Until now, there has been no more detailed, voluntary account from a Russian soldier participating in the invasion of Ukraine. Extracts were published in Russia’s independent press, while Filatyev appeared via video for a televised interview on TV Rain.  Filatyev is the first soldier known to have fled Russia due to opposition to the war or more precisely to be documented to such an extent. 

Russian dis- and misinformation efforts have now turned attempts to blunt Filatyev’s memoirs. His story makes it difficult for the Russian government to attack him as it calls into question the Russian narrative for the invasion. Particularly difficult for the Russian government is Filatyev’s references to “the degradation of the army, including the use of dated kit and vehicles that left Russian soldiers exposed to Ukrainian counterattacks.” He also described a culture of anger and resentment in the army that tears down the facade of total support for the war portrayed in Russian propaganda.

Born into a military family in the southern city of Volgodonsk, Filatyev, 34, spent much of his early 20s in the army. After serving in Chechnya in the late 2000s, he spent nearly a decade as a horse trainer, working for the Russian meat-producing company Miratorg and wealthy clients before reenlisting in 2021 for financial reasons, he said. 

Filatyev posing with a rifle








Our Assessment

Filatyev and deserters like him present a significant problem for the Russian government in that they provide details and photos of themselves to establish their authenticity, as well as their accounts of events on the ground that challenge the Russian narrative’s veracity.  It is likely that they will elect not to mention these deserters in the pro-Russian Telegram and social media apparatus. 

Filatyev’s memoirs are likely going to be used to understand Russian tactics and Information campaigns for months to come. In the near term, they expose the existence of Russian dis- and misinformation strategies. OSINT analysts will continue to monitor for additional memories and social media posts from defectors. Early identification of these events will allow Overwatch analysts to quickly identify and highlight Russians’ counternarrative on each desertion.  

An Unsealed Indictment Unravels How Russian Informants Leverage American Fracture Points

On July 29, 2022, the United States Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging Russian national Alexander Viktorovich Ionov with acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of Russia, and conspiring to have “U.S. Citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government” between December 2014 and March 2022. While the maximum penalty for this crime is five years of imprisonment, the implications of this conspiracy are significant, as the indictment alleges that Ionov was in contact with, and working on behalf of, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) members during this period. Ionov, and his various affiliated organizations, have since been sanctioned by the United States for his activity. 

This week’s Overwatch investigates the conspiring activities of Ionov and U.S. Political Groups 1, 2, and 3, as listed in the unsealed indictment. Subsequent actions by the United States government, along with context clues within the indictment, allow analysts to identify the groups conspiring as agents of the Russian government, as well as understand their structure, content, and strategy of Russian influence operations in the United States. 

Alexander Ionov and the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia 

Alexander Ionov’s website describes him as the President of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (ADR) since 2011. The ADR is described as “a socio-political movement that advocates ensuring the full sovereignty of the states of the world and, above all, the sovereignty of Russia itself as an independent player in the political, economic and cultural arena of the world.” Additionally, according to his website, Ionov is involved in several other businesses and groups, including being a member of the Presidium of All-Union Organization “Officers of Russia,” a Member of the Coordinating Council of the Anti-Maidan Movement, and Vice President of the International Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, among others. Interestingly, the “Anti-Maidan Movement” is an anti-Ukrainian, pro-Russian Republic group that was started in response to Ukrainian action against separatists and Russian activity in the east of the country, which culminated in the ongoing war today. 

Ionov’s activity has not been contained to separatist and left-leaning movements as the indictment would seem to convey; his interest also breached into traditionally right-leaning, non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, in 2018, Ionov and the ADR started a fund for Russian agent Maria Butina, who had been charged with acting as an unregistered agent for the Russian government. Butina had used the NRA (National Rifle Association) to establish back channels to American political figures and power brokers. This action denotes a broader coalition between unregistered foreign agents working on behalf of Russia, not defined by ideology but by a shared goal of Russian influence.  

