This past week during the prolonged battle for the Donetsk Airport, there has been a series of Russian-backed separatist propaganda videos, as well as Russian state TV news programs reporting from the same scenes and using militants’ footage. These have been widely discussed on social media because they give away the fact that the militants occupy residential buildings, and move through and fire heavy artillery from residential areas, putting civilians at risk.
As we learned from the Russian state Channel 1 broadcast, an elderly woman is still living in the apartment building the militants use as a firing tower; the New York Times also found a school-teacher; and we also found another civilian coming into the area in the following video.
Russian state TV wants to continue to portray the war in Russia’s favor, and their proxies as a home-grown “self-defense militia,” a claim which as we will see is belied by their own reports. The longer “Novorossiya” videos are intended primarily for the hundreds of thousands of sympathetic fans of ‘Novorossiya’ on social media — one copy already has 300,000 views as of this writing. The videos are both a fund-raising and recruitment tool as well as a visual activity report to donors. The videos also help popularize certain charismatic commanders or unique personalities that viewers can identify with and take an interest in.
So that’s why rather than hiding their equipment or positions, the videos proclaim the messages that the fighters have Russian state backing, Russian support groups fund-raising for them and supplying them, additional recruits from other pro-Russian past battlefields such as Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia and even Brazilian, French and other and other sympathetic Western mercenaries fighting with them.
They are heedless of any ramifications of the exposure of their drawing fire because they believe they are justified in countering fire from the Ukrainian side — and they know the West will stay focus mainly on Kiev, both because it is more amenable to Western pressure than Moscow and its proxies and because the world tends to hold state armies more responsible than non-state militants.
The fighters believe they are justified in not only storming the airport but continuing to provoke artillery fire from Ukrainian armed forces, surrounded at facilities which has largely been reduced to rubble. They see themselves and the self-proclaimed “self-defense militia” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” as “defending the people.” But what else can we learn from these videos that reveal the fallacy of this claim?
This video was uploaded to YouTube on 2 October by Novosti DNR [DPR News] (the Russian-backed separatists’ YouTube channel) and is labelled, “Storming of the Airport. A Day With Givi (30.9.2014). It was since removed “for copyright violations.” A copy can be seen on our channel:
1. The compound taken over by the militants include a nine-story apartment building and house near the airport. They use this building and adjacent buildings and courtyards to park all their military vehicles and line up their troops for battle instructions.
Most disturbingly, they use the roof and top floor of this apartment building and other nearby buildings as firing positions, occupying the top floors and roof, from which they shell the airport with anti-tank weapons and mortar launchers. This video and some others around these dates are filmed at 11 Vzlyotnaya Street a few blocks from the airport, which we geolocated here on Google Maps; it can also be seen in Google Street View here.
Here are the matches from the video’s scenes to Google Street View:
At the start of the video, the fighter nick-named Givi is looking out of a top floor apartment of the building. He is looking out toward the west — the same white cisterns on the airport grounds are visible and the air traffic control tower. Givi repeatedly gives instructions to a militant artillery group, correcting their positions as they try again and a again to fire at the tower. Apparently they are firing from a field to the east of the airport because the missile comes from that direction.
We see fire come from the east across the sky, hitting the east side of the control tower — letting us know that the separatists don’t just fire from the south directly at the airport, but take other positions from other directions where they could miss and hit civilian areas.
As we reported on 2 October regarding Channel 1’s revelations of separatists firing from atop a residential building, a Russian-language blogger reported that firing had been going on all day in Donetsk from a position he sketched out roughly in a tweet:
— klimat (@airklimat) October 2, 2014
Translation: #Donetsk From this spot here they have been banging away from Grads, etc. all day today.
We located that position here on Google Maps near a slag heap which is elevated, as a picture in Google Street View confirms. But since it is wooded and has a pond as another Google Street View picture indicates, they might prefer to go on the elevation to the north.
That means the rebels’ firing position would be somewhere here, to the north of the slag heap with this view of Donetsk seen in a picture in Google Street View.
The firing position coming from the east has also been located on the map by the blogger @djp3tros of Ukraine@War. He believes the gun used has an 8-kilometer range, and the militants have gone out that far in order to avoid retaliation. He also believes there is a tank positioned to the northeast of the airport which accounts for the angle of some of the shots.
