The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russia This Week: Kurginyan Brags About Sending Repairman for Buks (14-19 July)

Updated Daily. Ultranationalist Sergei Kurginyan bragged 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. July 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. In the worst accident in the Moscow metro’s history, at least 21 had died and 160 were injured. Opposition candidates hear their private conversations aired on LifeNews, then find a bug in a campaign worker’s car. Russian state TV has reached a new low in its broadcasting of lurid war propaganda against Ukraine. Facebook executive’s secret trip to Moscow leaves 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.

For last 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.

For the previous week’s issue on the Russian government’s exaggerated numbers of “110,000″ refugees from Ukraine; the addition of Chechen strongman Adam Delimkhanov, a close associate of President Ramzan Kadyrov, to the US sanctions list; the beating of a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council tasked with monitoring human rights in Ukraine; the staging by DPR separatists of a propaganda bus tour for Russian journalists to a Ukrainian army base they claimed was surrendering, which ended in the killing of a journalist; and the confirmation of the dismissal of ultranationalist and Eurasianist ideologue Alexander Dugin from Moscow State University, go here.

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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.

July 20, 2014

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!

July 19, 2014

2137GMT: Many Russians on Twitter have now turned their attention to an account made by fans of Crimean Prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya, which contains a tweet dated 29 June bragging about the Buks which has not been removed:

Translation: Kupol Anti-Aircraft weapon - detection radius 150 km. ZRK Buk - target kill radius 20 km. Some excellent cookies have appeared with the militiamen for the Ukrainian Air Force.

This account is labelled as "informal" and "not for the media" but has statements consistent with Poklonskaya's views and "the Moscow line." Most likely, as we reported at the time on our Ukrainian Liveblog, it was posted as part of the Kremlin propaganda campaign 29 June which pre-seeded the story of the stealing of the Buks from Ukraine to account for their use of the system in shooting down Ukrainian planes subsequently.

In recent days, @npoklonskaya has carried other statements that the Ukrainian Air Force is supposedly responsible for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, and linked to a blog with this theory based on the usual YouTube arguments about time-stamping.

Translation: The planned downing by the Ukes of the Boeing

Poklonskaya became a cult hero when Russian forcibly annexed Crimea, and even has a wildly viral autotune of her press conference at the start of the Crimean conflict with 12 million views. Kremlin propagandists either helped this phenomenon to come into being, or invaded it once it got started to seed pro-Moscow propaganda.

Some Russian speakers have now begun replying to "Poklonskaya's" tweet in the last few days and implying that the real Poklonskaya herself might now get into trouble -- although she has said she doesn't maintain social media accounts and has not commented on the separatists' arsenals in reality.

Translation: Natasha honey, looks like you've been caught.

And they believe this is an admission that the separatists' possess the Buks:

Translation: It's exactly these cookies the militia have that have turned the Malaysian plane into ash. Now you can't wriggle out of it.

Like other social media accounts broadcasting the Moscow line, @noklonnskaya didn't go back to delete the previous line of past weeks when the Moscow line changes -- and that's how we can trace it. This tweet is interesting because it doesn't claim the Buks were stolen from the Ukrainians as the TV Zvezda story did, it just says they "appeared" in their possession.

2030GMT: A Russian ultranationalist leader has been caught on tape speaking about an anti-aircraft Buk system in the possession of pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine.

In the July 13 episode for his Essence of Time's YouTube channel, theater director Sergei Kurginyan, an outspoken supporter of the separatists fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine, has a recording of his speech at a summer school on the situation in Donetsk. He takes the occasion to explain that Russian civil society is providing military aid to the separatists -- a theme he accentuated in his scandalous press conferences with separatist leaders recently.

In the talk, he reiterates his support for the Kremlin and says he "does not reproach it but values and protects" the Russia government, which has been chastised for not helping the separatists enough. He says that civil society has been supplying armored vehicles and weapons to pro-Russian separatists in Donbass in Ukraine, but "very modestly":

Then starting at 3:42 on the video he mentions the Buks, which many see now as an admission of possession of the Buks by the separatists. Kurginyan recent spent some weeks in Donetsk region travelling under armed guard among the separatist leaders.

The Interpreter has translated the relevant excerpt:

"Everyone has seen that civil society, on a private basis, have been supplying a large amount of armored vehicles and other forms of military technology. Civil society of Russia, I say this with responsibility, will never cross the line and will always be aimed at supplying the most modest technology of what is considered needed. Civil society will not supply to the southeast of Ukraine Iskanders, or S-300 or other ambitious systems. Because it's not within the capacity of civil society, and we also consider it not necessary.

But, our very talented and even brilliant electronics experts will of course repair -- I think they've even already repaired, it seems to me -- the Buk system seized from the Ukrainian bandits -- the Banderaites [supporters of Ukrainian war hero Stepan Bandera]-- I don't want to say 'the Ukrainian people' but the bandits and the Banderaites and in the very near future, I simply know a brilliant electronics expert who has flown there -- precisely as a representative of civil society who will help the fraternal people. In very short time it will get it back working. It will be fixed, yes? It might even turn out there are even several systems."

This talk was given before the downing by Ukrainian airplanes by separatists the next day, 14 July, and then the downing of the Malaysian airliner 17 July, believed to have been perpetrated by separatists as well. Since then as we have reported on our Ukrainian Liveblog, the Buks have been reported to be removed from the area on trailers and were last seen heading toward the Russian border.

The admission of the existence of the Buks in the separatists' arsenal is at odds with other groups of supporters of the separatists such as which has denied they ever had them.

Snippets of this revelatory claim by Kurginyan have now been widely re-posted by Russian and Ukrainian social media users. Evidently Essence of Time has done DMCA take-down notices on them citing copyright considerations, because now they have been removed, as some are reporting:

Translation: Kurginyan is taking down fom the web the video in which he announced the repair of the Buk by specialists from Russia.

Translation: KURGINYAN FANTASIZES ABOUT THE REPAIR OF THE BUK SYSTEM. VIDEO. This video was removed from YouTube at the request of Essence of Time.

It also led some to suspect darkly that Kurginyan was lying or is actually an anti-Russian agent as he would be seen to harming the separatists' cause now by claiming they had Buks

But this doesn't mean that Kurginyan's organization has removed his original speech -- that's still there of this writing on his YouTube channel (see 13 July episode).

Meanwhile, on Friday, ITAR-TASS and other Russian state outlets quoted Ukrainian Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarem as follows:

"After the passenger plane was shot down, the military reported to the president that they terrorists do not have our Buk and S-300 missile systems. There was no seizure of these armaments."

