Thursday, November 13, 2014

Russia Invades Ukraine -- Investigating the Kremlin's Hybrid War (Updated)

Has the world's second-most powerful military invaded Ukraine? From secret Russian troop burials to photos and soldiers speaking out, the evidence that Moscow has invaded Ukraine is overwhelming.

My Russian invasion timeline continues from my earlier post chronicling events of Aug. 25 to Nov. 3, 2014. I'll update the timeline as new details emerge. Latest update: July 6, 2018 (all times in GMT).

NOVEMBER 5, 2014
Fifty percent of Russians say their government should focus on social and economic problems at home, "and not interfere in events in Ukraine," a 1,600-person survey in late October by Russia's Levada Centre reports.

Only 36 percent agree that "Russia's geopolitical, strategic interests are more important than internal social and economic problems of Russia itself."

The findings jive with earlier surveys. In August, the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant reported only 5 percent of Russians believed Moscow should send troops to help gunmen in Ukraine fighting the government.

And in September, a Levada survey found 40 percent of Russians said the combat deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine are "unacceptable and unjustified insofar as Russia is carrying out a hidden, undeclared war." Thirty percent said the deaths were "inevitable and justified."

Two convoys with 49 unmarked tanks, troop carriers and artillery-towing trucks are seen moving west toward the front lines in Ukraine through areas held by Moscow-backed militants, observers of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe say in a report.

Two additional convoys with 34 unmarked military trucks, half towing artillery, are seen moving west the next day, the OSCE reports.

Also this day, AP journalists report seeing three convoys of 80 unmarked military vehicles moving through militant-held areas of Ukraine, mainly trucks, some towing artillery with other carrying troops.

Only 13 percent of Russians say they would support their son volunteering to fight alongside Moscow-backed fighters in Ukraine, according to a survey by Russia's Levada Centre polling firm.

Sixty-eight percent would try to stop them or convince them not to go.

Also, 41 percent say they support Russian activist groups that are investigating combat deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine "because we need to know the truth." Only 9 percent denied Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine.

"I'm answerable only to president Putin and our Lord."
- Nikolai "Daddy" Kozitsyn, a commander 
of Moscow-backed gunmen in Ukraine

4:12 p.m.: Ukrainian Jewish leaders strongly support the Kyiv government and reject Kremlin claims that Ukraine is anti-Semitic, the BBC reports.

Prominent Ukrainian Jewish businessman Ihor Kolomoisky, the regional governor of Dnipropetrovsk, is a leading financial backer of Ukraine's military effort, while the murder of a Jewish businessman in militant-held Donetsk in August has prompted the exodus of Jewish families from areas controlled by Moscow-backed forces, the story notes.

(See here for more Ukrainian Jewish community responses to Kremlin claims that it has intervened in Ukraine because of anti-Semitism.)

Also this day: "I'm answerable only to president Putin and our Lord," Nikolai "Daddy" Kozitsyn, a commander of Moscow-backed gunmen in Ukraine, tells AP.

7 a.m.: Six hundred and thirty people in "military clothing" crossed a Russia-Ukraine border point in the previous week, "mostly to Ukraine," while another 35 crossed at a second border point, OSCE observers say in a report.

The observers are stationed at two crossing points controlled by Moscow-backed militants in eastern Ukraine where militants and military hardware have previously crossed from Russia into Ukraine.

"The OM (observer mission) observed the highest number of persons in military-style clothing crossing the border in both directions since the beginning of its mandate. The OM observed them crossing the border more often in groups than previously. They were formed also of a higher number of people, in one instance of 24 persons," the OSCE says.

Observers also noted a van marked "Cargo 200" (a Russian term for military combat deaths) crossing into Ukraine on Nov. 11 and then back out again a few hours later.

The 665-person total was far higher than in the OSCE's previous report on Nov. 5, which said 386 people in military-style dress had crossed at the two border points in the prior week.

"We were given maps of Russia with coordinates 
and targets. We didn't even know these were 
populated communities of Ukraine."
- Russian officer sent to Ukraine

Also this day, NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove confirms reports of a growing Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine.

"Across the last two days we have seen the same thing that OSCE is reporting," he says. "We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops entering Ukraine."

"They sent 600 of us. Twenty-four came back. 
Where are the rest? Nobody is interested."
- Russian officer sent to Ukraine

Also this day, Russian activist Elena Vasilieva, who is investigating Russian combat deaths in Ukraine, publishes excerpts of letters on her blog that she says she got from Russian officers sent to fight in Ukraine.

"Nobody cares about us. Meat is meat. But we're people," one writes. "A breakdown is happening. Nobody wants to go to this Ukraine. They sent 600 of us. Twenty-four came back. Where are the rest? Nobody is interested."

"These DPRists (a reference to militants of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic) are on a lot of drugs and shoot at everybody," another says. "They've killed more of us than the Ukrainians have."

"We were initially sent on training," an officer writes in a letter in a second post. "We were given maps of Russia with coordinates and targets. We didn't even know these were populated communities of Ukraine. After the shelling we found out these were towns, with people.

"Those who come back from this hellhole are angry like dogs. They wait for our media to report this, but they are silent and push some nonsense about Novorossia (the Kremlin's term for areas of eastern and southern Ukraine). There is no Novorossia. There are just a bunch of criminals with automatics... Everybody's lying. Why are we shooting at peaceful people?"

