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Ukraine liveblog Day 161: Ukraine Military Advances – So Does Russian Armor

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Trouble in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’


There are reports that Igor Bezler or Bes (Demon) has fled his stronghold of Gorlovka yesterday as the city suffered significant damage and deaths in a battle between separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces. There are rumors that Col. Igor Strelkov may have fled, but we have no confirmed information about him or other rebel leaders.

Obviously, ever since Strelkov fled Slavyansk and tried to take over Donetsk, there has been a drive not only to prevail against Ukrainian forces but to prevail in power struggles within the “militia” as the Russian-backed forces euphemistically call themselves.

Last week on 25 July, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) uploaded an intercept of a long conversation between Aleksandr Boroday, the self-declared prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” with Aleksandr Chesnakov, deputy secretary of the United Russian General Council, indicating that this party has been directly involved in helping the pro-Russian separatists which they say “proves direct involvement of Russia in inspiration and escalation of the armed conflict in Donetsk and Lugansk regions.”

In the conversation, Boroday creates a neologism out of an old Russian term, bemoaning the semikommandirshina — “seven commander rule,” a term improvised from the Russian word semiboyarshina, which was the “seven boyar rule“.

By an eerie coincidence, it was July 17 — the same date as the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 — in 1610 when seven boyars, or Russian princes, toppled Tsar Vasily Shuisky and forced him first into a monastery and ultimately to prison in Poland where he died. At that time it was the Polish advance into Russia in the Time of Troubles that led the boyars to rid themselves of an unpopular and ineffective ruler.

When Boroday used the term, he both meant the rivalry among different separatist leaders and their implied threat to President Putin as they get out ahead of his covert support of their armed insurrection. Earlier we had seen Strelkov complain about Putin’s behavior similar to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in not supporting nationalists sufficiently — ending up dead in a jail cell in the Hague.

Writing in the Daily Beast, Anna Nemtsova cites an essay by Strelkov’s associate Ivan Druz’ with the same message:

“Putin, thank God, is much more intelligent and decisive than Viktor Fyodorovich [Yanukovych]. That’s clear. And some of his decisive measures instill hope that the tragedy of Ukraine will not become a tragedy for Russia and Putin’s personal tragedy. As DPR Defense Minister Igor Strelkov justly said, by taking Crimea, Putin essentially began establishing order throughout Russia, and he cannot back down from this. However, it is also clear that a significant and influential part of his entourage is trying to come to an agreement with the Kiev pro-Western terrorists. Although the examples of Yanukovych, Qaddafi, Milosevic would seem to make them wider. But no, history teaches us that it teaches nothing.”

Some believe Putin’s enabling of the separatists to cause the tragedy of MH17 could be Putin’s downfall, and there has been a lot of discussion lately of a “palace coup,” as Paul Goble has covered here in Windows on Russia.

Boroday complains bitterly in the intercepted phone call, calling the situation in Donetsk “a total mess” and “absolutely rotten”. The DPR is now like “a dick with a head shaped like Donetsk” with “quite weak prospects, to be honest.” He complains about relations with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, head of the Vostok Battalion, and explains that he is the only one that Khodakovsky will talk to now, as the other leaders like Strelkov and Bezler don’t trust him. This conversation came two days after Khodakovsky’s admission to Reuters that he had heard the Lugansk separatists had a Buk, a claim he subsequently retracted. Boroday says he doesn’t trust him “very much and alludes to a “bunch of different crappy factors” — these may be a reference to the association with Rinat Akhmetov or his failures in battle.

Separatists guarding Akhmetov's house in May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman.
Separatists guarding Akhmetov’s house in May 2014. Photo by Evgeny Feldman.

Of course, the anti-Strelkov forces see this situation differently, as this meme with contrasting lists circulated by the blogger Colonel Cassad, claiming that Khodakovsky has held on to the strategic Saur-Magila mound and Strelkov has retreated from a number of battles — but omitting reference to the chief beef against Khodakovsky, that he lost the battle of the Donetsk Airport by attempting to make a deal with Ukrainian troops that fell through. (To get a feel for what is involved in defending Saur-Mogila, see Noah Sneider’s report from the area in the New Republic; Ukrainian forces reported took over Saur-Mogila this morning, 28 July).

Contrast between Strelkov and Khodakovsky via
Contrast between Strelkov and Khodakovsky via

Boroday describes holding a meeting with businessmen to introduce a 5% tax to support the war — what Putin already contemplates introducing in Russia, as if he were already an extension of the Russian Federation — and he even makes reference to expecting a call from the Russian presidential administration. But he fulfills his order even as he realizes “there are no economic prospects” and the businessmen are worried because of constant shelling. He complains of running out of money — he had to pay Strelkov his 1 million hryvnias ($85,000) — but Chesnakov assures him he can draw down more.

Chasnakov has another order for Boroday — and invokes the name of Archimandrite Tikhon — Putin’s personal father confessor — with whom he is traveling. He urges him to get Strelkov to express his loyalty to Putin and affirm him as the “commander-in-chief” and as a great leader — the seven boyars’ issue — although he can’t directly fulfill his orders because he is in “another country.” He stresses the importance of Strelkov performing this gesture – oddly, just as Kurginyan did in his press conference that caused the Pavel Gubarev and other separatists to walk out. Boroday yesses him as if he is merely there to fulfill Moscow’s command.

The second half of the SBU tape contains a conversation between separatists “vice prime minister” Andrei Purgin and Denis Pushilin, who was recently forced to resign from the DPR. Purgin criticizes Col. Strelkov as a “f**cking mad colonel” for telling the mayor (who he forced to leave) “let’s stop public transport and blow up 9-storey buildings on the outskirts.” Pushilin complains that Strelkov has stopped normal trade in the city so people were going hungry and wouldn’t let the coal be delivered, even stopping the mines; Reuters has reported that the separatists have confiscated all the explosives from the mines, forcing them to a halt.

“He’s a f**cking great fighter, but shit, it turns out fewer enemies die than the civilian population he’s supposed to be liberating,” says Pushilin — which about sums up the entire premise of the DNR. Pushilin complains of Strelkov sitting and receiving petitioners for 10 hours like a Soviet bureaucrat, and getting involved in trying to run banks. Pushilin wishes he would stick to fighting and stay out of economic affairs.

“He’ll ruin a million-strong city for the sake of killing ten thousands Ukes,” wails Pushilin. And that sounds like what is happening now in Donetsk.

Boroday also held a press conference regarding the MH17 recovery effort and gave an interview to BBC.

Boroday denies flatly that he and the separatists kept international inspectors out — calling it “a lie” and claimed he found it a “horror show” to allow bodies to remain in the open for days.

But one has only to see the tweets and press interviews from Michael Bociurkiw during the crisis, and watch this video that shows how a rebel leader waving a gun and telling OSCE officials that the area is unstable and they can’t stay to understand that it’s Boroday who is evading the truth — he even concedes in the interview that they couldn’t guarantee full security.

Max Seddon of Buzzfeed evoked the Soviet-style culture of the separatists when he explained how they met for hours with the Malaysians when they were finally allowed in, and then insisted that they agree to recognize the DPR and LPR — something not even Russia has done! — before being allowed to receive the black box from the airplane wreckage.

In his BBC interview, Boroday claims the separatists get all their weapons and military vehicles from raids on Ukrainian storehouses or in battles. He also claims “we didn’t get a Buk” — although there is ample evidence of the presence of Buks in the region and pro-Kremlin media has reported repeatedly that separatists have themselves announced that they used Buks to down Ukrainian airplanes — including on the day of the MH17 tragedy when they bragged about downing what they thought was an AN-26. Boroday dismissed this as “Photoshop.”