Russian media and blogs have spun this report accentuating that separatists don't have Ukrainian Buks stolen from Ukrainian arsenals into a claim that they don't have the Buks at all.

The self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" quickly deleted their tweet bragging about possession of the Buks and showing a picture.

It appears likely that the Buks were supplied from Russia, and as we reported on our Ukrainian Liveblog, that the Russian Defense Ministry TV Zvezda planted the story of the seizure in advance, in order to have an alibi -- a technique that we've seen before in this conflict.

July 17, 2014

1430GMT: The citizen reporter in Gukovo who filmed Grad rockets taking off from Russia and flying into Ukraine has had his page removed from VKontakte, Russia's most popular social network.

Dmitry Tlustangelov was relaxing at the lake in Gukovo with his family yesterday when he caught sight of smoke across the water and videotaped it with his camera phone. A little boy's voice is heard saying, "What is that?" And he replies, "It's a Grad."

Dmitry then uploaded it to his VKontakte page and word spread rapidly about the scene: it appeared to confirm reports that Russia had been shooting at Ukrainian positions from inside its own territory. (See our Ukraine Liveblog for stories here, here , here, here and here on this and other citizens' videos from Gukovo which we have geolocated).

Soon other videos were added and people were consulting Google maps and Google Street View; yes, surprisingly, Google's trucks have reached even this border town in Russia and local people have uploaded their own photographs to Google maps which then helps to locate videos.

Gukovo Street View
Gukovo Street View

Proposed camera view of video in Gukovo
Proposed camera view of video in Gukovo

Possibly concerned about repercussions for publicizing such a momentous report, Tlustangelov then apparently removed the video and said he couldn't confirm that the missiles were fired from inside Russia.

But by that time, dozens and then hundreds of people had copied and studied the video on VKontakte, reddit/r/ukraina, LiveJournal and Twitter -- new videos were appearing and the story could not be suppressed.

Translation: Yes, now it isn't like it was 70 years ago -- everyone has a telephone with a video camera in his pocket. To shoot from Grads and say 'that's not us' won't work.

People kept working the information:

Marked Image

They were driven by a sense that they couldn't allow untruths to remain; as one reddit user named "rainydio" from Dneptropetrovsk Region, who suggested this position for the video, "This is a violation, welcome to the information age. Sanctions are being discussed. They have to force khuylo ["dickhead," pejorative name for Putin] to say 'this Grad was bought at the army depot, we don't know where it is from, it shoots itself. So the bastard's leg twitches."

But by the end of the day it turned out that Tlustangelov's page was completely removed, with the familiar "sad dog" that stands for a "404" at VKontakte.

Of course numerous people had both his page and his video in Google cache, and many were praising him as the "man of the day" and urging Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to give him an award.

VKontakte profile of Dmitry Tlyustoangelov
VKontakte profile of Dmitry Tlyustoangelov

From his profile, we can see that Tlustangelov, age 20, who studied at the police academy, makes an unlikely hero for Maidan. His entries show him proudly wearing the black-and-orange St. George ribbon of Russia nationalists and pro-Russian separatists, and his VK entries are filled with the things typical of his age and views -- Russian nationalist inspirational sayings, anti-Ukrainian jokes and memes, and a crude, racist joke about Obama.

"We're Ukrainians. America is with us." "We're Russians. God is with us."
"We're Ukrainians. America is with us."
"We're Russians. God is with us."

It's not clear whether his page was removed by VKontakte management (which is certainly more cautious about anti-state activity since the departure of founder Pavel Durov), or whether he himself removed it to avoid the glare of publicity.

In any event, the story has raced far ahead of him now, and his sunny afternoon at the lake with the tilted camera and the smoke in the sky has been immortalized on thousands of media sites.

July 16, 2014

1430GMT: At a press conference 14 July reported by Lenta Novostei and, Ukrainian Interior Ministry spokesman Anton Gershchenko called for sanctions against Konstantin Ernst, general director of Russia's state TV Channel 1, for broadcasting a lurid hoax claiming that Ukrainian forces crucified a toddler and dragged his mother to her death with a tank. The claim has been debunked by independent Russian and Ukrainian journalists. Various versions of the story were discovered in social media preceding the TV broadcast, as we reported.

Galina and Konstantin Pyshnyak. Photo via
Galina and Konstantin Pyshnyak. Photo via

Ukrainian police confirmed the identity of the refugee woman, Galina Pyshnyak, who had resided in Nikolayevka outside Slavyansk, until she fled with her children to Russia and told the false story on camera to Channel 1, broadcast 12 July. The Interior Ministry spokesman also disclosed the family's police records, noting that Galina had reported her own teen-age daughter for stealing 1,000 hryvnias [$85] from her, and also reported her husband, Konstantin Pyshnyak for assault and confiscating her passport. (Her husband, formerly with the Berkut riot police, was said to join the separatist fighters and his whereabouts are not known.)

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry plans to work through the Foreign Ministry to appeal to the European Union to introduce sanctions against Ernst, as Russia's top domestic news station has been responsible for this and other falsehoods that have incited ethnic hatred and spurred more Russian volunteers to come to Ukraine to fight. The spokesman added that he believed Russia was having difficulty finding new recruits after the highly-publicized deaths of some Russian fighters, and was resorting to such crude propaganda.

Ernst, who gained world fame as the choreographer of the Sochi Olympics show, was himself the subject of a story claimed to be false about his alleged suicide attempt after a conversation with President Vladimir Putin and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. The report was denied on Ernst's own web site and by some other outlets, but meanwhile, he has not seem to have appeared in public, except for a possible appearance at the 1 May parade on Red Square.

The Ukrainian government has also called for travel bans on some 300 Russian journalists who were given awards in secret by Putin for their role in covering his campaign to forcibly annex the Crimea. The list leaked out later and contains many of the reports from state media who continue to cover the conflict in Ukraine in a biased manner, and also contribute disinformation and propaganda.

The Interior Minister spokesman read out the names and case information from the International Tribunal on Rwanda, noting that a newspaper editor and radio journalist were tried for crimes against humanity because they incited mass hatred and killing. While the UN and OSCE have condemned Russia's use of propaganda and disinformation, an effort to start a case against the Russian government in any international court would likely have trouble establishing the correlation between incitement and imminent violence, and there would be concerns about impacting freedom of expression.

Russian opposition leaders Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov denounced the fake story on their blogs.

