Verification of claims surrounding the heavy fighting in the Donbas
Since December 18, fighting has continued to claim the lives of Ukrainian and separatist forces in the “Svitlodarsk Bulge,” south of government-controlled Svitlodarsk and north of separatist-controlled Debaltseve. Five Ukrainian soldiers reportedly died on December 18, and more have fallen since DFRLab’s recent open source survey of the ongoing battle. Some of the heaviest fighting took place near a small body of water southeast of Svitlodarsk — the Hryazevskyi pond. Over the past two weeks, we now have numerous eyewitness accounts of the fighting there, including videos of shelling and interviews with fighters involved in fighting there. This post will provide an open source survey of the fighting in this area, and examine specific claims made by Ukrainian and separatist sources.
On December 22, controversial video blogger Graham Phillips uploaded a video showing incoming artillery fire in the Svitlodarsk Bulge, with the subtitle of “Near Debaltseve.”
There were enough discernible features in this video to allow a geolocation of the position of Phillips and the separatist forces he was embedded with. Twitter user @loogunda pointed to a position near the Hryazevskyi pond, southeast of Svitlodarsk and near the site of much of the fighting over the last two weeks.
— English Lugansk (@loogunda) December 22, 2016
This geolocation is correct, as revealed by the nearby forest, pond, and landscape. A comparison between the scene shot by Phillips and satellite imagery from Google Earth shows that he was positioned on the southwest end of the Hryazevskyi pond, with shells falling between the separatist position and a forest to the north. In each of the comparisons below, identifiable landscape features are marked with red and blue lines, and an approximate line of sight from the camera is marked as a yellow cone.
The following day, a Euromaidan Facebook account humorously posted a message thanking “Agent Phillips” for the video, which, it claimed, had allowed the Ukrainian army to correct their direction of artillery fire towards separatist positions.
This message was clearly meant to be in jest, but a December 22 (local time) tweet from a long-dormant Twitter account named “Anatoly Nazarchuk” gave a more concrete scenario: a separatist fighter named Rumyn was supposedly seriously injured at the location that Phillips had filmed earlier that day.
@GrahamWP_UK сегодня ночью Румына тяжело ранили. Позиции, что на видео обстреляли укры. Грэм пожалуста,не снимайте расположение наших ребят!
— Анатолий Назарчук (@nazarchuk_anat) December 23, 2016
Rumyn was indeed a fighter at the position filmed by Phillips, as a separatist introduced himself as Denis/Rumyn to Phillips in a video filmed on December 22. In both a tweet (archive) and a post on Vkontakte (archive), Phillips claimed that “there was no such person” as Rumyn at the site, despite the fact that he had interviewed a man identifying himself by exactly that name the day before (see 3:06 in this video).
However, there is no credible evidence regarding an injury to Rumyn. The tweet from “Anatoly Nazarchuk” was the first from this account since May 2016, and it is entirely possible that he fabricated this story after watching the interview and shelling videos, which revealed the position of the separatist forces in the area. In time, we may find out if Rumyn was injured in the late hours of December 22 at the revealed position, but for now, the only concrete facts are that Rumyn was at this location on December 22, and Phillips did reveal the separatist position near the pond.
Perspectives on Battles near Hryazevskyi Pond
The battle in the Svitlodarsk Bulge is one of the first times in months that either side has seized new swaths of territory, with the Ukrainian military moving southward. From the December 22 video from Graham Phillips, we have a precise location of where the Ukrainian military was attacking that day, and where at least one separatist position was. A map that was originally published by LostArmour.info and later appeared on the Ukrainian news site Zik.ua shows the strategic positions near the Hryazevskyi pond — from top to bottom, they are Kikimora, the Cross, the Star, the 5th Post, and the 4th Post.
The shelling video from Phillips was filmed at the 4th Post, near the pond. In the interview with Rumyn, the fighter from Krasny Luch describes how he was from a group of separatists who came out of the forest near Kikimora on December 18. As Rumyn describes it, sixteen separatists in his group made it out of the woods located between the Kikimora and 5th Post markers on the map, and three died. Much of this information is reflected in a statement from the press center of the Ukrainian “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO), which described a battle on December 18 that pushed back separatist forces, though an exact location was not specified. Unsurprisingly, both sides claim that the other was the initiator of the battle.
Eldar Khasanov, a former separatist commander, described the situation in this same area on December 21 in similar terms as the ATO press center and the fighter Rumyn. As he described it in a post on his Vkontakte account, the Ukrainian military seized Kikimora, the Cross, the Star, the 5th Post, and the 4th Post on December 18. However, considering how we saw separatist fighters at the 4th Post after retreating from Kikimora, it seems that not all of these locations were actually seized by government forces.
Yury Rudenko, a Ukrainian fighter and blogger, described the situation near the Hryazevskyi pond as of December 23 on the InfoResist site. As he describes it, at around 6am on December 18, Ukrainian forces began an operation to push separatists out of Kikimora, leading to over 50 casualties between the two sides. The operation was launched, according to Rudenko, following “constant” shelling from the forest, which threatened a power plant in Svitlodarsk. Rudenko included two maps in his post, one of which shows the December 18 “operation” that pushed separatist forces south of the forest.
So, what happened?
In comparing the Ukrainian and separatist narratives of the fighting near Kikimora and the Hryazevskyi pond between December 18 and 22, we can make a handful of claims with certainty:
— Ukrainian forces initiated the operation north of the forest near Kikimora in the early hours of December 18, though the role of separatist attacks preceding this operation are unclear. Some claim that the Ukrainian operation was a direct counterattack, while others say it was to clear the forest to neutralize the threat of shelling targeting a nearby power plant.
— Ukrainian forces sustained heavy losses, with at least five deaths, but separatist forces lost more men in the forest west of the Hryazevskyi pond.
— Separatist forces retreated south through the forest and fortified their positions near the 4th Post.
— The video filmed by Graham Phillips on December 22 was shot facing northwards near the 4th Post, but closer to the bank of the pond.
— It is unclear if the separatist fighter Rumyn (Denis from Krasny Luch) was harmed during the Ukrainian artillery strikes near the 4th Post on December 22, but it is even more unclear via open sources if the video from Phillips provided actual assistance to Ukrainian artillery after revealing separatist positions. The two most visible claims regarding this “assistance” were made in jest by a Facebook account and from a long-dormant Twitter account.
The current situation
While the most recent violence in the Svitlodarsk Bulge is significant and causing loss of property and life to both military and civilians, the intensity of the battles of December 18–22 has not been matched. Since December 18, Ukrainian forces have suffered nearly fifty casualties from the fighting in the Svitlodarsk Bulge, including nine soldiers who died and were profiled by journalist Yury Butusov on December 26. A ceasefire deal went into effect on December 24, and saw great initial success, but fighting has since restarted at a lower intensity. We will continue to monitor the fighting in the Svitlodarsk Bulge and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine at DFRLab.
DFRLab is AtlanticCouncil’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.