"(Russian) soldiers are doing anything 
they can to avoid getting sent to war."
- Russian activist Elena Vasilieva

Also this day, Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the influential Russian Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, tells the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that 250 Russian conscripts refused to sign contracts agreeing to fight in Ukraine.

When their commander said he'd send them anyway, several got in touch with Melnikova. She says only her complaint to the Russian defense ministry saved the men from being forcibly sent to Ukraine.

Melnikova has previously said Russian soldiers have been sent to fight in Ukraine against their will.

She says nearly 4,000 Russian soldiers are presently fighting in Ukraine. They are promised combat pay equivalent to $3,000 USD, but no one has received the payouts, she says.

Soldiers and families of those killed in action can't complain because Russia denies sending troops to Ukraine, she says.

8 a.m.: The war in eastern Ukraine "will end within a month, not later, because (Russian president Vladimir) Putin will soon run out of troops," says Russian activist Elena Vasilieva, citing information from Russian military contacts.

"They tell me there's nobody left to send to Donbass (eastern Ukraine). Soldiers are doing anything they can to avoid getting sent to war," she tells Ukraine's news site.

"Contract soldiers in Donbass will be replaced with conscripts, but these are inexperienced boys who could die right away or surrender."

Vasilieva is in Kyiv working on a documentary about Russia's covert war in Ukraine. She says Russian authorities have launched a criminal case against her.

11 p.m.: In an interview with Germany's ARD TV network, Russian president Vladimir Putin confirms what he denied last March -- that he moved troops into Ukraine's Crimea peninsula before staging a rigged referendum on independence there last March on accession to Russia.

"I make no secret of it, it is a fact and we never concealed that our Armed Forces, let us be clear, blocked Ukrainian armed forces stationed in Crimea, not to force anybody to vote, which is impossible, but to avoid bloodshed," he says according to a transcript on the Kremlin's website.

Asked whether Russia sends weapons and soldiers to militants in eastern Ukraine, Putin didn't deny it. "Nowadays people who wage a fight and consider it righteous will always get weapons," he said, adding that Ukraine wants to "annihilate everyone" in the eastern part of the country.

"We won't let it happen," he said.

Last March, Putin insisted to reporters that the thousands of heavily armed soldiers with no insignia who had flooded into Crimea -- much like is currently happening in eastern Ukraine -- were "local self-defence units."

When a reporter asked Putin if the troops wearing what appeared to be Russian army uniforms were indeed Russian, he said such uniforms could be bought in a store.

"But were they Russian soldiers or not?" a reporter asked.

"Those were local self-defence units," Putin said.

Over 20 Russian-made models of tanks, armoured personnel vehicles, missiles and other weapons not known to be in the possession of the Ukrainian military have been documented in the hands of Moscow-backed militants in eastern Ukraine, Australia-based consulting firm Armament Research Services says in a report detailing weapons used in the conflict in Ukraine.

The report contradicts militant claims that all their weaponry was captured from Ukrainian forces.

Weapons systems photographed in militant hands include two different models of T-72 tanks, the sophisticated 1RL239 battlefield surveillance radar system and an anti-tank missile captured with paperwork indicating it was in a Russian military stockpile as recently as April 2014.

3:02 a.m.: The UK embassy in Ukraine tweets a guide for the Kremlin to spot its T-72BM series tanks in Ukraine. These tanks, which aren't used by Ukrainian forces, have been photographed several times since August in the hands of Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine.

Moscow-backed militants were close to defeat and preparing to flee to Russia in mid-August when Russian soldiers -- supposedly "on leave" -- entered Ukraine and reversed the tide of the war.

So acknowledges Igor "Shooter" Girkin, a former colonel in Russia's FSB security agency (successor to the notorious KGB) and the militia's former "defence minister," in an interview with Alexander Prokhanov, the anti-Semitic editor of far-right Russian newspaper Zavtra ("Tomorrow").

"The last days were quite desperate," Girkin says. "We were so spread out that even the military police was sent into battle... We were down to our reserves -- supply and headquarters staff, which mostly consisted of the elderly and untrained people."

Girkin says the "vacationing" soldiers led the attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol that opened a new front in the war in late August, far to the south of the previous fighting.

"Militant units were subordinated to them. But mainly it was 'the vacationers' who attacked toward Mariupol," he says.

A Russian activist said in September  Russian soldiers were being forced by commanders to sign a contract saying they were going "on leave" and then were sent to fight in Ukraine.

A militant leader said in August his ranks included 3,000 Russian "volunteers."

Girkin, who now lives in Russia, also takes credit in the interview for starting the war in the first place.

"At first nobody wanted to fight... I pulled the trigger that started the war. If our unit hadn't crossed the border, everything would have ended like in Kharkiv and Odessa -- a few dozen people dead, burned, arrested.

"I am personally responsible for what is happening there."

Also this day, a UN human rights report says areas of eastern Ukraine under the control of Moscow-backed militants have seen a "total breakdown in law and order" and "serious human rights violations" against civilians, including torture, disappearances, executions, forced labour and sexual violence.

"The continuing presence of a large amount of sophisticated weaponry, as well as foreign fighters that include servicemen from the Russian Federation, directly affects the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine," the UN says.