“We get support from the Russian people,” says Boroday, side-stepping the question from the BBC reporter as to whether he gets aid from Russia formally. Boroday denies he was an officer of the FSB or any other intelligence agency, although he admitted “many acquaintances” in the agencies. He then mentions a “very good friend” who is a “former” intelligence agent — Strelkov, whom he has known for 20 years, even while he was still employed in intelligence. Boroday portrays such connection as “normal” for “any state’s elite” in a corporative sense — just as their are business people and government officials, there are intelligence agents with whom one deals if one is in the elite. Despite such ties, Boroday denies that the Russian government has any influence over him.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 160: The Battle For The Donbass Intensifies

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Evidence of Separatists’ Possession of Buk System Before Downing of MH17

The Russian Foreign Ministry complained today that allegations about the responsibility of the Russian-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine for the downing of MH17 is merely taken “from social media,” AP reports.

“In other words, the Washington regime is basing its contentions on anti-Russian speculation gathered from the Internet that does not correspond to reality,” said the Ministry.

We find the “social media” very compelling, as well as the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s complaints during the week before the crash, but if that doesn’t suit the Russian Foreign Ministry, they should look at their own Russian state media, as well as privately-owned pro-Kremlin media where the evidence for the separatist’s Buk shooting down the Malaysian plane is pretty damning as well.

In reviewing everything we know about the downing of MH17, several Russian newspaper articles stood out for us that surprisingly contained frank admission of operation of a Buk on 14 July, and reports of its use again on 17 July when at first rebels thought they had shot down a Ukrainian cargo plane.

We know that separatists began denying they ever had any Buks immediately. The so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” news account on Twitter deleted its tweet bragging about Buks. Then Strelkov’s Dispatch group on the Russian social media site VKontakte deleted its boast of a shoot-down of a plane they thought was Ukrainian. And Major Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a former officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) who defected to the separatists to head the Vostok Battalion first admitted to Reuters he had heard that his fellow fighters in the “Lugansk People’s Republic” may have had a Buk come through — and then sent it back to Russia. He then quickly retracted his statement and said he was misunderstood.

But one separate set of materials with admission about the Buks remains online, untouched as of this writing, and constitute damning proof that despite their denials, the separatists did have the Buks.

They appear in the online edition of the pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad in five different articles; earlier, we had pointed out the significance of one article dated 17 July referencing the shoot-down that day as coming from a source separate from the VKontakte group post. Here is an analysis of the five articles, working backwards:

1). In an article dated 17 July posted at 18:18 Moscow time (the crash occurred at 16:20 local time, an hour earlier than Moscow time), Vzglyad reported about the downing of a plane that day as follows:

“‘At about 16:00 local time an AN-26 was flying over the city. We saw how a missile flew at it, an explosion was heard, and the plane fell to the earth, leaving behind black smoke. Some pieces showered from the sky,’ RIA Novosti reported, and a video with the scene was also uploaded in confirmation of the agency’s sources.”

Vzglyad recalled the shoot-down on 14 July of two SU-25 planes and mentioned that the Ukrainian military had claimed that one of the planes was downed by a Russian war plane. Then Vzglyad added this piece of news, not removed since — a very important detail which constitutes admission by the separatists that they had a Buk to use 14 July:

“Ukrainian military claim that the losses were caused by actions by Russia. The militia refuted this information, specifying that they had shot down the plane from a ZRK ’9K37M1′ (better known as a Buk).”

Vzglyad has two links within the sentence about the refutation (at the words “refuted” and “shot down” indicated in bold), linked to previous articles dated 14 July. The context is the separatists’ desire to emphasize that it was not Russia, but they themselves who shot down the Ukrainian planes.

2). The link to the phrase “shot down” goes to another article dated 14 July
, headlined “Militia Report What They Used to Shoot Down Ukrainian AN-26″ with a subtitle “Militia reported that they shot down AN-26 from a Buk anti-aircraft system”.

“Today the ZRK 9K37M1 (better known as the Buk) capable of destroying the enemy’s AN-26 at an altitude of more than 6,000 meters was used by the militia. Several weeks ago, the seizure by the militia of these systems was reported. Now they have been repaired, outfitted with crews and put into order. These systems enable the shooting down of a plane at altitudes of more than 4,000 meters. Before the militia was helpless against the enemy’s planes flying at altitudes that neither the PZRK or the ZU could reach,” said the militia’s statements distributed through social networks.

“The Buk (GRAU index 9K37, an SA-11 Gadfly under the classification of the US Defense Department and NATO) and its modifications Buk M1 (9K37M and 9K37M1) is a self-propelled anti-aircraft missile system intended for warfare with maneuvered aerodynamic targets at small and medium altitudes (from 30 m to 14-18 km) under conditions of intensive electronic counter-measures.”

That time, the separatists shot down a Ukrainian transport plane near the town of Davydo-Nikolskoye, and then in the second attack shot down an SU-25 near Krasnodon; 4 Ukrainian crew members were killed and four were taken captive.

Three other planes were also shot down, according to Igor Bezler, a GRU colonel whose conversation intercepts 17 July have also provided relevant evidence:

“Early Monday morning [14 July], Igor Bezler, militia commander of Gorlovka in Donetsk region reported that the militia had been able to shoot down over Gorlovka two fighter planes of the Ukrainian army, one of which fell in the area of the village of Zaytseva and the other in the town of Debaltsevo.

On Saturday [12 July], the militia reported that the Kiev forces had made a missile attack on the outskirts of Gorlovka and in response a SU-25 Ukrainian fighter was destroyed. The Ukrainian forces refuted the information about the shooting down of the attack plane.

Earlier on Friday [11 July], the Lugansk militia reported that they had shot down a Ukrainian army attack plane in the area of Perevalsk.”

More research needs to be done as to what actually happened, but indisputably, the separatists possessed Buks as of 14 July, and used them to shoot down Ukrainian airplanes. As Vzglyad boasted:

“From the East of Ukraine, reports come regularly about the losses of Ukrainian Air Force. The militia are shooting down the forces’ planes from anti-aircraft mortar launchers, PZRKs, and there is a report even of a successful hit of fighter planes from simple mortar launchers.”

3). Then in yet another 14 July story to which they linked 17 July at the word “refuted,” Vzglyad focused on the denial Russia was involved and found an expert to comment, running the headline: “Militia: Ukrainian AN-26 Shot Down Without Participation of Russia”. The sub headline said, “The militia independently shot down a Ukrainian military AN-26 plane, a ‘highly-accurate late-generation weapon’ is not needed for that, said Aleksey Chmilenko of the Popular Front Information Center.

Remember, the issue back on 14 July was trying to refute the claim, made by Ukrainian Defense Ministry Valery Heletey in a report to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, that their military AN-26 plane could be shot down from Russia’s territory.

So the militia went to great lengths to prove that they had sufficient fire-power to do this even without the very latest models. This story reiterates the claims of shooting down the planes over Davydo-Nikolskoye and Krasnodon, and Bezler’s report of the downings over Zaytsevo near Gorlovka and a second near Debaltsevo.

4). In a fourth story also with a 14 July dateline, Vzglyad quotes Bezler as reporting that one civilian was killed accidentally in this downing, when the missile, launched from Golmovsky, was fired. They claimed they shot down two planes, but couldn’t supply photos as the crashes occurred in territory held by the Ukrainian National Guard.

To these stories, Vzglyad added the line, “According to open sources, the Ukrainian armed forces had in their arsenal more than 60 Buks.” This was likely to imply that the separatists had seized the Buks from the Ukrainian army, but they don’t come out and say this in this particular series of 14 July and 17 July stories. As we noted, there was one story 30 June in the Russian Defense Ministry’s TV Zvezda which claimed the Buks were stolen, and this could have been to pre-plant the story to cover actual delivery of the Buks from Russia. (The Zvezda story is now behind a log-in wall, and some social media groups that copied it have deleted it; we found a Google web cache of a copy on an Odnoklassiki Anti-Maidan group).

