An Invasion By Any Other Name: The Kremlin’s Dirty War in Ukraine

September 17, 2015
A convoy from Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry carrying “humanitarian aid” for eastern Ukraine residents. The shipments are largely viewed as part of a covert operation to invade Ukrainian territory. Photo: Zurab Dzhavakhadze / ITAR-TASS

Today, September 17, at 4:00 pm EST the Institute for Modern Russia and the Atlantic Council will co-host the presentation of a new report from The Interpreter titled An Invasion by Any Other Name: The Kremlin’s Dirty War in Ukraine prepared by the Liveblog Team.

Livestreaming of the presentation can be seen here.

A PDF file of the report is available here.


Ivan, Get Your Gun: Evidence of Russian Military Equipment in Ukraine

– In March 2014, Russian soldiers spread out across the Crimean peninsula, taking control of government offices and key checkpoints. At the time, the Russian government claimed that these armed militants were local activists, not Russian soldiers, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Months later, Russian president Vladimir Putin admitted that these individuals had in fact been Russian soldiers.

– Weeks after the illegal annexation of Crimea, armed militants began to capture police stations and government buildings in various towns and cities across the Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine.

– Some of the militants operated with elite precision reminiscent of special forces units in conducting raids on police stations. Several important commanders of the separatist fighters were reserve officers in the Russian military with ties to the GRU (the Russian military intelligence agency). The separatists also received direct support from several high-profile ultra-nationalists who had direct ties to the Russian military and the Russian president.

– The Russian military has been building up its presence on Ukraine’s border, starting before the annexation of Crimea and continuing through to this day. Russian soldiers on the border both constitute a threat of outright invasion and also provide a jumping-off point from which Russian soldiers and armor can cross into Ukraine in smaller numbers.

– In late May 2014, as the Ukrainian military operation to retake the Donbass was gaining speed, a group of militants calling themselves the Vostok Battalion, a name that harkens back to an infamous and now-disbanded Russian Spetsnaz unit, led a series of brazen attacks of unprecedented scale in and around Donetsk, in what would become the western capital of the self-declared “People’s Republics.” The fighters, many of whom said they were Chechen, appeared in Ukraine less than one month after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov threatened to send troops to combat the “junta” in Kiev.

– On May 26, the day after Petro Poroshenko was elected president of Ukraine, the largest battle in Ukraine to date took place when the Vostok Battalion led an attack against Donetsk Airport. Ukrainian forces counterattacked with jets and helicopters, killing more than 30 Russian-backed fighters. Russian journalists soon discovered that some of these men were “former” members of the 45th Special Purpose Separate Guards Airborne unit—a Spetsnaz unit. Days later the Vostok Battalion evicted the separatist leaders from their headquarters in Donetsk as the Russian military took direct control of the fight in Ukraine.

– After two weeks of escalating fighting, the first “separatist” tanks, a convoy of T-64s, were spotted moving from the easternmost territory controlled by the Russian-backed fighters toward the frontlines in the west. NATO soon released satellite images from the day before of three Russian tanks boarding flatbed trucks just over the border, and an analysis of the vehicles’ paint scheme indicated that they were not captured Ukrainian military tanks. The conclusion was that either the tanks were given to the separatists by the Russian military or Russian soldiers were actually driving the vehicles.

– In the following weeks more tanks were spotted across eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government warned that Russian military forces were building on the border. By June 16, the Ukrainian military had reported that there were more than 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders and 15,000 to 20,000 militants in the Donbass, approximately half of whom were from the Russian Federation.

– The following week, the Ukrainian military continued to make military gains in the west while reporting a reversal in fortune along the Russian border in the east, where Russian-backed forces were increasing their attacks and even capturing border crossings. The number of tanks and armored vehicles mobilized by the Russian-backed fighters continued to swell.

– Throughout May, a number of Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems, more commonly known as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles). The Ukrainian government also reported capturing a number of these systems, and an analysis by at least one arms group suggests that some of these weapons originated from the Russian military.

– In early July, a series of much more sophisticated anti-aircraft vehicles began to appear in the Donbass. These included the Strela-10, a relatively fast-moving armored, tracked vehicle equipped with formidable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and a machine gun. There is no record of the Ukrainian military ever losing any of these vehicles to Russian-backed fighters, nor would amateur fighters know how to operate a sophisticated weapons system of this type. Once again, these weapons also did not share the Ukrainian military’s paint scheme and all identifying marks had been removed.

– Starting in July, higher-flying and faster-moving Ukrainian aircraft began to be shot down by the Russian-backed fighters. The most famous of the weapons used by these fighters appears to have been the Buk, a long-range anti-aircraft missile system that evidence overwhelmingly suggests was responsible for the shooting down of the civilian airliner Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

– By the end of August, Ukraine had stopped using its air power to confront the Russian-backed fighters.