For this brief, analysts focused on activities associated with the ADR. The group’s website shows “honorary members,” such as the Dictator of Syria, Bashar Hafez Al-Assad, and the President of Iran from 2005-2013, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  

ADR Honorary Members

Further review of the site indicates little activity since 2015, but that is not a reflection of the organization’s activities or the activities of Ionov.  

Ionov and the ADR hosted conferences called: the Dialogue of Nations – the right to self-determination and constructing a multipolar world in 2015, 2016, and 2020. In 2015 and 2016, the conferences were in-person events held in Russia, while the 2020 event was virtual due to COVID. Conference participants ranged from Texas Separatists, Puerto Rican Separatists, Eastern Ukrainian Separatists, and Northern Irish political groups looking to break away from the United Kingdom and rejoin Ireland. A post from Alexander Ionov’s Facebook page includes a list of 19 speakers for the 2020 conference. Among the participants are U.S. Political Group 1, 2, and 3 leaders.  

During the first conference in 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) indictment alleges that Ionov paid for and first established, contact with the Uhuru Movement. Ionov likely established his connection to the Yes, California movement at one of these annual events.  

Since the indictment and raid on the Uhuru, recent posts by Ionov have focused on combatting statements made in the indictment and defending the Uhuru Movement. Examples of these posts can be seen below, attempting to spin the arrests as an unjust targeting of African Americans by the FBI.  


social post hands off uhuru

Having gained some understanding of how Ionov first established contact with the unnamed groups in question, Overwatch analysts found it pertinent to explore these groups’ backgrounds in further detail and survey their digital content.  


U.S. Political Group 1 is described in the indictment as a group out of St. Petersburg, Florida. The indictment alleges that Ionov helped the group facilitate a trip to Russia in 2015, exercise direction and control over senior members for seven years, fund protests, and most shockingly, fund and help supervise 2017 and 2019 local elections in which the group ran candidates.  

The group has since been identified as the Uhuru movement, an African Internationalist Movement founded in 1972 and tied to the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri and St. Petersburg, Florida. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) subsequently raided this group, and key leaders were arrested the same day the indictment was released.  

The Uhuru movement is an international organization and a branch of the African People’s Socialist Party, led by chairman Omali Yeshitela, also known as Joe Waller. The organization’s website lists the movement’s goal as “…uniting African people as one people for liberation, social justice, self-reliance, and economic development.” Even though the organization has been around since the 1970s, a review of the group’s digital content shows that it only began publishing and pushing content overtly friendly to Russian interests starting in 2015, when the now chairman Omar Yeshitela went to the first Dialogue of Nations conference hosted by Ionov.  

Early posts between 2015 and 2018 on Yeshitela’s personal Facebook page and his organization’s Twitter and Facebook accounts feature content that juxtaposes the lack of police brutality against Africans in Russia compared to the U.S., features multiple pictures with Ionov, and posts declaring solidarity with the ADR.

More recent content, specifically since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, has overwhelmingly defended Russian action. These posts criticized North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), painted Russian aggression as a defensive war, and played into the narrative that Ukrainian fighters are U.S.backed Nazis targeting Africans and Russians. Outside of Facebook, many of these narratives have been pushed during livestreams published on the Groups YouTube channel, The Burning Spear TV. Ionov has made multiple appearances on the channel, including an interview with Ionov on March 13, 2022. 

This content has even been shared to other non-related groups, such as the Dr. M.L.K. March For Racial Equality, Economic Justice, and Peace Facebook group, most likely to spread Russian-backed narratives to a broader Africa-American audience. 

Since the indictment and arrest, the Uhuru Movement has posted multiple times on social media, demanding the FBI back off their organization. A press conference after the arrests featured the organization’s spokesperson reaffirming the group’s support of Russia but refused to comment on whether they received illegal funds from Ionov. 

Black Hammer 

U.S. Political Group 2 is described as an Atlanta-based political group for whom Ionov allegedly sent money to protest Meta/Facebook for their restrictions on Russian posters. They were identified as the Black Hammer Movement, a cult-like offshoot of the Uhuru Movement.  