5). In the the fifth story published 14 July
, we hear from the Lugansk separatists:

“About 13:30 Moscow time the militia shot down the latest SU-25 plan in the area of Krasnodon; it is supposed the plane was shot down with the aid of a PZRK,” Interfax reported, citing a representative of militia headquarters.”

This story also quotes Bezler’s account of the other two planes shot down, and interestingly, also cites Strelkov’s Dispatches post 14 July on VKontakte that law-enforcement agents in Tarasov District of Rostov Region confirmed the information about the downed plane; Vzglyad had no trouble quoting this source as it has in the past.

6). And finally a sixth story buried by the tragedy of MH17 was also published on Vzglyad on 17 July
at 14:20 Moscow time, three hours before the crash:

This story quotes Andrei Lysenko, representative of the Ukrainian Council for National Security and Defense regarding the Ukrainian claim that a Russian military plane shot down their SU-25 on 16 July:

“About 19:00 from the direction of Russia the latest provocation was committed. A Russian Federation military aircraft made a missile strike on the Armed Forces SU-25 plane which fulfilled its task on the territory of Ukraine.”

He added that the pilot had been able to parachute out of the plane, and that an evaluation of the actions of Russia ‘will be provided in the near future.’”

The article noted that on 16 July, the militia had claimed two downings but Ukraine only confirmed one.

So Vzglyad can’t have it both ways — either Russia was involved in shooting down planes as the Ukrainian Air Force believed at that time, in which case even more alarm bells have to be rung about MH17, or it wasn’t involved and the separatists had a Buk capable of shooting down MH17 — which the Ukrainians deny came from their arsenals. Of course a mixture of the various versions of the story is also possible — Russia could have been involved in shooting down Ukrainian airplanes — an act of war with its own implications — and the separatists could also have Buks capable of shooting down airplanes and likely shot down MH17. Whatever the case, this set of stories 14 July and 17 July — copy them before they disappear! — published by Vzglyad constitute an important context for understanding what happened to MH17.

And now a word about the ownership of Vzglyad, since that’s material to assessing its reporting. Technically, it is privately held as a publication of Konstantin Rykov’s Publishing House. Rykov is a newspaper and online news magnate close to the Kremlin who has created a number of popular culture and news sites which have maintained a pro-Putin outlook. Not surprisingly, the name of Vladislav Surkov appears in the history of this business; when was taken over by pro-Kremlin forces, then-editor of Vzglyad came to replace Lenta’s independent editor-in-chief.

In this amateur video uploaded 14 July titled “Lugansk, Ukraine 15.07.2014 Ukrainian Air Force plane (AN-26) Shot Down from PZRK,” a family watches as the plane is hit and the pilot parachutes out, then cheers as it explodes, commenting that it might land in Russia. Other copies of the same video identify the area more closely as near Izvarino.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 159: Donetsk Citizens Flee As Fighting Increases

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Assessing the Authenticity of Statements from Strelkov and Other Russian-Backed Separatists in Ukraine

As we have reported, the statement posted to the VKontakte group “Strelkov’s Dispatches” on 17 July within 20 minutes of the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 is not a hoax or a fake.

While some journalists have impugned the reference, we have explained that it represents a genuine report that came from him or other rebel leaders, using a group that he had used for months to issues his dispatches. Most importantly, it is corroborated by other reports in Russian state media which used different separatist sources directly, not the VKontakte group.

Neither Strelkov or any other top separatist leader have repudiated the group that posted the message, much less separate Russian news stories that showed them bragging about airplane downings with Buks on 14 July and on 17 July; instead, they’ve merely tried to shift the blame to the Ukrainian military.

Yet challenges to this admission continue by pro-Kremlin social media users in particular, so we are answering some of the frequent challenges made to this claim, which tend to follow a pattern.

Here are some of their common arguments, and our rebuttals:

But Strelkov doesn’t have any social media accounts so this must be fake.

It’s true that Strelkov is not known to have any individual accounts on social media under his own name, so some media that reported this admission of the shooting-down of a plane as on “Strelkov’s VKontakte page” in the sense of his personal page have misreported it.

But it doesn’t matter. The post was published on “Strelkov’s Dispatches,” which is a VKontakte pablik or community, like a Facebook group or page. This group has been known for releasing his statements for months; it has used his name for months precisely because it has been allowed to. So it doesn’t matter if it is not his own personal account; it’s a community account reliably used to disseminate his statements in the past — and which has gone on reliably distributing them to date, despite remove of the 17 July post on the downing of the airplane.

But it’s just a fan group.

No, the group is authorized to release statements from Strelkov personally, which is releases with his banner, and other separatist statements or news. It currently has a dedicated post at the top for fund-raising for the separatists by an authorized person who published his identity and contact information, and has had dozens of posts authorized by Strelkov, with his banner, since 17 July. It has more than 130,000 followers.

If this group wasn’t representing the interests of the separatist leadership, it would be gone by now or followers would have left it; political consultant Aleksandr Boroday, who is is charge of the separatist PR, would not alllow it to continue.

But they posted the news of the downed plane without the banner, and later removed it and said it came from “chatter of militia” on “a forum”.

Plenty of non-banner posts on Strelkov’s Dispatches have been corroborated by facts on the ground or by what he himself later said at news conferences. Their removal of the post doesn’t mean their group or their reports aren’t authentic, it just means they realize the post’s implications. Again: Russian state media reported the same facts of a separatist claim of an airplane damning, only from different separatist sources, not VK.

So, ultimately, we don’t need this VK post alone to make the point that separatists believed they had downed a plane and reported it to both social media and mainstream media.

That’s because as we have explained, we have at least a half dozen official Russian or regional state and independent media outlets reporting the same story, some copying the VK message because they trusted the source, but most not referencing the VK group at all, but their own direct, separatist sources.

But Strelkov himself is known only to post to the Antikvariat forum and has only blessed iKorpus at as an outlet for separatist statements, including his own.

This claim doesn’t reflect the actual ambiguity and lack of definitive “blessing” or “condemnation” from Strelkov about various sources he has used and continues to use as outlets.

Strelkov is known to post on a “hidden blog” called Antikvariat often translated as “Antiques” but better translated as “Antiquity.” It’s a forum for his favorite pass-time, which is enacting reconstructions of historic battle scenes. He’s been known to post recent information about the separatists’ warfare in southeastern Ukraine on this forum.

Supporters usually don’t mention the name of the forum or try to avoid linking to it to keep its “hidden” status. Perhaps they don’t realize it’s already outed and various versions of its address have appeared. A blogger provided a link to it some time ago but other addresses have also been claimed and it may move around. Vesti claimed in May that Strelkov had posted on the forum “every half hour” and that other members had criticized him for “turning reality into an Internet game.”

But the VKontakte group removed the post and explained that it was made in error based on “the discussion of some militia on a forum” — it was not authenticated and was erroneous.

As noted, the post appeared in the first person as “Strelkov’s Dispatch” in a group that had long been posting his statements, but more to the point, the same information came from other sources and was published by the Russian state media because the separatists took credit for a plane downing.

In fact, the reason why separatist leaders have switched from denying this credit was taken for the downing of “a Ukrainian cargo plane” to trying to focus attention on “Ukraine’s responsibility for its air space when they know the separatists have Buks” is because they realize that the evidence is strong for their shooting down of the plane and taking credit for it both from their own statements 14 July and 17 July and eye-witness reports.

It’s also important to remember that this admission isn’t the only piece of evidence to build the case for assigning blame for MH17 to the separatists — and their backers, Russia. Here’s our round-up of all our reporting and eye-witness reports gathered by Western media on the scene.

So how can we tell when Col. Strelkov himself is really talking and what sites can be trusted to really have his direct statements?