– In mid-July, citizen reporters uploaded videos shot from inside Russian territory that show outgoing Grad rocket fire on July 16, the evening before MH17 was shot down. The next day news reports emerged of heavy Ukrainian military casualties. Some Ukrainian soldiers actually crossed the border into Russia to receive medical treatment in the same town from where the Grad rockets originated.

– The soldiers hit by this storm of rockets were positioned in an area known as Sector D. The Ukrainian military had been advancing into this area in May, but by June 4, the Russian-backed forces had captured new positions. The Ukrainian military was thus stuck in a narrow five-kilometer-wide strip of land. Those positions were shelled from Russia as early as July 11, and by August 8, the Ukrainians had withdrawn and surrendered large sections of the border to the Russian-backed forces, effectively giving the Russian military complete control of over 100 kilometers of Ukraine’s southeastern border.

– Throughout July and August, large infusions of new weapons and soldiers crossed the border to join the separatist fight against the Ukrainian government.

– One such weapon transported across the border was the T-72 main battle tank. Not only had the Ukrainian military never used this tank in the conflict, but multiple variants of the tank spotted in eastern Ukraine were never possessed by the Ukrainian military because they were modernized versions of a tank that Russia never exported. The first recorded T-72 on Ukraine’s battlefields appeared in the hands of the infamous Vostok Battalion mentioned earlier, and the tanks were later spotted at key battles across eastern Ukraine, including those in Sector D and Ilovaisk, which were major turning points in the war.

– By late July, just before the arrival of the T-72s, large convoys consisting of a mix of Strela-10s, T-64s, and columns of armored vehicles had regularly been seen moving on key highways between Lugansk and Donetsk, the two separatist capitals, and on or near the frontlines of combat. The United States warned that large columns of Russian armor had crossed the border. Ukrainian forces were losing ground rapidly.

– In early August, despite retaking territory near both separatist capitals, the Ukrainian military position at Ilovaisk, southeast of Donetsk between the separatist capital and the Russian border, had become unexpectedly encircled by the growing and ever-more powerful ranks of Russian-backed fighters. When the Ukrainians dispatched more troops to attempt to break the siege, they quickly found themselves outgunned. During this battle, Chechen fighters, equipped with BTR-82A armored personnel carriers that were only put into service in the Russian military in 2013, played a key role in closing the trap on the Ukrainian troops.

– By August 24, Russian troops were pouring across the border, Ukrainian military casualties were rising at a staggering pace, and evidence suggests that Russian military units were at the vanguard of every part of the battles that were occurring. Ten Russian military paratroopers were even captured on the battlefields in the area.

– With the Ukrainian military effectively defeated in Sector D, the Russian military launched an assault against Novoazovsk, a town on the coast of the Azov Sea between the Russian border and the key port city of Mariupol, which had been retaken by the Ukrainian military earlier in the summer. This period became popularly known as the “Russian Invasion,” after the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs started to use the Twitter hashtag #RussiaInvadedUkraine and Russian newspapers began to ask, “Are We at War?” As the Ukrainian military rapidly lost territory over the next week, and with Russian troops poised to launch an assault on Mariupol, Poroshenko negotiated a cease-fire at a meeting in Minsk, Belarus.

– The cease-fire only partially froze the conflict. Russian military forces continued to shore up their positions in the Donbass; in November Russia supplied them with new military hardware like the 1RL232 “Leopard” and the 1RL239 “Lynx” ground-scan radar systems, and by January the BPM-97 armored vehicle and GAZ Vodnik armored infantry vehicle, weapons only used by the Russian military, had appeared in the hands of forces as well.

– Russian-backed forces worked to consolidate their victories by proceeding to shell various Ukrainian military positions every day. Of particular interest to the Russian-backed separatists was Donetsk Airport, a strategically important position at the northwest corner of their capital city, and the site of perhaps their most humiliating defeat the prior May. The Ukrainian forces, who became known as “Cyborgs” for their stalwart defense of the position, came under increasingly heavy artillery, rocket, sniper, small-arms, and tank attack.

– In January 2015, cut off from resupply chains and under increasing pressure from Russian-backed fighters, including the Vostok Battalion, the Donetsk Cyborgs suffered a crushing defeat.

–The fighting in Donetsk only set off another wave of fighting in the area around the city, particularly near Debaltsevo, on the road between Donetsk and Lugansk. Anti-Kiev militants, led by elite soldiers using Russian tanks and weaponry, such as T-72 models only used by the Russian military, led the assault on Debaltsevo, surrounding a large number of Ukrainian soldiers and inflicting heavy casualties on them until the Ukrainians managed to withdraw from the “kettle” in February 2015.

– Satellite photos, information uploaded to Russian social media websites, observations by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, analysis of open-source information, and warnings from the Ukrainian and Western governments all tell the same story—the Russian military is digging in, building forward operating bases between Mariupol and Donetsk, and turning temporary staging areas on the Russian side of the border into permanent installations for invasion preparations.