Black Hammer was started by the Uhuru’s former Secretary General Gazi Kodzo. Before his time at Uhuru, analysts identified that Kodzo went by the alias Smiletone, posting blogs and photos about his life and various parties in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Kodzo’s first overtly political post discovered by analysts was in 2012 and focused on the perceived disparity between the money given to Israel and the lack of money given to African Americans by the U.S. government. Between 2014 and 2015, Kodzo moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and became involved in the Uhuru movement. During his time with Uhuru, Kodzo was active in the St. Petersburg area, protesting at council meetings, organizing marches supporting Black Lives Matter, and posting videos protesting police brutality. Kodzo’s affiliation with the group officially ended in 2018, and according to videos posted by Kodzo, he separated due to corruption and misuse of funds within the Uhuru Movement. 

After leaving Uhuru, Kodzo started the Black Hammer organization in Atlanta, and the group devolved into a cult-like organization, with Kodzo as its leader. The group went on to run digital campaigns against police brutality and injustices faced by African Americans to bolster their brand and drive fundraising and recruitment. Many of these campaigns were meant to manufacture controversy through hashtags such as #2BFrank, belittling the tragedy of the Holocaust. Additionally, the group attempted to start a breakaway city in Colorado called Hammer City, only to reveal that the group was squatting on the land after failing to purchase the property officially. 

In addition to these campaigns, Black Hammer also made several posts supporting Russia and Russian action in Ukraine. In a video titled “Happy Victory Day to Russia!” posted to Commander Gazi’s YouTube Channel on May 9, 2022, viewers can see members of Black Hammer waving a Russian flag in front of the CNN building in Atlanta, Georgia. A second video was posted to the channel on May 22, 2022, featuring Black Hammer members protesting in front of the Meta building in California, waving a Russian flag again. On Facebook, Kodzo made a post in April claiming Vladimir Putin had shouted out the group after they formed a “Z” in support of the Russian military and their action in Ukraine. This story was picked up by Russian State media, suggesting some level of coordination.  


















Four months later, Kodzo and another member of Black Hammer were arrested on July 21, 2022, for charges not associated with the Ionov indictment. Since the arrest and the indictment of Ionov, Black Hammer social media has continued to consistently post statements by Kodzo from jail and posts supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.







Yes, California 

Finally, U.S. Political Group 3 is described as a California-based group whose goal is the secession of California from the United States. This group is easily identified as the Yes, California Movement. The indictment alleges that Ionov helped fund a February 2018 protest by the group in Sacramento, California. 

Yes, California is an organization started around 2015 by right-wing activist turned California Secessionist, Louis J. Marinelli. Marinelli first appeared on the political scene in 2015 when he ran for California State Assembly on a platform of California Independence for the United States. Before that, Marinelli had lived and studied in Russia since 2006, moving back sometime in the early 2010s. Marinelli has since moved back to Russia, though he remains active in the Yes, California organization acting as their “ambassador” and representative in the country.  

The movement and Marinelli have been featured in news stories posted to Russia Today, a Russian State-controlled new organization funded by the Russian government. Stories featuring the group, often in conjunction with Texas Separatist groups, started as early as 2016 and seemed to have continued up to about 2018. This, along with Marinelli’s Russian background, his and the group’s participation in Ionov’s conferences, and the opening of a “California Embassy” in Russia, would be enough to begin posing questions about Russia’s interest and influence when it comes to the organization. Still, reviewing the content paints an even stronger association between the group and Russian interests.  

The group’s content regarding Russia displays a pattern of support for Russian action against Ukraine and general participation in Russian-backed events. In 2020, for example, the group tweeted that it would be attending the Dialogue of People’s conference, noting that the Donetsk People’s Republic was organizing it. Around the same time, the group’s Facebook page supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, pointing out U.S. hypocrisy after it seized California and other territories during the Mexican-American War.  

Yes, California’s support of Russian objectives did not limit itself to support only Russian action in Crimea. In 2021 the group tweeted that Martinelli was attending a conference led by the Union of Yemeni Citizens in Moscow, as well as a tweet and video criticizing Western Sanctions against Russia.