Then Givi travels to a nearby field where there is an artillery group with a balky cannon. The artillery man curses and jimmies the piece and tries a half dozen times to hit the air traffic control tower visible in the distance. He is in a field we have geolocated here, surrounded by residential areas, numerous one-story homes and other buildings, including a church. The artillery men point to the skyline where we can see the control tower, the church and an airport building, a police hotel which the rebels have repeatedly tried to shell, occupy and clear as a base to move forward on the rest.
We can see Givi enter the area at 3:46 and turn into a field with a wall with some graffiti on it, and see the fighters loading artillery.
The blogger djp3tros from Ukraine@War has confirmed this position by finding the same wall with the graffiti on Yandex Street View.
Thus, the position of the artillery field, church, tower and airport are marked as follows:
Then in the next scene, the armed fighters, traveling in civilian cars, stop by a yellow house, and Givi gets out of the car. Bellowing and gesturing for the cameras, he stands in the middle of the road, and makes a dramatic phone call to a Ukrainian lieutenant defending the airport and berates him for shelling the city.
The house is here on Google Street View, at the corner of Stratonativ Street, which is the road back from the firing field, and Artyomovka Street, near their base.
Givi swears at the Ukrainian lieutenant, implying his side has broken the ceasefire. He threatens the lieutenant with storming the airport again (8:40). “I have all the information about Avdeyevka,” he warns, referencing the Ukrainian position north of the airport. That’s not rocket science, however, as the Ukrainians themselves had recently broadcast a program about the defense of this area north of the airport.
At 12:37, Givi — a Georgian speaking Russian with a Georgian accent, says, “This is my land, I was born here, I was born in Donbass, not in Ukraine.” And this sums up the “Novorossiya” proposition: the struggle is as much about Russian-speakers of non-Russian ethnicity as it is about ethnic Russians.
Givi threatens the Ukrainians: “One more shot in my direction and I’ll wipe you off the earth, I have enough forces. I will crush you like a toad,” he adds. Then he rings off and goes to meet the Russian TV correspondent waiting for him.
The separatists’ DNR News channel didn’t have a problem broadcasting the tanks in the yard, as we reported:
Nor did the separatist supporter Novorossiya video channel:
Nor did LifeNews, which used the separatists’ footage in their own news program “No Comment” on 30 September:
But for some reason, the New York Times, even producing handsome pictures of Givi from his look-out in the shelling-and-shelled building, didn’t notice any T-72 tanks. Maybe they were on mission when the American reporters arrived?
2. The militants are well-supplied with T-72 tanks from Russia — these tanks cannot have been stolen from the Ukrainian arsenal because they are not exported and only made in Russia. (We have geolocated convoys with such tanks near the Russian border as they came into Ukraine.)
They don’t even bother to remove the label with “Russian Guard” and the Russian flag from the tank.
The distinctive reactive armor can be seen on the tank, which is only available in Russia and not sold abroad.
3. The fighters also have plenty of new, clean weapons and uniforms, sturdy boots, shiny cooking pots, and plenty of favorite local foods like fruit compote and imported American Nescafe instant coffee as well as cigarettes. Givi gives one fighter a handsome cash bonus on his birthday.
4. The rebels also have plenty of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and numerous crates of ammunition.
And did we mention how clean and neat those uniforms look?
5. In various interviews in other “Novorossiya” videos and in this one, the militants explain they are born in the Donbass and are fighting for homeland and family; even in this conservative Russian Orthodox society, women are fighting alongside men on the battlefield, not just serving as medics. They also have young recruits who look to be no more than teenagers.
6. The fighters are willing to take any number of killings and wounded without flinching and have a well-stocked medicine chest with pain-killers even if they have to transport their wounded man in Soviet blankets. They have disposable gloves and remind each other to put them on. They walk around one of their dead comrades on the field and tell the man who will likely lose his leg to be quiet.
8. The “Novorossiya” fighters make no secret that their aspirations are not just for “certain districts of Donetsk and Lugansk Regions” as stated in the cease-fire agreement, but for all of Ukraine, as this armored vehicle with the sign painted “To Lvov” with the Russian spelling lets us know.