July 15, 2014

2305GMT: Today marks five years since Natalya Estimirova, a Chechen human rights advocate and journalist, was found dead in Ingushetia, after being abducted the previous day from Chechnya.

Amnesty International in Moscow held an event to commemorate her death, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

State Department spokesperson Jen Ptaki delivered a statement on the anniversary:

"Nataliya Estemirova bravely and tirelessly sought to expose horrible human rights violations in Chechnya. Five years ago on July 15, she was kidnapped and brutally murdered in the North Caucasus region of Russia. Her killers remain unnamed and unpunished. We call on the Russian Government to step up efforts to find those responsible for the murder of Ms. Estemirova, as well as in the cases of other human rights activists and journalists whose murders remain unsolved.

Ms. Estemirova’s courage and dedication continues to serve as an inspiration for those who have carried on her work in Russia and elsewhere. Sadly, many of her colleagues in Russia continue to face harassment for their work. We call on the Russian Government to ensure that human rights defenders can safely and freely pursue their work, which is so vital to a healthy, democratic society."

Although five men have been convicted of carrying out the murder, the figure who ordered her assassination, believed to be in the security forces of the Chechen Republic, has not been found. A petition is still ongoing seeking justice.


Russia's Channel 1 has called the derailment in the Moscow metro today "the largest technogenic catastrophe [industrial accident] in the history of the underground."

As of 21:00 Moscow time, emergency workers were still working to free people alive in the metro tunnel, reported.

"Ten hours after the tragedy in the Moscow metro, there are still people alive in the damaged train. One of them was reached by rescuers. 'One victim was unblocked. We have to still unblock another victim in the first car,' Yury Akimov, deputy head of the Emergencies Ministry said at a meeting at the ministry's situation center. Then an hour later at the next meeting, it was announced that all passengers had been freed. The status of the last woman to be dragged out from the metro was not known."

All together, 21 people were reported killed, some dying of their wounds after being taken to the hospital. About 160 people were injured, mainly Muscovites but also visitors from Krasnodar Territory, Kirov Region and Orenburg. Eleven foreigners were also injured from Moldavia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China and also possibly from Armenia. With 43 people listed in critical condition, the death toll is likely to rise. Mayor Anatoly Sobyanin has declared tomorrow, 16 July as a day of mourning.

Twitter (where the #метро [metro] hashtag was trending) and other social media were filled with reports of the accident, which took place between the stations Slavyansky Blvd. and Park Pobedy (Victory).

Translation: People being brought out of the metro Park Pobedy on stretchers.

Authorities have ruled out terrorism as an explanation for the tragedy, and a criminal investigation has been opened regarding technical negligence.

2152GMT: The deadline for submission of signatures to get on the ballot in the fall Moscow municipal elections was 11 July, and with the considerable advantage in the primaries by the party in power, United Russia, and various difficulties for opposition candidates, there was concern that they would be unable to participate.

If you thought New York City's ballot process was a labyrinth, this Rube Goldberg machine drawn by candidate Max Katz shows the many hurdles and offices that must be cleared in Moscow.

Translation: A diagram has been drawn for the work of the signature collection headquarters here.

He decided to solve the problem of both transparency and bureaucratic second-guessing with a map app:

Translation: They refreshed the site, and input all the signatures on a map. Come and see : )

In the end, Katz's signatures were approved:

Translation: Candidate Max Kate and his signatures, and also 25 days without a day off.

Ekho Moskvy
's editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktor announced that besides Katz, Mariya Gaidar and Lyubov' Sobol had also been accepted, as were others: published a story 14 July about a campaign worker for an opposition candidate discovering a bug in his car, and others finding signs they were under surveillance.

"These prove the presence of 'political surveillance' in today's Russia," says journalist Albert Khabibrakhimov. Opposition members haven't had to work hard to convince anyone that they are under surveillance -- state media is constantly leaking their telephone conversations and making clandestine videotapes of their meetings, then airing them in tendentious propaganda shows.

Last week LifeNews, a tabloid TV station with close ties to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, published the conversations of Maksim Katz, the Yabloko candidate and Nikolai Lyaskin from Aleksey Navalny's Party of Progress where they supposedly "admitted they purchased signatures." But the candidates denied the false claim. Lyaskin said that what had happened is that strangers called them on their office telephones offering to sell signatures and they rejected them.

That show tipped them off to the likely existence of bugs, however, and they began looking for them. They searched all over their offices and couldn't find them until they thought to look in their cars, and a device was found in a campaign volunteer's car. It was manufactured by and contained a SIM card, a built-in microphone and a GPS antenna and worked on regular lithium batteries. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt of the article:

Bug found in opposition campaign worker's car July 2014. Photo by Nilolai Lyaskov via
Bug found in opposition campaign worker's car July 2014. Photo by Nilolai Lyaskov via

"'It's an ordinary tracker which tracks location, but it can also be used as a bugging device,' said Lyaskin. We got inside the personal account of this SIM. And it turns out that if you call a certain number, which is authorized just for that SIM, an audiotape is turned on. In fact, this device doesn't record the sound, but transmits it to an outside server. The device had been activated for two days already when we discovered it. Naturally, they didn't manage to record anything on it."

Avtofon makes devices that are able to locate objects and transmit the information to the owner; the device they found is called a D-Mayak [beacon]. The gadget is advertised as follows: "the presence of the built-in microphone enables you to listen to the room where it is located from any distance." It is intended to be used for security and guardian expensive freight. But at 6,000 rubles, it could be used by anyone. Lyaskin doesn't know who planted the bug but urged the Investigative Committee to open an investigation.

Another opposition candidate, Mariya Gaidar says she hasn't had the experience of having her conversations bugged, but "anyone who gets involved in politics in Russia is not protected from surveillance."

Olga Romanova, who already experienced a death threat during this campaign aired from state television, said that LifeNews seemed to turn up at places where she had scheduled meetings over the telephone. "Aram Ashotovich [Gabrelyanov, head of News Media, the company that owns LifeNews) is listening to all of us. Aram Ashotovich is working like the intelligence agencies, Aram Ashotovich is great!" she quipped.

To foil spies and saboteurs, Romanova announced that she wsan't going to get enough signatures to get on the ballot, but then quietly turned in the necessary amount on the deadline.

Lyubov Sobol is convinced her office was bugged because she came in one morning to find sawdust on the floor near the wall -- she thinks in fact the bug was removed because she couldn't find it.