Overwatch analysts could not locate further tweets on Yes, California associated with Russia or Russian narratives, and analysts could not locate any statement following the indictment.  

Our Assessment 

As a result of the investigation outlined above, Overwatch assesses Russian information operations in the United States span across group type, goal, political affiliation, age, and structure. Russian influence seems to withstand internal group fracture, with group offshoots continuing their relationship with Russian agents. Further, we assess that Russian influence operations will continue targeting existing fracture points in U.S. society. Whether those fractures are economic, social, or political does not matter as they all contribute to the overall goal of instability and, as a byproduct, paralysis when countering foreign adversaries.  

Additionally, while national election interference often makes headlines, interference in smaller local elections rarely seems to be a concern when talking about potential interference. However, within these smaller ecosystems, information operations can be most effective in terms of results and swinging local elections. This is because an information operation contained in a niche group or locale can go mainstream somewhat organically, adding a level of subterfuge that would not otherwise be present in a more extensive information operation.  

Finally, we assess that because of this indictment and potential arrests made in the wake of it; we will likely see Russian information operations become more covert in nature, eschewing high-profile influencers like Ionov for more covert means of contact with a targeted group. 


Assessing the Crisis in Ukraine Through the Eyes of Locals and Intelligence Professionals

On Wednesday, January 26, 2022, the U.S. provided its official written response to the Russian state’s list of security demands. While the documents weren’t made public, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. did not agree to Russia’s request about Ukraine never joining NATO or the membership of other post-Soviet bloc states.

Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron the U.S. ignored our demands.

Russian Senator Vladimir Dzhabarov, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, provided more detail about where the Russian state’s thinking is, saying the U.S. is heading for a “direct confrontation.”

For this brief, Overwatch analysts focused on Russia’s continued aggression on the world stage and spoke with multiple sources in Ukraine with backgrounds in the military, human rights, and law. Their comments provide an on the ground perspective of what is happening in Ukraine and how Ukrainians are preparing should Russia invade.

In addition, we spoke to intelligence professionals in the U.S. with expertise on Russia and asked them about their primary concerns.


Since our January 13, 2022, brief, the Russian state has only increased the military buildup on the Russia/Ukraine border and its military assets in Belarus. Additionally, with our first brief on Russia/Ukraine, Overwatch analysts assessed that should Russia invade Ukraine, they would likely target U.S. entities with cyber-attacks, and spread disinformation in the digital space.

On January 26, 2022, the Department of Homeland Security warned that Russia could consider a cyber-attack against the U.S. if they felt a threat to their long-term national security. According to DHS, these attacks range from “low level denial of service to more destructive attacks against critical infrastructure.”

Russian disinformation in the digital space continues to increase. Here are some examples of what we have seen thus far.

On January 27, 2022, Tsargard TV owner Konstanin Malofeev, sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury in 2014 for funding armed groups in Ukraine, said that the U.S. is creating false information about Russian aggression.

Image Credit: Screenshot/

On January 28, 2022, RT (Russian state media) claimed that an anonymous EU source said that NATO knows Russia doesn’t have enough forces on the Russia/Ukraine border to invade, despite the U.S. assessment that Russia could invade Ukraine with its troop numbers.

Further, pro-Russian accounts on social media are pushing narratives that the U.S. is “sacrificing” Ukraine and that NATO needs war to survive.

In our January 13, 2022, brief we also assessed that Russia would likely help the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk’s People’s Republic (LPR) should an invasion occur. Overwatch research identified an interview between anti-American news anchor, Vladimir Soloviev, and the DPR’s Deputy Chief of the People’s Militia Directorate, Eduard Basurin, where Basurin claims that the Russian state is going to supply it weapons that it needs, including air defense and electronic warfare systems, artillery fire systems, and reconnaissance equipment.

Further, on January 29, 2022, Viktor Vodolatsky, a member of the Russia’s State Duma, called on people in Donbas, the frontline of the war in Ukraine, to join the Russian military. Vodolatsky said, “If Russian citizens residing in the (territories) want to join the Russian Armed Forces, the Rostov regional military commissariat will register and draft them.”