Short answer: you can’t, unless you are in the same room with Col. Strelkov giving a press conference or you have a YouTube video of his press statements with internal date-stamping and corroboration. Long answer: but if you watch the VKontakte group for bannered statements, and watch both and as well as other separatist sites like you will have a good notion of Strelkov’s thinking and the claims of the separatist leaders.

Maybe the confusion is deliberate — to always avoid ultimate responsibility about anything said – or maybe it’s just a function of the pressures of a group at war, but the communications of the separatists are indeed scattered and contradictory, because they fight among themselves, don’t speak with one voice, and haven’t designated just one outlet to represent them. They’ve preferred to keep a variety of supporter groups from Moscow ultranationlists who themselves squabble with each other, to local forums. They prefer a variety of media, from Twitter to LiveJournal blogs to VKontakte to Zello, an instant chat app popular with separatists and their supporters.

But there’s a video where he designates the site entrusted to relay his dispatches.

Over a month ago on 18 June, Col. Strelkov released a YouTube statement, which was uploaded to the YouTube account created by, which is confusingly called iKorpus in its logo:

The Interpreter has translated the audio as follows:

“At this time, the militia has created its own information resource. The site iKorpus has been created [screen shows] where there will be posted, among other things, our dispatches, my own statements, reporting from Slavyansk directly and from other cities which are occupied by militia units. I also give the opportunity…the right to the staff of iKorpus to organize cooperation with those resources which have already recommended themselves as deliverers or to be more precise gatherers of delivery of humanitarian aid, as propagandists of the militia in South East, our comrades-at-arms in the struggle against the henchmen which bomb and shell our cities every day. I hope that Information Corps will justify the trust we have placed in it, we the militia and staff headquarters and will work fruitfully for the good of the people.”

There are several problems with trying to use this YouTube message as a definitive statement on sources releasing statements directly from Strelkov or his subordinates. First, it is more than a month old, and was written before the retreat from Slavyansk and the downing of the Malaysian plane when his statements and their authentication began to get a lot more scrutiny.

Second, he doesn’t spell out within the video the exact name of the web site or the group letter-by-letter, and this has opened the door for two competing web sites to complain authenticity, one spelled and the other Since uploaded this video, they’ve put that Internet address into the video – but their channel is named iKorpus. They’ve denounced the other site as a “fake”; meanwhile says is merely its “old” address. Both carry up-to-date and often identical reports from Strelkov and other separatists.

So and have separately registered domains; is in St. Petersburg and uses RIPE in Amsterdam which anonymizes the location.

A number of other sources supporting or commenting on the Russian-backed separatists have also denounced as “fake” and there have been numerous Internet debates about it.

This discussion
between a frequent English-language translator for the separatists’ statements, Gleb Bazov, the Toronto-based author of the blog, and @IndependentKrym or Crimea&East, an anonymous separatist supporter, indicates the arguments and confusions about what is reliable which persist.

Ultimately, nowhere in the 18 June video or subsequent appearances does Strelkov address the issue of the VKontakte group “Strelkov’s Dispatches” (the Svodki Igora Ivanovicha Strelkova, literally “Dispatches of Igor Ivanovich Strelkov,” which we have translated as “Strelkov’s Dispatches”).

He does mention people doing collection of humanitarian aid, which is one of the things Strelkov’s Dispatches does, but he doesn’t identify it by name.

Meanwhile, the VK group has reiterated that when it wishes to indicate they have a report straight from Strelkov, they will use a sketch of his head and the words “Strelkov Reports”.

Official "Strelkov Reports" Banner
Official “Strelkov Reports” Banner

James Miller
James Miller

Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

This post will be regularly updated as more information comes to light.

This was originally posted on July 25th at 15:58 GMT and has been updated on July 27th at 1730 GMT.

With all of the developments, debates, new evidence and new disinformation, let’s take a look at what we know and don’t know about the theory that a Buk missile system shot down Malaysian Flight MH17.

What We Know – The Separatists Had The Buk

The main theory is that a Buk missile system shot MH17 out of the sky. The separatist at one point admitted that they had a Buk, though that tweet has since been deleted. We have created a map of the areas around where MH17 crashed, and we see that to the north and to the south there are three towns where the Buk system may have shot down MH17. They are as follows:

Torez- Located near Snezhnoye, a geolocated picture placed the Buk in the town.  Since then, journalists have spoken to residents who say that the Buk traveled through Torez.

Another video appears to shows the Buk 24 kilometers away from Torez but moving in that direction.

Snezhnoye - A video showing a Buk has been geolocated to the town. Two AP journalists and a Ukrainian journalist reported seeing a Buk in Snezhnoye on July 17th, the day that MH17 was shot down. This is conclusive evidence that at least one Buk traveled in the Torez/Snezhnoye area on the day that the airliner was shot down. Since then, journalists have spoken to residents who say that the Buk traveled through Snezhnoye .

Chernukhino  - This one is less conclusive. The Ukrainian government released an intercepted phone call reportedly between separatist military commander and Igor Bezler (Bes, or “Demon”) and Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU (main military intelligence), in which they talk about shooting down an aircraft in this area. In a second conversation two separatists say that the missile that shot the aircraft out of the sky came from this town.

Bezler admits that the audio tapes are real, but claims they were discussing an earlier incident – the shooting down of a Ukrainian airforce jet. But in his denial Bezler accidentally admits that the separatists are shooting down aircraft from this location, and that they are coordinating with the Russian government. This admission lends credibility to other leaked audio tapes including one in which separatists claim to have shot down MH17 accidentally thinking it was a military transport, and one in which the separatists speak with a contact in Russia and confirm the receipt of the Buk (and Russian crews to go with it).

In a leaked audio tape released on July 25th, Bezler is heard talking about a “birdie” that’s “really high.” The tape was reportedly taken just two minutes before MH17 was shot down. The voice is the same as the previous releases, and as stated before Bezler admits that this is his voice.

There is no visual confirmation that the Buk was ever in Chernukhino, and we don’t know exactly where this checkpoint is located, though it’s theorized that there may have been several of these weapons (perhaps 3) stationed in the general area around the crash site which might explain how a missile in Chernukhino could have shot down MH17 at the same time as a Buk (or two) were spotted elsewhere in the area.

The Best Theory Of Where The Buk Traveled Before And After It Fired

The Associated Press has published an important report of what they believe happened on the day of July 17th. The article is based off of the reports from AP journalists who actually saw the Buk in Snezhonye, the reports of eyewitnesses in that town and others in the area, and information pulled from leaked audio tapes and from intelligence reports released by the Ukrainian government. What is impressive is that so many of the details pulled from so many sources line up perfectly.

Here is the chronology of what happened, combining information from multiple sources (all times local, sources in parenthesis):

  • 01:05 – Buk enters Ukraine on flatbed truck. (AP – Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda)
  • 09:00 – Buk reaches Donetsk, disembarks flatbed truck. (AP – Ukrainian counterterrorism chief Vitaly Nayda)
  • Approximately – Buk reaches Karapetyan Street in Snezhnoye. (AP – eyewitnesses)
  • 13:05 – AP journalists see Buk moving through town in convoy with two civilian cars. This fact was reported by AP before MH17 was shot down. (AP)
  • 16:18 – Intercepted audio released by Ukrainian SBU has separatist commander Igor Bezler speaking told by rebel spotter that a “birdie” flying “really high” was moving into range. (The Interpreter)
  • 16:20 – Locals in Snezhnoye report one or two loud blasts. One minute to a minute and a second blast is heard. MH17 falls to the sky after this. (AP)
  • 16:33- Intercepted phone call has separatists realizing that they shot down a civilian airliner not a military transport plane (The Interpreter).
  • 16:40 – An intercepted phone call has Bezler speaking to Vasily Geranin, who is described as a colonel in the Russian Federation’s GRU, indicating that an aircraft has been shot down. (There is a discrepancy with the time stamp since only one aircraft was shot down in this area, and Bezler says it was “30 minutes ago” but it was really only 20 minutes earlier – The Interpreter).
  • 16:50 – The VKontakte community “Strelkov’s Dispatches” posted a report “from the militia” about the downing of “an AN-26″ in the “region of Torez” (The Interpreter).
  • 17:14-17:42 – Separatists see that the wreckage of the what they shot down is indeed a civilian aircraft, not a military one. The “Mayor” admits that they have shot down a “a super big civilian craft” amd a separatist reports “fragments right in the yards” and “civilian stuff, medicine, toilet paper, towels.”
  • 17:18 Pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad reports separatists taking credit for downing “an AN-26″ (actually MH17) with a Buk; admissions of possession of Buks also covered on July 14 (The Interpreter).
  • 02:00-04:00 on July 18th – the Buk launchers reportedly cross the border into Russia (Ukrainian government – see below).
  • As far as where the missiles went afterwards, one video released by the Ukrainian government claims to show the Buk, missing several missiles, on its way back to Russia (presumably along paths highlighted on our map in black).