People have been held and tortured in secret detention facilities, the report says. "Thousands of individuals remain missing. Ad hoc graves continue to be found and exhumed."

Five Russian military aircraft entered Ukrainian airspace in the eastern Luhansk region, the Russian-language site reports, citing Luhansk residents.

Nearly 7,500 Russian soldiers are presently stationed in eastern Ukraine, Ukraine's military intelligence chief Stepan Poltorak says.

A Russian woman tells Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that her boyfriend, Sergey Andriyanov, a paratrooper with Russia's 106th Guards Airborne Division, was killed in combat in Ukraine in late August.

Asked where he died, the woman says, "It's not a secret for anybody. Everyone knows very well that he died in Ukraine."

Andriyanov had told his girlfriend he was being deployed to the Russian city of Rostov for training.

When his body was sent home, the woman and Andriyanov's mother were shocked to find it covered in dirt, with open eyes and mouth and blood on his lips and teeth.

"It's very frustrating for me that he gave his life, and they brought him like that."

Also this day, eyebrows are being raised in France over a 9-million-euro Russian bank loan to the far-right National Front party, which strongly backs Putin's policies in Ukraine.

"The loan has the Kremlin's fingerprints on it," Bloomberg View reports, noting that it was orchestrated by National Front legislator with close ties to the Kremlin.

The loan is one of several Russian loans to Europe's growing far-right or fascist parties -- Greece's Golden Dawn, Belgium's Vlaams Belang, Italy's Northern League, Hungary's Jobbik and the Freedom Party of Austria, UK's The Week magazine reports.

Like the National Front, these parties support Putin's foreign policy, including in Ukraine, and conservative domestic policies, such as anti-gay legislation.

The loans occurred amid "growing evidence of a secret Kremlin campaign to buy influence in European politics," the magazine said, citing The Times of London.

The campaign belies Kremlin claims that it has intervened in Ukraine because its new government is fascist.

The Interpreter Mag website, which analyzes Russian media, provides a more detailed report on the close Kremlin connections to the Russian bank that provided the loan to the National Front in France as well as Kremlin ties to Europe's far right.

Also this day, Germany's Bild newspaper reports that the country's rightist eurosceptic AfD party is secretly financed by the Kremlin through covert gold sales.

The financing is part of a Kremlin campaign to influence European governments. Details of the campaign are contained in a strategy paper from a Moscow think tank titled "Putin: the new leader of international conservatism."

The EUObserver site carried an English report on the story (see also this report).

Also this day, Ukrainian security officials say Russia has resumed artillery shelling of Ukrainian positions from across the border.

The U.S. State Department said last July that Russia had shelled Ukraine from across the border. In September, OSCE observers at a Russia-Ukraine border post reported hearing artillery fire originating in Russia. (See the reports in my earlier Russian invasion timeline.)

Also this day, OSCE parliamentary assembly president Ikka Kanerva says "Russia must withdraw all forces and equipment from Ukraine and away from its border and end its support for separatist forces.

"The ball is clearly in Russia's court."

In a statement, Kanerva also rejects Russia's insistence that Ukraine not join NATO, noting that the first core principle in the OSCE's 1975 founding act says OSCE member countries have the right to belong to any international organization or alliance they choose.

"Simply put, it's up to Ukraine and no one else," Kanerva says.

The Independent of London carries more details of Russia's growing links to the European far-right.

The newspaper notes that the Kremlin-owned Russia Today news channel launched a German version of its broadcast earlier this month, which has already been criticized in Germany media for using journalists with far-right views.

One was sacked recently by German public channel RBB for making anti-Semitic comments.

Russia's so-called "humanitarian aid" convoys, which the Kremlin has repeatedly sent into militant-held areas of Ukraine without Kyiv's consent or verification, have supplied fuel for tanks, Victoria Nulland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, tells the Meduza Project, an Russian independent news site.

"Since the Minsk peace deal was signed, hundreds of tanks, howitzers, artillery systems, 'Grad' (rocket) launchers have entered eastern Ukraine from Russia. How can this be called respect for the agreement, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers and equipment?"

Also this day, a Russian mother, Olga Korneyeva, says in a YouTube video that her son Mikita Zhiltsov, a Russian army conscript, is being forcibly sent to fight in Ukraine.

Zhiltsov was initially told he was being sent for training near the Ukrainian border, but he wound up in a border village and was informed he'd be sent into combat in Ukraine, the mother says.

"I am against this as a mother. I support my son's position. He isn't afraid to die or defend his country... But he doesn't understand why. Me too. This is my position as a citizen, as is my son's. He is against war activities on foreign territory."

Russian families of soldiers killed in so-called training exercises -- a euphemism for combat deaths in Ukraine -- will get the equivalent of $100,000 in compensation, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports, citing Russia's deputy defence minister, Nikolai Pankov.

Pankov made the announcement at a meeting of a Russian human rights commission. When asked where the soldiers were killed, "military officials made round eyes and said they wouldn't discuss that," the newspaper said.

The circumstances of soldier deaths are "personal information," a human rights worker said she was told.

Also this day, Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the University of Alberta, says in a Financial Times blog piece that Russian combat deaths in Ukraine -- estimated by one Russian activist at nearly 4,000 in September -- were at that point about the same after five months of conflict as in the nine-year U.S. war in Iraq and about a third of the combat death toll of the Russian military in the 1980s war in Afghanistan.