9. The airport they are fighting for is already in ruins — in frame after frame we see buildings have been reduced to rubble, and machines and vehicles damaged. (This is sad, because Ukraine had just spent $758 million rebuilding the Donetsk Airport for EURO 2012.) On the face of it, it’s hard to understand why this piece of land is being fought for so intensively, but in various interviews, the militants explain that first of all, it’s a symbolic and strategic objective that is viewed as deciding the whole future of the war, and second it has underground tunnels and bunkers that are not damaged that may be of use. One legend circulating on pro-separatist forums and social media is that a famous commander with the nom de guerre of “Motorola” burned alive a Ukrainian soldier in one of these underground tunnels.
This video of a rebel run on the airport also shows the extent of structural damage:
10. The Russian-backed fighters cooperate extensively with Russian state media; it’s not only that such correspondents are embedded with the fighters as they go on their raids; they are filming the same scenes and using separatists’ video footage, and guiding them on how to pitch their narratives.
As the fighters prepare to storm the airport, a camera comes into view:
Then if we zoom in close we can see this correspondent is carrying the trademark blue Rossiya 24 microphone:
The bearded reporter has a helmet on but it’s fairly certain that he is Rossiya 24’s Yevgeny Poddubny, who did a report the very same day with the same footage:
Poddubny is a war correspondent for Rossiya 24, one of the TV channels of VGTRK (All-Russian State Television and Radio Company). Puddubny figures in the recent intercept by the Ukrainian Security Service in a conversation with the DPR prime minister Aleksandr Zakharchenko about how to spin the tragic death of the International Committee of the Red Cross worker, and before that, in a cover-up of the circumstances of the death of Andrei Stenin.
The scenes in his broadcast are identical or use the same footage:
Rossiya 24 liked the shots of the tower blowing up so much that they repeated it multiple times throughout the newscast.
The man without a helmet or flak jacket with the kefiyeh who is giving instructions to the fighters is nicknamed “Yalta.” Later, he is later seen at the airport with a weapon but no protective clothing; for a broadcast at the same time on LifeNews, as we reported 2 October, he gives a humorous message to the camera to his mother, pretending he is working in a cafeteria baking pies. After attempting to get some men out of a burning building, he is killed, reportedly by Ukrainians firing from a BTR.
LifeNews, another pro-government TV channel close to police and intelligence agencies, also worked with the same rebels and covered the same scenes last week, or enlarged on the same themes. In this widely-disseminated special broadcast, Givi claims that Ukrainians violated the ceasefire when the separatists moved infantry into a territory they claimed to have “cleared” near the airport — as if somehow the Ukrainian army is not entitled to defend the airport.
At 0:33, Givi says “2/3 of the incoming missile strikes are from Avdeyevka, from long-range missiles that can hit from 15 km.” He accuses them of “hiding behind a 9-story apartment building and firing.” But of course, that’s what the rebels are doing. The main terminal and dispatcher’s tower are the main targets. A cannon is shown firing and hitting the control tower.
Givi berates the Ukrainians, “Why strike at civilians? What have they to do with anything?” Yet as we’ve seen, not only are the separatists themselves indiscriminately firing and missing targets at long range from the south and east of the airport in residential areas, they are drawing Ukrainian fire by continuing to do this. They fein obliviousness to the fact that their notion of raiding and storming and “clearing” buildings (such as the policemen’s hotel at the airport) is the problem and violates the ceasefire. They also imagine they are magnanimous in offering the Ukrainians a safe corridor to leave the airport — which they have refused.
When individual cases of killing of civilians are covered in the Western media, whether the shelling of a bus and school in which 16 people died, or the killing of the International Committee of the Red Cross worker, the tendency is to view the fighters as urban guerrillas engaged in warfare against a state. The first incident is believed to be the fault of the militants because of the direction of the missile; the second is ascribed to Ukrainian forces, although an intercept by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) indicates the separatists may attempt to spin the evidence in their favor.
Yet seeing this warfare through the lens of guerrilla fighting, such as the British Army against the IRA, loses sight of the fact that the “Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic” are fully armed, supplied, funded and staffed by the Russian Federation — both the state and ultranationalist groups in un-civil society — and helped immensely with war propaganda and disinformation by the Russian state media. That means they aren’t just a scrappy self-defense militia fighting against a powerful enemy; they are the firing end of a far more powerful state that has invaded its neighbor.