In 2011, LifeNews published the cell phone conversations of Boris Nemtsov in violation of the Russian Constitution. Then Vladimir Ryzhkov, as well as Gennady Gudkov former deputy of the State Duma from Just Russia were also bugged in 2012; Komsomolskaya Pravda published a conversation purporting to be the voice of Sergei Udaltsov.

We could add that Navalny and his staff have also been put under surveillance and exposed by NTV. and the recorded conversations of Navalny and his co-defendant Pyotr Ofitserov were also used in the Krivoles trial

2000GMT: "Truthseekers," a sensational program by, the Kremlin's major propaganda outlet for the West, ran an outrageous program today falsely claiming a "genocide" by Ukrainian forces of ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine. It's typical of the lurid anti-Ukraine war propaganda we've been monitoring which Russian state media is using to fuel public hatred of the Kiev government.

But after getting some protests, took another look and removed the feature: even apologized in a tweet to Julia Davis News:

Not before some copies were made that can still be viewed (this one with Hungarian sub-titles):

That means hundreds of thousands of people already saw it, and the damage is done.

Screengrab from anti-Ukraine "Truthseekers" Episode
Screengrab from anti-Ukraine "Truthseekers" Episode

July 14, 2014

1503GMT: Unlike Twitter executive Colin Crowell, whose trip to Russia was publicized in advance and openly debated, Facebook's regional executive Thomas Myrup Kristensen kept his negotiations with Russian officials secret in a visit to Moscow last week, Izvestiya reported.

Under a new law that has passed in the final reading by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament on 4 July, foreign Internet service providers and social media platforms will be required to place servers on Russian soil with Russian customer data . The law is certain to be passed by the Federation Council or upper house and signed by President Putin, as it was his idea in the first place. Russians are avid users of Twitter and Facebook, especially opposition figures who have been blocked on domestic sites.

The Russian state media spun the Twitter trip as a concession to Roskomnadzor, the state censor, but later Crowell denied the claims that Twitter had blocked all the accounts Moscow finds "extremist." To be sure, even before the trip, Twitter had blocked Ukraine's ultranationalist Right Sector.

Izvestiya reports that it has three sources describing the visit to Moscow by Facebook's Thomas Myrup Kristensen, director for public policy for Nordics, Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, previously employed by Microsoft and the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation as an adviser, and previously in the news for defending Facebook's policy on nudity in debates in Denmark.

Kristensen reportedly met with the head of Roskomnadzor and discussed Russia's legislative regulation of the Internet. Facebook declined to comment for Izvestiya, and Roskomnadzor could neither confirm nor deny the meeting. But domestic Russian providers were watching closely to see how Facebook would behave.

"'The question of regulation of the internet is one of the most urgent now. Most likely they [Facebook] wanted to learn from Roskomnadzor what sanctions they may be threatened with in connection with the law on bloggers (which was part of a package of anti-terrorist amendments) and the law on personal data,' said Matvei Alekseyev, director for government liaison of Rambler & Co, one of the domestic Russian providers."

Under the new draft law on server data, ISPs will be required to ensure "the recording, storage, systematization, accumulation, preservation, and correction" of Russians' personal data on Russian territory. A special "register of violators of the rights of subjects of personal data" will be created in Russia, and sites that are found by courts to violate the law will be placed on the register, and blocked.

"'The data of citizens of Russia, their electronic mail, information which we input during registration for various sites or social networks, in most cases is abroad. This data can be used against the country, and against a specific individual," Vadim Dengin, one of the drafters of the amendments to the law on personal data told Izvestiya. We want large Internet corporations -- search enginees, email services, social networks and others to retain the data of Russians in data centers on the territory of our country.'"

Foreign providers will be forced to rent Russian server space -- leaving customer data thus open to the FSB and other state agencies to access under Russian law. Ivan Zasursky, President of the Russian Association of Internet Publishers believes Facebook was interested to learn how these new demands will have to be fulfilled in terms of compliance and notifications, and that they were looking for a compromise.

Izvestiya noted that Facebook has already gotten into trouble with users for privacy violations such as with the Beacon advertising system in 2007, and when Facebook went public in 2012, the problem of personal data protection was listed among the company's chief risks.

A new law will go into effect 1 August under which bloggers with more than 3,000 viewers will be required to register as state media or face blockage. ISPs will also be required to retain user information for 6 months.

Earlier Maksim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor had threatened to get Twitter blocked "in a day," a threat that was discounted by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, an avid i-Phone and Twitter user.

0544GMT: We've all grown accustomed to the lurid claims of the Kremlin's many state media properties, which we cover frequently and which were most notably rounded up in an Examiner article about "60 Lies," some of which we've debunked.

But on 12 July, Channel 1 reached new lows with a claim that the Ukrainian army committed atrocities when liberating Slavyansk. "How could this happen in the center of Europe?" intones the narrator. In the processing of debunking the claim, we can trace the close connection among ultranationalist ideologues in Russia, the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, and Russian state TV programs.

One week after pro-Russian separatists retreated from Slavyansk, on 12 July Channel 1 interviewed a woman refugee in a camp in Rostov Region, giving her name as "Galina Pyshnyak." She said she was originally from TransCarpathia, and her relatives in Western Ukraine were unhappy that her husband had gone to fight with the separatists.

Galina then describes how in the center of town, allegedly at Lenin Square where the executive committee building is located -- the only square where a large number of people could be gathered -- women had been brought together because the men had all gone off to fight, to witness a scene right out of Game of Thrones (translation by The Interpreter)

"'It was called a show execution. They took a child, a 3-year-old boy, a little one, in shorts and a t-shirt. And like Jesus, they nailed him, one nailed him, two held him down. All of this in front of the mother. The mother was held, and watched. Blood flowed from the child, there were cries and screams, they took him like this, and cut him. The shock of the child was impossible. People fainted. Then after they tortured the child for an hour and a half and he died, where this was all happening, and then they took the mother, tied her to a tank, unconscious, and dragged her around the square. They made three circles. A circle around the square is a kilometer."

Ukrainian video blogger Anatoly Shariy immediately tried to take this wild story apart:

He said that several days before the Channel 1 story had aired, he had already seen a Facebook account of a story very similar to the refugee woman's story from a certain Alexei Smirnov who described himself as a person who "rescued children in ATO [anti-terrorist operation] zones." We couldn't locate this account, but there are literally thousands of people by this name on Facebook from Russia and Ukraine, and quite a few of them post pro-separatist propaganda. Shariy quotes Smirnov as follows:

"'Yesterday, the National Guard nailed a little child to an ad board and he hung there until his father, a militiaman, came out, then they shot him dead. You have aroused not horror, but ferocity in us...'"