A newly released video on YouTube shows dozens of unarmed people wounded and some apparently dead in downtown Kyiv as riot police stroll by on Feb. 18, 2014, the day security forces of Ukraine's then Moscow-backed government opened fire on demonstrators with live ammunition in an attempt to crush pro-democracy protests.

Earlier-released videos show government snipers moving to attack demonstrators and numerous unarmed protesters and medics being gunned down, some while withdrawing.

The crackdown was part of a failed plan involving over 20,000 police to assault the Maidan mass protests against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian parliamentarian and former security official Hennady Moskal later said.

Over 100 protesters were killed and more than 1,000 were injured before Yanukovych fled from Kyiv on Feb. 21, eventually escaping to Russia.

Thirty members of Russia's FSB security agency (successor to the KGB) helped Yanukovych's government plan the assault on the mass protests, a Ukrainian investigation found.

"At least 30,000" Russian citizens have gone to Ukraine to fight the Kyiv government, Russian communist member of parliament Vyacheslav Tetekin tells Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

"It's clear that it's not hundreds but tens of thousands," he says.

Tetekin says he will propose legislation to grant veteran's benefits to Russians who have fought in Ukraine, including a pension, cheaper utility rates and the equivalent of about $100,000 USD in the event of death.

The goal is to motivate more Russians to fight in Ukraine. "I welcome the increase of the flow of volunteers to go there," he says.

Only 30 percent of Russians approve of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, while just 6 percent are ready to lose social benefits, pensions or income to finance the takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and Russia's hybrid war on Ukraine, Russian polling firm Levada-Center says.

A 30-year-old woman working with Russia's GRU
military intelligence agency was arrested on St.
Nicholas Day in Kyiv after leaving this explosives-
filled handbag in downtown Kyiv's busy Maidan
square, Ukraine's SBU security agency says.
Russia's GRU military intelligence agency plotted to set off a five-kilogram bomb in downtown Kyiv's busy Independence Square (known in Ukrainian as the "Maidan," site of anti-government protests that toppled Ukraine's previous pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych), Ukraine's SBU security agency says.

The attack was to occur yesterday, on St. Nicholas Day, when the capital's downtown is full of shopping families.

A 30-year-old woman who had arrived in Kyiv from the militant-held eastern Luhansk region was arrested after leaving a handbag with the explosives in the square, the SBU says.

She is said to have been working for Kremlin-backed militants in coordination with the GRU.

Up to 8,000 Russian Federation soldiers are presently deployed illegally in militant-held areas of eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian defence minister Stepan Poltorak is quoted saying by BBC-Ukraine.

Just 15 to 20 percent of the 30,000-some people fighting with the Kremlin-backed militia in eastern Ukraine are local residents, Poltorak said.

JANUARY 15, 2015
A new type of machine gun used only by the Russian military, the PKP Pecheneg,  has been photographed in the hands of Kremlin-backed forces in Ukraine, the British embassy in Kyiv says in a Twitter post -- "further proof of Russian military involvement in Ukraine," in the embassy's words.
Over 100 Russian airborne and infantry soldiers were killed in combat in eastern Ukraine today, bringing the total Russian military death toll in Ukraine to 5,600, Russian-language blogger Oleh Yarchuk writes on his blog chronicling Russian combat deaths in Ukraine.

Russian combat deaths totalled nearly 300 in the past three days, according to Yarchuk's data.

That number coincides with the estimate of Ukrainian officials of approximately 300 killed among Kremlin-backed forces in Ukraine in escalated fighting in the last several days, most notably around the Donetsk airport.

Russian activist Elena Vasilieva, who publishes her own tallies of Russian combat deaths in Ukraine, offers a slightly higher estimate of 382 Russian military combat deaths and up to 500 injured in the past three days, including among special forces, paratroopers and marines.

Over 6,200 Russian soldiers have died fighting in Ukraine or disappeared since the Russian covert war began last spring, she estimates based on her sources in Russian military families.

Also this day, The Guardian publishes a story quoting Russian rights activists and opposition politician Lev Schlossberg saying thousands of Russian soldiers have been sent to fight in Ukraine, in some cases after being pressured to go.

One mother said her son told her his unit was being sent to Ukraine. He was killed there in an artillery strike, his comrades later said.

The mother said her son told her commanders offered a 400,000-ruble (USD$6,000) bonus to soldiers who agreed to fight in Ukraine, "then simply ordered them forward when volunteers weren't forthcoming.

Families of killed soldiers are threatened with cut-off benefits if they speak out, rights advocates say.

Two thousand Russian soldiers have crossed illegally into eastern Ukraine in recent days, including two Russian army battalion tactical groups, Ukrainian officials say.

The deployments bring the total Russian military presence in Ukraine to "about 9,000" troops, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko says.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denies the accusations. "Please present proof," he told reporters in Berlin. But he acknowledged Kremlin-backed militants hold more territory than agreed to in the Minsk ceasefire agreement signed in September.

Ukrainian officials say the militants have seized over 500 square kilometres of additional land since the deal.

And despite the ceasefire, Russia has doubled its quantity of military equipment deployed in Ukraine since December, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, says.

"It is irrefutable that they [militants] are getting direct support from Russia," he said during a visit to Kyiv.

