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What we know about Russian troops in eastern Ukraine

Illustrative image.
What we know about Russian troops in eastern Ukraine
Article by: Aleksey Vinograder
Translated by: Olha Rudakevych
Edited by: Yuri Zoria

Editor’s Note
The so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LNR/DNR or LDNR) are Russian-run unrecognized statelets which control temporarily occupied areas of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. These “republics” have been existing since 2014 under full Russian control. The article describes the key reason why the “LDNR” are still around: Russian military involvement.

The Russian-controlled groups in eastern Ukraine, the “DNR” and the “LNR,” have officially designated May 11 and 12 as the celebratory days of their republics. Those are the dates when illegal referendums were held in parts of the Donbas and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014. Large crowds were forced to take part in the celebrations nowadays; one and the same message is broadcast across all the local media: “the people of the Donbas have chosen a course apart from Ukraine’s.”

Correspondents from RFE/RL’s Donbas desk have drawn up a report based on the research they conducted over the last five years. The report demonstrates that the events surrounding the so-called “Russian spring” in Donbas were not instigated by the people, but were, rather, the result of Russian intervention. In addition, it explains why the Russian regime keeps repeating the official line that “they [Russian troops] are not there” when it is common knowledge that they are, indeed, there.

Even if all the information related to the relocation of Russian agents, volunteer soldiers, and military hardware in the spring and early summer of 2014 were to be ignored; even if we talk exclusively about the use of regular Russian troops in the events, the fact remains that the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine began in July, 2014. At that time precisely, the Ukrainian troops were advancing, taking control of the Ukrainian-Russian border zone in the Donbas, to block the flow of weapons and men that were being brought to the separatists. That explains the artillery attacks from Russia.

After examining what went on in the border region, the international investigative organization Bellingcat concluded that during the summer of 2014 the Russian Armed Forces launched at least 149 artillery strikes, releasing thousands of shells. Bellingcat was also able to identify around 130 likely artillery positions.

Read more: Bellingcat publishes interactive map of Russian artillery strikes across Ukrainian border

Targets of the Russian trans-border attacks in Ukraine in summer 2014 and possible fire positions on the Russian territory according to the results of the investigation by Bellingcat.

The artillery attacks were reported by the Atlantic Council, as well, in the article, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine.” The shelling that was launched from Gukovo, a city within Rostov Oblast in Russia, situated 5 km from the border of Ukraine, is cited as an example. The locals recorded the assault with their mobile phones and posted the recordings on the Internet. Even today such videos can be found on the Internet.

Residents of Gukovo recorded the moment when rockets were launched by MLRS BM-21 Grad in July 2014, the launch site on the map.

In one recording someone is saying, “Guys, look how much fun we’re having in Gukovo. Grad is f*cking pounding!”

In mid-August 2014, the Kremlin mandated the deployment of around 4,000 regular troops to the Donbas – Atlantic Council

It is stated in the Atlantic Council report that even with the artillery shelling coming from Russia, the Ukrainian Armed Forces were not stopped, and Kyiv came close to encircling the Moscow enclaves in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. The Kremlin reacted by mandating the deployment of 4,000 troops to the region.

Based on satellite imagery, Bellingcat was able to identify and verify the border crossings used by the Russian units. According to Bellingcat, Russian troops took an active part in the fighting and it was their presence that led to the decisive pro-Russian turn in the course of the fighting.

The entire company couldn’t get lost – captured Russian paratrooper

One of the trails used in the border crossings led through the village of Dzerkalne, where ten paratroopers of the Russian 98th Airborne Division were captured 25 August 2014. Later, the Security Service of Ukraine posted a video of the interrogations on their YouTube channel.

The captured paratroopers described the reassignment of their airborne unit to Rostov Oblast. Prior to the deployment, they were ordered to buy new uniforms apparently for participating in drills. Their personal IDs and mobile phones were confiscated. Overnight into 24 August, they received an order to advance forward in a convoy. They did not know where exactly they were going until they came under fire. The official explanation from the Russians was that the men had lost their way in the course of a training exercise.

Read also: Seven reasons the war in Ukraine is actually a Russian invasion

During the interrogation, however, one of the captured men, Ivan Romantsov, declared that it was impossible for an entire company to lose its way like that.

