Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week story The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features âManaged Springâ: How Moscow Parted Easily with the âNovorossiyaâ Leaders, Putin âThe Imperialistâ A Runner-Up For Timeâs âPerson of the Yearâ and It’s Not Just Oil and Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy, It’s Putin.
About 20 activists were arrested after refusing to leave Manezhnaya Square last night following a rally in defense of the Navalny brothers.
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The tweet is like hundreds that appear on Twitter, making a claim without a link that is hard to prove — that certain Russian combatants are fighting in Ukraine and killing Ukrainians.
Translation: A KPRF deputy sends his greetings to the SBU from Donbass.
The KPRF is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
Before long, this tweet without a link or any other information gets a bit embellished in the translation because the bloggers from the region have a context that a Westerner might not have:
The first tweet shows a screenshot of the deputy’s home page on the muncipal legislature of Sergiyev Posad — his name is Denis Akhromkin. Is he fighting in Ukraine now and killing Ukrainians?
We know it to be a generally true fact that there are Russian volunteers and regular soldiers fighting in Ukraine because we’ve documented
many such cases not only of Russian armor coming into Ukraine, but also
Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, such as those on this list of more
than 250 “Cargo 200” — the Russian military term for soldiers killed in
combat whose bodies are returned to Russia — or buried in the war zone
with an Orthodox cross and only the name “Ivan.”
Can such stories which so often come on Twitter without any links
to their sources be confirmed? Many of the details can, but we cannot
definitely prove that Denis Akhromkin is in fact in combat killing Ukrainians —
although he has been caught bragging this on posts since removed, and
there are many pictures of him armed, in combat zones — and as we shall see, independent Russian journalist Andrei Trofimov has asked a lot of hard questions and come up with some more relevant context.
The problem with VKontakte and other social media is that they can
be very misleading and sometimes deliberately so and by themselves,
aren’t enough to establish a claim. Thousands of such accounts are now
being assiduously mined by an army of bloggers in Ukraine, Russia and
the West to prove that Russia invaded Ukraine and uses both volunteer
and regular army in Ukraine.And thousands of accounts are also being
created by wannabees and provocateurs who would
like to discredit journalists.
The presence of “Lost Ivan” can be proved in other ways, also using
social media or from the eye-witness accounts of Western journalists.
Despite limitations, VK has proven to be a useful resource although not
always as definitively as it may seem at first. Local journalists on the
ground willing to cover the war and ask hard questions who take
incredible risks have also been needed to run these stories to ground.
Contrary to what pro-Kremlin trolls say, Akhromkin does exist, is a
member of the local city legislature — not the State Duma — in
Sergiyev Posad, a town in Moscow region famous for its monasteries.
Akhromkin appears to work at the Emergencies Ministry (Emercom) — he is shown in pictures and newspaper articles in the uniform and gear of this ministry — and as a volunteer patroller and possibly in
that capacity has a legal firearms license.
He has a tattoo of the “Militant Russia” mixed martial arts club and a friend in a “Novorossiya” t-shirt featuring Col. Igor Strelkov.
Akhromkin is a member of
several organizations including the People’s Militia which is an
auxiliary to the police. He has traveled to Moscow to lobby for the new
law on druzhinniki which would give them more powers and make it
possible to fine citizens who resist their “lawful orders” face
punishment by fines.
Akhromkin with deputies in the State Duma lobbying for the druzhinniki law. Photo by Alternativnaya Gazeta
Is he in fact a member of the Communist Party? This was questioned by some Twitter members but while not immediately evident, it was eventually confirmed. The Moscow Regional Chapter of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) has written about him,
describing a clash he had with a Tajik labor migrant who hung out his
underwear to dry on a clothesline. In a “think of the children” moment
and drawing on his existing practice as a “cleanser” of “illegal
immigrants,” Akhromkin informed that man that his laundry was in view of
a children’s playground and he had to take it down.
The man resisted, words were exchanged, and at one point the
migrant was said to take off his pants to graphically show Akhromkin
what he thought of such concerns, and then popped him over the head with
a bottle, although Akhromkin was not seriously injured. The police were
summoned — and all of it was captured on tape as yet another
successful “round-up” of a “churok,” as Central Asians are pejoratively called by such Russians.
article happens to show Akhromkin’s campaign poster for the KPRF where
not surprisingly he campaigns on the issues of “Migrants, Housing and
Law and Order”
Photo by Andrei Trofimov Alternativnaya Gazeta
Akhromkin is a member of a group with a VKontakte page called “Dezinsektor”
whose name appears to be based on the Russian words for “disinfectant”
and “sector” whose motto is: “We catch illegals, we force the organs to work” —
meaning the police and intelligence agencies — although some might be
thinking of the Tajik migrant’s defiant gesture.