An Associated Press reporter observed nine Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers, six anti-tank cannons, four Grad multiple rocket launchers, four trucks carrying ammunition and 15 "pristine-looking tanks" in militant-held areas headed toward an embattled checkpoint held until recently by Ukrainian forces, The New York Times reports.

Also this day, blogger Oleh Yarchuk reports over 80 Russian soldiers from various tank, airborne, artillery and other units were killed in combat in Ukraine in the past two days.

Also this day, Boris Vishnevsky, a Russian politician in St. Petersburg, tells Russian newspaper Novy Region that Russian army conscripts "are being strongly pressured and forced to sign contracts and are being sent to Ukraine."

The Russian army's 138th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade is being deployed to Ukraine in coming days, Vishnevsky says.

New evidence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine: Ultramodern Russian 2B26 Grad-K multiple
rocket launcher filmed in militant-held eastern Ukraine. 
New photos have emerged confirming Russia's covert (or not-so-covert) military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

An ultramodern Russian-made 2B26 Grad-K multiple rocket launcher was videotaped deep inside Ukraine in a militant-head area near the embattled Donetsk airport, blogger Conflict Reporter writes.

The system was delivered to Russian forces only in 2012 and isn't in possession of the Ukrainian military, meaning it couldn't have been captured from Ukraine, the post says.

Also near Donetsk, a powerful Russian-made BM-33 Smerch multiple rocket launcher was said to be filmed yesterday -- a system that is also in Ukrainian military hands but that hasn't been stationed anywhere near front lines and thus couldn't have been captured by Kremlin-backed militants, Conflict Reporter says.

Also this day, Russian soldiers' rights activists say Russian army conscripts are being tricked and forced to fight in Ukraine under threat of criminal prosecution, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports.

The Russian newspaper Komersant carries a similar report several days later.

Former militant commander Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, who says he was a colonel in Russia's FSB intelligence agency, acknowledges on Russian TV that Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula forcibly gathered regional deputies to stage a fraud-riddled referendum on joining Russia last March.

"I did not see any support from (Crimea) state authorities in Simferopol (the regional capital)," he says. "It was the militants who gathered the deputies so they would accept this (the referendum)." (See an English account of Girkin's remarks here.)

Google Earth images show multiple vehicle tracks crossing
the Russian border in the area where a Ukrainian military
advance was pushed back last August, the
Ukraine@war blog reports.
Satellite images on Google Earth show how "50 to 100" Russian artillery units crossed the Ukrainian border last summer in the area where Ukrainian forces were subject to massive artillery barrages that killed dozens of retreating Ukrainian soldiers offered safe passage last August, the Ukraine@war blog reports.

The images show military vehicles lined up in rows and multiple vehicle tracks crossing the border, then heading toward a staging area from where Ukrainian forces were attacked.

A widely watched video falsely claimed that U.S. heavy weapons have been shipped to Ukraine, reports the StopFake website, which investigates media claims about the conflict in Ukraine.

In fact, as the site demonstrates, the video was filmed in Latvia and shows equipment being shipped to Lithuania.

The Obama administration has yet to send any arms to Ukraine but started deliberating the idea after Moscow-backed militants escalated attacks on Ukrainian forces in recent weeks.

The Russian military suffered one of its worst casualty tolls in combat today in eastern Ukraine, with 182 combat deaths and 249 wounded, according to Russian-language blogger Oleh Yarchuk, who chronicles Russian military combat deaths in Ukraine using various open sources.

Today's death toll brings total Russian military combat deaths in Ukraine to 6,214, with another 2,897 missing in action, according to Yarchuk's calculations. His death toll includes only casualties of Russian regular soldiers, not those of Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine.

Also this day, the StopFake website debunks a story on the site LiveLeak that claims the U.S. "has deployed 400 mercenaries on Ukrainian soil." The story say the U.S. government hired the mercenaries from the security firm Academi.

In fact, a photo of heavily armed men accompanying the story shows contractors from another company, GK Sierra Security, taken not in Ukraine but in Afghanistan in 2010.

Academi says on its site the claim is "completely false" and it "has no personnel in Ukraine."

The LiveLeak report echoes earlier debunked claims last March that 300 contractors from the Blackwater firm and other security companies had arrived in Ukraine. The claims originated from state-controlled media in Russia and Iran and cited a video of a group of armed men running around in Donetsk in Ukraine.

In fact, as StopFake said at the time, the video most likely shows Ukrainian security personnel attempting to protect an ex-Donetsk governor who was being attacked by a crowd.

The StopFake report links a Russian-language report on the news site, which covers eastern Ukraine. That report included another video taken from a different perspective that shows a crowd carrying a Russian flag beating the ex-governor, who the story said escaped with the help of Ukrainian security personnel.

These BPM-97 armoured vehicles, used only by Russia's
border guards, were photographed alongside forces of
Moscow-backed militants in eastern Ukraine, The
Interpreter Mag reports.
Updated variants of the T-72 tank and BMP-2 armoured vehicle, both known to be in use only in the Russian military, have been spotted in use by Kremlin-backed forces in Ukraine, The Moscow Times reports.