"Now the story has been slightly 'modernized' for TV," Shariy wryly commented, wondering how Galina knew the child's age was three years old, but couldn't provide his name.

Novaya Gazeta journalist Evgeny Feldman went to the main square in Slavyansk and interviewed people there, mainly elderly women, none of who could confirm the story. They didn't believe it, although all but one said they had not been on the square that day. The one woman who was there to greet the Ukrainian army said nothing of the sort had occurred. Feldman also panned around the square, and we don't see anything that matches the description of a bulletin board.

There's also a discrepancy in Galina's story -- while there is a Lenin statue in Slavyansk, the square is called "October Revolution Square". During the separatists' occupation, there were posters pasted on the Lenin statue itself, and posters hung on the barricades the rebels themselves made at the government building, but nothing like the "bulletin board" or "ad board" described appears to be on the scene.

Julia Davis of the Examiner then investigated the story and declared it fake. She discovered that none other than Aleksandr Dugin, the ultranationalist Eurasianist fired recently from Moscow State University, had given the story legs with his more than 16,000 followers on Facebook, in a post 9 July of an "anonymous civilian's" account 8 July, in which he reiterated his infamous call to kill Ukrainians. The Interpreter has provided a translation:

"Beasts have seized Slavyansk. There's an escalation of the genocide. And such creatures shouldn't be 'killed, killed, killed." Really, they shouldn't?

Urgent: The truth has broken out of Slavyansk about what is happening in the city. Genocide of the civilian population is under way. Here is the account of eyewitnesses.


'Seryoz, this is from a girlfriend...she saw it personally...The Ukrainian forces entered the city, they had information about who is in the militia, they captured a woman, and tied a man to an armored transport vehicle by the legs and dragged him alive around the square, then threw him bloody into the vehicle and took him away somewhere. Then they came into an apartment, dragged a six-year-old child out on to the square and nailed him to a stand with a sign, well, an advertising stand, and he hung there until they brought in his father, a militiaman; when the father came running, they shot him in front of everyone, and Igor and his daughter saw this, the girl has such stress that she began to stutter, she speaks badly, and she is 12 years old. Igor took his daughter and wife and went to Belgorod in one second. Figure out what is happening. They go into apartments, homes, they go with dogs, they shoot men who are up to age 35, without trial and investigation. Without conversations, without interrogations as to whether they are for Ukraine or for Novorossiya, they don't...They just shoot them in front of their relatives. Igor says they're henchmen, he told me this and I was sobbing and he was sobbing into the phone. He was in shock. This all happened yesterday and the day before. It seems bombing is more humane than what is happening now in Slavyansk. Corpses are simply all over the streets and homes and apartments. No one is counting them or picking them up."

Dugin asks that the text be re-posted and also translated into foreign languages; it got 568 shares.

Then on July 11, separatist defense minister Col. Strelkov published the same claim from "an anonymous civilian"

"Now a refugee from Ukraine has said that she herself saw how Ukrainian henchmen crucified a boy in front of his mother, apparently, the mother was connected to a militiaman. And yesterday from Slavyansk a girl wrote that they had murdered the boy in Slavyansk, and sent a video of the murder to the militiaman father. I thought perhaps that was not true, but now first-hand this is confirmed, that these barbarians commit such things."

Another account called Donbass, Vstavay! [Donbass, Rise Up!] said they had "confirmed" it and added the further detail that the mother had been tied to a tank and dragged around the square until dead.

Is it worth even covering these crazy propaganda stunts that seem to self-discredit? It is when we realize how many millions of people believe it in Russia and southeastern Ukraine. A recent Levada poll in Russia indicating that 40% of those surveyed who want Putin to invade Ukraine also found that most of those polled get their news from state TV. Davis believes it's worth trying to debunk propaganda (so do we) -- she even got to retract one of their wild stories about a man named Skryabin who supposedly threw himself under a tank to save his comrades. It turned out he had actually died of cancer in 2011.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 153: Russian-Backed Separatists Move Bodies Of Flight MH17 Victims

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Ukraine Liveblog Day 152: Separatists Block Access To MH17 Crash Site

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Ukraine Liveblog Day 151: Who Shot Down MH17?

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

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Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Was Col. Strelkov’s Dispatch About a Downed “Ukrainian Plane” Authentic?

When regular watchers of the news from the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” saw the latest dispatch on 17 July from Col. Igor Strelkov, the self-appointed “Defense Minister” of the DPR, they realized that the pro-Russian separatists didn’t know yet what had happened.

Here is a translation by The Interpreter of the dispatch as it originally appeared at Svodki Strelkova Igora Ivanovicha, or “Igor Ivanovich Strelkov’s Dispatches”, a community at the popular Russian social networking site VKontakte:

“In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine.

We warned them – don’t fly ‘in our sky.’

Here is a video confirmation of the latest ‘bird drop.’

The bird fell beyond the slag heap, it did not damage the residential sector.

Civilians were not hurt.

There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.”

As we reported 17 July, this post that originally appeared on the “Strelkov’s Dispatches” VKontakte group showed that the pro-Russian separatists were boasting about having downed yet another Ukrainian airplane — or maybe even two — just as they had done on 14 July with a powerful anti-aircraft system in Krasnodon.

As this apparent admission of the downing of the plane seemed to be a smoking gun in the tragedy of the Malaysian airline, it has come under much scrutiny as possibly a “fake” or just a blog post of an unofficial Strelkov fan group that might be prone to erroneous postings.

From our long observation of this Vkontakte group and other Strelkov-related pages, we would have to say this is not the case – this group’s publications have long been cited by regional media and the same talking points as the dispatch were also used by Russian state media and Ukrainian media from other separatist sources .

First, the VKontakte group isn’t just a random fan group; it’s an established group of supporters now numbering more than 137,000 followers which has been publishing “Strelkov Dispatches” for weeks, many of which have tracked events corroborated by other sources or which are consistent with the separatists’ narrative as Strelkov himself says on camera in video addresses or at news conferences uploaded to YouTube.

Second, the DPR, whatever its internal differences or “rag-tag” image is a militant cadre organization in the Soviet style with vertical command, tight internal “party discipline” and control of its news and statements. Strelkov is widely reported to be an officer in the GRU, or Russian military intelligence, and recently admitted to having served in the Federal Security Service (FSB) as well. The self-declared prime minister, Aleksandr Boroday, a Muscovite and political consultant long active in ultranationalists causes, is also said to be an FSB officer. He pays close attention to the messaging of the group and has developing increasingly sophisticated methods of news broadcasting with flashy graphics, music, and maps to convey the separatists’ narrative and interests. It would not be possible for such a large social media group to be formed and persist for this long if it didn’t have Boroday’s approval and if it wasn’t consistently “on message” with Strelkov and other leaders.