    On July 18th the Ukrainian security services issued a press release in which a Ukraine SBU (Security Service) officer explains Ukraine’s narrative — that three vehicles carrying Buk missiles came from Russia and returned back to Russia after the incident:

    At 2:00, July 18, two movers each with a Buk missile launcher crossed the Russian border in Luhansk region. At 4:00, another three movers: one of them empty, other carrying a launcher with four missiles and the latter allegedly with a control unit, crossed the state border.

    [The Ukrainian officer] stressed that Russia attempted to suppress evidence of its involvement in the terrorist act.

    The vehicle in question, according to Ukraine, passed through Krasnadon on its way back across the border as is reflected on our map. Claims that this video was taken in Ukrainian occupied territory — in Krasnoarmeysk, have been debunked. Furthermore, The Interpreter contacted the owners of the billboard locations and were provided with a complete list of billboard locations as well as images of many of the sites. After a careful investigation we can definitively conclude that this video was recorded in Lugansk, on a road between the MH17 crash site and the border crossing near Krasnadon. The Buk, which does appear to be missing one or two missiles, is traveling in the opposite direction as previous videos which show armored vehicles which appear to have been supplied by the Russian military to the separatist militia.

    Read our investigation here. We have posted even more details here.

    One picture has been removed from the initial press release after The Interpreter proved that it was an older photo of a Ukrainian military Buk which was nowhere near the MH17 crash site.

    Here is a screenshot from our interactive map which shows the route the vehicle may have traveled from Donetsk, through Torez, and ultimately on to the Russian border after shooting down MH17:

    Malaysian Airline Map

    Where Was The Buk Launched From?

    One issue is that the launch site for the Buk has not been definitively located. However, as mentioned above, all of the areas where the Buk has been spotted are well within range of MH17. And so we have a circle around the crash site where the weapon may have been shot from.

    A controversial picture was shared by the Ukrainian government which allegedly shows a smoke trail from the missile. A theory emerged that the area where the picture was taken had been located. Journalists from multiple news agencies then traveled to the area where the missile launch may have been and found unusual tracks in a field where there were metal artifacts and burn marks which may have been caused by the exhaust of a missile. Satellite images released by Google show that the tracks in the field may not have been there before MH17 was shot down.

    As of now, this is the most probable theory for the Buk launch site, but more evidence is needed. Read our investigation here.

    Where Did The Buk Come From?

    One debate, whoever, is where the actual missile or missiles came from, and where they went. There is evidence that the missiles came directly from Russia, though the separatists have at various points claimed that they captured the weapon from Ukrainian stockpiles.

    So far the Ukrainian government says that they have 60 Buk systems and all of them are accounted for.

    On June 29th the Russian state-controlled media ran a story that the separatists captured a Buk from the Ukrainian military. We’d expect to see this news break in the Russian language, but the only source at the time we could find in Russian was the Russian network TV Zvezda, the news network for the Russian military. A skeptic might say that if the Russian government wanted to plant a story that the separatists had captured this weapon, then they would have done it through TV Zvezda. The only other source, in Russian, concerning this claims appears to have been posted on the Twitter feed for a fan account for the Crimea’s prosecutor. More analysis here.

    As noted above, leaked audio shows the separatists admitting that the Buk came from Russia.

    While there is no smoking gun yet that the Buk (or Buks, as there is some evidence that there may have been multiple systems given to the separatists) were supplied by Russia, there is a strong circumstantial evidence that the crews to operate such complicated machinery would have to come from a military. As Ukraine is not reporting the defection of any Buk crews, the prime suspect is Russia.

    Conclusion: Strong Evidence Russian-Backed Militants Fired a Buk at MH17

    For reasons stated above, the evidence is piling up that the Russian-backed militants fired the Buk at MH17. It seems likely that this was an accident since there is no evidence that the militants knew that this was a civilian airliner they were shooting at, initially they took credit for shooting down a military transport plane, and it’s not clear how shooting down a civilian airliner has helped their cause (the opposite is probably true).

    But the evidence also suggests that Russia has becoming incredibly reckless in his support of the separatists. Russia has been supplying anti-aircraft weapons (including the Strela-10), has been supplying more tanks and rocket launchers in recent weeks, and has been caught firing GRAD rockets into Ukraine, a trend which has continued or even sped up since the downing of MH17. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Russia supplied the Buk crews to the separatists, and while there is circumstantial evidence that Russia supplied the actual missiles to Russia, there is no evidence yet that the separatists captured intact Buk missile systems from the Ukrainian government.

    Russian-backed militants control the crash site and have reportedly tampered with the evidence, so more definitive answers may never come. But while questions remain, the culprits are clear, and those accused of mass murder control the crime scene.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 158: Savchenko Refused Bail by Russian Court

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

View Ukraine: April, 2014 in a larger map
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Below we will be making regular updates so check back often.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia This Week: Bolotnaya Defendants Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev Sentenced

Updated Daily. Russian and Ukrainian bloggers confirmed the sighting of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system. The Russian Justice Ministry has entered five leading human rights groups into the registry of “foreign agents” against their will. The Russian Defense Ministry held a press briefing to present their claims about MH17, but their geolocation of a video showing a Buk by a billboard issued has been challenged.

For last week’s issue on ultranationalist Sergei Kurginyan’s boast that an electronics specialist was sent to repair a Buk anti-aircraft system for the separatists in Donetsk; the citizen reporter at the lake in Gukovo who filmed Grad rockets launching from Russian territory in Ukraine has had his VKontakte page removed; the fifth anniversary of the murder of Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova; the worst accident in the Moscow metro’s history, with at least 21 dead and 160 injured; opposition candidates hear their private conversations aired on LifeNews, then find a bug in a campaign worker’s car; a new low for Russian state TV in its broadcasting of lurid war propaganda against Ukraine; and Facebook executive’s secret trip to Moscow leaving open the question of how social media companies will comply with a new regulation requiring all Russian customer data to be located on servers on Russian territory, go here.

For the previous week’s issue on the return of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) prime minister Aleksandr Boroday to Donetsk with claims of fresh military support to come from Russia; the retreat of Col. Igor Strelkov from Slavyansk and the regrouping of separatist forces in Donetsk has causing some of his supporters among Moscow’s ultranationalists to denounce him; on various hypotheses regarding the role of Kremlin “grey cardinal” Vyacheslav Surkov in brokering a peace deal with Ukrainian oligarchs eager to preserve their properties and investments from war, possibly involving a a “Donetsk Transdniestria”; and on the continued exaggeration by the Russian government of refugee numbers, with claims of “verification” by “the UNHCR,” even as journalists are denied access to border towns under a state of emergency; go here.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

July 25, 2014

0037GMT: Two opposition leaders in the long-running Boltonaya Case were found guilty by a Moscow court of “inciting mass riots” in protests against President Vladir Putin on 6 May 2012, Moscow Times reported. Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev were sentenced to 4.5 years of forced labor colony each. Razvozzhayev was additionally sentenced to a fine of 160,000 rubles ($4,723), the supporters’ site reported.