Also this day, The Interpreter Mag site publishes photos of BPM-97 ("Vystrel") armoured vehicles, used only by Russia's border guards, in use by Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

The Bellingcat investigative journalism site geolocates the photos in militant-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Also this day, Oxford University political scientists Paul Chaisty and Stephen Whitfield report that in a survey of eastern and southern Ukrainians in December, less than 5 percent favoured the breakup of the country (the option favoured at various times by Moscow-backed militants), while 28 percent favoured federalism (the option reportedly espoused by the Kremlin at this month's peace talks in Minsk).

Slightly more than 50 percent backed the current unitary form of government.

Only six percent believed the Donbass region, where fighting has raged, should become independent, while four percent wanted it to join Russia.

Russia's military isn't prepared for protracted conflict with Ukraine and faces personnel shortages, forcing it to deploy conscripts to the battle and bring in units normally deployed in Central Asia, writes Russian newspaper editor Alexander Golts in The Moscow Times.

"That is why Russia's military leaders might have concluded that they need to force or trick conscripts into signing on for longer stints," writes Golts, deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

9:44 a.m.: Moscow-backed militants in eastern Ukraine "always seem to have new weapons" to replace those lost in battle, and these weapons "must come from the other side," meaning Russia, says Lamberto Zannier, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has hundreds of monitors observing the conflict in Ukraine.

"What we see is that as weapons get destroyed during the military operations, the separatists' side, they always have new weapons at hand, so these weapons must come from somewhere," Zannier says.

"We are present in larger numbers on the Ukrainian side and we have never seen weapons from there going into the East, so our conclusion is that they must come from the other side."

Asked if he meant Russia, Zannier said, "Obviously that's the Russian border, yes."

"There are multiple rocket launchers and there are heavy artillery including howitzers, heavy howitzers on tracks and tanks, of course, and various artillery systems of many calibres. They seem to have plenty of ammunition, so the conflict is really continuing and the availability of weapons and ammunition and fuel doesn't seem to be a problem."

Ukrainian forces shoot down a Russian-made Orlan-10 drone operated by Moscow-backed militants over government-held territory near the city of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine.

The recently developed Orlan-10 is only in use by the Russian military, Australia-based Armament Research Services reports.

An Orlan-10 drone was first shot down by Ukrainian forces last May, the firm says.

Also this day, Russian students posted a YouTube video apologizing to Ukrainians for their government's covert war in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea.

"We are ashamed by this undeclared criminal war, in which many of our countrymen are taking part. We are ashamed that our country violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which we had pledged to respect, and annexed the Crimean peninsula. We are ashamed that Ukrainian citizens are illegally being held in Russian prisons. Please forgive us," the students say.

"In the information war, it is criminal not to be on the side of the truth. The flow of lies on TV doesn't end. The degree of hatred and aggression in society grows each day. Not everyone wants to think, verify and question.

Also this day, the Bellingcat citizen investigative journalism website publishes the results of the first week of its Ukraine Conflict Vehicle Tracking Project.

The effort seeks to document illegal cross-border movement of Russian military vehicles into Ukraine. It collects information from public sources on sightings of military vehicles on both sides of the border and includes 165 entries at the end of its first week.

Among them are sightings of equipment used only by the Russian military, such as the Pantsir-1 air-defence missile system (photographed three times in Ukraine in the past month and three other times in Russia near the Ukrainian border) and BPM-97 "Vystrel" armoured vehicles (photographed seven times in Ukraine since December).

One hundred and five Russian soldiers have died in fighting in Ukraine in the two days since the Minsk II peace agreement was signed, bringing the total Russian military combat loss to 6,856, blogger Oleh Yarchuk reports on his blog chronicling Russian combat deaths in Ukraine.

About 1,500 of the Russian soldiers were killed since mid-January, according to Yarchuk's data, which he says is based on open source information such as social media. The total doesn't include deaths of Moscow-backed militants.

Also this day, Russia's TV Dozhd channel reports nearly 20 Russian soldiers in Murmansk are refusing to be deployed to the Russian city of Rostov, from where their commander said they may be sent to fight in Ukraine.

The soldiers refused to go in the absence of a written order, Dozhd reports, quoting Serhiy Krivenko, a member of the Kremlin's human rights committee who travelled to Murmansk to interview the soldiers. Krivenko says the soldiers are voluntary contracted members of the Russian military, not conscripts.

The soldiers' commander threatened to relieve the soldiers from the military if they refused to go to Ukraine, Krivenko told Dozhd.

In the same story, a Russian rights activist in Murmansk, Irena Paykevich, says 23 other Russian soldiers in the region were told in late January they were about to be sent to the border with Ukraine, also for possible deployment into Ukraine.

Also this day, a Finnish report on the Minsk II peace deal notes that the agreement mentions the Tornado-S multiple rocket launcher system as one of the heavy weapons that must be withdrawn from the front lines.

The Tornado-S entered into service with the Russian military in 2012 "and is operated by no other state," the report says.

"If Tornados are to be withdrawn from the conflict zone, they could not have originated from anywhere but Russia."

A Canadian government tweet, citing the Finnish report, says, "Oops: Putin has unwittingly acknowledged his own forces' involvement in the war in Ukraine."

The U.S. releases satellite images showing what it says are a number of Russian artillery units deployed near Debaltseve, a government-held city under fierce militant attack in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow-backed forces in Ukraine are now better armed than some NATO countries, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt says, noting that Russia is preparing a large supply shipment to the militants.