The 17 July message on the purported “Ukrainian plane” downing wasn’t removed hastily — it remained in view for hours while hundreds of others copied it on Vkontakte, Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal “as is” — and then others began to discuss the implications of the seeming admission.

But more importantly, mainstream Russian state news agencies and topical discussion sites either used the dispatch “as is,” or — what is especially important for corroboration — didn’t use the VK post at all but had similar stories based on other separatist sources. These are still visible online or in Google cache. We’ve gathered some examples:

1)., one of the top pro-government Russian newspapers, reported the story of the “downed transport plane” on 17 July at 18:18, first citing an eye-witness:

“‘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, the plane fell to the earth, and 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.”

The eye-witness said the plane fell in the area of the Progress mine, away from residential apartments — which was exactly the information in “Strelkov’s Dispatches”.

Vzglyad added that the separatists had set up anti-aircraft weapons at the Saur-Mogila mound in Snezhnoye and on 14 July had downed two SU-25 planes in this area. Kiev confirmed one loss and said that one of the Ukrainian SU-25 was downed by a Russian war plane. Then Vzglyad added this piece of news, not removed:

But then Vzglyad included 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, correcting that they had shot down the plane from a ZRK “9K37M1″ (better known as a Buk).”

Vzglyad quoting separatists on Buks.
Vzglyad quoting separatists on Buks.

This article appeared as the separatists were scrubbing their tweets bragging about possession of the Buk — and it hasn’t been removed.

The Vzglyad article makes it clear that they’ve used the separatists as sources and have accepted the story that the plane which was downed on 17 July was another AN-26. They don’t quote Strelkov word for word — but used the exact same talking points.

Other news outlets just ran the dispatches “as is” and have not removed them.

2) ran the “Strelkov Dispatch” on 17 July at 18:56
, quoting it exactly, including the infamous line “We warned you not to fly in ‘our sky’ and also running a screenshot and a picture of Strelkov. This page remained online as of this writing, and demonstrates how the dispatch was used as reliably coming from him — the story was posted before the news of the Malaysian airliner was known, and is not a discussion of the dispatch as an admission of responsibility, as other, later uses of the post were.

Forbes citing Strelkov's Dispatch
Forbes citing Strelkov’s Dispatch

3) A Belarusian news portal also ran a word-for-word version of the dispatch from
, noting that it was 16:50 Kiev time, although the dispatch itself gives the time as “17:50 Msk” for Moscow time, which is the time the separatists run on.

4) ITAR-TASS also joined in the publishing of the separatists’ first version of the news of the downed plane on 17 July at 19:04 — and this piece still remains on line as of this writing.

“Militia of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in the area of the city of Torez have shot down a military transport AN-26 plane of the Ukrainian Air Force. Eye-witnesses report this from the place of the incident.

According to their information, the plane was shot down by a missile, after which it lost altitude, crashed to the ground and burned up.”

So ITAR-TASS used the eye-witnesses’ report, and trusted their story that it was separatists who had done the shooting down of the plane on 17 July. ITAR-TASS then reiterated the report of how separatists had also downed two other planes on 14 July.

5) a popular military news and discussion site, used the VK dispatch and the eye-witness report but added further speculation – before the news of the Malaysian plane broke:

Under the headline “Ukrainian Air Force AN-26 Shot Down Near Torez; Militia Announce Downed SU,” they quoted it in full as a “confirmation” of the 17 July downing — before they had the news of the Malaysian flight — and also mentioned the second plane and posted the video. They did not remove this news item later and it was still online to date.

6) In its first post on the subject, put the time as 17:37 Moscow and had this “report from the militia”

“In the Snezhny district an AN-26 was just shot down, and it is scattered somewhere behind the Progress coal mine.”

Its second report was then time-stamped 17:50 Moscow, and contained word-for-word the “Strelkov Dispatch” without any reference to the VKontakte group (referring only to “the militia”) — with an added smiley symbol next to the phrase “We warned you – don’t fly in ‘our sky’”.

17 July 2014 post on downed "Ukrainian airplane" on
17 July 2014 post on downed “Ukrainian airplane” on

Neither report was removed, although later updates mention the separatists’ denial and the Malaysian Boeing.

So with a bit of Google forensics of news stories still preserved as they were reported at the time, we can see that:

a) the “Strelkov Dispatches” VKontakte group is trusted and used regularly by a variety of state and independent media and was used for this story;
b) other separatist sources cited by the Russian state media had the same version of the “Ukrainian transport plane” story talking points as the “Strelkov Dispatches” and they were used as sources without any reference to VK;
c) the eye-witnesses who reported the downing also made the presumption that separatists downed the airplane — and this was also assumed by the writers of the Russian state news stories.

The issue isn’t whether “Strelkov Dispatches” are used — they are, all the time, by Russian state media, i.e. two days before the downing of the Malaysian plane.

And as we see, stories based on reprints or talking points of the dispatches remain on top news sites — and of course are copied on many blogs.

Nor was it the case that the Vkontakte group was alone among separatist outlets “off message” on the plane having to make corrections later — or still to make them.

Other outlets for news of the separatist battles also ran the story without reference to the VKontakte group. Russkaya Vesna (Russian Spring) was one such site, which reported the following on 17 July at 18:32:

“Today in the area of Torez (DPR) a Ukrainian Air Force plane crashed.

There is a version according to which an AN-26 was shot down over Torez. But it is possible this was a fighter plane as there is information from eye-witnesses that it managed to release several missiles before falling.

The plane fell beyond the slag heap and the residential sector was not damaged; in one of the videos, the impression is created that it was falling on a residential block.”

So this source used the same talking points as “Strelkov’s Dispatch” regarding the slag heap and the lack of damage to civilian buildings, but without reference to him as such. This story remains online, although subsequent posts tell the story of the Malaysian airliner.

Soon, Russian news sites began to ask the question of whether Strelkov had been mistaken — and they didn’t need prompting from Ukrainian news sites to do so; was one of a number of such sites with a headline Strelkov Mixed up the Boeing with the AN-26? on July 17 at 19:33.

