Ukraine-Russia war: What does facial recognition software say about the crowd behind Putin?
- By Jake Horton, Adam Robinson and Paul Myers
- BBC Reality Check and BBC Monitoring
Social networks are full of claims that Russian President Vladimir Putin was surrounded by actors during his New Year’s address and previous events, echoing on news sites. But what is the evidence?
We used facial recognition software to verify some of these claims.
The Russian president has a habit of posing at events where some of the participants are not what they seem.
A 2020 BBC Russia investigation found that some events presented as impromptu conversations with everyday people were actually filled with friendly local officials.
Posts on social media, as well as in news sites such as the Sun and Daily Mail, suggest the blonde has played different characters at several previous events with Mr Putin, including a fishing trip in 2016 and a religious ceremony in 2017.
Others, including a Ukrainian report, say he may be part of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSO) – the security force that protects top leaders.
We used facial recognition software to compare the woman’s face in the New Year’s photo with those from 2016 and 2017, which yielded lower matching results of 29% and 28%, respectively.
“Usually a similarity score of 75% or more should be considered when looking for an identity match,” says Professor Hassan Ugail, director of the Center for Visual Computing at the University of Bradford.
We then compared the images from the 2016 and 2017 events and scored 99.1%, indicating that the two were from the same person.
The Russian press reports that this woman is Larisa Sergukhina. The two events he attended were in Novgorod Oblast, where he is a member of the regional parliament of the United Russia party, which supports Mr Putin.
When we compared his 2016 photo on the boat to the official party portrait online, we got a 99.8% match. Mrs. Sergukhina is also noted as the founder of a fish trading company in Novgorod.
The woman who took part in the New Year’s speech was named in the Russian press as Anna Sergeevna Sidorenko, a captain and a military doctor. When comparing his face at the event with the image taken from the video interview posted on the Internet by the Russian newspaper “Isvestiya”, a result of 99.5% was obtained. His name is also on the list of members of the Russian military regiment published by the Ukrainian intelligence services.
We then looked at allegations in 2016 of a group of men in fishing gear who were on a boat with Mr Putin.
The same men were allegedly photographed at a church ceremony in 2017.
By comparing the faces on the boat with those in the church using facial recognition software, we obtained similarity scores of more than 99% for the four men, thus delving deeper into their identities.
We found evidence that they all worked in the Novgorod region, and at least three of them appear to be fishermen.
Alexey Lyashenko (1) is the head of the fishing group pictured with Mr. Putin. We know this from his social media accounts and the profiles posted about the crew online.
Yevgeny Lyashenko (age 5) is Alexey’s son. His name is mentioned in the profile as part of the same team. Both Alexei and Yevgeny have social media accounts confirming that they are father and son.
According to the same profile, the team is part of a local agricultural conglomerate called Evrokhimservis, whose deputy general manager is Larisa Sergukhina (3).
It is reported in the Russian media that Sergey Alexandrov (2) is a fisherman. We found his social media profile showing him on a boat dressed as a fisherman.
We couldn’t find a social media profile for #4, but someone posted “What happened to Putin?” We found a matching photo with a comment. with the answer: “He met Putin several times at his workplace in Novgorod.”
Another uploaded image claims that two of these fishermen, posing as farmers, met with Mr Putin in Stavropol region. However, when comparing the faces of the selected farmers with the two fishermen, the facial recognition shows less than 8% similarity for the two.
Ice cream seller
There have been several other examples of blonde women being floated as potential actors at past events, including two photos of a woman serving ice cream to Mr Putin at an air show in 2017 and 2019.
The images here are sideways and lower resolution, making facial recognition unreliable, so we can’t use that to judge.
However, we found a 2019 Russian TV interview with a recorded woman who claimed to be an ice cream vendor serving the president on both occasions.
If it’s the same person, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising given that they were both photographed two years apart at the same air show visited by Mr Putin.
People have claimed that the woman selling ice cream to Mr Putin was posing as an employee of the Russian airline Aeroflot, but again facial recognition is not a reliable means of comparing images in this case.
There was also an example in May when people claimed that a wounded soldier who met Putin during a hospital visit had taken pictures with him earlier at the factory.
However, when you run the faces of the men from both cases without facial recognition, they show about 25% similarity, indicating no match at all.
Additional reporting by Olga Robinson. Graphics by Jana Tauschinski.