From news accounts and his VK page, we can see Akhromkin is very active in bringing “humanitarian aid” to southeastern Ukraine. But is he one of those fighters who smuggles himself and arms into Ukraine under guise of the Red Cross, as described by this veteran in Yekaterinburg who admitted he misused the local Red Cross organization in this fashion?
Here’s Akhromkin standing in a telnyashka, a Russian paratrooper’s t-shirt and a bullet-proof vest in front of a Ukrainian ambulance. What’s he doing there?
This type of story is popular in Ukrainian and Western mainstream media right now but it isn’t necessarily true — in fact Newsweek has just run a story that is based on a faulty account by NVUA.net and Ukrinform which we explained here and here and which ultimately led to the head of the Moscow Red Cross to refute the story that he had claimed such Russian volunteers and arms were being smuggled into Ukraine in white “humanitarian aid” trucks — and to denounce Ukrainian journalists who ran this story. Yet, as we pointed out, the debunkers failed to take into account that the Moscow Red Cross in fact had been critical of how humanitarian aid was being brought into Ukraine, and in fact there were reports of fighters smuggling themselves into Ukraine in vehicles bearing the red cross.
The pictures on Akhromkin’s VKontakte account do show him posing with guns, though it is uncertain if they were legally obtained in relationship to his Emercom work or druzhinnik activity.
They show him posing in Krasnodon, Ukraine, with Afghan war veterans and separatist fighters.
They show him posing with the infamous Russian-backed battalion commander nick-named “Motorola” who has twice broken his arm in combat – he appears to be in the ruins of the Donetsk Airport.
And here at the remains of the Saur-Mogila war memorial in the Donetsk region:
As the pictures in the original tweet which we also confirmed are on his VK account indicate, he’s even posed by wreckage with the word “Donetsk.” Is is he going on assault runs on the airport?
These pictures in fact are not proof he was actually in combat because of the propensity — particularly of paramilitary groups and nationalist groups from Russia — for people to want to pose and get souvenir pictures.
Are there any other clues that could confirm he did fight in a war?
Akhromkin is also shows pictures of graves of Russian soldiers who have died in battle — he writes on the caption “Glory to Russian warriors. These men were not arms dealers, for them it was a weapon of vengeance.” It’s not clear where they are buried, but the way in which their graves are lined up so closely with the standard wooden Orthodox crosses often used to bury such soldiers in Ukraine — it’s likely it is in Ukraine. At home, they would have a headstone.
Disturbingly, he is shown
by an ICRC vehicle — again, is he one of these fighters smuggling himself and
his weapons into Ukraine under cover of the Red Cross? Or is he just making an aid delivery to this location:
Ultimately, it’s hard to prove that these pictures, even with camouflage and guns, mean this man in a militarized ministry and police auxiliary is in combat. He’s sitting on a camouflaged tank — but are sneakers the right foot gear for combat?
But in the last week, Akhromkov appeared in sensational news reports by journalist Andrei Trofimov who claimed that Akhromkin and another man had been arrested at the Russian-Ukrainian border smuggling guns into Ukraine. Trofimov said he had tips from Russian law-enforcement about the arrest. In his first article, he didn’t mention any names and blacked out the faces of some militants in a photo, but when Akhromkin himself issued public denials, he then did mentioned the name of him and his friend.
Akhromkin indignantly denied the charges to the local media and in a YouTube address.
Trofimov stuck to his story and reported further and printed another photograph, this time showing the face of Akhromkin and a buddy by a BTR:
Trofimov writes that Akhromkin must have known who was detained at the border because he made the comment “I begged them in every way not to put out ideas of unlawful actions and withdrew from them.”
And surely he knew when he said that he “never had” any relationship to unlawful activity that he himself had a record for sentencing for unlawful weapons possession — which he didn’t report to the police. If he did, reasons Trofimov, and he was the one who informed on Yury Prudenko (seen above), with whom he had traveled to Ukraine, why did he begin blustering and denying? Prudenko himself wrote angrily in the comments of Trofimov’s article that they were simply inspected at the border, no weapons were found.
Yury Prudenko. Photo via Alternativnaya Gazeta
Now the story was starting to look a little less like “humanitarian aid drop-off” and more like “combat tourism” in Ukraine.
But why were FSB agents informing a blogger of an effort to stop something that in fact they’ve shielded their eyes from — and participated in — for most of this year? Is this the famous “dumping of Novorossiya” that Col. Strelkov always frets about?
Trofimov then went even further and went to get a videotaped interview with Akhromkin and Prudenko.