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

Strelkov watchers argue over what is the most “authentic” and “official” of various websites purporting to represent him. As he himself has claimed not to run any individual social media sites himself, this opens up the question of how pro-separatist news sites are representing separatist statements. At one time the colonel was said to post his thoughts on a blog called Edinoross (United Russian); a blog called Summer 56 was also said to be used for his posts, and he has posted on various forums as well. Recently a site is claimed to be his “official” site – and it has a slightly different clone, which also has dispatches that appear to be Strelkov’s, some of which are in whole or in part the same as in the group.The site has been denounced by others as “inauthentic.”

In our experience, unless Strelkov is speaking on camera in real-time with journalists present or with internal time-stamping and geolocation, it’s hard to accept completely any “dispatch” coming under his name in print on a web site. Yet in general, the posts from “Strelkov’s Dispatches” have been accurate at least in terms of relaying the news and notions of the separatists. When the messaging does seem to be going astray from Moscow’s ultranationalist supporters, as it did with a riotous few days when Strelkov was being denounced and blamed for retreating from Slavyansk, Aleksandr Boroday quickly appears in live press conferences and social media posts to set the separatist record straight.

The “Strelkov Dispatches” Vkontakte group has now published this convoluted explanation for why they removed the post about the downed plane:


From the Administration of the Community

Information about the downing of the plane was taken from a forum where local residents and militia have discussions. At the moment of the publication, all users thought that the latest AN-26 of the Kiev Nazis was shot down, and the post about the downing, duplicated by us, was already going around many anti-Maidan communities. Igor Ivanovich Strelkov did not confirm the information about the destruction of the plane. We will remind you that in our community, reports from I.I. Strelkov are published with a special banner “STRELKOV REPORTS”. All other reports we gather from open sorces and also from the journalist of militiamen and eye-witnesses of events. STRELKOV HIMSELF WRITES ONLY ON ONE SINGLE FORUM, and we also only duplicate his reports here, ALWAYS accompanying them with a SPECIAL BANNER. If there is no banner, then the report is NOT from Strelkov, but from open sources (either from militia, or from eye-witnesses or from journalists).

Meanwhile, denounce
d the original VKontakte post as a “plant” by Ukrainians and denied that separatists had ever seen a Buk — forgetting that by this time, multiple Russian news sites had already mentioned their previous boasts of having them. They fumed that Ukrainian sites “planted” the story of the “Ukrainian plane” in advance before the plane downing. But in fact the story came out about the same time — and they can’t explain why Russian news outlets used it — or the same talking points from various separatist sources.


Ukraine Liveblog Day 150: Malaysian Passenger Jet Shot Down Over Ukraine

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

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Ukraine Liveblog Day 149: Russian Tanks and Artillery Reach 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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Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

‘Colonel vs. Major’: Separatist Defense Minister and Vostok Commander Patch Over Differences

Last week, Russian ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin, mentor to the pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine who has orchestrated mass support on social media, was denouncing as a “mutineer” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, head of the Vostok Battalion in southeastern Ukraine.

Dugin posted on his VKontakte page that Khodakovsky was only running a rump Vostok with only 50 loyal men as other fighters fled to fight directly with Col. Igor Strelkov in Donetsk. Khodakovsky was said to be holed up at the Makeyevugl coal plant in Makeyevka. That fueled further speculation about “payoffs” from Rinat Akhmetov who owns a number of coal mines and steel plants and has walked a fine line bargaining with the pro-Russian separatists as well as Ukrainian military to keep his properties from being shelled. Khodakovsky was also said to have organized the security for a rival ultranationalist from Moscow visiting the region, Sergei Kurginyan, who had denounced Strelkov.

In an interview with Aleksandr Boroday 6 July, Novaya Gazeta journalist Vladimir Dergachev described Khodakovsky as “no less a mysterious figure than Kurginyan” and claimed he had helped to prevent the assets of Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov from being “nationalized” by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR).

Boroday denied any role regarding Akhmetov’s assets or any insubordination.

But then Dugin must have gotten the memo, because he then backed off his denunciations, and said things were being smoothed over between DPR Defense Ministery Col. Igor Strelkov and the Vostok leader.

He then praised the Russian newspaper Vzlyad which had interviewed the parties and portrayed the DPR leaders as patching things up, even as they remained rivals. The article is titled “Colonel vs. Major,” as Strelkov is said to have the rank of colonel, and Khodakovsky to have the rank of major.

With the separatists fled Slavyansk and decamped to Donetsk, Vzglyad sources had reported a conflict in the DPR leadership; they said fighters were leaving Vostok, and only separatists loyal to Khodakovsky from his days in the SBU remained. Interfax even reported that Vostok had not sworn an oath of allegiance to Strelkov. The denunciation of Strelkov by Sergei Kurginyan appeared to exacerbate these splits and it seemed as if “Moscow” was distancing themselves from the colonel.

But according to Andrei Purgin, vice premier of the DPR, “there is a conflict of approaches and not a conflict of personalities.” Khodakovsky believes that “the consequences of military actions can be minimized,” Purgin explained, “but that’s impossible, since there’s a war on,” says Purgin, who added that he believed Boroday would bring the two rivals together. The Interpreter has translated an excerpt from Vzglyad:

“‘The conditions are difficult. For various technical reasons contradictions are inevitable but all of this is being smoothed over. People realize that they are working for one common goal. So it is here: a collective body will be created and even if there are some frictions, people will be forced to work together,’ promised Purgin.”

Another DPR representative interviewed by Vzglyad, Andrei Rodkin explained that Khodakovsky is blamed for the failure of the Donetsk airport storming in May, which led to the deaths of 43 separatist fighters, 33 of them from Russia; according to one story, they fell under “friendly fire” as they fled the airport. Khodakovsky has explained it differently; the failure of the Ukrainian Kirovograd 3rd spetsnaz regiment to keep to what he believes was a pledge to withdraw — instead they fired on his men. The Marinovka checkpoint was another battle planned by Khodakovsky that led to separatists’ deaths and loss of vehicles.

“‘As for the insinuations around the Vostok battalion, I emphasize that this division is fighting, and fighting very effectively, in particular in the area of the Saur-Mogila hill, where virtually the whole Azov punitive battalion was destroyed by our artillery,’ Rodkin maintains. Let us note that according to the DPR, the Ukrainian air force bombed the position on Saur-Mogila.”

In a long press conference with Boroday July 10, Strelkov explained that Vostok was still led by Khodakovsky, that he had met with him twice in April and had found a common language , and that he was still subordinate to him as defense minister, although he gave a complicated explanation of how this line of command was working: “units of Battalion Vostok that serve on the frontlines are in operational subordination to the staff of the militia” but in future “will continue as part of the Ministry of State Security.”