On Friday, January 28, 2022, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that Russia now has the capability to invade Ukraine.

On Saturday, January 29, 2022, U.S. officials reported that Russia has moved blood supplies to the Ukrainian border, which would help them sustain a long-term conflict.

In addition, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said that several U.S. military units had been placed on heightened preparedness should Russia move into Ukraine. The units include elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, 18th Airborne Corps, 101st Airborne Division, and Fourth Infantry Division.

President Biden also said he is also moving a small number of troops to Eastern Europe and NATO countries.


Roman Kulesha volunteered for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in 2014, serving most of his time as a Company Commander.

Image Credit: Roman Kulesha

Kulesha is concerned about reports of medical support on the Russian/Ukrainian border. He said, “I think this is an indicator of a possible start. Because the wounded can be evacuated by air, and they can be taken to the evacuation point by battalion medics. They can also expect to use the seized hospital buildings in the first settlements. We must look at the number and type of armored vehicles and the transfer of troops from the opposite end of the map to our borders. When we do, we see clusters of both heavy groups for storming settlements and opposing our troops and light groups for detours and maneuvers.”

Kulesha also explained how Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations operates in Donbas, transporting medical supplies and weapons. He told Overwatch that an increase in numbers in Donbas from Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations could suggest that things are escalating.

Additionally, Kulesha believes Belarus could join a potential conflict. “There is also a risk that Belarus will also take part on Russia’s side. Lukashenko is very friendly with Russia.”

David Plaster is a U.S. Army veteran and ex-pat who has lived in Ukraine for ten years. Since 2014, Plaster has trained Ukraine’s National Guard, Special Operations, Armed Forces, and Volunteers, now Territorial Defense Forces.

Image Credit: David Plaster

Plaster does see an escalation in the future. But he says if Russia does invade, it will have a guerilla war on its hands.

“There will be some escalation, but I’m not sure where. A few days ago, a guy in the National Guard of Ukraine took a bunch of weapons and killed several people. The Chief of the National Guard resigned over the incident,” Plaster said.

He supports the possibility of a false flag attack, which matches the U.K.’s report from January. “There could be a false flag attack by the Russians. Russia is going to react to something, whether it is a real or perceived threat.”

He said that a sign that things are getting more serious would be the mobilization of Ukraine’s reservists.

Plaster also shared information about Ukraine’s civilian defense force. “We have over 100,000 members of our civilian defense forces. These are veterans, IT workers, business leaders, single moms, farmers, and hunters, with a strong desire to protect their country. They are learning how to shoot, provide medical support, and other soldiering skills. And the force is growing larger every day.”

Plaster added, “Despite the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine 8 years ago, Ukrainians aren’t looking to “start” a new fight, but she is prepared to finish it.”

Olha Reshetylova is a journalist and human rights activist in Ukraine.

Image Credit: Olha Reshetylova

Reshetylova said that the police are getting fake threats on schools and hospitals daily. “Every day, police get dozens of mine notifications of schools, hospitals all over Ukraine.”

Reshetylova told us that Ukraine has lived with knowledge of additional Russian aggression for the last eight years. “For the last eight years Ukrainians live with the knowledge that invasion will happen, earlier or later That’s why there is no fear or big panic. But the feelings are not pleasant as well. It is uncomfortable to realize that someone behind our back decides whether we live or not, will we have civilized state or not.”

Iryna Koida lives in one of the border regions of Ukraine. She works as an educator and member of an NGO.

Koida said that there is anxiety in her area about the Russian military buildup. When we asked her if her more rural area would resist a Russian invasion, she said, “Rural regions are much more passive. But in case of invasion, we would have a massive underground movement.”

Joe Place is a British ex-pat and Ph.D. student.

Place said he is prepared for the worst but remains calm about the situation. He shared the general sentiment in Ukraine about the issue. “So, I’ve encountered three sentiments. One is, eh, this has happened before. I can’t do much anyway, so whatever. Two, is I am prepared but calm, and three, is “f*** war is coming. I’m strapped and ready, but it’s the minority. Two is the majority, I’d say.”