The story is long in the telling but between 7:00-9:00 you can see an interesting thing happen. Akhromkin gets talking about “our armor” — and Trofimov stops him. Our? As in — you were fighting with the rebels?
Akhromkin stammers through a tale of seeing some POWs, and seeing a Ukrainian tank — and then starts looking at the floor. Prudenko comes in with a more plausible tale — they were driving along the road, when they saw a Ukrainian tank that rebels had seized themselves. It was “pinched,” as the fighters often say in describing these cases.
Well, whose was it and what were they doing? Trofimov persists. Prudenko says he can hardly ask the drivers of a tank who they are, and where they got the tank.
So in the end, we can’t say for sure what was going on here. Were these men at war, helping the Russian-backed rebels — and proving that the war isn’t indigenous, or only partly so? Were they merely armed deliverers of “humanitarian aid”? The prevalence of these stories now in the regional press — and the readiness with which they are being set up and then debunked — suggests there is some hand scripting this.
Trofimov points out that it’s odd that he didn’t mention Akhromkin’s name in his first story — yet he instantly started issuing denials.
Trofimov then produces a number of materials indicating that the Ukrainian authorities have declared Akhromkin a “terrorist,” and published him on the crowd-sourcing site Center for Researching Signs of State Treason, Separatism, Terrorism and Mercenarism in Ukraine which was recently begun by the Ukrainian government to collect information from citizens — and which has been criticized by some as open to abuse and false denunciations.
It’s on this site that a comment in reply to a woman who asks “Where are you?” Akhromkin says “Stanitsa Luganskaya beating on Ukrainians””.
The site has photos that apparently were once on Akhromkin’s VK but appear to have been removed — one picture has him in front of a machine gun, and another by a wall with some anti-Ukrainian graffiti.
Trofimov also reports that Akhromkin was given a 200,000 ruble ($3,159) grant as a “People’s Militia” from the governor of Moscow Region.
That proves that whatever he is doing — he is doing it with government financing and backing.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick and Pierre Vaux
@DajeyPetros who runs the Ukraine@War blog has made an impressive discovery via Google Earth, finding a huge military camp and staging ground set up last year near Golovinka in Russia’s Rostov region, not far from the Ukrainian border.
This graphic from Ukraine@War indicates the size of the area, with the main camps highlighted in red and the wider exercise area in yellow. @DajeyPetros estimates the camp at being 5 km long and 500 metres wide, making it the largest camp in the area.
The photo above was taken on October 10 2014. Compare with this photo from October 20, 2013:
This contrast makes it clear that the camp was only established after this date, suggesting it was created specifically to prepare for operations in Ukraine.
Here are some zoomed-in photos of the camp:
Some 200 large tents can be counted. If 20 people can sleep in a large tent, it could give shelter to 4.000 people.
But there are also some other 100-200 spaces where tents HAVE BEEN standing:
These might have been from the units that have entered Ukraine after having temporarily stayed in this base.
The area to the east of the encampment is littered with tracks and craters, indicating it has been used as both a firing range and exercise ground:
Note the trenches below:
Helicopter landing pads are visible above.
@DajeyPetros also identifies rocket launchers from the satellite photos:
Photos from Russian soldiers’ VKontakte pages appear to have been taken at this site.
Looking further, we can see that a number, uploaded by soldier Aleksandr Maltsev, are location-tagged in the Neklinovsky district, in which the camp is located.
The photos, uploaded on November 26 but likely taken earlier, make clear the scale of the deployment:
T-90 tanks above.
Some are geotagged in the Myasnikovsky district, just to the east:
This photo of Maltev’s shows a medal awarded for participation in the “return of Crimea.”
Back on August 24, a video was uploaded showing an enormous column of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery, purportedly near the Ukrainian border. While extracting a location proved impossible, the footage does closely resemble the camp at Golovinka:
As we reported on August 26, the soldier in the video identifies himself as Chechen, we translated the following from the Russian closed captions on the video (a Chechen translator has verified the accuracy of the Russian translation for us):
[Cameraman]:These guys are going to go on the attack to bring out those who have been left inside.
This whole host is going in to bring out all the dead and wounded.
You can’t see the beginning and you can’t see the end [of the column]. Yes, invisible.
We’re ready to go in.
Everything is in the hands of the Almighty. We will try to return home. And if we do not return forgive us. We are full of courage to go forward.
These are Chechen lads here too.
These tankers are Chechens.
[Tank crewman]: The war is underway, we’ll make the Ukrainians shit themselves.
And all these guys are ready to cross the Terek.
And we will rip apart those fascists.
Protect us Almighty from all evil.
— Pierre Vaux