Sergei Udaltsov at sentencing in Moscow court 24 July 2014. Photo by Novaya Gazeta
Sergei Udaltsov at sentencing in Moscow court 24 July 2014. Photo by Novaya Gazeta

Udaltsov has been under house arrest since February 2013 and Rozvozzhayev was kidnapped in Kiev and forcibly returned to Russia for trial.

Novaya Gazeta ran a liveblog of the trial today by Olga Kryachkova. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt:

21:59 The court session is declared closed. The public shouts “Freedom!”

21:52 Sergei Udalsov is taken from the courtroom under guard.

21:51 The sentences of punishment are announced. Sergei Udaltsov – 4 years, 6 months of standard-regimen colony. Leonid Razvozzhayev – also 4 years and 6 months of standard-regimen coloney and fine of 150,000 rubles for unlawful crossing of the border.

21:49 Court comes to the conclusion of the proof of guilt of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev in committing crimes.

21:43 The court declares all the actions of the defendants as committed deliberately.

21:42 “The actions of Udaltsov and Razvozahev in organizing mass disorders were carefully planned and coordinated.”

21:41 “The guiding chain consisting of unarmed police officers and Interior Ministry troops, guided the movement of the demonstrators and did not create obstacles. Despite the closed square and chain of enclosure, the demonstrators had the opportunity for free passage to the square.”

21:39 The court pronounces the testimonies of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev as unfounded, which denied their participation in organization of mass disorders 6 May 2012, as well as their claims that the law-enforcement officers provoked participants into mass disorders to commit such actions.

21:36 Judge Zamashnyuk: “The court pronounces indisputably established that 6 May 2012, on Bolotnaya Square, the rally approved in advance grew into mass disorders. The court rejects the position of the defense stating that there was absence of evidence of a crime in the actios of Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev.

Translation: speed-reading.

The Interpreter has been covering the Bolotnaya Square trials for a year. Stories on sentencing of other defendants can be found here, here, and here, as well as and on the release and amnesty of several defendants.

July 23, 2014

0613GMT: On 21 July, we reported how Russian and Ukrainian bloggers and social media users began to crowd-search the location of a Buk anti-aircraft system in a video released by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on 18 July. The Buk system, missing one of its four missiles, was the chief suspect in the allegation that pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17.

Then pro-Kremlin bloggers descended en masse pushing a disinformation response to these efforts that distracted from establishing the location, which we debunked here. The Russian Defense Ministry then officially promoted this false geolocation in its briefing, adding to doubts and confusion.

In summing up everything we knew about the Buks, we pointed out that while some of the material regarding the position of Buks was confirmed, one photograph was questioned because it was discovered to have originated in a Facebook posting in March 2014 of the Ukrainian military’s Buks, not those in the hands of pro-Russian separatists, who are believed to have obtained them from Russia. A source in contact with the Ukrainian security authorities confirmed for us that this March picture was a mistake.

The Interpreter has provided a translation of Interior Minister Avakov’s original post 18 July, and other statements below:

“Today 18 July at 4:40 in the morning a trailer loaded with a caterpillar missile system was recorded by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s covert surveillance divisions, moving in the direction through Krasnodon, toward the Russian Federation border. In the videotape the exposed missiles are visible. Two of the missiles are in place; the middle one cannot be seen.

Analysis is underway of this and other collected information.

Preliminarily, this is precisely the Buk missile complex that yesterday produced the shot at the civilian plane from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur.

The criminals are trying to hide the tracks of this monstrous crime. They will not succeed. The Ukrainian Security Service and Interior Ministry of Ukraine have collected already and are continuing to collect indisputable facts and evidences indicating the authors of this tragedy from the terrorist organization DPR/LPR and its Russian Putinist backers. At the completion of the investigation of the events, the Interior Ministry will publish a complete report of the information. I believe this fragment is necessary to publish immediately.”

The following video uploaded to Youtube by the SBU was then posted:

LiveJournal blogger egroegor came up with the Internet version of the same ad as on the billboard for the Bogdan auto dealer.

Ad for Bogdan auto dealer with showrooms in Lugansk and other Ukrainian cities.
Ad for Bogdan auto dealer with showrooms in Lugansk and other Ukrainian cities.

Then on Monday, 22 July, Avakov appeared again to issue to the press the coordinates of the video taken by the Interior Ministry agent. Over on our Ukrainian Liveblog, we reported how eventually after a group of people including our staff reviewed the material, the location was confirmed as the same as in the video.

Here’s the intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. on Google Maps where the billboard stands:

Intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. in Lugansk, site of Buk sighting.
Intersection of Korolenko St. and Nechuya-Levitsky Blvd. in Lugansk, site of Buk sighting.

As this collage summarizing multiple efforts put together by Ukraine@war doesn’t explain the sources of the elements in the scene, we’ll take you through the contributions of Russian and Ukrainian bloggers.

Regional bloggers were the first to pick up and work with this material. Without their ground work no one in the West would be able to have ultimately confirmed the location.

Translation: A little bit more detail on the coordinates of the filming of the departing Russian [Federation] Buk in Lugansk.

But even with those coordinates to use on Google Maps, people remained skeptical because the scene on the film was done with a zoom lens and very close up, making elements of the picture smash together and then become difficult to tease a part on a map.

This picture from Panoramio contributed by user Dimc 12 October 2013 has a panoramic view of this junction in Lugansk, which was helpful in analyzing the scene.

Lugansk, Komsomol District October 2013. Photo by Dimc.
Lugansk, Komsomol District October 2013. Photo by Dimc.

Unnamed users also found this saved picture from a web cam trained on that intersection in Lugansk which also provides a panoramic view; interestingly, the web cam page now has a notice that “by orders of the government of the Lugansk People’s Republic, the web cam is temporarily suspended.)

Web cam in city of Lugansk viewing Nechaya-Levitsky St.
Web cam in city of Lugansk viewing Nechaya-Levitsky St.

By order of the government of the LPR broadcasting of web camers is temporarily suspended.
By order of the government of the LPR broadcasting of web camers is temporarily suspended.

All along we scoured billboard companies in the area to find the scene, although the company actually renting that corner’s billboards (or bigbordy as they are known locally) did not display the photo on their website.

LiveJournal blogger avva (Anatoly Vorobey) had one of the most useful threads on the hunt for the Buk.

This re-discovered 2 July story on Russian-backed separatists bringing a convoy of military vehicles and weapons through Lugansk at this very intersection was helpful — and drove home the point that the separatists take known routes in and out of Ukraine to Russia. The view in a photo published by also illustrates how some of the elements merge when viewed from an upper floor in a building, as the short video of the Buk was.

Then xeninghem, another LiveJournal blog taking part in avva’s thread brought together some useful points, with this annotated photo from Yandex Street View:

From avva and xemingem Live Journals
From avva and xemingem Live Journals

Translation (left to right): “Buk traveled here” “light pole” “billboard” “camera is from this side”

Yandex Street View, like Google Street View, then helps to illustrate where the rest of the elements line up — by going to Yandex Street View, you can immediately see that you are on an elevation, and that the camera view looks down on the next streets over, Stepan Razin St. and Korolenko St. So you can see as follows:

- the elevation on Nechaya-Levitsky Blvd.

Nechuya-Levitsky St. in Lugansk.
Nechuya-Levitsky St. in Lugansk.