Oleg Berezuik is the Head of the Law Society of Ukraine and a former member of the Soviet Armed Forces.

Image Credit: Oleg Berezuik

Berezuik said, “At one time I served in the airborne troops, back in Soviet times, so I have a pretty good idea of ​​the Russian armed forces. In short, in their current state, they are not able to conquer Ukraine, much less keep it. In 2014, we had a much worse situation than today.”

“Next. Russian propaganda in Ukraine works almost with impunity. The measures taken by the president are ineffective. The problem is the lack of staff with relevant experience who could organize counteraction.”

“As for Ukraine’s readiness for a wider invasion, in the absence of the competence of the current heads of state, there are risks of seizing Ukraine by special services rather than military.”


Frank Montoya Jr. Is a former FBI Special Agent in Charge in Honolulu and Seattle, and NCIX, National Counterintelligence Executive to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, now Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. In his role as NCIX, Montoya Jr. was the head of counterintelligence for the U.S. government.

Image Credit: Frank Montoya Jr.

Montoya Jr. shared his top concern about the Russia/Ukraine border situation. “No question, there is always a possibility that a Russian invasion leads to a wider armed conflict with NATO. Several NATO members share borders with Ukraine. And three that share a common border with Russia and Belarus, a close Russian ally. It wouldn’t be the first time in European history that a domino effect has swept Europe as the result of a nation-on-nation confrontation.”

Montoya Jr. also shared his view on what kind of escalation would benefit Russia. “The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that the U.S. and NATO written responses to Russia’s concerns about eastward expansion failed to address their concerns. That can be viewed as the latest Russian “justification”—at least in the old days they tried to make the saber-rattling sound legitimate—for some kind of armed intervention.”

“But even a limited act—an incursion, for instance will likely escalate. It appears the Ukrainians are better armed and trained than when the Russians first went into the Donbas and if they manage to embarrass the Russians, it seems likely, especially after all his posturing, that Putin will have to escalate…to save face with his domestic audience, if for no other reason.  By the same token, if Putin’s forces smash initial Ukrainian opposition, who is to say he’ll stop at the Donbas? Why not go on to Kyiv? And what will NATO do? Especially if Poland, Romania, or the Baltic nations begin to panic? The biggest x-factor in all of this is Putin himself. Does he even know what he’s going to do?”

Josh Manning is a former Defense Intelligence Agency and United States European Command analyst.

Image Credit: Josh Manning

In our interview with Mr. Manning, Overwatch asked him what his biggest concern is with the military buildup on the Russia/Ukraine border.

Manning said, “The number of assets going into Belarus for ‘military exercises.’ They are perfectly parked for a combined arms operation into Kyiv. Russian airborne forces are the vanguard of the military. Best trained major force and really experienced. We watched them deploy early to areas north of Georgia in 2008 as a major indicator.”

“There are also forces coming into the Central Military District. So, to draw down troops from the capital, suggests they are tossing the whole kitchen sink into the Ukraine area. They are sending guys who were fighting in Syria, Donbas, and Georgia, which shows they are sending people with combat experience.”


The Russian state may respond to the U.S. deploying a small number of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and NATO countries by adding more military assets on the border with Ukraine, or Belarus, escalating the situation, or with rhetoric, criticizing the decision on the international stage. Any further Russian military buildup will likely result in the U.S. placing additional military assets into NATO countries. As Russia demands that NATO decrease its presence in Eastern Europe, strengthening NATO will lead to Russia taking a more aggressive stance against the U.S., further deteriorating already fragile relations between both countries.

