Sophisticated Russian weapons have been spotted near Donetsk, signaling a dangerous new phase in the conflict may be underway.
- By James MillerJames Miller is the managing editor of The Interpreter where he reports on Russia and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @MillerMENA , Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
Russia’s invaded Ukraine — again. Though this time, it appears to be moving in weapons systems hitherto unseen on the battlefield, signaling perhaps the next, more deadly, phase in a six-month war which Vladimir Putin’s government continues to deny it is a party to.
The Interpreter reported on Wednesday that two different journalists documented new and advanced weapons systems in eastern Ukraine: Menahem Kahana took a picture showing a 1RL232 "Leopard" battlefield surveillance radar system in Torez, east of Donetsk; and Dutch freelance journalist Stefan Huijboom snapped these pictures, which show the 1RL232 traveling with the 1RL239 "Lynx" radar system — as well as what looks like a mobile command unit and escort.
Military experts tell us that these vehicles are potent additions to the arsenal of the Russian-backed separatists. These armored and weaponized radar systems are meant to operate just behind front lines to track the movement of enemy convoys, troops, incoming artillery fire, and even low-flying aircraft (helicopters or drones). They also act as a precision targeting system, meaning that Russian-backed fighters will be able to transform crude artillery and Grad rockets into more devastating munitions, while simultaneously granting those fighters a better a tactical assessment of the battlefield beyond their line of sight. In fact, the 1RL232 is capable of detecting targets in the air, land, and sea that are up to 40 kilometers away.
This ground surveillance radar is made even more effective when it is paired with advanced anti-aircraft weapons like the Buk system, a highly sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft weapon that almost certainly shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 last July, or the Strela-10, a short-range armored anti-aircraft system, which the Russian-backed separatists have had since late June or early July.
While Ukraine is said to operate a small number of 1RL232 systems, we are unable to find any evidence that the Ukrainian military has ever used the 1RL239. Contributors to the website LostArmour, which records Ukrainian military equipment that has been destroyed or captured, believe that this equipment has not been captured from the Ukrainian military. (At the time of publication, the Ukrainian military had not responded to requests for confirmation.)
Most importantly, to our knowledge these vehicles have never been spotted in eastern Ukraine before today. There have not been any large-scale battles in which Russian-backed rebels have captured Ukrainian military bases in many months. If these systems were captured from Ukrainian forces, then they would have been taken before the cease-fire started more than two months ago; if that were the case, then such game-changing hardware would have debuted before now. Kiev’s Anti-Terrorism Operation forces would have likely used them to better target separatist positions. For instance, for the full duration of the cease-fire, both sides have been engaged in a stalemated battle for the international airport in Donetsk, a campaign that has involved daily artillery bombardment, with shells often falling far astray of their intended targets. On Nov. 9, Nataliya Vasilyeva of the Associated Press reported that the previous night had seen the heaviest fighting in Donetsk for weeks. The very next day, Reuters reported the "heaviest shelling in a month" around the airport. The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine reported that three soldiers had been killed and 13 wounded. The 1RL232 or the 1RL239 might have made all the difference in this protracted battle, yet it’s never been in documented use before.
Recently, some of the pictures and videos purportedly showing Russian vehicles operating in eastern Ukraine carry a symbol painted on the side that looks like "H-2200," which is the Cyrillic letter "N" for "Negabaritnost" or "oversize load," used by Russian Railways, the state-owned rail company headed by Vladimir Yakunin (who has been sanctioned by the United States for his involvement in the Ukraine crisis). VICE News‘ Simon Ostrovsky captured this picture on Nov. 9 in eastern Ukraine showing one of five tanks "spotted heading west out of Shakhtarsk" (a Ukrainian town east of Donetsk and west of Torez) and "2 APCs [armored personnel carriers] flying Russian flag following close behind." The tank is a T-72, with white paint on its front wheel and faint white lettering on its side, behind the turret, which reads "H-2200." Other T-72s, loaded onto trains, have been seen in the Rostov region of Russia carrying the same markings. One photograph was in fact retweeted by Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); it shows T-72s on a train, reportedly in Russia, carrying the same white stripes on their wheels and the same "H-2200" wide-load markings.
Not since the last week of August have we seen such large of consignments of Russian armaments being imported into east Ukraine. NATO appears to have noticed, too. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told reporters at a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Wednesday: "We have seen columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops, entering into Ukraine."
The OSCE gave a more detailed assessment of the Russian invasion, with spokesman Michael Bociurkiw saying, "We have reported since Saturday [there] are three separate sightings of large military convoys — 126 vehicles in total — in areas controlled by armed rebel groups in Donetsk." On Nov. 11, the OSCE reported "43 unmarked green military trucks, with tarpaulin covers, moving in the direction of the [Donetsk] city centre. Five of the trucks were each towing 120mm howitzer artillery pieces. Another five were each towing partly-covered multi-launch rocket systems (MLRS)."