– At the end of August 2015, Ukraine was seeing its most violent period since February, and there were concerns that the conflict is once again set to explode.

Cargo 200: Calculating Russia’s War Dead

– “Cargo 200” is a Russian military term referring to the return of the bodies of those killed in combat that first gained currency after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

– The first major story of such combat deaths, revealing Russia’s covert war on Ukraine, appeared in late May 2014 after the first battle at Donetsk Airport, where at least 40 fighters were killed, 31 of them Russian citizens. An Ekho Moskvy blogger covered the story of the difficulties faced by a widow who went to try to reclaim her husband’s body for burial.

– Since then, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, RBC, Vedomosti, Pskovskaya Guberniya, Gordonua, InformNapalm and other independent Russian and Ukrainian news sites have been tracking reports of Russian members of the military killed in action.

– In August 2014, Ukrainian bloggers reported that Ukrainian troops had found on the field of battle a BMD-2 (a Russian infantry fighting vehicle) with Russian IDs and logbooks that revealed Russians fighting in Ukraine. They also found on the battlefield the distinctive light-blue berets of Russia’s Airborne Troops, known as the VDV. The names of the men in the logbooks were traced through social media; some were found to be dead, some taken prisoner, and some still alive.

– When Russian reporters tried to film the graves of three paratroopers from Pskov, they were attacked and chased away. Lev Shlosberg, a deputy of the Pskov legislature who had been the first to sound the alarm that the Pskov 76th Guards Air Assault Division was missing from their barracks during the invasion of the Crimea, continued to report the deaths of the 76th’s servicemen in the Donbass, which led to a brutal attack by unknown assailants near his home in Pskov and his hospitalization in August.

– The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, a group that has long defended the rights of soldiers and protested hazing in the army, received a list of nine Russian servicemen, mainly from Chechnya and Dagestan, who were reportedly killed in Ukraine. The Soldiers’ Mothers attempted to get answers from the Russian Defense Ministry on these soldiers’ fates and even obtained a meeting with defense officials at one point, but shortly afterward they were designed “foreign agents,” even though they had stopped accepting foreign grants some years prior. They also tried to work through their members on the Presidential Human Rights Council to get information on these and other cases, but in vain.

– A BBC crew was attacked while trying to follow up on social media reports of a soldier from Astrakhan who was killed in Ukraine. Their equipment was damaged and their film exposed. Relatives who continued to raise their loved ones’ cases were threatened with the loss of their deceased family member’s pensions, and even the loss of their own.

– In May 2015, Putin passed a decree banning the disclosure of deaths during “special operations”—meaning the undeclared war in Ukraine. The decree followed the report of two intrepid Russian bloggers, Ruslan Leviev and Vadim Korovin, who tracked the stories of three GRU officers killed in Ukraine and found their graves.

– Putin’s “hybrid” war against Ukraine has been accompanied by a war on Russian civil society using some of the same methods of anonymous physical attacks, threats and intimidation, attempts at cooptation and outright disinformation.

– In May 2015, colleagues of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov assembled notes he had been working on at the time of his assassination along with additional research and published a report titled Putin.War, which contains information about Russian contract soldiers, including some from Ivanovo and Kostroma, killed in Ukraine. But both relatives and servicemen then went silent, fearful of retaliation after Nemtsov’s murder.

– The assassination of Nemtsov has proven the harshest deterrent of all to following up on “Cargo 200”: the soldiers, their families, and the provincial reporters who have tracked them have all been silenced.

– Social media groups such, Lost Ivan and the Facebook group Gruz 200 iz Ukrainy v Rossiyu (Cargo 200 from Ukraine to Russia) founded by Elena Vasilieva have attempted to verify these reports. The Interpreter has reviewed these lists and has found approximately 600 confirmed cases of soldiers’ deaths. In addition, there are about 800 cases of missing soldiers.

– A recent sensational story based on text from an obscure website that was subsequently removed claimed that 2,000 families had received compensation for Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. But the bloggers Leviev and Korovin, as well as The Interpreter staff, determined that the story had been faked to drive traffic to this spam site. The number 2,000 is likely high given that 2,000 Ukrainian combatants are estimated to have been killed, and they have died in larger numbers than the 10,000 Russian troops who have invaded their country.

– Despite the challenges to confirming Russian soldiers’ deaths, the number of confirmed cases is mounting and continues to embarrass the Kremlin. The extent to which the government has gone to silence the reporting of such deaths in the social media age is an indicator of officials’ fears that these figures may affect public opinion.

– So far, by deploying mainly young provincial men from across Russia’s vast expanses and sending the wounded to scattered clinics all across the country, Russian authorities have ensured little attention to the war losses in Russia.