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Research Report

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Putinʹs War in Ukraine

Maksymilian Czuperski
John Herbst
Eliot Higgins
Alina Polyakova
Damon Wilson
Copyright Date: May. 1, 2015
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 40
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 1-1)
    Frederick Kempe and Damon Wilson

    For twenty-five years, prominent members of the Atlantic Council community have worked to advance the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace in which Russia enjoys its peaceful place. In fact, many in our community aspired to not only a strategic partnership with Russia, but envisioned an alliance between Russia and NATO contributing to international stability and security. Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine today mock this vision and threaten the international order established at the end of the Cold War.

    In hindsight, the West might have recognized and responded to Mr. Putin’s assertiveness much earlier....

  2. (pp. 4-6)

    In the winter of 2014, the Maidan revolution in Kyiv led then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Ukraine. As Ukrainians struggled to build a new, democratically elected government, mysterious “little green men” began to appear, first in Crimea and later in eastern Ukraine. To local residents and independent observers, the origins of the “little green men” were far from mysterious; their unmarked Russian military uniforms, Russian regional accents, and Russian-made weapons gave them away at first glance. Even as Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 through an illegal, falsified referendum that was not recognized by international observers, the...

  3. (pp. 7-7)

    The Russian government and military have repeatedly denied involvement in Ukraine. In August 2014, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman General Major Igor Konashenkov said that United States’ evidence of Russian involvement in Ukraine “has no relation to reality,” claiming that Russian army units that had passed from Russia into Ukraine were on “tactical training exercises.”16 In November 2014, Konashenkov said the Kremlin had “already stopped paying attention to unsubstantiated statements by NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove, on Russian military convoys he ‘observed’ allegedly invading Ukraine,” accusing Breedlove of spreading anti-Russian “hot air.”17

    At a press conference in Budapest...

  4. (pp. 8-8)

    While the Kremlin continues to deny the role of regular Russian forces in Ukraine, Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine and Ukrainian and Russian civilians on both sides of the war are posting photographs and videos of convoys, equipment, and themselves on the Internet. Satellite imagery captures the movement of Russian troops and camp buildup along the Ukrainian border. These pieces of evidence create an undeniable—and publicly accessible—record of Russian involvement in Ukraine.

    Digital forensic techniques involve verifying the locations of where videos and photographs were taken in a process known as “geolocating.”23 Geolocation differs from “geotagging,” which is...

  5. (pp. 8-12)

    Separatist forces have been relying on a steady flow of Russian supplies, including heavy weapons such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and advanced anti-aircraft systems, including the Buk surface-to-air missile system (NATO designator SA-11/17) that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014.26

    The map on the right illustrates two cases where the same pieces of uniquely identifiable Russian military equipment have been filmed in both Russia and Ukraine. Using geolocation to pinpoint the location of each vehicle from multiple sources shows that the vehicles are crossing from Russia to Ukraine in spite of the Kremlin’s denials.27


  6. (pp. 13-14)

    Several Russian training camps stationed along the Ukrainian border are the launching points of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in plain view for anyone with access to Google Earth or Google Maps. These camps are the gathering points for Russian military equipment transported into Ukraine, soon to join the separatist arsenal, and for Russian soldiers mobilized from the far reaches of the country to cross into Ukraine.

    Satellite images show the rapid establishment and expansion of those training sites just days after the annexation of Crimea. A number of these camps were set up alongside Russia’s border with Ukraine shortly after...

  7. (pp. 15-16)

    On March 2, 2015, US Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges estimated that twelve thousand Russian soldiers, including “military advisers, weapons operators, and combat troops” are active in eastern Ukraine.49

    There have been hundreds, likely thousands, of Russian citizens who have voluntarily crossed the border into Ukraine on their own accord. Putin has confirmed this, and many eager Russians even filled out online applications to join the separatist ranks—that is how easy it is to become a separatist fighter in Ukraine.50

    What the Russian government denies is that regular Russian soldiers are fighting and dying throughout eastern Ukraine. However, the...

  8. (pp. 17-17)

    Russian soldiers like Tumanov, who were killed after crossing into Ukraine to fight, return home in zinc coffins under the designation “Cargo 200,” indicating that the soldiers were killed in action.75 Russian government officials have refused to publicly acknowledge these soldiers’ deaths. Instead, they often lie by claiming that these soldiers died during exercises at training camps near the Ukrainian border.

    The Russian government’s secrecy shows the importance of hiding the truth about the human toll of the Kremlin’s involvement in eastern Ukraine from Russian citizens. According to a comprehensive list published by the nongovernmental organization Open Russia, at least...

  9. (pp. 18-19)

    During key offensives, Russian forces in Ukraine have received cover from shelling from Russian territory. In the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian Border Service and the National Security and Defense Council reported more than 120 artillery attacks from Russia.78 Despite Russian government denials, with a combination of satellite data, crater analysis, and open source materials, one can establish that many of these attacks originated in Russia and not in the separatist controlled areas of Ukraine.

    Using satellite map imagery of craters left behind by artillery shells in Ukraine, it is possible to determine attack trajectories and origins.79 From satellite imagery,...

  10. (pp. 20-20)

    In April of 2014, the Kremlin launched a hybrid war in Ukraine’s east, sending operatives to organize and run it: Moscow political consultant Aleksandr Borodai as President of the Donetsk People’s Republic and FSB Colonel Girkin-Strelkov as Defense Minister. The Kremlin provided financing, arms, volunteer fighters, and regular troops. Using its control of the Russian media, the Kremlin also launched a massive disinformation campaign to persuade the Russian people and the outside world that Ukraine’s east is the venue of a civil war.

    On the whole, Moscow has enjoyed success in setting the terms of the narrative for the Ukrainian...

  11. (pp. 21-31)

    Social media is a critical source of information regarding movements of military equipment in Ukraine and in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border with Russia. The sources include both international services like Instagram, as well as regional services such as VKontakte, often called “Russia’s Facebook.” Most often, the material is submitted by ordinary people who encounter military equipment and share pictures out of general interest. Supporters of the separatists and the Russian Federation have also launched their own propaganda news channels on social media, which yield valuable information on the equipment used.

    T-72B3 sightings have been registered in Ukraine since...