According to the Daily Beast, a former Pentagon advisor estimates that there are currently around 7,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine, backed by "as many as 100 tanks … more than 400 armored vehicles, and more than 150 self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers." Another 40,000 to 50,000 Russian soldiers, the same source claims, are positioned at the border with even more tanks, armored vehicles, and self-propelled artillery. Meanwhile, the New York Times‘ Roger Cohen, relying on an assessment of an unnamed retired NATO general in contact with the Kiev government of President Petro Poroshenko, noted this week that "tens of thousands of Russian irregulars of various stripes inside Ukraine organized by a smaller number of Russian officers and military personnel."
Needless to add, such allegations have been dismissed by the Russian government as Western propaganda. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov called Breedlove’s latest appraisal "hot air," and said he no longer takes the NATO commander seriously — although Moscow did admit that "volunteers" from Russia continued to pour across the border to aid the separatist cause while offering no explanation or credible refutation of the mounting evidence of materiel accompanying these patriotic citizen-soldiers.
The Kremlin has typically left the admission of its own role in east Ukraine to proxies or surrogates. In July, Sergei Kurginyan, a Moscow theater director who leads the left-wing ultranationalist movement the Essence of Time, claimed, on video, in conversation with separatist leaders, that external hardware entering Ukraine had come from Russia’s "civil society" — a prima facie absurdity, although one designed to reassure the then-demoralized militants that more help was indeed on the way.
Why is Russia suddenly dispatching these heavy-duty toys to its proxies? Well, radar systems and T-72s might be needed to fortify current positions or prepare for a forthcoming blitzkrieg into Ukrainian-held territory. Here, other Putinists may be telegraphing the Kremlin’s intentions. "Novorossiya soldiers would not initiate the battle," Sergei Markov, an often hysterical loyalist commentator, told the Daily Beast on Nov. 10 — Novorossiya referring to a notional land for Russians abroad made up of parts of Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus, and for now, the name bestowed on Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine — "but I believe [the separatists’] plan is to gradually take control over Piski, Avdiivka, and Schastye, a town with a central heating station."
Schastye would indeed be a major prize for the insurgents. On Sept. 2, the night before Putin and Poroshenko discussed the cease-fire, the town was heavily shelled. Journalist Cristian Jereghi described the road from Schastye to Novoaidar in the north as follows: "A checkpoint, burnt out with Grads. Artillery shelling. The apocalypse. Night, a burning forest, soldiers in gas masks, armoured vehicles along the roads, tank columns." The first round of shelling directed at the Lugansk Thermal Power Station was reported on Sept. 17. A month later, the shelling had not ceased. On Oct. 17, the OSCE published a report mentioning reports of regular shelling of the plant.
Interestingly, in recent weeks, no major fighting has occurred in Lugansk apart from around the power station in Schastye, indicating that separatists may be busy consolidating their turf and possibly laying the foundation for an occupation regime, one which would necessarily be reliant on an energy supply independent of Kiev. Russian-sourced T-72 tanks and ground radar systems could be integral to seizing that power source.
But they’d also help in fortifying another separatist enclave. The so-called "People’s Republic of Donetsk" (DPR), or the separatist administration in charge of the city, is now in Stalinist statelet-building mode, with a de facto government reminiscent of the Soviet politburo. It holds interminable meetings, hands out awards for public service, and issues decrees, with the pomp of officialdom — DPR seals and signatures. It’s also printing ATM cards for locals dependent on social welfare schemes; redistributing whatever aid comes in via Russia’s "humanitarian convoys" (of which there have now been seven in total); and repairing damaged homes, hospitals, schools, and shopping centers. It’s even conducting tax collection of some 33 percent of all enterprises registered in the DPR. (The alternative to paying taxes is being arrested or shot.) The DPR even created a Ministry of Transport and charged Oplot ("Bulwark") — one of its elite battalions formerly led by Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who is now the "prime minister" of the DPR — to put an end to train robberies, which have become reportedly become a major problem in east Ukraine since the crisis began and which have resulted in the theft of enormous amounts of cargo.
Life under the DPR’s reign is hardly a socialist paradise, however. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 812 kidnappings earlier this year and there are constant stories of extortion, beatings, and summary executions. A cartoonist who mocked former commander Igor Strelkov was apprehended and tortured; only his girlfriend’s connections with some policemen close to the DPR got him released. Recently, the AP reported that in Alchevsk, a town ruled by Alexei Mozgovoi, commander of the Prizrak ("Phantom") Battalion, a public tribunal was held for two rapists and the crowd urged that they be put to death.
This week, a group of Donetsk teachers stood on the Donetsk Bridge with Ukrainian flags in their hands to protest the takeover of their region. Donetsk "is currently ruled by terrorist groups that have subordinated local authorities, taken over private buildings and industrial plants, organized their own tax system and bank, and intervened in the health and education sector," they protested. The DPR is acting like a Robespierrean Committee of Public Safety, determined to stamp out anything deemed counterrevolutionary, including Ukrainian nationalist symbols and the Ukrainian language — a grim irony given that an original pretext of the separatist insurgency was protecting Russian-speaking populations.
Putin hasn’t come this far, braving international opprobrium and penalties, only to see his imperial project fail. With Western attentions diverted in the Middle East, the European Union’s insistence that it has no plans to increase sanctions whatever he does, and the reality of Russia’s drip-drip invasion now of humdrum newsworthiness, he reckons he can’t lose.