- the red roof and white fence (which look like a red fence in the zoom view) and the grey roof of the building on Korolenko St, the next street over;

Korolenko St. in Lugansk
Korolenko St. in Lugansk

- the light pole with painted bottom and metal tag;

Intersection of Nechaya-Levitsky and Stepan Razin Streets in Lugansk
Intersection of Nechaya-Levitsky and Stepan Razin Streets in Lugansk

- and while you are looking around 360 degrees in Yandex Street View, be sure not to be run over by the trolleybus heading your way — here’s the view of its wires — yes, like Krasnodon, Lugansk has a trolleybus system, a detail critical to challenging the false geolocation by the Russian Defense Ministry.

Trolleybus wires in Lugansk
Trolleybus wires in Lugansk

As with Google Street View, it’s hard to get into the exact cameraman’s position because of the application’s limitations of perspective, but this should be enough not only to corroborate the Ukrainian government’s sighting of a Buk headed toward the Russian border, but to debunk the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim that this scene was in a completely different city under Ukrainian government control, as we reported.

And keep in mind as you view these contributions, how fragile the system of Russian-language reporting is — starting 1 August, under a new draconian law instituted by President Putin, all bloggers with more than 3,000 viewers will have to register as mass media outlets under Russia’s restrictive press law — or face blocking. An application for registration isn’t guarantee of acceptance, and we are likely to see a significant impact on the Russian-language blogosphere. Twitter and Facebook are under threat of blocking as well under a new law requiring all foreign providers to place customer data on servers on Russian territory; already bloggers like popular anti-corruption opposition leader Alexey Navalny have been blocked from LiveJournal under another law barring “extremism.” And in this region taken over by the pro-Russian separatists, the press is heavily restricted — as the shut-down of the Lugansk web cam that was recording their military movements in and out of Russia lets us know.

July 22, 2014

1336GMT: The long-anticipated “foreign agents” act has finally gone into effect against leading human rights organizations despite their efforts to contest the politicized designation in court, activists reported.

The Russian Ministry of Justice has published a list of non-profit organizations in its registry of groups that receive foreign grants and “perform the functions of foreign agents,” human rights activists reported.

The following is a translation by The Interpreter of the list of groups and some statements:

1. AGORA Interregional Association of Civic Associations (on the basis of representation by the prosecutor’s office of the Republic of Tatarstan of 3 June 2014);

2. EcoDefense! Women’s Council, Kaliningrad Regional Civic Organizations (on the basis of an act of the planned inspection of the organization of 9 June 2014 conducted by the Ministry of Justice for the Kaliningrad region).

3. Public Verdict Foundation to Promote Defense of Rights and Liberties (on the basis of presentation from the prosecutor’s office of the city of Moscow of 8 May 2013)

4. Memorial Human Rights Center Interregional Civic Organization (on the basis of presentation from the prosecutor’s office of the city of Moscow 13 April 2013)

5. Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Liberties Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization (on the basis of presentation from the Zamoskvoretskoy Interdistrict prosecutor’s office of 7 May 2013).

Natalya Taubina giving a report on human rights in Russia at the UN in Geneva in 2012.
Natalya Taubina giving a report on human rights in Russia at the UN in Geneva in 2012.

The Justice Ministry notice mentions that the organizations can appeal the designation; some of them are already in the process of doing so and others have lost their court cases.

Now that the groups have been entered into the registry, they will be subject to greater scrutiny and reporting requirements that could lead to their suspension for non-compliance or violations:

“From the moment the referenced organizations are included in the register of non-commercial organizations fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent, the requirements of the Federal law on Non-Commercial Organizations applies to their activity. Such organizations must supply documents containing a report of their activity, the staff of the executive bodies and quarterly documents on the purposes of funds expended and use of other property including received from foreign sources.

Non-commercial organizations fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent are obliged once every half year to post on the Internet or provide the mass media for publication reports on their activity. Their annual accounting (financial) statement is subject to obligatory audit.

The materials published and distributed by such an organization must contain an indication that they are published (distributed) by a non-commercial organization fulfilling the functions of a foreign agent.

Violation of these obligations enumerated are subject to administrative liability.”

The board of Memorial Human Rights Center, which had already unsuccessfully tried to appeal the designation in court, issued a statement on the ruling today:

“We are convinced that these organizations like all the others earlier entered against their will into this register are operating exclusively in the interests of Russia, since they effectively help defend the rights of citizens from infringement by government bureaucrats.

The forcible entry of them into the registry of ‘foreign agents’ is an attempt to prohibit this activity.

Instead of combating the violations of human rights, the government is waging war with those who expose these violations.”

Aleksandr Cherkassov of Memorial Human Rights Center, foreground, with other Russian and Ukrainian human rights advocates at a meeting of the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombud Valeriya Lutkovskaya and Russian Human Rights Ombud Ella Pamfilova 13 June 2014 during a joint mission to Ukraine.
Aleksandr Cherkassov of Memorial Human Rights Center, foreground, with other Russian and Ukrainian human rights advocates at a meeting of the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombud Valeriya Lutkovskaya and Russian Human Rights Ombud Ella Pamfilova 13 June 2014 during a joint mission to Ukraine.

Yuri Dzhibladze, a long-time campaigner for human rights in Russia commented on his Facebook page:

“The government’s war with civil society has moved to a new phase. The Justice Ministry has included five leading non-governmental organizations in the list of ‘foreign agents’ [...] Even though their court proceedings were not yet finished. Apparently now ‘the worse, the better.’

Such a practice (including the very use of the term ‘foreign agent’) was already tried in the Soviet era and did not lead to anything good.

The current regulations about ‘foreign agents’ passed on an emergency basis are aimed not at resolving real problems facing the country but only to weaken civil society of Russia.

We are left to reiterate what we have said in the last two years, from the moment the ‘foreign agents’ act was passed in the State Duma: this law shames Russia, it should not be improved or amended but should be abolished.”

Dzhibladze added that another organization, Coming Out, defending LGBT rights, was also entered into the registry by the Vasileostrovsky District Court in St. Petersburg.

Gay flash mob staged by Coming Out in St. Petersburg. Sign says: "Ivan and Viktor, 47 Years Together, in Sorrow and Joy".
Gay flash mob staged by Coming Out in St. Petersburg. Sign says: “Ivan and Viktor, 47 Years Together, in Sorrow and Joy”.

July 21, 2014

1753GMT: The Russian Defense Ministry gave a briefing today for the press in which they claimed that information released by the Ukrainian government on Friday about Russian-backed separatists’ possession of the Buk anti-aircraft missile system likely used in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner was a hoax.

Among the items addressed at the briefing was a short video released by the Ukrainians showing what appears to be a Buk anti-aircraft system on a truck escaping for the Russian border. As we reported on our Ukraine Liveblog, the Buk was spotted before the shoot-down of the Malaysian airplane and ultimately geolocated to the town of Torez, near the location of the crash in Grabovo. Then the video, taken early the next morning on 18 July, showed a scene in Krasnodon, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a Facebook post 18 July:

Since then, there has been a massive effort online to geolocate the billboard/Buk video. And soon enough, the Kremlin troll brigade came up with a counter-narrative which they injected into thousands of web site discussions, social media, news comments, and so on, as we reported this weekend.

They claimed that in fact the billboard/Buk scene was in Krasnoarmeysk, and the proof of that was the ad on the billboard, which is for the Bogdan auto dealer which has a showroom at No. 34 Dnepropetrovskaya St. in Krasnoarmeysk. To be sure, there is a Bogdan showroom in Krasnoarmeysk, but that address is in fact not visible on the billboard in the video; it’s covered by trees. The Russian Defense Ministry briefing interpolates this address in its notation to the screenshot of the video, but in fact it’s not visible at all in the video — it’s speculation. The Russian state media and legions of social media posters have also claimed that the vantage point of the videographer looked on to a shopping mall where there was a StroiDom store.

