Four Ukrainian soldiers killed in Donbas as Russia continues troop buildup and escalates propaganda

Collage: Various pieces of Russian military equipment heading across Russia in convoys and trains towards the Ukrainian border as shown in the videos posted on social media by Russian users. 

Russian Aggression

Russia keeps pulling its troops towards Ukrainian eastern borders and to the occupied Crimean peninsula south of mainland Ukraine amid the ongoing escalation in Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. The Russian 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s easternmost historic region of the Donbas settled in 2015 into trench warfare along the front-line of more than 400 km in length. Since then the war had been simmering with multiple ceasefires agreed, yet none of them resolved or at least fully froze the conflict. Now, since the beginning of this year, the hostilities have been gradually escalating and the war risks returning to its hot stage.

Meanwhile, Russian media have once again cranked up propaganda of hatred towards Ukraine.

Border buildup continues

Russian military build-up near Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The markers show the locations of recent known videos that showed the convoys of Russian heavy equipment on move as of 1 April 2021. Source.

Some two weeks ago a number of videos surfaced on Russian social media that showed massive military convoys moving on their own or by train. The convoys comprised various military equipment including infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled howitzers, multiple launch rocket systems, anti-aircraft means, fuel transporters, service support trucks, and other vehicles. The videos were predominantly coming from the regions of Russia, adjacent to Ukraine’s east and south, and from Crimea, and the convoys, as posters claimed, were removing towards Ukraine.

In their take on the situation published on the Russian website theins.ru, the researchers of the Russia-based Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) studied those videos and, using a publicly available railcar tracking database, confirmed that the Russian troops were moving towards Ukraine and had at least two known destinations, Crimea and the area of Voronezh, the capital city of the namesake Russian region lying only some 100 kilometers away from Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv Oblast and bordering on Luhansk Oblast. The convoys included a variety of units, “including motorized, artillery, paratrooper and, most likely, tank units.” Russia is transferring troops from all around the country, including the north of its European part, Ural, Siberia.

Among the military units on move, CIT has identified the 76th Guards Air Assault Division from Pskov and the 74th Motorized brigade, both took part in the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s east back in 2014.

CIT’s data showing the route by rail of the T-72B3 tank of Russia’s 74th Motorized brigade from the area of Tomsk, Altai to Voronezh Oblast (located some 2,000 km away). Source: theins.ru

After the information on the troop movements started circulating in the press, the Russian military didn’t find any better excuse than to call it “exercises” in the Southern Military District. However, not only were any military drills announced in advance as it normally happens but also the geography of the military units involved spread across a number of military districts implies the tactical level exercises, however, the closest ones – Zapad-2021 – are set for September.

CIT says that the same arguments negate the “snap check” excuse announced later, on 6 April, by Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

This suggests the units are indeed being sent to put pressure on Ukraine — or prepare for an offensive,” CIT researchers believe, also pointing out that “such a troop concentration near Ukraine is unprecedented since 2014—2015, when Russian regulars operated in Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.”

Hardware with no marks

The two Russian-run self-proclaimed “republics” occupy roughly one-third of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Map: Euromaidan Press

Another troubling indication is that some vehicles in convoys have their number plates, side numbers, and identification signs covered or painted over, which isn’t a usual occurrence at military maneuvers, but this was a case back in 2014-2015 when the troops used to paint over marking attempting to hide the Russian origin of the equipment that was involved in the Russian invasion of the Donbas.

After 2015, the military equipment lacking marking was rarely spotted in the areas of Russia closed to the occupied Donbas.

For example, in 2018 Russia also drew up forces to Ukrainian borders and, in several cases, some pieces of the equipment had their marking painted over. However, the buildup of 2018 was much smaller in scale. Investigators of the Ukrainian investigative community InformNapalm reasonably suggested back in March 2018 that the Russian military was going to send the pieces with obscured marking across the uncontrolled stretch of Ukrainian border to the occupied territory for reinforcing the units stationed there.

By the end of 2018, the buildup gained momentum and Viktor Muzhenko, then-commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, called the threat of a Russian full-scale invasion the highest since 2014. Nevertheless, Russia didn’t strike back then and only established permanent military bases not far from the Ukrainian borders.

Now, the video posted on 7 April 2021 shows a train loaded with IFVs having their side numbers overpainted:

Voronezh camp

Meanwhile, CIT has also pinpointed the locations of convoys being unloaded near Voronezh and moving towards a newly set-up military field camp south of Voronezh, based on the publicly available videos from social media. The area lies some 250 kilometers drive away from the Ukrainian border which further than similar camps set up 2014-2015 on Ukrainian borders amid the invasion of the Donbas. However, some evidence suggests another camp in the area of Ostrogozhsk, Voronezh Oblast some 100 km away from Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast, as other videos of the convoys on the move were geolocated on a highway near Ostrogozhsk.