The European Union says for the first time in its official documents that the Russian military is involved in combat in Ukraine, the EUObserver site reports.

The EU official journal says two Russian deputy defence ministers, Arkady Bakhin and Anatoly Antonov, are "involved in supporting the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine."

It says a third top Russian military commander, Andrei Kartapolov, is "involved in shaping and implementing the military campaign of Russian forces in Ukraine."

All three men are added to the EU's list of individuals facing visa bans and freezes of their assets in the EU due to Russia's covert war in Ukraine.

An EU official says the explicit language isn't an accident. The EUObserver says it is based in part on a confidential EU intelligence document circulated among European capitals in late January.

It "is a clear and understandable message against Russian propaganda and all the lies about non-Russian engagement in the military conflict," an EU diplomat says.

The EU also slapped sanctions on several entities associated with the Moscow-backed forces, including the so-called Novorossiya group run by Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, who the EU says is a staff officer of Russia's GRU military intelligence service.

Also this day, one of Poland's leading daily newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, reports that Russian soldiers in an artillery unit based in Murmansk secretly recorded one of their officers telling them they would likely be sent to fight in Ukraine.

The soldiers were initially told they were being sent on a training mission, but they learned there was no training planned and that they were actually being sent into combat in Ukraine, the newspaper says.

"I'm not going to deny there is a possibility of crossing into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (of Ukraine) with the goal of giving direct support," the soldiers' officer was reportedly recorded saying.

"We have to help because it's our personal, moral and military duty."

The soldiers gave the recording to Serhiy Krivenko, a member of the Kremlin's human rights council.

Eight soldiers who refused to go to Ukraine were locked in barracks and told if they didn't go they would be kicked out of the army and lose their housing and pension benefits, the newspaper says.

Other soldiers in the unit wound up in Ukraine without even realizing it, the story says. "We got orders to go straight across an open field," one soldier is quoted saying.

"We could see signs of a shoot-out, destroyed Kamazes (Russian-made military trucks). We went to ask someone for cigarettes and asked where we were.

"We heard we were just outside Luhansk. We were in shock. Nobody had told us we were going to cross the border."

The Bellingcat investigative journalism site uses Google
Earth to trace evidence of Russian artillery attacks
on Ukrainian forces from across the border.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of shelling its forces from across the border last summer more than 100 times, which they said forced Ukraine to withdraw troops from many border areas, allowing Russian arms and fighters to stream across.

The Bellingcat investigative journalism website used Google Earth to study 1,355 artillery impact craters in eastern Ukraine and possible firing locations in Russia and compared them with other evidence, such as videos of artillery firing in Russia.

"There is compelling evidence that artillery attacks on Ukrainian territory and against Ukrainian armed forces originated from the territory of Russia," the site says in a report today.

In one attack last July, the site studied a field in Ukraine with 330 impact craters and determined the trajectory of the shells by studying the shape of the craters.

Tracing back the trajectory led the team to a site 14 km away just across the border in Russia, where there were burn marks on the ground consistent with artillery firing. Multiple vehicle tracks were visible on satellite images at the probable firing location, originating from deeper in Russia.

The tracks were consistent with BM-21 Grad or 9K51M Tornado-S multiple rocket launchers, the site says.

"There is documentary proof that the Russian 
army is present there (in Ukraine)."
- Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov,
hours before he was gunned down outside
the Kremlin

The UK embassy in Ukraine tweets photos of sightings of Russia's advanced Pantsir-1 anti-aircraft missile system in eastern Ukraine. The system is not used by Ukrainian forces and thus couldn't have been captured by Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine.

Russian army soldiers from an unnamed motor rifle brigade, stationed near the strategic city of Debaltseve which saw fierce combat in recent weeks, say their commanders encouraged them to go to fight in Ukraine to "defend their homeland" and advised them when and where to go in Ukraine, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, a leading business-oriented daily.

Moscow-backed militants in Ukraine conceal the presence of Russian soldiers by manning roadblocks with miners when journalists are around, the story says.

Top Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, sometimes known as Putin's foreign policy architect and mastermind of Russia's policies toward Ukraine, directed snipers who killed protesters during last year's Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv that drove Ukraine's former pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych from power, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko says, citing police evidence.

"Special forces operatives gave evidence that the Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov led the organization of groups of foreign snipers on the Maidan," Poroshenko says.

Phone records showed evidence of regular conversations between Yanukovych and Russia's security services that revealed a "clear Russian link" to the shootings, Poroshenko says.

"They prepared for the shooting together in advance."

Over 100 protesters were killed and more than 1,000 were injured in February last year as the Yanukovych government attempted to disperse the protest encampment in downtown Kyiv's Maidan square and surrounding areas, which at various times were estimated to have held up to one million protesters.

Videos show numerous unarmed protesters and volunteer medics being gunned down, some while attempting to withdraw, and government snipers moving to attack demonstrators.

Sniper killings of protesters in February last year
were directed by Kremlin aide Vladislav
Surkov, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko
says. The killings were part of a failed plan to
disperse mass protests against the former pro-
Moscow government of Ukraine, another
Ukrainian official said.
The attack was part of a failed plan involved over 20,000 police to forcibly disperse the protesters, Ukrainian parliamentarian and former security official Hennady Moskal later said.