There were a number of things wrong with the claim that the scene was in Krasnoarmeysk:

1. Krasnoarmeysk has power lines but no trolleybus system; Krasnodon has a trolleybus system; the billboard/Buk video clearly shows trolleybus lines.
2. The Bogdan dealerships are all over Ukraine, and can be found also in Lugansk, 45 minutes’ drive from Krasnodon, where a billboard might be reasonably placed.
3. The StroiDom in Krasnoarmeysk is indeed listed at No. 49 Gorky Street, but the building doesn’t match the scene in the video. [Note: previously we erroneously noted the StroiDom on Lermontov St, but that's the location in the Russian city of Krasnoarmeysk -- it's a chain of stores with multiple locations.]

Since then, Kremlin propagandists have furthered the claim by showing the location of No. 49 Gorky St. on Google maps, purporting to be a vantage point on to the shopping mall matching the camera perspective of the videographer who made the billboard/Buk video — red and white buildings seem to match.

Here’s a screenshot provided by @AricToler of the Google maps version of the site claimed by the Russian government. This is the location mentioned by the Russian Defense Ministry in their explanation starting at 10:18 on the video above:

So our problem with that claim is as follows:

1. The videographer’s perspective in the billboard/Buk video is on an elevation, looking down on the buildings into the next street; Krasnoarmeysk has no such elevation.
2. The red rectangle in the billboard/Buk video appears to be a fence, with a white pole in it, not the red roof of the shopping mall as in Krasnoarmeysk. And the trees disappear behind this building in the billboard video.
3. The small, triangular building in the billboard/Buk video in the background, below the cameraman’s position is small with a sharply sloped roof like other homes in Krasnodon and appears to have a smoke stack; the Krasnoarmeysk shopping mall is two storys and has a flatter roof without a smoke stack.
4. The scene in the billboard/Buk video has trolleybus lines; Krasnoyarsk doesn’t have such a trolleybus system and the area shows power lines which look different.

Here’s a photo of the Krasnoarmeysk mall on Panoramio/Google maps.

Krasnoarmeysk Univermag (shopping mall)
Krasnoarmeysk Univermag (shopping mall)

In short, we don’t see anything at all to match the billboard/Buk video. The Russian government claim is that the Ukrainian government has perpetrated a hoax, and supposedly released footage of their own Buk in a location nowhere near the area of the shoot-down of the Malaysian plane, the town of Krasnoarmeysk in area controlled by Kiev. But in fact the Russian claims cannot be verified.

A user named evgenriv has happened to take a photo uploaded to Google maps which is right next to the scene at No. 49 Gorky Street in Krasnoarmeysk claimed by the Russian Defense Ministry to be identical to the scene in the billboard/Buk video.

Near ul. Gorkogo, d. 49, Krasnoarmeysk. Google maps.
Near ul. Gorkogo, d. 49, Krasnoarmeysk. Google maps.

Again, there are a number of things that in fact aren’t a match — 1) the area is flat, not on an elevation; 2) there are power lines, not trolleybus lines; 3) the painted telegraph poles aren’t quite the same at the base.

We’re continuing to look at this information, and also at a Panoramio photo taken by Evdokima taken a few meters south of the Gorky Street shopping mall that looks like in fact it does have a StroiDom store, which has a distinctive bright red/yellow/green sign. Directories can be outdated, or show offices, not all branches. But even so, this building is two storeys and doesn’t have a sloping roof like the much smaller building in the billboard/Buk video.

Store on Gorky Street, Krasnoarmeysk. Evdokimov Jeka
Store on Gorky Street, Krasnoarmeysk. Evdokimov Jeka

But at this point we don’t think the Russian Defense Ministry and the legion of Kremlin trolls who paved the wave for their briefing in thousands of social media sites have a match.

That leaves open the question of just where that photo of the Buk said to be rushed out of Ukraine to Russian by the separatists is in fact geolocated. Given that the shoot-down happened at 17:30 local time, it was already getting dark. If the separatists began driving the Buk away soon after they realized they had the wrong plane, they might get as far as Krasnodon or one of the other small towns in the Lugansk Region on the way to the Russian border, but time of departure and driving speeds, etc. are all uncertain and roads can be poor.

Keep looking.

0925GMT: Ever since a video of the pro-Russian separatists anti-aircraft Buk system was uploaded to YouTube, legions of Russians and Ukrainians on social media have been trying to locate this scene.

As we reported on our Ukrainian LiveBlog, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook the Buk had been taken through Krasnodon and was headed to the Russian border. A Russian convoy had been spotted in Krasnodon on 15 July.

Given the short snippet of film, it seemed nearly impossible to find anything to confirm the scene, but when Hive Mind got to work, eventually people figured out that the billboard in the scene was from an autodealer named Bogdan, which had its showroom in Krasnoarmeysk, another town, and evidently no stores in Krasnodon but one in Lugansk. Then people speculated on the location of other buildings and painted telegraph poles and then debated whether the area could possibly be in Krasnoarmeysk at all, given that this town has no trolleybus lines (as clearly visible in the video), but Krasnodon does. Some maintained that the lines visible in the picture could be power lines, but trolleybus lines are unmistakeable as this old photo of Krasnodan’s trolleybus illustrates.

Still other social media commenters at Avva’s LifeJournal concluded that the short video was in fact taken when the Buk was still in Torez, where the Buk has been earlier confirmed as parked behind a gas station and some stores. User Alexey Bobkov bolstered his claim by producing a dash cam footage, much like the one used by Aric Toler to confirm the original parked Buk, only driving from the other direction, and said the curb, meridian and poles — and even the billboard — were visible near the clearly-identifiable StroiDom store with the yellow, red and green sign and the five-story striped-edged brown building with the video ad. The problem is that Torez doesn’t have trolleybus lines, either.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that Kremlin propagandists have now gotten into the geolocation game, seeing how much it has fascinated Westerners and been used by them to debunk Kremlin propaganda. On Friday and Saturday, we noticed as did Russian bloggers an identical post appeared on hundreds of sites — such as social media, news portals, news media comments sections, and blogs — claiming that the scene had been geolocated in Krasnoarmeysk — but that this proved that the Buks belong to the Ukrainian military, which had control of Krasnoarmeysk “since May 11″ and therefore the Buk sighting video was Ukrainian disinformation. The post has the feeling of engineered propaganda not only because of its massive appearance everywhere simultaneously with either no name or various authors, but because it quickly appeared on Rossiya 24, Russian state TV, where Konstantin Knyrik coordinator of the South Eastern Front Information Center, a pro-separatist activist, repeated it almost word-for-word.

The Interpreter has translated the mass-produced post:

“A video is being disseminated in Ukrainian communities where supposedly the militia are hauling the shooting Buk toward the RF. But the city of Krasnoarmeysk is in the video, the billboard with the advertisement for the car dealership at 31 Dnepropetrovskaya St. Since 11 May and until now, the city has been under control of the junta’s forces, conducting the ATO! [anti-terrorist operation].

The Buk is missing one missile. In the photo and video with the trailer (the same one) there is a StroiDom [construction material] store. Address: Krasnoarmeysk, 49 Gorky Street. That is, the shooting Buk was located on a territory under the control of the junta and is still there. What questions are there? Everything is as clear as day — the Boeing was shot down by Ukrainian military by this very Buk, and now, in order for the video which leaked on to the web not to become compromising material, they decided to stupidly lay the blame on the militia, that they are hauling it. Remaining true to their lying nature (the Odessians burned themselves, the Luganskites blew up their own air conditioner, the DPR itself shells towns and so on). Mongrels.”

The propaganda technique here relies on a certain factology, playing on the fascination people have for geolocation. There are two things wrong with the story, however; one is that the StroiDom store isn’t at that location in Krasnoarmeysk, but on Lermontov St. The other is, of course, a lack of explanation for the trolleybus wires.

So it’s back to work looking through all the billboard companies in Krasnodon and their locations, and all the billboard companies in Krasnoarmeysk. Good luck!


Ukraine Liveblog Day 157: Fighting Continues in Donetsk

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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