The U.S., the U.K., France, Spain, Poland and Estonia — all members of NATO — are providing military support to Ukraine. The continued military support from NATO countries, in addition to increases in security in NATO countries, as we assessed would take place with our January 13, 2022, brief, could potentially deter the Russian state from launching an invasion of Ukraine. Should Putin invade, Overwatch foresees Russian state media like RT, TASS, and Ria Novosti and Russian troll farms (Internet activists working on behalf of a foreign government to manipulate public opinions) will flood the digital space with disinformation about the U.S. and NATO, promoting conspiracy theories about the U.S. government, U.S. military, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Additionally, the call from Russian politicians for Ukrainians in Donbas to join the Russian military could potentially lead to more conflict in the region, as both the LPR and DPR are supportive of the Russian state. As the State Duma voted to recognize the LPR and DPR in February 2022, Overwatch analysts assess that Russia may still annex one of the self-proclaimed states.

The sentiment in Ukraine is that Ukrainians are more prepared militarily for an invasion than in 2014. Should Russia invade, they would have to fight against Ukraine’s military, partly trained by the U.S. and European partners, in addition to a growing civilian defense force. The Russian state would face significant opposition in both rural and populated areas. The potential conflict would lead to many Russian casualties, with Russian forces facing a prolonged guerilla war.

Any further buildup of medical support or emergency services from the Russian state on the border or in Donbas could indicate that the Russian military is planning a more extensive operation in Ukraine.

The Russian state will continue to target the U.S. with disinformation regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Additionally, as assessed in our previous brief on Russia/Ukraine, cyber-attacks against the U.S. and its partners are likely, should Russia invade Ukraine or with any further escalation between the U.S. and Russia occur.

Unveiling Evan Neumann: One of The Most Wanted Capitol Rioters and His Peculiar Ties to Russia

Photo Credit: TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On November 20, 2021, RT, (Russian-state media) interviewed Capitol Rioter Evan Neumann. Neumann, 49, is facing fourteen criminal counts for his involvement on January 6, 2021, in the Capitol Riots, the most severe among them — assaulting a police officer, engaging in physical violence on restricted grounds, and obstruction of law enforcement. [1]  

While most individuals who were arrested for their actions on January 6, 2021, remained in the U.S., Neumann instead fled to Eastern Europe. Mr. Neumann gave his interview to RT [2] while in Belarus, a dictatorship in Eastern Europe that does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S. Mr. Neumann also interviewed with Belarusian-state TV and shared more details about being on the run. 

According to Neumann, he “traveled by train to Switzerland, boarded a car and left for Germany, then Poland, and by March 13, he was in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.” However, Mr. Neumann’s time in Ukraine was short-lived, claiming he spotted surveillance from the SBU (Ukrainian Intelligence), and from there, he decided to leave Ukraine for Belarus. 

Considering Mr. Neumann’s unusual behavior following the Capitol Riots and appearance on Russian and Belarusian state media, our analysts chose to investigate him further. The purpose of our investigation was to see if Mr. Neumann had any possible connections to Russia and, if possible, gather more information about his actions and motives on January 6, 2021. 

Investigative research on Mr. Neumann determined that he does have business interests in Russia and Ukraine. Additionally, several years before the riots, he openly considered how he would illegally hide his money if he were to find himself in a situation where his finances were under threat. 

According to public records, Mr. Neumann started multiple businesses in the past, with only one currently active. The company, Aslaen Vaugn, makes custom high-end handbags. [3] Research into Aslaen Vaugn shows that their handbags appeared at a fashion show in Moscow at the Wheel of Time Restaurant on September 14, 2020. [4] Anastasia, a New York-based fashion magazine, sponsored the event. High-profile Russian military officers and recipients of the Hero of the Russian Federation – Major General Sergei Anatolyevich Lipovoi and Andrey Nikolaevich Zvyagintsev, were at the event.  

The CEO of Anastasia is Ksenia Bychenkova, a California-based model. According to Mr. Neumann’s Venmo history, he paid Ms. Bychenkova for “social media services.” Ms. Bychenkova goes by the alias, Anastasia Xena, on her Instagram profiles. [5] Analysts could not determine anything further about the relationship between Mr. Neumann and Ms. Bychenkova or her possible connections to Russian military officers.