Thirty members of Russia's FSB security agency (successor to the notorious KGB) helped Yanukovych's government plan the assault on the protests, a Ukrainian investigation found last April.

Russian human rights groups have received "dozens" of complaints in the past month alone from Russian conscripts who say they were "strong-armed or duped" into signing on to become professional soldiers, after which they were sent to participate in drills in the southern Rostov region near Ukraine's border and many in fact wound up fighting in Ukraine, Associated Press reports.

"Those who have been there (to the Rostov region) before know that in actual fact it means Ukraine," says Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which protects soldiers' rights.

Former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, a vociferous critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, was shot and killed outside the Kremlin yesterday because he planned to reveal evidence of Russia's military involvement in Ukraine, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko says.

Poroshenko says Nemtsov told him a couple of weeks ago he had proof of Russia's role in Ukraine and would reveal it.

"He said he would reveal persuasive evidence of the involvement of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. Someone was very afraid of this... They killed him," Poroshenko says.

Yevgenia Albats, editor of Russia's New Times political weekly and an old friend of Nemtsov, also says Nemtsov told her about two weeks ago he wanted to publish an exposé of the Kremlin's military involvement in Ukraine, to be called "Putin and the War," The New York Times reports.

On Feb. 10, Nemtsov told Russia's Sobesednik news website that he feared Putin would have him killed because of his opposition activities.

Just hours before the killing, Nemtsov in a radio interview called on Russians to join a March 1 march in Moscow and other Russian cities opposing the Kremlin's covert involvement in Ukraine.

"There is documentary proof that the Russian army is present there (in Ukraine)," Nemtsov said.

He noted that Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula violated the 1994 Budapest agreement, in which Ukraine agreed to give up its large nuclear weapons force in exchange for guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia, the U.S. and UK.

Nemtsov put out this video last summer with evidence of Russia's involvement in Ukraine.

His report on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, showed how Russian businesspeople and companies close to Putin were the main beneficiaries of the $50-billion spent on the event -- four times over-budget and more than the cost of sports facilities of all previous Winter Olympics combined.

The cousin of murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov believes Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered Nemtsov's assassination last week because he planned to release information about Russia's military involvement in Ukraine.

"He (Putin) got rid of him so the truth about the war wouldn't get out," Igor Eidman, a Russian sociologist, tells the Russian-language Gordonua news site.

Eidman says Nemtsov was also killed to "scare society. Putin sent Russians a clear message: If I can openly kill a world-known opposition leader in the middle of Moscow, a few steps from the Kremlin, it'll be easy with you."

Putin also didn't appreciate Nemtsov's personal attacks. "Putin has the mentality of a mafia boss... If someone openly insults an organized crime member, he is obliged to kill the offender or he will lose his status," Eidman says.

Russian security services have tried to disrupt the Dutch investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over a militant-held area of Ukraine last July, even as Dutch investigators have become increasingly certain that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made Buk anti-aircraft missile very likely operated by Russian military personnel, the Dutch public broadcaster NOS reports.

"The research findings point in one direction. MH17 was brought down by a Buk missile that was fired from a Russian system, highly probably operated by the Russian military," NOS reports.

"The Buk system was transported shortly before the disaster from Russia to Ukraine. This is evident from various videos that have surfaced on the Internet. But Dutch investigators in Ukraine also spoke with eyewitnesses."

Complicating the criminal investigation is the whereabouts of the Russian missile crew, the story says. "The soldiers have become untraceable because they have received new identities from Russian security services in an attempt to erase all traces of Russia's involvement."

The story says Russian security services are also trying to hack into Dutch police computers. See more evidence of Russia's involvement in the MH17 disaster, which claimed 298 lives, in my MH17 timeline.

Russia has 14,400 troops inside Ukraine aiding over 29,000 Moscow-backed militants, says Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, in Congressional testimony.

"These units are well equipped with the latest main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, plus hundreds of pieces of tube and rocket artillery," he says.

Another 85,000 Russian troops are massed in Russia near the Ukrainian border or in the annexed Crimean peninsula, Blank says.

Russian military strategy revolves around massive shelling of Ukrainian positions, "typically placed adjacent to kindergartens, hospitals or apartment buildings, so that Ukrainian units are unable to launch any strikes against them without causing unacceptable and horrific collateral casualties," he says.

"The numbers of shells being expended periodically forces Russia to accept truces in order to replenish its forces in Ukraine who are in full command of this operation."

The Russian military has incurred massive combat losses in Ukraine, and the Kremlin is "reputedly very afraid of media reports of the true extent of what evidently are sizeable numbers of Russian casualties," Blank says.

JULY 6, 2018
A Russian military officer, Senior Lieutenant Oleg Leontyev, acknowledges in a court hearing that he participated in an operation in "a neighbouring country," most likely a reference to Ukraine, according to a report by independent Russian media outlet Meduza.

"I've already participated in one of these operations, but the only thing is that it was on the territory of a neighbouring country where we were absent, as it were," Leontyev told the court, where he is on trial for the death of a solider under his command.

4 Myths About the Ukraine Crisis, Crimea and NATO
- Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 -- the Definitive Whodunit
- Russia Invades Ukraine -- Chronicling the Covert War and Cargo 200 (Aug.-Nov. 2014)

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