“Got lost? If you consider our three vehicles, then, yes. Possibly. But if you consider the whole unit, then no. Because our entire company went into Ukraine,” Romantsov said at the time.

Other Russian regular army soldiers were captured at that time, as well. Two Russian soldiers of the 6th Tank Brigade and two paratroopers of the 31st separate assault brigade were detained near Ilovaisk. A video of them can be viewed on the Donbas Battalion Channel.

“Mysterious Funerals”

Further proof that Russian servicemen fought in Donbas can be found in the Atlantic Council report in which the attempts of the Russian authorities to hide the truth about how and where their soldiers had died is described. “Mysterious funerals” were taking place at that time in different parts of Russia. Servicemen were being buried who, according to the Russian authorities, had died at permanent locations of their units.

The story of Leonid Kichatkin, a paratrooper of the 76th assault division from Pskov, is a good example. An announcement that he was killed was posted on his VKontakte site dated August 22; the date of his funeral, to take place on August 24 was posted as well. His wife had posted the announcement. A few days before that it was reported that there was a battle near Heorhiivka in the Luhansk Oblast, where Ukrainian soldiers managed to capture military equipment and documents of the soldiers from the Pskov Airborne Division.

A Russian BMD-2 captured by Ukrainian servicemen in Lutuhyne Raion, Luhansk Oblast in August 2014. Russian military documents and IDs of Russian soldiers were discovered.

There is abundant information published in reports by research organizations about the second large-scale use of Russian regular troops. In early 2015, it was thanks to the troop buildup that the Russians managed to break through the Ukrainian line of defense during the Debaltseve operation.

That was when Russia involved the soldiers from Buryatia in fighting in Donbas for the first time. Thanks to the selfies Bato Dambaev had posted on social media, it was possible to establish that two additional units of Russian regular troops took part in the battles in the Donbas. The units, the 37th motorized and the 6th tank brigade, are based in Buryatia. The story of Bato Dambaev formed the basis of the film “Selfie Soldiers,” by Simon Ostrovsky.

Additionally, the British pro-Russian blogger, Graham Phillips, unintentionally showed three T72B3 tanks in one of his propaganda videos. This is a fairly new, modified tank, that the Russian troops received as early as 2012. Ukraine does not have such tanks.

Bellingcat: “Graham Philipps with one of the best views of a Russian T-72b3 tank, seen near Debaltseve.”

A separate block of research is devoted to the deliveries of Russian modern military equipment to Donbas. The Ukrainian research organization InformNapalm has created a database in which almost 2,400 Russian servicemen and 89 regular military units have already been identified.

Read more: Ukrainian OSINT sleuths release largest existing database of evidence of Russian aggression in Ukraine

Separately, there is a section in the database for weapons and equipment. Almost 50 models that are manufactured in Russia have been delivered to eastern Ukraine.

A 2016 video by InformNapalm revealing the Russian military equipment in the Donbas.

Among them are KamAZ-43269 Dozor or Vystrel; Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle; 2B26 Grad rocket launcher on the chassis of the KamAZ truck.

Screenshots from a video of drills by Russian-hybrid forces near Luhansk in winter 2014 showing BPM-97 Vystrel.


A militant posing near a BTR-82A.


Russian-made UAV Orlan-10 shot down on 18 July 2014 by paratroopers of the Ukrainian 79th Brigade.
Russian troops' Grad on Kamaz chassis
MLRS Grad on the Kamaz chassis. A screenshot of a video of a tactical drill by Russian-hybrid forces in the Donbas.

Read also: Russian participation in the war in Donbas: evidence from 2017

According to Bellingcat’s estimates, tens of thousands of Russian troops took part in the battles in Donbas.

It is impossible to fully assess the scale of the involvement of the Russian regular troops in the Donbas conflict without official data from the Russian government, states Bellingcat in its many reports. But if you analyze the number of medals that have been awarded among the Russian military forces, it is possible to estimate figures. There was a marked increase in the number of awards in 2014-2015. They all have serial numbers.

Based on the information available through open sources, there were 4,500 medals awarded “for combat services” alone. Three other types of medals were awarded. In one of their reports, Bellingcat arrives at the conclusion that since not all of the servicemen who fought in the battles in Donbas received awards, it can be deduced that tens of thousands of Russian troops took part in those battles.

Read also:

Translated by: Olha Rudakevych
Edited by: Yuri Zoria
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