Our investigative team also discovered that Mr. Neumann’s handbags are sold in-store in Ukraine called One Shot. [6] On November 3, 2021, One Shot posted a photo of an Aslaen Vaugn handbag. However, the shop in Ukraine is not listed as one of the retail locations for Aslaen Vaugn products on its company website. [7]

Mr. Neumann’s history with Eastern Europe goes back even further. According to open-source research, Mr. Neumann lived in “Dresden, when it was still East Germany, Munich, Vorarlberg, Austria, Prague, Moscow, and Kyiv.” [8] Additionally, Mr. Neumann’s Etsy account details how he is a self-described “mad-scientist” who had informal tech training in Moscow in 1992. [9] 

Continuing research Mr. Neumann provided additional details about his interests/behaviors. In an interview with Designers [10], Mr. Neumann discusses how he likes to make bombs as a hobby. Further, in response to a 2015 online post from an unidentified person going through potential financial ruin, Mr. Neumann offers advice on how to cover his financial tracks. Under his alias, Jsalathe, Mr. Neumann commented, “Borrow against your properties and siphon that off too, but to cash, not a bank or investment account. You can start putting some in offshore accounts like the Cayman Islands or Switzerland. The problem here is that it is illegal and has the potential for prison if a trail is found. If you do this, take cash on the plane, no wire transfers.” [11] The comment from Mr. Neumann suggests a possible motive for his travels to Switzerland after fleeing to the United States.

Mr. Neumann’s actions at the U.S. Capitol are well-documented, with bodycam footage showing him beginning to harass police officers at 1:45 PM EST. At 1:55 PM EST, Mr. Neumann says, “I am willing to die, are you?” Soon after, Neumann uses the bike rack barricade line at the base of the West Front of the Capitol building as a weapon to push back against police, assaulting them. He is joined by other rioters who are then able to break the police line at or around 1:57 PM EST. While Neumann’s actions at the bike rack barricade led to others joining him to attack law enforcement, it remains unclear if he had any connections to the others who joined in on the assault.

Mr. Neumann is currently one of the FBI’s Most Wanted in relation to the Capitol Riots. In interviews with Russian and Belarusian media, Mr. Neumann says that Capitol rioters are “treated in Guantanamo-like conditions [12], that he doesn’t see why “Russia is an enemy,” and that he wanted to flee to a country that is “tough on the West.”

After the Capitol Riots, Mr. Neumann sold his California home, where he lived for several years. With the lower standard of living in a country like Belarus and other less-developed areas of Eastern Europe, Mr. Neumann may be using the money to support himself for an extended period of time.

In addition, Mr. Neumann went to great lengths to scrub his digital footprint. Our analysts identified his most significant posts from his online alias through reviewing archived and deleted data.


Overall, Mr. Neumann’s actions and behaviors warrant significant concern. While we couldn’t assess any other information about his history with Russia, his background of living in the country, business interests and Russian connections, pro-Russian attitudes, and tradecraft used to reach Belarus, could suggest more than criminal behavior with Mr. Neumann. Russian intelligence wouldn’t see Mr. Neumann as a high-level asset, but with his multiple appearances on Russian state media and long history in Eastern Europe, they could see him as a propaganda tool to push disinformation about the Capitol Riots and anti-American narratives.


[1] Case 1:21-mj-00331, United States of America V. Evan Neumann, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, 3/23/2021,

[2] From Capitol Riot to Belarus, YouTube, uploaded by RT, 20 November 2021,

[3] Open Corporates, Aslaen Vaugn, LLC, Registered Agent, Evan Neumann,

[4] Presentation of the New York Magazine about High Fashion, 14 September 2020,

[5] AnastasiaXena, Instagram,

[6] One_Shot_Resale_Shop_Instagram, 3 November 2021,

[7] Aslaen Vagun, Store Locator,

[8] A’Design Award and Competition, Designs Interview with Evan Neumann,

[9] Etsy, Jsalathe,

[10] Designers, Interview with Evan Neumann,

[11], Wife cheating – Is it Worth a Divorce?,

[12] An American who fled to Belarus spoke about the “home Guantanamo” in the USA, 13 November 2021,