CIT was unable to geolocate the camp near Voronezh based on videos of military vehicles camping in fields, however, later Christiaan Triebert of New York Times’ Visual Investigations published satellite images confirming “hundreds of military vehicles” in the area, stationed at Pogonovo military training ground where CIT suggested it should have been set up:

What is Russia up to and is the new Russian invasion imminent?

The concentration of Russian troops in two particular areas — near northern Kharkiv and southern Kherson oblasts — gives an idea of what Russia would be going to achieve by military means in case of the full-on war: a simultaneous strike from both sides would be aiming at cutting off most of the eastern half of Ukraine, with the Black Sea Fleet possibly used for taking control of Ukraine’s entire coasts of the Black and Azov seas, including the port cities of Odesa and Mariupol.

Pro-Russian protests in the aftermath of Euromaidan (Source). The map shows what regions Russia intended to split off of Ukraine to form the client state of Novorossiya.

If this is the plan, then it might mean that Russia resurrects the so-called Novorossiya project which failed in 2014-2015, now trying to realize it by military means.

At the minimum, Russia might be plotting the invasion for taking control of pumping facilities on the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast to resume supplying water via the North Crimean Canal to occupied Crimea, where the occupation authorities desperately need it, secure the land corridor to Crimea along the Azov coast across Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and seize the city of Kharkiv in the north. At the maximum, the Russian plan may be to occupy all of Ukraine.

The prevailing opinion among experts is that it is unlikely that Russia is going to offense and the current buildup is for intimidating Ukrainians and submitting the Ukrainian leadership into accepting Russian demands. These could include forcing Ukraine to stop the crackdown on Putin’s allies in Ukraine or to grant autonomy to Russian-occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and so on.

On the other hand, the plan might be to test the new American leadership and find out how resolute they are when it comes to the support of Ukraine in the wake of the ongoing Russian aggression.

CIT hasn’t found any obvious signs of an imminent invasion yet, such as the military convoys on the border itself. However, the Russian troop buildup has still been in progress and its ultimate goals may become evident in the future with new data available.

Michael Kofman, Senior Research Scientist at CNA, a Virginia-based research and analysis nonprofit, believes,

“My sense looking at this situation is that nothing is necessarily going to happen right now, but if they have offensive operations in mind, they are more likely mid-late April,” he wrote on Twitter.

Taras Kuzio, Professor, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, doesn’t believe that Russia is going to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine as “this would lead to a long war and the complete breakdown of Russia’s relations with the West.

“Vladimir Putin is more likely to be aiming for a repeat of the trap he laid for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, when provocations from South Ossetia led to Georgia’s intervention in the separatist region. This gave Russia the excuse to militarily intervene “in defense of its citizens” and humiliate Saakashvili. Russia would love to provoke Ukraine in the same manner,” suggested Taras Kuzio in his comment to the Atlantic Council.

Russian propaganda reruns the “crucified boy” trope

Back in July 2014, a Russian state-owned TV channel made up a propaganda story of a Donbas boy purportedly crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Sloviansk which later turned out to be fake. Now, referring to the Donetsk occupation authorities, a number of Russian media picked up the similar story of a boy reportedly killed from a Ukrainian drone.

The debunkers of StopFake scrutinized the story and found that initial reports mentioned that a child really died, but not hit by a drone but after he found an explosive device hidden by a local in his garage or home. The OSCE Special Monitoring Group confirmed the death of the child “due to blast trauma and shrapnel wounds,” mentioning nothing about any airstrikes or drops that could have caused it.

Russia’s State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin joined the Russian media campaign meant to instigate hatred towards Ukraine and said that the Ukrainian leadership is responsible for the boy’s death.

Meanwhile, Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said he didn’t have verified information on the death of the boy, but he believes the Donetsk occupation authorities,

“I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the information on this provided by the self-proclaimed republic. It is difficult to imagine that fake news was made about the child’s death,” he said.

The Ukrainian NGO Ukraine Crisis Media Center commented,

“An emotionally strong manipulation makes it easy to attack the state of Ukraine and justify Russian aggression. Amidst the recent escalation, some experts perceive the recent case as a potential casus belli – a justification for the Kremlin to intensify its attacks.”

Plus, the long-standing campaign to denigrate the Ukrainian military continues in pro-Kremlin media:

And other anti-Ukrainian narratives have been disseminated as well:

Escalation in the Donbas

Meanwhile, the Russian buildup unfolds in the foreground of an escalation in the frontline in the east of Ukraine. In the first week of April alone, the Ukrainian command of the Joint-Forces Operation recorded 66 attacks of Russian-hybrid forces on Ukrainian positions in the Donbas, reporting that 4 soldiers were killed and four more wounded.

Here are those killed in the Russian attacks:

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