On July 11, clearly-marked units of Vostok were seen charging into Donetsk with multiple armored vehicles with some Caucasian men, some of them with what appears to be the flag of South Ossetia (at 3:04); Chechens have fought with Vostok in recent months but were said to return home or to be killed; now it appears others from the Russian Caucasus may have joined.

Khodakovsky, who described himself as head of Vostok early in the conflict, was formerly an officer of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) and commanded the Alfa spetsnaz in Donetsk. He was reported to have gone to Kiev during the Maidan protests to drive protesters out of the trade union building. Strelkov has been variously described as a GRU colonel recently admitted he was an FSB agent who fought in both Chechen wars and Transdniestria and was also reportedly part of the Crimean campaign.

Andrew Bowen
Andrew Bowen

What Strong Sanctions Against Russia Might Have Accomplished

The offices at VTB headquarters in Moscow’s burgeoning new financial district, which lays a short hop away from the Kremlin, were eerily quiet. No one was talking as every employee was gathered around the TV waiting for President Obama to announce the first series of sanctions against Russian and Crimean officials in response to Russia’s annexation of the small, economically depressed strip of land.

The rhetoric leading up to this announcement was making people all over Russia—and the bankers and businessmen in the west who facilitate the flow of capital from Russia—very nervous. It was assured that the sanctions would target some very high-level and close associates of Putin, but what was truly making people nervous was the threat of sanction against Putin himself or sector-wide or targeted sanctions against state-owned industries such as Rosneft, Gazprom or VTB itself. Sanctions like that would be the death knell for Russia’s economy, killing foreign investment and shutting the most important parts of the economy from access to international finance.

When President Obama finally came on screen and the names of individuals were announced, there was a collective sigh of relief and a quick return to the break neck speed that is the banking world. No one cared what he had to say after the names; the list had said all the bankers needed to hear. The West would impose sanctions, and it would be inconvenient to some, but they would not impose sanctions that would truly have an impact and also negate any western foreign investment in the country—Crimea and Ukraine were not worth it.

I recently had the opportunity in Moscow to hear about scenes like this and others when I had a chance to speak with several bankers and lawyers who specialized in managing investments for clients—particularly in setting up offshore ventures. And while they all had different jobs and roles they had one thing in common; they spent a lot of their time initially calming down clients that the sanction threat would diminish and the West would not continue to impose harsh and meaningful sanctions.

The initial rounds of sanctions that targeted the likes of the Rotenberg brothers, Gennady Timchenko, and heads of major industries like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and Rostec Corp. head Sergei Chemezov, actually did provoke unease among Russia’s internationalized elite. They were worried that their business interests and banks would be increasingly wary of doing business with individuals in Russia and would start looking harder at the provenance of their capital. They were worried their vacations in Monaco and their plans to send their children to school in the West were under threat.

And it shows that, at least initially, the elites were worried about the U.S. imposing costly sanctions. As Brian LeBlanc of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington D.C. based think tank, has shown, there was a significant departure of Russian deposits in U.S. banks; down from $21.9 billion in February to $8.4 billion in March. Although it could be that they simply moved their deposits to different financial institutions from other countries, it is a telling sign of the worry that Russians had over the sanctions.

But the bankers and lawyers who advise them knew better. And they were right. Despite listing a few more significant confidants of Putin, the U.S. and especially the EU have instead targeted the local separatist leaders with sanctions that, if anything, undermine and further reinforce the view that the sanctions are mere diplomatic maneuvering and of little long-lasting importance. Anders Aslund, a respected economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, went so far as to label them a “whimper” compared to the tough rhetoric. Even America’s strong initial series of sanctions has seemed to have worn off. Two U.S. federal agents recently confirmed to me that they no longer see the impact of the sanctions on money flows between Russia and the U.S.

By looking at the most recent round of sanctions—the list of U.S. designations can be found here, and the EU here—which primarily only target the separatist leaders present in Ukraine and spare targeting the political leaders and sectors of the Russian economy that support the Kremlin’s adventurist policies, one can see how Russia understands that the West is losing interest in Ukraine and further sanctions.

It is also due to the fact that after the forceful start, the sanctions were quickly undercut by a combination of business interests and misguided attempts at trying to incentivize Putin to positively contribute to a diplomatic solution. Instead of forcefully impacting the Russian economy and government they have been face-saving measures which have decreased rather than increased in severity with each new round.

The UK does not want to impose sanctions for fear of losing the massive amounts of capital that flow into the city each year (as evidenced when British deputy national security advisor Hugh Powell was photographed carelessly walking into No.10 Downing with documents stating that Britain would not support harsher sanctions against Russia or “close London’s financial centre to Russians.”); France is in the middle of completing a $1.7 billion deal to build Mistral class amphibious assault ships for the rapidly modernizing Russian military; Germany is reliant on Russia to provide it with a majority of its energy, to say nothing of its significant business interests with Moscow; and the U.S. is worried about pushing too far for fear of alienating the EU which, as above demonstrates, has significantly more ties with Russia than the U.S.

These ties have hamstrung efforts to apply harsher measures. Imposing weaker sanctions serves to only further embolden the Russian elite and Putin. Without the follow-through of the threat of significant and meaningful sanctions, and by only imposing token actions against individuals who have neither the assets in the West nor enough assets at all which would be impacted or threatened by sanctions, the actions that have been taken by the West serve to undermine the credibility and threat of Western commitment to stopping Russian support of separatists in Ukraine.

Despite hopes that the EU will discuss stronger sanctions at an EU summit tomorrow, along with purported pressure by the Obama administration, the election of Jean-Claude Juncker to become the next European Commission President does not endear much hope. It was under his term as prime minister of Luxembourg from 1995-2013 that he turned the small country into one of the largest tax havens and offshore financial centers in the world.

This is especially dangerous as after a seeming lull in the Russian support and grandstanding for separatists in Ukraine, tensions are beginning to rise again. The U.S. even admitted as much saying, “We have no evidence that Russia’s support for the separatists has ceased. In fact, we assess that Russia continues to provide them with heavy weapons, other military equipment and financing and continues to allow militants to enter Ukraine freely.”

Tensions will continue to rise as it is evident that Putin is playing a double game of publicly promoting negotiations while secretly (and not so secretly) arming the separatists. The difference is this time the West no longer has the threat of sanctions to temper Russia’s ambitions.



Ukraine Liveblog Day 148: Ukraine Says ‘Unidentified Aircraft’ Bombed Snezhnoye

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

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